The EU referendum is coming up, and lots of people still haven't made up their minds whether to vote 'Leave' or 'Remain', or indeed whether to vote at all.
Now I'm not claiming to be an expert, but like a lot of people I've paid close attention to both sides of the debate for a while now; they are both equally guilty of exaggeration, over-generalisation, scare-mongering and straw-man tactics, and I sympathise for anyone relatively new to this issue who wants to make up their own mind based on the actual facts of the EU and its effects on UK citizens.
As it stands, the only known facts are, for better or worse, on the Remain side. The Leave side is purely conjecture, because it's never happened before, and we've no meaningful experience to draw from.
Following the EU debate is interesting but frustrating. However, once you've listened to enough politicians, commentators and experts talking about the EU, you begin to notice patterns and inconsistencies, and you start to filter out the actual truths from the half-truths and the junk. I've decided to write this hopefully junk-free blog to express my view on the main aspects of the topic.
If you've already decided which way to vote, you may as well stop here. If you're uncertain, please read on. I'm going to start with the main arguments that the Brexit campaign uses, address them and debunk parts of them (though some points are valid), then move on to the surplus of positive arguments in favour of Remain that Leave doesn't have an answer for.
Let's leave to one side the fact that there are more non-EU migrants than EU ones here. 500 million people live in Europe, and so about 440 million live outside the UK. Although they could, they are not all going to end up in the UK. Even if Turkey and other south-eastern European countries join the EU (and if none of the current 28 heads of state, including the British PM, veto the decision!), they won't all flee their homeland, skip the other EU nations and land squarely in the UK. It ain't happening. Turkey has been trying since the 80s to join, and it is far from meeting the necessary requirements even now - add to that the UK's power to veto and it's clear that Boris's statement "Turkey is joining the EU" is just not true (or at least weasel words).
By the same logic, all 63 million Brits aren't going to end up in London, deserting their homes in Manchester, or Glasgow, or Cornwall or Nuneaton. So to talk like that is just empty and purely designed to scare; if you want to have a normal discussion about immigration within the EU, then you have to be realistic and focus on what is probable, not possible.
Now, a true counterpoint by the Brexit side here is that there are areas of the UK with already very high levels of immigration, increasing pressure on the NHS, in schools and elsewhere. This is certainly a partial consequence of being a relatively prosperous country in a union of nations which enables freedom of movement of people, where other nations are considerably poorer and with high unemployment. I say partial consequence of being in the EU because, as I have said, a great many migrants are non-EU.
To be fair to most Brexiters, I'm sure most of them don't blame migrants for exercising their right, and have problems with the policy rather than the people it affects positively. Those living in highly populated areas really do feel the effects of high migrant populations, but that could and should have been avoided by not imposing devastating cuts on public services - thank the Tories, not the EU.
Notice that the above paragraph about current immigration isn't your typical Remain-style discussion. Some of it could even have been said by a Brexiter. However, also note the lack of xenophobic undertones. I believe EU immigration is a great thing, and am proud of my country for providing a home - temporary or permanent - for Germans, Spaniards, Poles...It would take a lot to convince me that the current levels of EU migration are too high across the country as a whole (notwithstanding regional pressures discussed earlier) - 'too high' would be a situation where the overall population, whether British born or not, is such that unemployment rises and standards of living fall; that simply isn't happening.
We're still a prosperous country, and still attractive to migrants and business. If we were at such a breaking point, people would stop coming. Again, public services such as schools and the NHS are suffering because of the Tory government and not the EU. I see crowded A&Es near my home but hear almost entirely native English people. Most EU migrants are young, educated and healthy; most of the strain on the NHS is coming from older Brits in an ageing population. (So, that recent Vote Leave campaign advert with a split-screen video of an inside-EU and outside-EU hospital A&E is highly misleading, a.k.a. bollocks.)
As for schools, you often hear about full intakes, but it's a fact that there is an equivalent of one EU-born (non-Brit) child per school. In short, the impact of EU migration levels in the country as a whole is exaggerated and politicised. (Note: I say the impact is exaggerated, not the numbers - the official numbers are not exaggerated, and probably underestimated.)
