On the EU referendum debate


On 23rd June, the British people will vote in a historic referendum on whether they want the UK to remain a part of the European Union (EU) or leave it. As the referendum approaches, a media frenzy is gradually building, with a torrent of claims and counter-claims being made by those who are on either side of the debate, and huge amounts of evidence and analysis being provided by those trying to bring some clarity to it.

Inevitably, the public are confused and don’t know who to trust, and currently, polls suggest the country is split down the middle, with approximately even numbers responding that they will vote to remain in or leave the EU. The result is far from a foregone conclusion, it’s simply too close to call. The debate centres around three inter-related issues…

The first is immigration. One of the key requirements for countries as members of the European Union is to allow free movement of citizens between countries within the union. This has recently resulted in a large influx of migrants to the UK, as many more people are coming to the UK than leaving it: approximately 330,000 people were added to the population of the UK last year due to migration. The part of that which was from the union (about 184,000 in the year to March 2015) cannot currently be controlled, because of the requirement for freedom of movement.

For many British citizens, this is considered a bad thing. They are told by politicians that migration has made jobs more scarce, reduced wages, caused house prices to go up, and will increase the strain on the NHS and welfare system. When people see large migrant populations appearing in their cities — people who do not speak English, are not racially similar, or do not follow British customs and culture — they start to feel that their way of life is at risk. Some politicians exploit these fears to support their case and, intriguingly, regions with lower numbers of migrants tend to be more anti-immigration.

Of course, the flip side is that there are many benefits to free movement. There are around 1.2 million Brits that live and work in other European countries. They do not need a visa to enter these countries, and can stay as long as they wish. They can work there, buy property there, start a business there, etc. etc. Likewise, many British businesses benefit greatly from free movement. Seasonal workers can easily come here to provide labour for agriculture; businesses can recruit talented individuals with no restrictions or work permits; and national skills shortages can be addressed. Most research in this area finds that immigrant workers are beneficial to the UK treasury, because they are less likely than the native population to claim benefits or use public services.

Technically, leaving the EU will give the UK more control of its borders, but it is likely to also make it harder for Brits to travel, live and work abroad. It is notable that immigration from the EU has historically been much lower than that from other (non-EU) countries — around half as great — and is currently thought to be high because of economic problems caused by the 2008 US sub-prime crash. It is puzzling that immigration from these non-EU countries could be reduced or prevented entirely, but has not been. This calls into question the political desire to put a halt to immigration, despite the narrative of leave campaign politicians.

One of the aspects of the immigration debate which is particularly troubling is how the dichotomy between immigrant and non-immigrant is constructed. Nigel Farage (the leader of the UK Independence Party, UKIP) is descended from German migrants and his wife is a German immigrant, yet he is the leader of the anti-immigration party. A large proportion of UK citizens are immigrants, or have immigrant parents or grand-parents, friends or partners. More generally, the population has long been altered by immigration and naturalisation, whether that be Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Indians, Afro-Caribbeans, etc.

The distinction between permitted immigrant and prevented immigrant is therefore dependent on a time point. The proposal is to control the level of new immigrants — something which may temporarily cause an influx of migrants before any deadline. Ironically, the UK needs some immigration to sustain its population. The fertility rate in the UK is not high enough to maintain the population level without it. One has to wonder whether the level of EU immigration will naturally diminish as the economy improves in other EU states. If the fertility rate were to decline further, we could find ourselves needing to encourage immigration in future. [The best resource I’ve seen to look at migration stats, is this].

The economy is the second big issue. One of the main purposes of the union is to facilitate trade by creating a single market. Legislation and taxation related to trade is harmonised amongst the member states, considerably increasing the ease of trade between multiple countries. As a result, big businesses and most smaller businesses tend to support the remain campaign. Rather than dealing with 28 separate systems of trade in each of the member countries, they only have to deal with one. For this reason, most economists are predicting that there would be a negative impact on the UK economy if it were to leave the EU.

However, it is also true that some UK businesses do not gain from being part of the EU. In particular, some small businesses do not export their goods or services abroad and they have to understand and meet the requirements of EU law even though they do not reap the benefits of the single market. Also, businesses that trade with countries outside of the EU still need to comply with EU law. This can cause additional burdens which might otherwise not apply.

The influence of migration on the economy also comes into play. Some businesses are likely to be affected if the UK leaves the EU, as they may no longer be able to recruit from all over Europe. Research investigating the impact of migration on wages in the UK has generally shown small effects, with those on low incomes and previous migrants tending to be slightly negatively affected by increased migration, and the population on higher incomes boosted slightly by migration, at least in the short-term.

