Why I’m voting Remain
Aside from the significant economic, security and cultural benefits, EU membership can make the UK a powerful force for good in a world facing perilous challenges.
Today’s vote is, without parallel, the most important democratic undertaking of our lifetime. This hyperbolic appeal is made at every general election; rarely is it grounded in truth — governments come and go, their impact variously long-lasting but never irreversible. However, a decision to leave the European Union this week will be just that: irreversible.
This isn’t to say a re-entry into the EU at a later date is impossible, but the terms of crawling back to Brussels would certainly be less favourable than our current arrangement. Given that the very fabric of Britain — constitutional, legal, and economic — has become so closely woven with Europe’s over the years since our accession in 1973, any permanent change to our relationship with the continent will have deep and wide-reaching ramifications.
The gravity of the choice facing voters when they look down at just two boxes on the ballot paper should be felt by everyone. How unfortunate then, that the referendum campaign has been marred by such insincerity, mendacity and bile. The Remain camp is not guilt-free, but to claim equal blame for both sides would be a lie worthy of Boris’s battle bus.
The Vote Leave campaign has continuously proven itself allergic to facts and expert consensus. When confronted with their falsehoods, they’ve retreated into anti-intellectualism on a scale not seen outside of the climate change denial of the American right. Tinfoil hat conspiracy theories, usually constrained to the loony fringe, have become common talking points. Failing that, Leave advocates have appealed to the basest xenophobic fears about immigrant crime with comments more befitting Donald Trump than mainstream British politics.
An issue of such monumental consequence deserves a reasoned and informed debate. Through this miasma, that has proven difficult, if not impossible. Nevertheless, today we have a decision to make.
After careful consideration, I will be voting Remain. I’ve already outlined a simple reason for remaining in the EU, predicated on the Leave campaign’s failure to detail an acceptable alternative to our current economic arrangement with the single market. This, paired with the vile tone of the Leave side’s race-baiting, is reason enough to vote Remain. But I believe there are several more optimistic justifications for our European membership.
The following are five such justifications that, not only rebuke the arguments for Brexit, but make a positive, hopeful case for our place in Europe and on the global stage:
Britain is a sovereign nation.
“There is no doubt whatsoever that the United Kingdom is a sovereign state under international law”, the University of Liverpool’s EU law expert Prof. Michael Dougan states in this excellent video lecture scorning the Leave campaign’s “dishonesty on an industrial scale.” The EU’s power is derived from the treaties passed by the sovereign national parliaments of its member states.
The UK parliament could pull us out of the EU by simply repealing the European Communities Act of 1972, although this shirking of our treaty obligations would certainly leave us at a poor negotiating position for any future trade deals with Europe. And while it is true that we exchange some sovereignty for our EU membership (by agreeing to abide by EU laws), we do so to receive power and influence as a part of the European club, not to mention the benefits (access to the single market, agricultural and educational subsidies, rights for our citizens in other nations, etc.).
This is how any international organisation (the UN, WTO, NATO, etc.) works and is comparable to trading away some of your individual sovereignty to your employer — e.g. the freedom to sit around on Tuesday mornings in your pyjamas watching reruns of Q.I. on Dave — in exchange for certain benefits, namely a wage and career prospects.
The EU is democratic.
A common gripe with the EU are the so-called ‘unelected bureaucrats’ that impose laws on the rest of us. This usually refers to the European Commission and is misleading at best.
The Commission — comprising a commissioner from each member state, and a president (commonly, but erroneously called the ‘president of the EU’) — is a cross between a civil service and a government, conducting the day-to-day business of the EU and drafting legislation. Crucially, its members are nominated by the European Council (the body of member states’ national governments) and confirmed by the European Parliament (a body of 751 MEPs directly elected by the people of the EU).
To be clear, the Commission has no power to pass legislation, it merely proposes it. For it to become law it needs to pass a vote both in the Parliament and in the Council of the European Union (a distinct body to the European Council which also represents the member states’ governments).
