The EU referendum has completely taken over UK media recently. Commentators and politicians have come down hard on one side or the other but I can’t help but feel that by doing this – by taking such definitive stances and by claiming the other side’s view as “wrong” – they’re skirting around the underlying issues.
Although I’m voting Remain in the European referendum, I’m not sure anybody can confidently predict what either outcome will mean for Britain. With positives and negatives on both sides, I think a lot of it comes down to ‘feeling’. It’s the kind of feeling that although unquantifiable, affects the hearts and minds of all.
It’s a choice about what we want the future of Britain to be. Some feel it would be best to go it alone and legislate solely for our own shores, others wish to be part of a greater union. But our desires for the future are very much dependent on our interpretation of the past. Do you feel the EU has benefitted Britain? Importantly, do you feel the EU has benefitted you and your community? The answers to these questions are deeply affected by class and regional divides and it would be shortsighted to ignore this.
In the 1975 referendum, the UK embraced the European Economic Community (EEC) with 67% voting in favour but interestingly the Labour Party was “hopelessly split”. Euro-scepticism largely came from people on the left-wing such as Tony Benn and, yes that’s right, a young Jezza Corbyn. It was thought the EEC customs union was a mere “capitalist club”, which would erode sovereignty and destroy British jobs.
Certainly, the EU is still committed to free market economics and breaking down trade barriers. Though its hard to quantify the exact influence of the EU, there’s no doubt that it has affected UK laws and regulations. And the idea of a “democratic deficit” in the EU is well-known, with a lack of transparency also being criticised.
And yet, this time round it’s the Tory party that’s hopelessly split.
According to research you’re far more likely to vote Remain if you’re young and, particularly, university educated. As a student, I feel the EU opens up more opportunities to me. With the help of the EU, I’d be able to study with Erasmus or work in Spain (if the economy picks up).
A poll highlighted that London’s most affluent boroughs, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, are the areas most likely to vote to remain in the EU. With a plethora of businesses, politicians and VIPs saying that EU membership boosts the UK economy it’s not hard to understand why this is the case.
It’s also not hard to understand why the highest percentage of Brexit voters come from coastal areas such as Clacton-on-sea (the only UKIP seat), which suffers raging unemployment of around 50% (!!). Saying “leaving Europe will harm the economy” doesn’t really mean a thing to people who never saw the benefits in the first place.
Those on the left dismissing these people as xenophobic aren’t helpful, especially as Labour already seems to have lost a lot of its core working class support – a class it’s supposed to represent. Of course, the Brexit campaign is diverse and it can’t be explained away in simple income terms. The fact of the matter is, though, successive Labour and Conservative governments have failed certain communities, who then look elsewhere for someone to speak for them. Unfortunately, this has come in the form of Nigel Farage. Why didn’t politicians do more to tackle the “cycle of poverty” they’ve suffered?
It’s interesting that in Clacton-on-Sea, only 8% of people are born outside of the UK. Migration did not cause their poverty and those who feel it did are clearly looking for someone, something, anything to blame. But the EU and migration shouldn’t shoulder this blame. Research shows EU migrants in fact pay more in taxes than they take in benefits. Instead of focusing on the fact that European people are filling UK jobs, we should focus on training, education and language skills that will make British workers more competitive.
EU law has provided positive change in many ways, for example with the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), consumer protection and worker’s rights. Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, for example, did not have any laws to protect people from sexual harassment in the workplace. Although EU states have the power to be stricter with harassment law, the EU ensured there was a minimum level among its member states.
Both sides have accepted that the uncertainty caused by leaving the EU will have negative short-term and even middle-term consequences on the economy. With the Conservatives committed to austerity and in power until 2020, I can only imagine it will be the most vulnerable people, or those already on the lowest pay, who are hit the hardest by a shrinking economy.
In real terms leaving the EU wouldn’t actually mean we have more control. Norway is not an official member of the EU and faces EU regulation without representation. Both Norway and Switzerland also still have to accept free movement of labour with the EU, so there’s no guarantee that a Brexit would be able to limit migration anyway. I don’t think we are able to turn back time and I don’t think we should try to.
But then, it would be easy for me, a middle-class Londoner at university, to sit there and say the EU is beneficial – I’m someone that sees the benefits. Ignoring the regional and class disparities of the referendum may be the downfall of the Remain campaign. Even if we do “Remain”, we can’t remain ignorant about the problems at hand. We can’t just fight to win the referendum or fight to beat UKIP, we have to fight to alleviate poverty too.
I do truly believe we are better able to do this within the EU, and the EU is where I want Britain’s future to remain. I understand why Mr Corbyn voted against joining the EEC in 1975, it was a mere customs union, but the EU now stands for much more than that. I believe that its basic premise is based on breaking down borders, language barriers and economic disparity and building up consumer, worker and human rights.
That’s not to say we should be uncritical. With the shadow of TTIP and Greece looming large, it’s not a faultless institution by any stretch of the imagination. We have to fight harder to make the EU work for all of us, but that doesn’t mean we should give up entirely.