On the 23rd of this month, I will be voting to Remain in the EU. I believe in the British economy is stronger in Europe, and the freedoms and benefits EU membership gives us as citizens is unique and irreplaceable. I am well aware of Europe’s issues, and the legitimate arguments to leave, but on balance believe them to be of lesser importance than the benefits of EU membership.
No matter what nonsense the Leave campaign come up with on the economy, they’ve lost the argument. British business, along with nine out of ten economists and virtually every respected economic and financial organisation, has spoken.
At the start of the campaign I looked forward to reading Leave’s economic case. In the event of Brexit, the Leave campaign’s vision would be the logical blueprint for post-Brexit re-structuring- it would have the mandate after all. They could have presented a thorough and honest economic argument based on opportunity.
The thing is, they haven’t. No one seems to know what kind of country we’d be if we left the EU, because Leave has been purposefully unclear. The EU is our biggest trading partner, yet we’re left to figure out how we’d trade with Europe based on the implications of dodgy immigration rhetoric; would we end up in the EEC, and so have to pay in to the EU, follow European laws, and accept free movement without having a say, or would we seek a bilateral agreement that could cripple our financial services industry? Worst of all, as some leading Leave figures have suggested, might we end up trading with Europe under WTO rules and so have tariffs imposed?
Free trade is vital to modern Britain, and the EU is the greatest free trade bloc in the world. Britain has taken full advantage of this. Today 44.4% of British exports, including services, go to the EU. Before the financial crash it was 50%, and as Europe recovers we will likely export more, while between 3.1 and 4.2 million UK jobs are currently linked to these EU exports.
Unfortunately free trade means more than the removal of tariffs. Other non-monetary barriers make a huge difference, and are broadly speaking the reason why the EU seems to do so much. Restrictive or incompatible regulations can be as anti-competitive as sticking a huge monetary penalty on trade.
These non-financial barriers hit the financial services industry the hardest, and London is Europe’s financial capital. Contrary to popular belief, there are a good few other European cities- including English speaking Dublin- desperate to dethrone our capital if the UK votes to leave.
We may have to spend a lot of money to be part of the European club, £248 million a week rather than £350 million, but leaving doesn’t make us £248 million a week better off. Rather, because of the economic benefits of the EU, Brexit could cost every family in Britain £4,200. Unlike the leading Leave campaigner Aaron Banks, I do not think £4,200 for every family is a price worth paying for what would likely be minimal changes in British sovereignty.
I’m sure someone will angrily tell me how we could be trading with the Commonwealth instead, but we already do. For example, the UK has a significant amount of bilateral trade agreements with India and will soon be able to trade on better terms due to the EU-India trade deal currently under negotiation. Where Brexit would allow for more comprehensive UK-only trade deals, there is absolutely no guarantee that they would be better than the EU trade deals either in force or under negotiation, while we would be turning our back on those already in force.
The European Convention on Human Rights is the most comprehensive human rights law on the planet. Before it we Brits didn’t have a legal right to free speech. If we leave, we would probably not lose our human rights and it would likely be replaced by a British Bill of Rights. Talk of a British Bill of Rights worries me; the focus on reducing human rights rather than expanding them, to deport suspects to be tortured or bring back the death penalty, fills me with little confidence that we want out for noble reasons. Yet as we really don’t know what the bill might look like, I shall refrain from speculating further.
Freedom of movement, however, is under threat. The opportunity to travel and work freely across Europe may be about to vanish, and the opportunities that provides may dry up. As anyone that’s been to the US will tell you, preferential visa systems don’t make travel simple- you still have to fill out and return forms to travel, even for your holidays, and you have a real struggle to move for work. Even when you’re travelling for pleasure, you may not do so on a whim and face a real risk of being barred entry anyway.
These opportunities are incredibly important, and they extend to students. If Britain left the EU, Britain would leave the Erasmus programme which finds placements for and provides funding for EU students to do a semester abroad at top European universities. If it were replaced, there would be less funding and fewer places, while UK universities would have to shoulder the full cost.
I quite enjoy being able to jet off to France or Spain whenever I want, and I want the option to work or study abroad in future. Leaving would make us less free to travel or work, and us Brits really do a lot of traveling and moving across Europe; there are 2.2 million British expats living in Europe today.
Sovereignty does worry me, I must admit. As an EU member, we have to pool sovereignty and let the EU effectively bind British governments to the decisions of former governments, which is a bit murky constitutionally. Of course other institutions pose a similar problem; NATO also requires us to pool sovereignty, and in practical terms devolution binds governments to the decision of the last government to devolve new powers.
Despite this, because of our history we have a special place in the EU. From our accession in 1973, we have been able to negotiate permanent opt-outs and rebates when new treaties were signed. Those opt outs and that negotiation is only possible for continuous members of the union, while all new members must accept all of the clauses of current treaties before accession. These include the currency union and the Schengen space. Not only are we afforded the same absolute veto on expansion afforded to every single member state, we don’t have to follow the least favourable EU rules and laws; if we leave, we can never get the deal we have today again.
As things stand, there are a lot of things wrong with the European institutions, but there are more things wrong with the way we use them. We’ve decided to follow in Europe rather than lead, which means the huge potential benefits aren’t seeing the light. We could easily make Europe better by pushing for change that would benefit us. For example, we could push for an EU-wide minimum-minimum wage adjusted for living standards, or we could push for an NHS style healthcare system to be mandatory for all EU members. Our politicians could do a bit better when elections come around too, as much of the democratic deficit is now down to terrible communication.
The 23rd of June
Now you’ve read what I believe. I hope I’ve convinced some of you, but am sure the vast majority who read this will have already made up their mind. Regardless, there is something more important. This piece was largely written before Jo Cox died, and now we have so much more to think about than just the referendum- she once said that ‘there is so much more that unites us than divides us’. Whichever way you’re going to vote, make sure you remember two things. Firstly that those that disagree with you aren’t inferior, and your opponents deserve respect. Secondly, remember to make time to vote on the 23rd.