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Leave or Remain – Tom Harris and Siobhan Mathers

Two members of our Advisory Board set out their different personal views on the EU referendum.

Leave by Tom Harris

I did not expect to be voting to leave the EU in the referendum, let alone running the Leave campaign in Scotland.

As a self-confessed Blairite, I count as friends and political allies many of the people who are making the strongest case for Remain. Blair himself is at his most passionate when defending Britain’s role in the EU.

Nevertheless, my scepticism started at an early age. I opposed the euro (in those days it was known as the Single European Currency), yet found few backers when I spoke against it at my local Labour Party. As a newly-elected MP I joined with colleagues to demand that the Labour government avoid membership of a project that was more political than economic, a project that was doomed to fail.

And yet now that no-one seriously thinks it would have been a good idea for Britain to ditch the pound and join the euro, I’m struck by how many of the arguments used by supporters of the euro in 2000 are being deployed today to scare us into voting to remain in the EU.

A decade and a half ago we were warned by the CBI and many others that staying outside the euro zone would be disastrous for our exports and for our economy. We would pay the price in international influence as well as in jobs and trade. Those are arguments which we can now unequivocally dismiss as rot – scare-mongering of the worst kind. We stayed outside the euro and thank God we did!

Nevertheless, I assumed that, so long as David Cameron achieved what he said he wanted to achieve – a fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU – then I would, albeit without much enthusiasm, vote to Remain in the referendum he had promised.

Alas, and as we all know now, the so-called deal was nothing of the sort. There will be no treaty change, but why should there be? It would hardly be worth the effort of calling a Euro-summit for leaders to rubber stamp what basically amounts to a few minor changes of emphasis on the fringes of EU policy. No increase in the ability of nation states to control their borders against unmanageable immigration, no changes to the principle that EU immigrants can claim child benefit for children not actually living here, and no serious restrictions on in-work benefits for immigrants. UK law remains subservient to EU law, and UK Ministers will continue to be defeated by the combined votes of Ministers representing the Eurozone countries.

In this referendum campaign, the Leave campaign has been accused of all sorts of crimes, ranging from extremism to… well, extremism. It’s extremist, apparently, not to want an open-door immigration policy at a time when Europe’s borders themselves are proving so porous. Never mind the fact that every government ever elected in this country has maintained the right to limit immigration to one degree or another; now that an exit from the EU is a real possibility, such views are beyond the pale, apparently.

We already have a chronic housing shortage; yet many, many more homes will have to be built if we’re to continue to welcome every EU citizen who wants to come to our shores, whether or not they have the skills our economy needs.

Immigration is a good thing, provided it’s managed. But while we remain a member of the EU, that simply cannot happen.

A journalist recently asked me why it seemed that the Vote Leave message had yet to resonate in Scotland in the way it has in the rest of the UK. The question made me consider the problem, probably for the first time.

Part of the answer lies, I think, in the fact that for the best part of the last 50 years, “constitutional reform” in Scotland has basically meant Scottish independence. It’s certainly been hard to gain much traction for any other issue given the prominence and the intensity of the debate in the run up to, and the aftermath of, the 2014 referendum.

So Scots’ minds are only now turning to the vexed issue of the EU.

If our elected representatives are anything to go by, Scotland is 99 per cent committed to EU membership. All the main parties and the vast majority of MSPs (and every MP) support remaining in the EU.

Yet even here in supposedly pro-EU Scotland, up to 40 per cent – maybe more – of voters have already decided to vote Leave.

The fact – and it’s an uncomfortable one for those who prefer the black/white binary choice of modern politics – is that there are valid arguments on each side of this debate. I just happen to believe that Britain – and Scotland – could be so much better off outside the EU.

When Britain first joined what was then the Common Market, we were in decline. We had no confidence about our place in the world, a weak economy and a lacklustre industrial base. It was felt by our politicians that we needed the shelter of the Common Market to protect us against the outside world.

That may well have been true back in the ’70s, during the three-day week, the Cold War, the Opec oil embargo and the Winter of Discontent. But it’s not true today. Britain is more confident, more prosperous and, I hope, more courageous.

If we leave, trade will suffer, we’re warned. But will it? Switzerland – famously not an EU member – trades more with the EU than Britain does. That’s because it has goods that customers in the EU want to buy. Are we really so lacking in confidence in the products and services we produce that we think we can only sell them because of our EU membership? If we make quality goods, people will buy them. We’re not in a political union with the United States but we’re not prevented from selling our goods there – or anywhere else in the world outside the EU.

The fact is that whether we’re an EU member or not, Britain will still be a member of the European free trade zone, which stretches from Iceland (also not an EU member) to Russia.

More importantly, at a time of austerity and public spending cuts, do we really think that sending a net £10 billion (due to spike at £11.5 billion next year) to the EU every year counts as a good use of your money? Just think what we could do with it if it wasn’t being used to maintain an unmanageable and unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels.

What has Scotland to gain from leaving the EU alongside the rest of the UK? More powers for the Scottish Parliament (agriculture, fishing, and important environmental and social policy powers currently wielded by Brussels), a budget boost of £1.5 billion a year and control over our borders. It would also provide an opportunity to Scottish ministers, post-referendum, to argue for control of a Scottish work visa programme which would help Scottish companies recruit and retain foreign workers to fill our skills gap.

If Scotland is prepared to listen to the arguments on both sides, the Remain camp has a right to be worried.

