For me, the 24th June 2016 has to go down as one of the bleakest days of my adult life. That day brought a numbed realisation that all of my fears about the referendum result had been realised. 51.8% of those who voted across the UK had taken the decision to renounce our membership of a multinational organisation which has served the people of this land so well in so many ways since 1973. For over 40 years, the European Union has been run down and vilified in the popular press and by those in the public eye who have together been at the forefront of promoting myth and misrepresentation about our relationship with Europe, often pandering to unhelpful age old stereotypes and prejudices.
Neither before or during the referendum campaign had the general public ever really been presented with the facts concerning the background, context and work of the EU and so a great many cast their vote in a semi-informed manner. In my view, people have chosen unwittingly to severely damage the national economy and their own economic prospects, limit the life choices of the next generation, put at risk gender equality, consumer rights, social legislation and legal representation, and risk areas of environmental protection and the fight against crime and terrorism.
Having called the referendum in order to lance a large UKIP leaning boil which had been growing within his party, David Cameron’s approach to the campaign was complacent and inadequate; the same could equally be said of the leader of the opposition. Confident that a win could be achieved by merely setting out the negative economic impacts of leaving the EU, he manifestly failed to extol the wider benefits of our membership to the electorate. The then prime minister, his chancellor of the exchequer and Mr Corbyn opened the way for the barrage of myths, untruths, downright lies and negative sound bites of the Vote Leave campaign that resonated with a great many.
“I voted ‘Out’” said a member of staff at my current place of employment. “I believed what it said on that poster on the bus about £350 million a week coming into the NHS. Other people I know thought the same. I’ll admit I didn’t really know the facts.” The mother of a close friend voted Leave to give a bloody nose to David Cameron and his government. “I never thought for a minute that Vote Leave would actually win”, she said. Countless more people across the country used the referendum as a chance to signal their disgruntlement to their respective political leaders - but was there ever a less appropriate time to register a protest vote?
People indeed had manifest reasons for voting to leave; to do with concerns over national sovereignty, fears surrounding immigration and for many older voters, an emotionally based response yearning for the return of some halcyon period in the past. The problem was that what was lacking was an informed debate.
Formed out of the European Coal and Steel Community just 6 years after the turmoil of the Second World War, the concept of a European free trade area was born. With the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the EU began life in 1958 with six founding member states. In 1973 the UK, Denmark and Republic of Ireland joined the Low Countries, France, Italy and West Germany as the first expansion took place. Further enlargements over the years have seen membership grow to 28 states including former wartime adversaries as well as the previously communist countries of Eastern Europe.
So what of the European Union? Why is membership of it so important and why should we strive tooth and nail to remain part of it? What follows is just the tip of an iceberg of benefits.
1. Promotion of Peace: The fundamental purposes of the European Union are to promote greater social, political and economic harmony among member states. Nations whose economies are closely aligned are less likely to engage in conflict. After the violent upheavals which engulfed the continent in the first half of the twentieth century, the EU has served to foster international peace, friendship, cooperation, partnership, understanding and prosperity.
2. Free Trade and economic well-being: The UK economy has hugely benefited from signing up to the core principles of the freedom of movement of goods, people, services and capital. Coming into being in 1993, the Single Market and Customs Union allow the member states of the EU to trade freely with each other across national boundaries and charge the same import duties on goods and services from beyond the EU. The Single Market is by far our largest trading partners and it’s no coincidence our membership of the Single Market has coincided with the greatest period of prosperity which this country has enjoyed in modern times.
3. Employment: A recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research states that over 3.1 million jobs in the UK are linked to the UK’s exports to the EU rising by an estimated 790,000 by 2030 should we remain; millions more are either directly funded by the EU, linked to EU investment programmes in the UK or are jobs in manufacturing and business linked to the EU through the various free trade agreements of, or enabled by, the trading conditions provided by the Single Market. Through the Common Agriculture Policy, the EU provides considerable subsidies to British farmers and serves to bolster agriculture and ensure job stability for the 476,000 working in this or related sectors of the economy. The CBI states that EU membership has had a positive impact upon small and medium sized enterprises. It estimates that this trade with the EU is worth 4.5% of our GDP or around £70bn a year. Leaving the EU brings with it a real threat of widespread job losses.