Talking or being concerned about immigration isn't racist. When someone on the left quickly brands someone 'racist' or 'xenophobe' for bringing up immigration, the debate takes a step backwards. It also does nothing to help the Remain camp. For sensible, normal people, immigration is simply about numbers. The problem here is that we are so often told using pejorative language that the numbers are 'unsustainable' or that we're being 'swamped' or we have to 'put up the shut sign' etc, etc. This use of language is subliminal and, unless you pay particular attention to people's choice of words and the motives behind them, you are going to gradually develop negative knee-jerk feelings - probably unconsciously - whenever the topic of immigration is mentioned. This is especially true of less educated or analytically minded people. And as the Archbishop of Canterbury said, it is "pandering to people's worries and prejudices".
The Gillian Duffy types who Ukip/Farage, Daily Mail and other right-wing press seek to manipulate and misguide (with or without success - they are not all brainwashed idiots!), tend to live in communities where this shared misperception of foreigners naturally thrives and is constantly reinforced. Over the last 5-10 years or so, they have become a significant part of the (generally white working class) population and are energised by the Leave sentiments. It's important to point out that many white working class people are not this way inclined, and people will make up their own mind; but it is true that if right-wing politicians and press have successfully xenophobised anyone in this country, they're by and large in these communities. I'm not pointing out this demographic to demonise them - far from it (I grew up in a mostly white working class northern town) - but to show how the Brexit movement has been so successful. Now there is a perceived issue with the EU that was not an issue before, so much so that a referendum has been called, and the Brexiters are close to getting what they have come to want.
Sad times. Sad because EU immigration - for the most part - deserves celebration, not condemnation.
An in-depth report a year or two ago concluded that EU migrants pay in to the UK in taxes more than they take out, by about £20bn over the previous decade. I can believe that: a very strong work ethic. They are no more benefit scroungers than your average Brit, and probably less so if you could measure such a thing. Many EU migrants are young and well educated, working in manual jobs that their British counterparts would consider beneath them. Nigel Farage loves to include the phrase 'former Communist' when referring to the countries these people come from - if there's any relevance to that maliciously highlighted association, it's that they come from a culture where being idle is not so much frowned upon but simple doesn't enter people's minds as an option! Why isn't Mr Farage being more wary of young Brits instead, who grew up in a 'former Imperialist' country? (Of course that would be ridiculous, but it's no less ridiculous than Farage's 'communist' reference designed to stir distrust in Eastern Europeans.)
It reminds me of Schrodinger's Immigrant: one who simultaneously takes your job whilst leeching from the state.
As has been shown, in terms to working and paying taxes, there's nothing wrong with the EU's free movement of people principle. Employment among Brits is at a record high! So then, what about driving down wages? Some employers recruiting from poorer EU countries will enjoy being able to pay minimum wage without hearing a grumble, but it's hard to believe that if they could only employ Brits, they would somehow pay higher wages. If you're a employee worried about your wage level and workers' rights, don't flipping vote Tory.
If we left the EU and slashed migration, there'd be such a shortage of potential staff that many organisations just wouldn't be able to exist. As I said, a lot of Brits nowadays simply wouldn't want to work on a production line, which so many EU migrants do, hence so many businessmen and businesswomen, high-level and small-level, publicly warning that leaving the EU would bring big problems for them.
(A side-point: it's a pity that the word 'immigrant' has developed a negative connotation. The fact that Brits living abroad so often are referred to as 'expats' allows a horrible dichotomy to flourish. There's rarely any actual need to label people in such terms anyway, no more than calling someone a 'brown-haired' person. Here's an interesting thought experiment: imagine calling a well-to-do retired British couple living in Mallorca 'immigrants' and a Slovakian man working in warehouse an 'expat', and see how those two words just don't fit the people. Of course, words are powerful and can shape perception.)
Also, there is one big unanswered question in the Brexit plan, if we are to actually control EU migration in the case of a Leave win: If you don't want freedom of movement of people, they you have to leave the single market as well (as Michael Gove wants). You can't have the best of both worlds (if you think 'movement of people' is a 'bad' thing in of those metaphorical worlds). Norway and Switzerland don't have it both ways. Britain won't either. So, if you vote Leave to try to reduce migration, and if the Tory government achieve this themselves (outside the EU), then you also have to face a future in which we aren't part of the European single market. That's a lot of 'ifs' and a big loss at the end, all for the sake of saving yourself a bit of time in the A&E queue or having one extra place at your local Primary school, nationally speaking.