Admittedly this is complicated. The EU is the most extensive exercise in international cooperation in human history, and so its inner workings are naturally arcane, complex and occasionally messy. The power of its myriad institutions though is definitely derived democratically.
That’s why sometimes *gasp* we get outvoted. It happens comparatively rarely (since 1999 the UK has won 95% of votes), but the EU is a union of 28 nations, and sometimes we don’t all agree. In our parliament, the MPs of Liverpool, or the entire nation of Wales, get outvoted all the time, but they don’t cry that it’s “undemocratic”.
As a side note, representation in both voting bodies of the EU is proportional to the amount of votes cast and the relative populations of each member state. Contrast this with Britain’s own parliament — with a first-past-the-post system that wastes votes and artificially skews representation, and an unelected second chamber — and claims of an EU “democratic deficit” from those who refuse electoral reform back at home seem disingenuous.
For votes to pass in the Council and become EU law, they must reach a ‘qualified majority’ — the support of 55% of member states that represent at least 65% of the EU’s population. This onerous standard means that compromise, diplomacy and coalition-building is necessary, leading to a particularly collaborative democratic process that ultimately results in better quality legislation. It’s for this reason that a high percentage of EU decisions are made by the consensus of all member states.
We get good value for money from the EU.
Perhaps the most visible symbol of the Leave campaign has been the £350 million-a-week figure emblazoned on Boris Johnson’s tour bus. Vote Leave claim this is the amount of money we send to the EU, amounting to £18 billion annually. It is completely false.
Firstly, this figure entirely ignores the UK’s rebate (negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984), which in 2015 was worth almost £5 billion. This discount is applied before any money is sent to Brussels, rendering the Leave campaign’s figures meaningless, and leading the UK Statistics Authority to denounce them publicly.
Secondly, the figure does not take into account what the EU spends on the UK, i.e. the money that comes back. Through agricultural subsidies, aid for impoverished areas, and research, science and educational funding, the UK received £4.5 billion from the EU last year. This brings our net EU contribution to £8.5 billion per annum, or around £160 million a week.
This is a lot of money, but thanks to the rebate, it’s significantly less than what other member states contribute as a percentage of their national income. It accounts for about 1% of the UK’s budget — we spend three times as much on transport alone — and equates to roughly 30p per person, per day.
In return, we get unfettered access to the single biggest trading bloc in the world which accounts for nearly half of all British exports. This is why leaving the EU concerns economists — increased barriers to trade with Europe will almost certainly have a negative effect on GDP, which in turn affects the amount of money the country brings in through taxation.
Because of the relatively small size of the UK’s EU contribution compared to the size of its economy, the IMF warns that just a 1% reduction in GDP (the independent Centre for Economic Performance predicts a far higher GDP reduction in the event of Brexit) would wipe out any savings made from axing the money sent to Brussels.
The bottom line here is the UK gets back far more value through its membership of the single market than it pays to the EU, and any saving from a Brexit would likely be more than neutralised by losses to government revenue following a reduction in GDP. Before even considering the political and diplomatic advantages of being in the EU, this makes 30p a day look like good value for money.
Immigration is good for the UK, and it always has been.
Amid the lies over the economy and misinformation about sovereignty, one issue has gained traction for the Brexit crowd. Make no mistake, this referendum is about one thing: immigration.
The Leave camp has put aside the fact that annual net migration from inside the EU has never been higher than outside the EU (despite more controls to restrict access to non-EU nationals), and ignored the Council when it says that free movement is a prerequisite of access to the single market. Instead they have stoked jingoism, xenophobia and not-even-thinly-veiled racial animus in the absence of a reasoned argument, implying migrants are sponging benefits and bringing crime.