Ultimately, no one really knows how leaving the EU will affect the UK economy long-term. It is likely that there will be a short-term negative impact, due to uncertainty during the transition to a new system. But whether this translates to the long-term is impossible to predict. It is likely that the UK would have to abide by EU trade law for its trade with EU countries in any case. The future performance of the UK economy will be determined by many factors, including how the economies of the world interact and develop. This has not stopped some politicians using the US sub-prime crash of 2008 as a basis for arguing that the UK would be better off going it alone.

The last key issue we have to cover is EU laws and governance. Politicians for the leave campaign are keen to promote the idea that the EU is a giant, undemocratic bureaucracy which costs the UK £350 million per week and forces it to abide by a ridiculous plethora of silly rules. Those in the remain campaign admit that the governance of the EU could be improved, but point to the many advantages of the EU and the common legislation it provides. The £350 million per week figure is certainly misleading, as the UK gets a sizeable rebate and much of this money is spent by and on the UK anyway. But it is true that being a member of the EU comes with a cost. It has been estimated more accurately at £120 million per week, which is around 7% of what the UK government spends on the NHS per week. Estimates put the economic benefit of being a member at around 10 times that figure.

The EU is a large organisation, including an executive in the form of the European Commission, and a legislature in the form of the European Parliament and the Council. The public tend to find the EU structure confusing, as it is large, multi-layered and feels distant from most European citizens. Providing a governance function to 28 different member states with different economies and cultures is bound to be challenging, and has resulted in this complexity. The members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected by the citizens of member countries, whereas other staff are not. Some are nominated by heads of state, some are elected by MEPs, some are just civil servants. There are 55,000 EU civil servants, whereas the UK government has 393,000. Calling the EU a giant, undemocratic bureaucracy is misleading at best, and considering the voting system used in the UK (‘first past the post’), one could argue that the EU is more democratic.

Many laws in the UK do come from the EU, which requires member states to adhere to common legislation. Much of this legislation is designed to allow free trade between member states, provide regulation to improve the health and quality of life for European citizens, and to protect human rights. Most EU legislation is fairly technocratic as a result, and stories of ridiculous European laws abound in the UK tabloid media. Nevertheless, in some cases, the UK is obliged to abide by laws it would not pass otherwise. One recent, and telling, example is EU legislation on air quality. The UK lobbied to have this legislation weakened because London has failed to meet European air quality standards ever since the legislation came into force in 2008, resulting in repeat fines to the UK.

Leave campaign politicians argue that EU law is impinging on UK sovereignty and democracy, affecting the government’s ability to legislate in its best interests. Many remain campaigners would argue that this is a good thing. Much EU law protects citizens’ basic rights, health and quality of life. EU legislation includes laws on human rights, workplace rights, paid holiday and maternity leave, working time, and gender equality. In contrast, the UK government has recently been cutting benefits to the most vulnerable in society and passing laws which have caused doctors and teachers to take strike action. Many remain campaigners feel that EU legislation provides the kind of long-term protection for normal citizens that can be worryingly impermanent during periods of economic uncertainty.

One additional issue has been raised by the remain campaign more recently. Europe has a lengthy history of catastrophic conflict, and the EU has its roots in the aftermath of the second world war. By coming together and forming a political and economic union, the possibility of conflict between member states is greatly diminished. Furthermore, constant, cooperative dialogue between countries has been institutionalised. As a result, consensus has gradually developed between disparate countries on many issues and extreme views have been moderated by the majority.

In the current political climate, with the possibility of Trump being elected in the US, and the near-election of a far-right candidate in the Austrian presidential elections, this moderating influence may be more important than ever. Remain campaigners argue that although there are problems with the EU, it is overwhelmingly a force for good, and the UK has a role to play in its evolution. By leaving the table, this ability to influence is lost, and the UK has a lot of influence — the UK has more MEPs (73) in the European Parliament than every other country except for Germany (99) and France (74). Most member states have fewer than 30 MEPs.

Whether the British public takes any of the above into consideration when they vote is not clear. People generally make up their minds by following their guts. Cold and impartial evaluation of the evidence is difficult at the best of times, but especially challenging when the evidence is unclear and the topic is highly emotive. Politicians are doing a good job of stoking fears on either side of the debate, and the electorate is split. Older, less educated, and lower social class groups tend to be more likely to vote leave; whereas younger, more educated and politically liberal groups seem more likely to vote remain. Ultimately, turnout may be the crucial factor which decides whether the future of the UK is in Europe.