By the way, remember that we're not in the Eurozone and we're not in the borderless Schengen Zone; and if the British majority don't ever want us to, then it won't happen, because we elect our government and we elect MEPs.
Ok, I don't want this to become just about immigration, because the EU debate is much more than that, though for the Leave side of it, not much more. However, one area which I think Remain hasn't been honest enough about is democracy, and to a lesser extent, sovereignty.
The EU should be more democratic. I'm not saying it isn't democratic, because democraticness is a scale rather than black-and-white, and the EU is reasonably democratic. However, before I explain where I think reform needs to happen (and how), just remind yourself about how the UK democracy looks...
At the last general election, nearly 4 million people voted Ukip and over 1 million voted Green. Both parties have only one seat in Parliament. I don't see such passionate campaigning about the state of British democracy!
We also have an unelected House of Lords comprising over 800 people, nearly 100 of whom inherited their position. Less than a quarter are women. I don't see such passionate campaigning about that either!
I could also mention one other person, but it's her 90th birthday, so I'll give her a break...
True democracy is unattainable in practice; nothing would ever get done. Some bureaucracy and appointed decision-makers have to exist for countries or even small organisations to function. You can't please everyone all of the time, and you have to draw a line in the sand somewhere between the two extremes of autocracy and democracy. For example, there are 649 MPs in London who I didn't elect, who can together propose and debate laws that do not express my own views. Then those laws are passed to an unelected house who would only reflect my own opinion out of pure coincidence, and often don't reflect my views. But that's life! If I don't like it, I vote for an opposition or campaign or join the political process in some other way. The same applies to our elected MEPs in Europe.
Speaking of opposition, I do partially agree with the Leave campaign on the matter of accountability - there should be a formal opposition structure built in to its workings; at the moment it is just MEPs, with Ukip and Farage actually doing quite well at providing opposite voices, albeit aggressive and personal and not representative of their country (so vote in the next European elections!!).
So, what's the issue with democracy and the EU? After all, it does have MEPs who are directly elected, standing in the European Parliament. It also has a Council of Ministers who are ministers that the UK people elected through government. That's fine. They (in theory) represent the needs of Britain on the the European stages. If they don't represent your needs, then that's because either you didn't vote in the last European elections (for the European Parliament) or General Election (effectively for the Council), or you are just in a minority.
The problem lies, as I mentioned earlier, in that the European Commision is not elected by EU citizens. This, in my view, should at least have a democratic 'in' point, and it currently just has our own Commissioner appointed by our government.
Also, a reformed EU should have increased accountability, and a post-Remain UK political scene should stay at the table and encourage it. A Brexiter at this point may say that it's futile, that the European Commision would always win over - this is rubbish. The Parliament and Council of Ministers are there, and increased engagement in European politics is needed by the British public in general. No bugger in the UK seems to have followed EU politics at all in the past, with tiny voter turnouts, and now suddenly people are shouting about how 'undemocratic' it is, as if they'd been violently lobbying for years!
The reality is that we vote for our MEPS, and they have the power to accept or reject proposals from the Commision. Yet the democratic deficit still persists because new proposals still originate from the appointed, not elected, Commission.
Again, this should be the type of thing the UK should lead and help bring change to. If we are so drastic as to leave the whole thing, then we'll have no say whatsoever on the decisions in Europe that will still affect us over the Channel (assuming we want to continue trading and collaborating with Europe and not float away somewhere to the mid-Atlantic!). You shouldn't run away and just hope for the best, which is basically the Brexit approach. Stay in and help improve it from within!
