I'm not in the habit of writing political blogs and most people will by now have made up their mind. But this is a huge decision for the future of the UK, so here are my thoughts, for the record...
Read the question
As we teach all our children facing exams, it’s important to answer the question being asked, not the one we want to answer. The question is not “do you like the EU” or “are there aspects of the EU that you dislike intensely”. It is “do you think we as a country will be better off inside or outside the EU”. Relationships are rarely perfect, but we should think very carefully before we walk out on them.
It's the economy, stupid
As pro-Brexiters continue to point out, we will continue to trade with the EU and other markets around the world, should we vote Leave. But the real question is, on what terms? Virtually all economic expert individuals and bodies agree that there will be a significant negative impact of leaving - the debate is simply about how big. I just don't think it's plausible for Michael Gove to keep saying "the public are tired of hearing from experts" and dismissing every one of them. While all experts have got some things wrong, there is a huge consensus on this one - and to me it makes complete sense.
Apart from the fact that trade deals will take years to finalise and no business or market likes uncertainty (and certainly the US, China, India etc will not agree a deal until they know what our deal is with the EU), the result of any negotiation will reflect the strength on the cards each side holds in its hand. And the critical card is the size of one’s market. So, as explained in this brilliantly short and simple piece from Prof Ngaire Woods of Oxford University, Switzerland has negotiated a trade deal with China. However, Switzerland was negotiating their population of 8 million against China’s 1.4 billion – the result being that China now has immediate access to the Swiss market and Switzerland get’s access to China’s in 15 years time. That’s a trade deal, but not an enviable one.
So in our negotiating hand, we would have our UK population card of 64 million (assuming the UK remains intact), rather than the EU’s 500 million card. Anyone who has ever played Top Trumps will know that isn’t a good swap.
I’ve heard many pro-Brexiters dismiss the idea that we cannot maintain access to the EU free market without continuing to take its rules (including freedom of movement of people), and paying a fee. But I’ve yet to hear any propose a concrete solution to this problem. It seems that all we hear are the muffled cries from the ostrich’s head beneath the sand: “We’re the 5th biggest economy in the world; off course they will deal with us.”
Finally, we should not forget that our economy has performed pretty well in the 42 years since we've been in the EU. GDP per capita growth over that time has been higher than that or Italy, Germany and France, and by 2013 Britain became more prosperous than the average of these three economies for the first time since 1965. So we are certainly managing to be competitive from within.
Migration & border control
First of all, to say we don’t control our own borders is simply not true. We’re not in the Schengen area and we have customs control on all our border crossings (which is a lot easier when you’re an island). What’s more, at arguably our most vulnerable crossing point, our customs are on the other side of the English Channel – a situation than certainly won’t survive Brexit.
Of course current net migration levels do have an impact on our infrastructure, in some parts of the country more than others. And why the coalition govt did away with the migration impact fund, I cannot fathom. But that is entirely a UK Govt decision and could be reinstated at any time (apparently David Cameron is belatedly looking at this).
I also happen to believe that migration is a positive thing – bringing much needed labour, generating taxes, and improving the work ethic in some trades, eg bulding & plumbing, etc. But whether you agree with this view or not, this referendum is about MUCH more than immigration. It is only one of many important factors to be weighed.
Let’s be clear – the UK is a sovereign state under international law and the EU is not. It’s not even a sovereign entity. And without doubt our parliament is the supreme law-making authority in this country. When the UK courts (occasionally) give supremacy to EU law, it is expressly because our parliament has instructed them to do so.
As with all collaborations, they do so as a trade-off so that we can exercise greater control and influence on a broader stage. And along with Germany and France, the UK has enormous influence within the EU. For more on this, see a fabulous lecture by Prof Michael Dougan of Liverpool University. It's 25 minutes long but well worth it...
It is no surprise to me whatsoever that the larger businesses in the UK overwhelmingly want us to remain in the EU. And whatever we think of Big Business, without them we’d have a lot less employment and a significantly weaker economy (ie even less to spend on the NHS, education, social services, etc).
Businesses want certainty in terms of what the rules are and they want access to markets. One of the main reasons we’ve been able to attract investment from multinationals is that we have relatively loose labour laws and CRITICALLY, have free access to the EU market. If we leave, for several years there will be great uncertainty and without that free access, many will surely choose to invest somewhere else in the EU.
Carmakers alone invested £7bn in the UK in 2013 & 2014. Currently, they can easily import compenents, build cars here and drive them to any country in the EU to sell. If we're outside the EU, even if there are no tariffs, there will be horrible bureaucracy, customs delays, etc, etc. It seems entirely obvious to me that foreign investment will be seriously affected.
So you're Germany or France - you've invested enormous political (and financial) capital for around 60 years into this project. There are nationalist and anti-EU parties gaining signifcant popularity (eg the National Front in France), looking eagerly on. So it's pretty clear that how you deal with the UK will send a strong message - either encouraging or discouraging others to follow suit.
Of course German car makers will still want to sell us their cars (as Brexiteers keep telling us). But the bigger picture for Goverments is the future of the EU - can the Germans and the French stop it unravelling? It seems utterly inconceivable to me that we will be given any favourable terms whatsoever - we should be very clear: in is in, out is out.
There is a view that the EU is inexorably heading towards full political union. But in my view that idea is rapidly losing support and credibility - there is a rising tide of nationalism that will definitely need to be accomodated within the EU.
Our standing in the world
Brexiteers say we should have confidence in our ability to stand on our own two feet in the world. But the purpose of collaborations is to amplify the impact of members on a broader stage. Germany, France and the UK are the leaders of the EU - we should not under-estimate our leadership role and I'd argue we should have the confidence in our ability to shape the future direction of the EU and to exert greater global influence through it.
Isolationism vs. partnership and collaboration
I'm a great believer in the power of collaboration and teamwork - it shows itself in every aspect of life. But to collaborate requires the strength to compromise, to accept that we can't have everything our own way. As such, I believe that the UK is stronger together and that we are stronger as a part of the EU.
We shouldn't forget that before the EU, Europe has always been a war-torn continent. There has not been a war between any countries within the EU - to me it's self evident that any collobration is going to help ongoing relationships between its partners, with common goals and deeper mutual understanding. Of course it doesn't mean that Europe is going to fall apart and decend into war if we leave - I'm just saying that we shouldn't take peace for granted.
We currently have a very strong position within the EU - enviable, many others would say. We've many to carve out a unique situation... at the top table, not in the Eurozone, not in Schengen, with some important exemptions - and a signficant rebate. It's summarised nicely in this graphic from the economist:
So while obviously the EU is a million miles from perfect, that is not the question. The question is, are we better of in, or out. And to me that's pretty clear.
Whether you agree with any of this or not, perhaps THE most important thing is that we all do is exercise out right to vote. While it's our right, in fact we are extremely priviledged in this country to have a democracy in which we can express our opinions, both verbally and at the ballot box. It's not something we should take for granted. So let's not abdicate our responsibility - let's be sure to vote and encourage others to vote too.