Although the public debate about this week’s EU referendum in the UK has become absurdly bitter on both sides, I have had some constructive talks about the subject with people around me, even where we have disagreed. There is, or was, a reasonable debate to be had and it’s a pity we haven’t seen a sensible national discussion about it.
In the spirit of trying to be positive: here are five reasons why I would like the UK to remain in the EU, without talking about the personalities or made-up economic projections coming from the campaigns on either side.
1. The EU has a useful role in the UK in terms of long-term oversight
This country has no written constitution and has an effectively two-party parliamentary system in which each new government starts by setting out to undo whatever its predecessor did. Institutions like the European Court of Human Rights give us both longer-term continuity and a moderating influence across the various ideologies of the European states. They’re a good thing.
I might feel differently on this if I thought the Leave campaign were keen to make up for exit with better constitutional protections in the UK. Unfortunately the impression I get is the opposite.
(I think this argument holds even for lower-level things like food labelling and sourcing regulations. After all, those are also the regulations that mean a Cornish pasty is a pasty from Cornwall wherever you buy it in the EU, not just a meat pie from a factory in Denmark with Cornish Pasty printed on the pack.)
2. Our position within the EU is a great one
We have full membership of the EU without the tricky bit (the Euro) and with a membership rebate that we could never negotiate again. It’s the best of both worlds already. Any country in the world would envy that.
3. Leaving won’t give us more independence
I understand the argument that a state should strive to be self-determining as far as possible. I just don’t think that leaving the EU would have a happy outcome in that respect.
It wouldn’t change anything about who runs this country or how they run it, and it wouldn’t send a message that anybody would be equipped to act on. Our government would continue to have the same pro-business pro-international-collaboration outlook, for good or bad. We would almost certainly end up leaning more than ever on the USA, a country we would no longer have much to offer in return, while scrabbling around for other partnerships and making poorer deals with other European states.
4. Immigration is a red herring, but freedom of movement is a good thing
Immigration is clearly a subject that people feel viscerally about. But the sort of mass migration being exploited for this argument, of refugees from Syria for example, has nothing to do with the subject we’re supposed to be deciding on — we already turn those people away (Calais, remember?). I obviously have views about that (who doesn’t) but it makes no sense for it to be a pivotal subject for this referendum.
What is relevant is freedom of movement for workers within the EU. I think this is a good thing, partly because it’s how we can have world-leading research labs like (ahem) the one I work in, and partly because it cuts both ways — Britons can and do move abroad as well (permanently or temporarily) and this openness is a great part of providing opportunities and prospects for future generations.
People of my age or older may remember the 80s TV series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, a comedy about British builders working in Germany. A central prop of that programme was that there was something ramshackle about their arrangement and that they were at the mercy of exploitative employers and tax rules as migrant workers. We’ve become unused to thinking of British migrant workers as being exploited in this way.
I know that there is also a narrative about other EU citizens coming to the UK simply to claim benefits. The great majority of people who move here do so either to work or to study, or because they are married to British citizens. Many British citizens draw benefits abroad as well. The overall balance of numbers doesn’t in any way reflect the anxiety people have about it. That anxiety is serious, but it isn’t something that this referendum can properly address with either outcome.
The question of what would happen to EU workers who are already in the UK, if we left, seems like such a massive quagmire that I don’t want to think about it. I don’t think it could be very harmonious.
5. I’d like to see positivity prevail
There’s something very British about willingly engaging in an endeavour (after a referendum!) and then whingeing about it constantly for the next 40 years.
The tone from British media and politicians for decades now has been mostly about how onerous the EU is and “what can it do for us?”, very seldom about the power it gives us or what we can do together with the other countries within it. This negative guff is forced on us by media barons who genuinely have no reason to give a damn about us in the first place, and it ends up setting a very miserable tone. Let’s resist!