Thursday, 2 June 2016

Brexit or Bremain?

As the debate about leaving the EU or staying in rumbles on, one thing becomes readily apparent: the lack of real information with which to make an informed choice. It’s true that we know what life is like inside the EU now, and that, for all the rhetoric, we have no idea what life will be like outside the EU if we leave; and although this, in and of itself, it not a reason to vote remain, it does provide a good starting point for examining how things might go. This truth is, things could be much better in some ways, and much worse in others, and I don’t feel like we get a lot of the best information about these scenarios.
One caveat before continuing: the below are just my general views and thoughts. As mentioned, a lot of the ‘information’ provided to us is guesswork, and so I will do the best I can with what I have.
Ok, two caveats: my views on the EU will be clear by the end of this post. I don’t claim an impartial or unbiased view, and I am setting out to express how I feel about various points.

The hot button issue for Brexit campaigners is immigration. One issue I have with all the focus on immigration is that it’s not really the most problematic, expensive, or serious issue facing the country, although it is often portrayed that way. That aside, I think it’s fair to say that several truths emerge from the debate around immigration:

  1. The UK is a relatively small country, and, given the current stretches being applied to public services, can only afford a modest amount of immigration.
  2. Immigration places burdens on the welfare state; abuses of which are often highlighted and do need to be curtailed.
  3. The majority of people who come to live and work in the UK from the EU pay more in tax than they take out, and this will only increase when new restrictions on claims to public funds come into place.
  4. UK citizens have benefitted from being able to live and work in EU countries. It’s unclear exactly what would happen if we leave, but there is the distinct possibility of large numbers of retired Brits having to return home, people who by and large contribute less to the economy than EU citizens of working age.
  5. The UK already has a different agreement to the rest of the EU when it comes to immigration, including exclusion from the Schengen free movement principle, and an opt-out of an otherwise compulsory acceptance of refugees.
  6. There also seems to be a conflation (though this is just based on people I have spoken with) of the problems of non-EU immigration with EU ones. Leaving the EU will have no direct effect on policies about people from non-EU nations.
  7. Leaving the EU won’t deter illegal migrants from trying to come here. Remaining in the EU allows greater collaboration with other members (particularly France) on how best to control and curtail dangerous and illegal migration.

The majority of scientists in the UK wish to remain in the EU (source), and have warned that leaving could have a disastrous effect on funding and research. This seems logical to me, given the inherently collaborative nature of scientific research; even in this age of electronic communication, face to face association is invaluable. The importance of such research in a world dealing with challenges as diverse as climate change and the growing resistance of bacteria to any form of antibiotic cannot be underestimated.
And I know this argument may be simplistic, but if Stephen Hawking, one of the cleverest people alive, thinks remaining is a good idea, that’s something to take into consideration.

Differing opinions have been offered on whether the NHS would be worse or better off if we remain in the EU, but I think the argument that money sent to Brussels could be channelled back into the NHS is overly simplistic, and ignores the benefits which accrue from such payments (the price of food and other commodities, the effect on wages and workers’ rights, investment in services, and so on). It’s also the case that many of the doctor and nurse positions are currently filled by EU workers, who will have to be replaced in the event of a Brexit. This task isn’t impossible, but I haven’t heard any explanation yet as to where those workers will come from, and if immigration isn’t a solution, what is?
In addition, UK citizens abroad benefit from access to European health services through the use of the EHIC card. This is a valuable safety net when travelling.

Trade and the economy
The effect a Brexit would have on the economy is not known. Speculation abounds. It does seem likely that import and export deals would have to be renegotiated, both with the EU and EU trading partners, and that tariffs would follow. This is not a good thing for British trade in either direction. 61% of small business exports go to the EU; they are our major trading partner.
Again, there isn’t a consensus on what the effect on jobs, taxes, spending cuts and so on. Economists have come out arguing for either position. I am not savvy enough with the details to really know which way things will go, but it seems that no one else is either. On balance, I think that the risk to the economy is higher if we leave than if we stay, and the weakening pound suggests that uncertainty about the future is damaging to the economy in and of itself.

A YouGov poll indicates that support for the EU is higher in Scotland and Wales than in England. This is not surprising given that these countries are used to being the junior member in an alliance of nations. They are used to seeing their sovereignty diminished for the greater good of the alliance. Perhaps the English have yet to understand that teamwork requires compromise, that balancing local needs against the needs of the many is not always an act than can be achieved to everyone’s complete satisfaction. Perhaps the way that Scotland and Wales think of England is the way that many English think of the EU.
I also saw a poll which said that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be in favour of Bremaining. This gives me hope. I like the idea that integration and tolerance will become the norm, that in fifty years, people will think of Europeans as allies and cousins, to be worked with towards common goals, rather than viewed with suspicion.

The EU is often lamented as a production machine for regulations, but much of the regulation it produces is to the benefit of Brits, as well as other Europeans. Cheaper cellphone coverage and air travel, protections for workers under employment law, protections for human beings in line with the human rights act, environmental regulations to reduce emissions, invest in renewables and protect wildlife, the list goes on. Being in the EU enables Britain to help fight climate change, tackle international criminal networks and humanitarian crises, fosters military co-operation, thus reducing the strain on our armed forces, and keeps commodity prices low. Add to that the influence of the bloc in world affairs, an influence the UK benefits from despite her different currency, and you have a pretty good list of reasons to Bremain.
The EU is a success story, and it has managed to take countries which were at each other’s throats less than a century earlier, and turn them into allies between which war is now unthinkable. This is progress by any definition. Of course, the UK was not part of this initial arrangement, and so views the EU from a different perspective - that of a trading partner. This view is not inherently wrong, but shapes the expectations we have for what the EU is and should be.
It’s also true that the EU is not without problems, unnecessary expenditure and red tape. Abuse of welfare systems and NHS tourism are valid concerns. No human institution is free of problems. It is my personal feeling that the world is becoming smaller, more connected all the time. It is also my feeling that this trend is positive: collaboration and cooperation among nations draw us together, and help us form common purposes and solve problems which may otherwise seem insurmountable. To withdraw from this union would be a reversal of a great achievement, a step towards isolation in a world where such a thing is impractical, a highlighting of differences when what is needed is an expression of solidarity. The essence of the Brexit is the politics of fear and division, and I cannot believe that such politics will ever be the right way to proceed.

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