The facts paint a different picture though, with EU migrants making a net fiscal contribution to the Treasury of £20 billion between 2000 and 2011 and crime actually falling in areas with an influx of immigration. Brexiteers cite the strain immigration puts on the NHS as reason to get out, but the NHS is dependent on migrant workers, with one in ten of our doctors from the EU. This claim is even more rich when you consider what leading Vote Leave campaigners have wished to do to the NHS in the past. In fact EU migrants are younger, more educated and more likely to be in work, which explains why they contribute more to the public purse and have a neutral or positive effect on the economy — they spend money on goods and services, pumping up demand and creating more jobs.
Beyond the facts though, Britain has always been a patchwork nation. We’re an island that’s been invaded again and again — by the Romans (those pesky Italians), by the Vikings (those pesky Norwegians), by the Normans (those pesky French). Our language is Germanic. One of our countries, England, is named after a district of Schleswig-Holstein, a German state. Our favourite foods are from India and China. In this summer’s Olympics, two of our best gold medal hopes are the daughter of a Jamaican and the son of a Somalian.
Growing up in the North West, I was largely insulated from immigration, but since moving to London I’ve worked and socialised with people from almost every country of Europe, not to mention the progeny of immigrants from further afield. These are our friends and colleagues, and they contribute just as much to our society and our culture.
Speaking of which, as Danny Boyle’s outstanding opening ceremony at the London Olympics demonstrated, Britain is the world’s cultural superpower. It would be indelibly poorer without the colours, sounds, tastes and ideas that immigration combines, from every corner of the globe, into this great cultural kaleidoscope.
The world is more hopeful with Britain as a European leader.
Many on the pro-Brexit side have accused the Remain argument of denigrating the UK. “We can look after ourselves,” they say, “we’re important enough in the wider world without Europe.” While this is undoubtedly true, our power and influence around the globe is amplified immeasurably in the European Union.
By being one of the loudest voices — the OECD projects the UK will have the largest economy in Europe by 2050 — in the EU, we have the ability to shape a community of over 500 million people and an economy 50% larger than China, giving us immense weight on the world stage.
This is essential as the world faces perilous challenges. We are still feeling the shockwaves of an economic crash that has shaken the foundations of a system for too long deferential to financial capital. We have a workforce struggling to adapt to an increasingly digital and borderless landscape. Political polarisation and disillusionment is emboldening extremists and fuelling a resurgence of hateful nationalism. Brutal autocracies and apocalyptic ideologies threaten to tear the Middle East apart and inspire terror and division across the West and beyond. Their wars have forced an historic exodus as human beings flee persecution, destruction and death at the hands of tyrants and murderers. Climate change poses an existential threat to our species as we struggle to find a sustainable way to power our planet.
It’s true that the EU must take some responsibility for these issues, and it hasn’t always been the most adept at solving them (in some cases, even exacerbating them). But we will certainly have no ability to compel the EU to find solutions from the outside. The migrant crisis and climate change in particular present a moral imperative to act. Solutions to these challenges will require international cooperation and the EU is the single most effective institution to achieve this. This reason alone makes it irresponsible to leave.
It would also be decidedly un-British.
It has been argued that this decision is one about British identity — we don’t feel European. I have some sympathy with this — I can barely string three words together in French, I find sauerkraut gross, and Europop irritates my soul. But involvement with Europe is very British. Not only is the entire European project a British invention — the European Convention on Human Rights was penned by British lawyers — but Britain has a long history with the continent.
Invocations of the Second World War are hackneyed but appropriate since it was that last great conflict that sparked the impetus for European integration. For centuries, the empires of Europe were enemies that spent generations killing each other. Thanks to the EU, Europe is now a continent of democracies and partners. That peace and collaboration was hard-fought and with British grit. To turn our backs on it now would be not very British at all.
What kind of nation do we want to be: one that stands by its partners and works hard for difficult but necessary solutions, or one that abandons its peers, insulates itself and treats the Channel like a moat?
I’m voting Remain because I am, at once, English, British and European; this is not contradictory. I’m voting Remain because, above all, I am a human being, and the future prosperity of humanity will require cooperation across borders, blind of nation, race or creed. I’m voting Remain because, as a wise woman — whose words will always speak louder than her killer’s — said: “far more unites us than divides us.”