Remain by Siobhan Mathers

The UK has always been an uneasy member of the EU, and the EEC/Common Market before that. Criticisms have rained in throughout the history of our membership, sometimes from the left and sometimes from the right. Some of the critical comment has been an insult to the intelligence, but one has to admit that some criticisms have been fair. The EU is, like most human endeavours, not perfect. And yet even in the dark days of dominant Tory Eurosceptics we have gritted our teeth and stayed in. Why? Because it’s very much in our best interests to do so. We live in an increasingly inter-connected world. The binary Cold War power structure is gone, replaced by a complex and unstable world in which even medium sized states are buffeted by the economic and military power of the United States, China, Russia and India at one end and disruptive non-state factors like war, climate change and millenarian religious ideology at the other. Our voice is stronger as part of a big, prosperous bloc which in trade and diplomacy often speaks with a distinctly British accent.

The UK came late to the European project. When we joined in 1973 the original 6 members – France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries – had already been working closely together for over a decade. The 1973 enlargement of the UK, Ireland and Denmark brought about not just the challenge of a greater number of players but different priorities. Successive enlargements have complicated matters further each time but have also brought strengths and successes.

Most Brexiteers acknowledge the need for the UK to have thriving trading relationships. Yet they suffer from a deluded world view  which exaggerates the importance of the UK in the world. “We could be like Norway or Switzerland” I hear them cry. Yet Norway and Switzerland warn against EU membership with a bilateral trading relationship. If we want to trade with EU countries (and it represents 44% of our international trade) we still have to comply with the vast majority of EU legislation and renegotiating trade deals would stretch the capacity of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Better to remain on the inside and influence the formation of legislation.

“But the cost!” Well let’s look at what we put in. And what we get out. If you listen to the Leave Campaign you’d think that we were gratuitously throwing money down the sink in Brussels on a daily basis. To put it in context ,the UK contribution to the EU budget comprises less than 1% of our budgets. And out of that we get security and solidarity.

If only it were as simple as £350 million a week for the NHS.

Britain does make a net contribution in terms of the EU budget – because we are one of the most affluent member states. But we still get a large rebate back, which poorer member states do not like but they put up with out of solidarity. We also get a lot back in tangible funding for things like research, infrastructure and training. Our young people can study in European universities, our older citizens can enjoy the warmth of the Spanish sun. The price of admission to the EU also gives access to huge opportunities, which the trading, outward-looking British have seized. The Single Market – which underlies all those tedious myths about straight bananas and the like – is a British invention. The EU gives Britain diplomatic support from the rest of the world and creates a zone of stability and security around us in western and central Europe. Britain’s inevitable entanglements in the old Europe of conflict between empires or nation states came at a much higher cost of money and human life than the subscription for staying in Europe.

For those who think that leaving the EU would remove red tape and mean less and cheaper government, I very much doubt it. Most European legislation relates to standards for trade; without compliance with standards, no trade. So I can’t see us dancing round bonfires of tyrannical European legislation. Instead we’d need an army of British bureaucrats unpicking a messy situation redrafting legislation often to do the same thing, renegotiating trade agreements almost certainly on worse terms.

The EU is an imperfect entity; it always has been. Born out of the detritus of post-WWII Europe, European nation states have put in long hours and years of negotiation and working together for the common good. They have built a strange creature, alien to those familiar only with the workings of sovereign nation states, which necessitates much compromise, lengthy decision-making and a fair bit of bureaucracy. Yet, despite shrill cries to the contrary, it is democratic. The bogeyman European Commission proposes legislation but it is the Nation States in the Council of Ministers and the directly elected MEPs in the European Parliament who make the decisions.

The world won’t fall apart if we leave the EU.  I won’t follow the Project Fear approach of painting apocalyptic pictures of an impoverished shrunken state. But there is no doubt that jobs will be lost, trading relationships damaged and all manner of unknown and unstable consequences will unfold. One can remove a foundation stone of a building and perhaps it will be OK, that the stone will be intact and the building won’t fall down, but it is not something many architects would recommend.

We could emerge the other side with a different Britain. But it’s not one I want. I feel strongly that we’re strengthened by working, trading and travelling to our European neighbours. For me, Britain would be immeasurably poorer without it.

Britain in 2016 feels like it is in a state of crisis and flux. People/citizens/voters don’t trust politicians or bureaucrats or anyone with power over them. And why should they? It feels like many in this country have been badly served by those who claim they want to protect them and make their lives better. We see increasingly outpourings of alienation and rage. But ditching one layer of seemingly remote government will not solve this. We need to work on how Britain is governed regardless of the outcome of the EU referendum. Does anyone seriously believe that more powers being exercised by the creaking, unaccountable, complacent, unbalanced Westminster and Whitehall machine amounts to ‘you’ taking control?

I often hear the allegation that the EU is beyond reform. I think that precisely because it has proven itself so adaptable over the decades, it is eminently capable of reform. But the right way to do that is not marching in to meeting rooms arrogantly demanding unilateral concessions without having built up political capital before. There is no doubt that David Cameron did not make a good fist of his supposed renegotiation while in the run up to Maastricht John Major put in the work and managed to achieve his principal aims of opting-our from the single currency and, less helpfully, the social chapter. A new, more diplomatically inclined approach at the negotiation table would find much common cause and listening ears from other member states about how the EU can be made to work better for decades to come. To coin a phrase, renegotiation is a process, not an event, and even Cameron’s deal shows that reform and change is possible even in an ungainly alliance of 28 countries. Our future peace and prosperity depends on making the imperfect work for us as well as our European partners.