At this point in the debate, when listening to Boris and co, you'd think the EU had impose laws on us that are morally wrong or fly in the face of British needs; remember, the EU is there to deal with transnational issues, not local ones. This logic is equally true for your local government, who are elected to deal with local issues. In a globalised world, there has to exist a hierarchy of governance; without it, we end up with competitive nationalism and distrust of neighbours, weakened response to international crime and terrorism, and a climate and environment that gets increasingly worse. That's not scaremongering - that's plain fact. Just as the current UK Tory government can overrule or direct policies that affect Labour constituencies in issuees that need national-level management, so the same holds true for the EU and supranational-level issues. Without it, there'll be little progress in the long term. You've got to pool sovereignty in the real world (unless your name is Kim Jong-un).
We hear the slogan from Leave "Let's get our country back"; this is so often said but so utterly exagerrated in its implications. This isn't Soviet communism in eastern Europe. This isn't Israel in Gaza. This isn't Saddam Hussein in Kuwait. To use such language is inflammatory and an affront to countless other countries with real problems. Meanwhile, back in Old Blighty...
The directives and regulations coming from EU concern the greater good, and are not part of some malign design that seeks to do bad to the British people. If you're not sure about this, don't listen to the Leave campaign or Ukip, but just research some of the laws derived from the EU; if you ignore the many that don't apply to us (e.g. olive oil), ignore the silly or exaggerated ones (bendy bananas and straight cucumbers), and ignore the countless mundane ones (manufacture of oven gloves), you have almost nothing left that any rational person would find more damaging or disagreeable than what the Tories are doing. Ask a Brexiter to name an EU law that they think the British people (overall) wouldn't also vote for within the UK. You'll rarely, if ever, hear a legitimate answer. You're far more likely to find abhorrent policies in the current government - cough, Jeremy Hunt, cough. Only 24% of British people actually voted for the Tories - the lack of democracy in the UK (caused by having First Past The Post) is far more damaging than the lack of democracy in the EU.
Leaving the EU wouldn't give more power to us, the voters. It'd give more power to the Conservative Party. Only if you think Corbyn's Labour Party have a strong chance of winning the 2020 election could you believe otherwise.
The last real debating point that Brexiters make is about cost. The Leave campaign printed on the side of a big lorry that the EU costs £350 million a week. I hope most people know by now that this is simply false, and the the campaign organisers have ignored instructions not to keep saying it. But the buggers still do.
Once the UK's special rebate (another extra perk that other net-giving EU nations haven't got) is considered, as well as investment back in from the EU and various subsidies in industry, it is said to work out at about £2.70 per person per week. I think that's a small price to pay for all the advantages of the EU, more of which I will provide shortly. The UK still pays far more in defence, education and health, and that's even with the tight-fisted Tory government making the decisions!
Such large numbers are rarely given in context. Actually, take a look at your Annual Tax Statement which is now posted to everyone (or see examples at this link: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/millions-start-receiving-break-down-of-how-their-tax-is-spent). It shows a pie chart of tax spendings, and the EU is a tiny slither of about five degrees of the chart. It's nothing, yet you'd think the EU was bleeding the taxpayer dry, the way Leave campaigners talk!
Also, the benefits in economic growth and investment from EU and worldwide business investors is huge. That's why so many businesses don't want us to leave. Economists are - quite amazingly - practically unified in their conclusion that leaving the EU would damage the economy. The uncertainty is already putting of investors right now. Why on earth would an investor want to come to the UK in the next few years if we Brexited at the end of June? Brexiters delude themselves into rubbishing these arguments from economists all over the place, including the International Monetary Fund, Institute for Fiscal Studies, London School of Economics and OECD to name but a few. And which experts say Brexit would be good economically? Someone from Cardiff Uni, plus a handful of others. If any rational person has read recent reports and still wants to vote Brexit on economic grounds, then he or she ceases to be a rational person. It would be madness.
Ok, so I've addressed the Leave campaign's main points about immigration, democracy, sovereignty and money. I've tried to debunk the common claims where I can, but conceded a few points. You might think that the decision on your poll card is still flitting between 'Leave' and 'Remain', depending on your own personal circumstances and values.
So, let's push this decision comfortably into the 'Remain' side and wave a wise goodbye to Leave's flimsy case...
We have good trade agreements with the other 27 countries, and 500 million consumers. These would have to be renegotiated over several years after a Brexit, and would certainly be less favourable than if we stayed in the EU. The EU would not want to provide equally good terms, because that would be a driver for more Leave sentiment in other countries. Even if we did magically get good terms on new agreements, the prevailiing uncertainty beforehand is a fact, and that is bad for business. (Alan Sugar explains all this in layman's terms on his video.)