4. The freedom to live, work and retire anywhere in the EU: Over 1.5 million Britons do, and have done, just this. As a member of the EU, UK citizens benefit from freedom of movement across the continent. Requiring only a valid UK passport, we have seen our vocational, employment and lifestyle choices greatly widen. Furthermore, we can choose to retire anywhere in Europe and still receive a full UK state pension.
5. Holidays are far easier and safer: We travel to Europe more than anywhere else and we have the right to free emergency healthcare. As European citizens we do not require visas for travel within the EU and are not subject to lengthy delays at customs in ports and airports. To add to this, the EU blacklists ‘dangerous airlines’ while its air passenger rights laws ensure that EU citizens receive advice and assistance when stranded as well as enabling compensation should flights be seriously delayed or cancelled, or a person be denied boarding. We can also get advice and help from any EU embassy or consulate if a UK one is unavailable.
6. Consumer rights: Being in the EU means you’re less likely to get ripped off. You receive equal customer and consumer protection rights anywhere within the EU. The EU consumer rights ensure transparency from sellers as well as guarantee the quality and safety of their products. A two year guarantee on all products and a ceiling on roaming mobile phone charges are just two examples of the consumer benefits brought about by EU membership.
7. The fight against organised crime: The EU organises international cooperation and coordination in the fight against crime. Through this there is greater protection against paedophiles as well as those involved in sexual exploitation, modern slavery, drug trafficking, people trafficking, terrorism and cyber-crime. The ability for member states to share information and coordinate responses, sometimes simultaneously in several countries, is vital to the UK’s security.
8. Environmental Quality and Protection: The EU has the strongest environmental protection laws in the world. Its directives against airborne particles have seen the air quality over our urban areas improve. Legislation against dumping waste and sewage has led to cleaner UK beaches many of which have receive Blue Flag awards. It is now safe to consume shellfish from almost anywhere along the coast and not risk illness. The EU funds around 50% of jobs in nature conservation and wildlife protection in the UK while through its strict laws against poaching and trade in exotic species, we play an important role in wider international wildlife conservation.
9. Workers Rights: The EU has been instrumental in passing legislation to support, protect and further workers rights in terms of maternity and paternity pay, working hours, leave and paid holidays, gender equality in the workplace as well as smoke free workplaces.
10. Funded education and research: Many UK students apply to study at universities throughout the EU with the same rights as all EU citizens. In addition to this, thousands of UK undergraduates each year benefit socially, culturally, academically and vocationally from the student exchange opportunities provided through the Erasmus programme. Furthermore, thousands of posts in scientific research are funded by the EU in UK universities and other establishments.
11. Greater influence. A medium sized country like the UK will never be economically dominant again either regionally or globally. Our diplomatic and military resources are declining in relative terms and so remaining as a committed and major member of the world’s biggest international institution gives us greater significance and influence.
12. A real bargain: A populist myth propagated over the years is that the EU takes a disproportionately large annual contribution from the UK and offers back very little in return. Nothing could be further from the truth. In exchange for all of the benefits available to us through EU membership, we pay, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), £9.4 billion per year which amounts to 1.2% of government spending or £0.39 per person per day. This is less in actual terms than Germany and France and about the same as Italy but less in proportionate terms than countries such as Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium. And, what is more, since 1985 the UK has been in receipt of a substantial annual rebate. Just considering that at least 4.5% of our GDP is linked to being in the Single Market, our contribution appears to be money very well spent.
It must also be added that the EU has directly funded major infrastructure projects in less economically advantaged regions of the country such as Cornwall, the Scottish Highlands and Islands and the former industrial heartland of South Wales in order to boost accessibility and diversify economies.
When all of this is taken into account, the questions have to be ‘why ever would we not want to be part of an organisation which has greatly influenced UK prosperity and helped the country to restore its strength and influence following years of decline and why ever would we not wish to enjoy the closest of links with our geographically closest friends and partners?’
Russell Tanner is a teacher in the South West of England and really doesn’t want to leave the EU.