Products and services, e.g. flights abroad, are cheaper. These prices would go up if we left, as the increased cost to business would be passed on to British consumers. This may change later on as an inward-facing Brexited Britain develops its new trading structure, but it certainly wouldn't be any time soon.
Crossnational issues like climate change and crime/terrorism. These issues are undeniably more effectively tackled by working with other EU nations; that's not scaremongering, it's bleeding obvious! A Brexited British government could not be trusted with the environment - just look at its position on fracking. Thanks goodness the EU is there to put pressure on countries to become environmentally sustainable; if we left the EU, the little islanders' oft-used phrase of 'this green and pleasant land' will lose its meaning.
We're living in a 21st century, global world. Most Brexiters grew up in a less connected past on a more isolated British Isles; the world is changing and we need to move with it by operating within the EU. It's a fantasy to say we could "stand on our own two feet" as a country outside the EU, even after many years of restructuring following a Brexit; if you believe that we could go it alone, take a look at what's happened thanks to the Conservative Party that one quarter of the electorate voted in: Junior Doctors' strikes, academisation of schools, tripled tuition fees, etc. It's hardly a fairly tale. We won't be a world player outside the EU whilst run by Boris and his gang.
Scientific collaboration. Universities across Europe collaborate through EU initiatives, and share resources, equipment and research findings. Science and medicine progress faster with an EU there to facilitate it. Stephen Hawking recently spoke out about this. As for students, the Erasmus scheme is unparalleled in terms of enrichment and development; a Brexited UK would have to reapply to be considered a part of this scheme again.
Cultural learning. Being able to freely and cheaply travel and work between countries, without red-tape and visas, allows us to mingle with our neighbours. If we mingle, we understand. If we understand, we trust more; we see our similarities more than our differences. People mostly have the same basic values, especially in Europe - Britain was, and should continue to be, a leader in promoting these values. The languages spoken may be different, but it's really not much more than that. You'll still have angels and demons within any society, of course, but that won't change. The only differences in culture are superficial but also enriching to see: food and drink, music, traditions, the arts...all those things are to be celebrated, and being in the EU encourages these cultures to come into contact with each other - not to be eroded or replaced, but to be shared and respected.
Peace. Most Brexiters grew up post-WW2. Those old enough to remember the war, and veterans of the war, are pro-EU, because they know first-hand what a fragmented Europe looks like. Middle-aged people grew up in the 60s and 70s, when peace was growing and the EU's predecessor was set up to accelerate peace-building, but sadly a lot don't see these merits of the EU and want Brexit instead. The EU has unquestionably done a great deal (along with Nato and the UN) in promoting a peaceful continent and fosters collaboration, not conflict between nations that were enemies not that long ago.
This doesn't mean that a Brexit would bring on WW3, of course. But it certainly won't help peaceful relations between politicians and between citizens if we are to be discouraged from interacting, trading, working, living and travelling between these countries! Vladimir Putin is the only world leader I've heard who would like to see a Brexit. Judging by his opportunistic occupation of Crimea, which is actually about the same distance from the UK as Cyprus is, you'd be naive to overlook this or put it down to 'scaremongering'.
Travel and tourism. This is linked to the cultural point, but even if you just want to go to Europe for the weather and sunbathe with other Brits, that's fine: the point is, travel and tourism is cheaper and easier when we're in the EU than if we're out. Plus you get free or subsidised emergency healthcare, e.g. A&E, which will probably end if we Leave.
Love the UK? Scotland may leave. Scotland is generally pro-EU. If the UK votes Brexit, it will be even more likely for Scotland to have a second independence referendum (even Alec Salmond recently let this one slip in a TV debate), and more likely for them to leave the UK so that they can rejoin the EU. Don't want Scotland to leave the UK? Well think about that if you're leaning towards Brexit. I'm not joking or scaremongering - it's clearly possible and quite probable!
...and Northern Ireland? Leave has said nothing yet about what would happen at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which would be a frontier of the EU which is mostly open countryside and crossed daily by locals who now thankfully have great relations with one another. Build a wall? Have patrols? I don't think our Irish/Northern Irish friends would like that.
The rest of the EU would suffer greatly. Yanis Varoufakis, economist and former Greek MP, justifies this view in a very insightful read (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/05/yanis-varoufakis-why-we-must-save-the-eu). Not only would this delight Putin (as said above), but it would be damaging to the structure and a step backwards for other EU countries and its close neighbours. Even if you didn't care what happened over the English Channel, the repercussions would obviously affect us too, unless we really became isolated from Europe!
So, to wrap up this partially structured rant: the EU question is complicated. But to leave is more complicated than to remain, though the latter needs reforms, and that does add uncertainty. A post-Brexited Britain would have thousands of legitimate questions to answer, though it's answered very, very few so far, with the referendum very soon. Compare this with the Scottish independence referendum - the SNP produced a long White Paper outlining their vision and its rationale in great detail. Leave have nothing of the sort.
To remain carries risks too, but most of them are known quantities. There are also reforms on the table, which we would still be sitting at, and other EU members would have to listen, especially given how close they are/were to losing the UK from the team. And yes, we are the EU - it's not some external body that has nothing to with us. We have elected representatives working in it. It's not about us versus them, but us with them.
The fact that we're having a referendum at all is quite strange, really: such a complex set of scenarios behind a simple yes-no question, with no-one knowing for sure what the hell is actually going to happen if we leave the EU. To ask millions of laypeople to decide on something so unknowable and complex isn't the kind of thing referenda should be for; you can have a referendum on something plain with a straightforward set of outcomes, but not this! Ok, the outcome will hopefully settle a question that's been bugging a certain segment of society for a while, though either way there's going to be a whole lot of people who are seriously pissed off (though admittedly that applies to most referenda), and potentially an undesirable future that resulted from lots of badly informed but passionate people turning out to vote Leave.
Of course we're all entitled to our opinion, but we should think long and hard about where our opinions come from. We have values and personal experiences, and if yours tell you that to leave is the best decision, then so be it - but make sure you're informed about the facts and the probable future facts. If you agree with enough of my blog here, hopefully a bit of reality and rationality will swing you towards the decision to Remain, even if it's not perfect and all roses. It's got to be better than a Leave, if you think about it completely honestly.
I just hope not too many people who would generally vote Remain, but aren't that bothered, don't refrain from voting. This is especially true of younger folk, who grew up in a more globalised UK inside the EU, and are happy with how things are now and would choose Remain if asked. If the EU was so bad in recent years, you'd expect the youngest to be the keenest to Leave.
The older generation (but not as old as those now in their 80s and 90s who have adult memories of the war) are generally more eurosceptic, and many are likely to turn out to vote Leave based on vague notions of greatness and lamentations of a past Britain (and even Empire) that's dead and buried.
Other Brexiters will vote because they've been led to see the EU as 'undemocratic' (rather than the true 'could be a bit more democratic') whilst their attention has been diverted from the UK's own democratic flaws.
Some Brexiters will vote based on immigration, in some cases based on legitimate but localised and personal reasons rather than the true national picture; many anti-immigration voters are likely to be oblivious and uninformed about the inextricable question over the single market, and the implications of leaving that.
That leaves the Remain voters. How many that is is anyone's guess.
It appears to me that the greater the turn-out, the greater chances of a vote to Remain. This would also be more democratically representative of the country's true national character (assuming Brexiters are actually passionate about democracy).
If you're still on the fence, I hope you can see that Brexit is a fatally bad idea and that Remain, for all its sins, is the only real way forward.
To end with (if anyone has got this bloody far!), here are some noteworthy, well-regarded people from all walks of life, who will be voting to (or support) Remain:
Sir Richard Branson
Sir John Major
Noam Chomsky (!)
Lord Alan Sugar
Jeremy Clarkson (!)
...not to mention scores of world leaders (past and present, EU and non-EU), leading academics and economists, prominents businesspeople and CEOs, university vice-chancellors, leaders of professional bodies (inc. NHS), key figures from MI5, MI6, NATO, and all of the Armed Forces.
Ok, I've finished! Roll on the 23rd June...