Referendum on the European Union
25th June 2016
This article digests what I made of the debate right up to polling day on 23rd June.
In the last referendum on European membership (on the 5th June 1975), I voted NO after being persuaded by Tony Benn. I am writing this article not because I am in any way an expert on this subject, clearly I am not, but because I like to practice my journalism skills.
My predictions are
(a) the turnout for the eligible electorate will not exceed 50% [I got this wrong; I made this prediction early on in the run-up debate when a lot of people seem disinterested in the whole thing.]
(b) the result of the referendum will be a win for the remain campaign though the vote will be close. [Again I got it wrong; even right at the last moment, I still thought that remain would win, though by a narrow majority. I was surprised by the final result.]
The result of the vote
Brexit means Brexit
As Theresa May unpacks at Downing Street, I look at her election pledge to make withdrawal from the EU a reality. She said “Brexit means Brexit” but it will be up to her to define what this means. It will be up to Ms May and her Cabinet to set the timetable for withdrawal from the EU, if indeed, that it what they plan to do.
Leaving the EU could offer Britain an opportunity to negotiate fundamental changes to the way that the EU is run and the policies and procedures on which it is based.
In the last few days a large posse of lawyers went to some lengths to point out that the result of the referendum is ‘advisory’ and not mandatory. According to press reports, over one thousands barristers (high level lawyers in this country) have concluded that the vote to leave the EU provides the government only with ‘advice.’ [The Guardian, 11th July 2016]
The senior lawyers have advised the government that it should up to Parliament to decide whether Britain should leave the EU. In a letter they argue that the referendum result as only advisory because it was based on “misrepresentations of fact and promises that could not be delivered”. The letter, published in full by The Independent on 11th July, said:
‘The European Referendum Act does not make it legally binding. We believe that in order to trigger Article 50, there must first be primary legislation. It is of the utmost importance that the legislative process is informed by an objective understanding as to the benefits, costs and risks of triggering Article 50.’
They continued ‘Since the result was only narrowly in favour of Brexit, it cannot be discounted that the misrepresentations and promises were a decisive or contributory factor in the result. The parliamentary vote must not be similarly affected. The referendum did not set a threshold necessary to leave the EU, commonly adopted in polls of national importance, e.g. 60% of those voting or 40% of the electorate.’
The question asked in the referendum was simple: do you want to stay in the EU or leave it? It would be up to the government formed this week by the new prime minister Theresa May to work out how they want to handle negations with Brussels over leaving and the timescale within which that will happen.
The barristers concluded that ‘For all of these reasons, it is proposed that the Government establishes, as a matter of urgency, a Royal Commission or an equivalent independent body to receive evidence and report, within a short, fixed timescale, on the benefits, costs and risks of triggering Article 50 to the UK as a whole, and to all of its constituent populations.
The Parliamentary vote should not take place until the Commission has reported. In view of the extremely serious constitutional, economic and legal importance of the vote either way, we believe that there should be a free vote in Parliament.’ [The Independent ]
Meanwhile, Mrs May has floated the idea of a new government department to take day-to-day charge of negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU – to be headed by someone who campaigned to leave in the referendum. Chris Grayling, a prominent Brexiteer who supported her leadership bid, acting as her campaign manager, has been touted as a possible candidate for this role. Liam Fox, another Leave supporter who got behind Mrs May, after his own leadership bid failed, will also have hopes of a top job, according to the BBC.
Talk of having a second referendum on the issue of the EU is interesting though largely impractical, not leave because of the cost, estimated to be in excess of £142 million. The big political test for the Government’s policies will come at the time of the next general election. Many commentators would say that an election would return a Conservative government, doubtless with an increased majority, and the political wind is blowing in that direction.
The fallout from the referendum continues: Theresa May is to replace Cameron as prime minister. Labour is embroiled in a leadership battle. People are talking about a second referendum, hoping that all those who voted LEAVE will see the error of their ways. But the new prime minister is still saying the UK will leave, even though she campaigned to remain. Everyone respects the will of the people and their vote should be upheld. The date of the next general election will be sooner than we think. The issue will come back back again at that time.
On polling day it seems the country was equally divided. On the morning of the vote, a trawl through websites suggested that the result will be too close to call. Towards the end of the run-up campaign, the people became increasingly passionate about the side they had chosen – although a very large proportion had not made up their minds by the eve of the vote.
So if the result was very close, what would that mean for British politics? If there was no overwhelming, landslide victory for one side would the Government be bound to follow the will of the people? I looked at this issue. Some analysts said that the legislation that set up the referendum did not make the result legally binding. Even if Brexit won the vote, Parliament would still have to legislate to invoke article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. As far as I can see, pro-Europeans have a majority in the House of Commons. If the vote resulted in a decision to leave – even by a very narrow majority – it would be political suicide for Cameron and his Conservative government to overturn the will of the people.
But then most commentators see a success for Brexit as heralding the end of Cameron’s premiership. There is an interesting scenario: what if Labour managed to force a general election and won it? In the wake of a vote to leave, a general election could be forced through and if a party wins it that is committed to remain that would be put forward as a political mandate. As to whether it is more or less of a political mandate than the referendum is difficult to see. If more people voted in a general election and the gap was wider than for the referendum result, in this scenario, then Parliament could conclude that the referendum had been superseded by the result of a general election.
Early on in the campaign, I predicted that the turnout of voters in the referendum would be less than fifty percent; I still doubt that it will be more than the turnout in a general election. The problem for politicians is, when it comes to determining the will of the people – who do they believe? The referendum vote is simple: two choices – leave or remain. In a general election all constituencies will have multiple choices and even with ‘first-past-the-post’ elections, it is possible that the will of the people will be less than decisive. Only a landslide election victory with a big turnout could overturn the referendum result.
There is however another scenario. Let’s assume that Brexit has won. Parliament votes to leave. The process begins but is set to last for two years before anything really happens. During that time political and popular opinion changes and a majority forms in favour of remaining in the EU. The next general election is set for 2020. It is not unknown for elections to be brought forward. We can imagine a picture in which the leave vote wreaked havoc on the UK economy and ignited a strong change in opinion in favour of remaining. an early general election is fought around the EU question and a remain party wins with a comfortably majority. If that party is not the Conservatives, then Parliament would be in a position to put the whole withdrawal process to the vote. So the UK position would become ‘I know we said we were leaving but actually we have changed our minds and now we want to remain.’
41 years later – has anything changed?
A major decision faces the British people on 23rd June 2016 – possibly. Britons return to the ballot box to decide whether they should in or out of the EU. I say ‘possibly’ because a few people dispute how major this decision actually is and whether it faces the British people, as a whole, depends on which part of it you live in.
Forty years ago the vote was put to the people; it might seen that a lot has changed over that time but has it? In many ways the issue we will face on 23rd June this year is much the same as it was in 1975.
In parliament, the heavyweights have got into position; Cameron said today (February 22nd) that leaving the EU would be “a leap in the dark” and PM contender Boris Johnson has joined the NO campaign, putting his weight behind those who want out. Do they, as they claim, have the nation’s best interests at heart? Or are they just watching their backs, caring more for the future of the Conservative Party and who will fill the PM’s chair at Downing Street, when it becomes vacant. Indeed, if the ‘exits’ have it, many believe that will be the end of Cameron’s premiership.
Meanwhile, the Labour party exhibits a mixed bag of views. Mr Corbyn saw the EU negotiations as a “theatrical sideshow.” He claims that Labour is “overwhelmingly for staying in.” Corbyn might disagree with Cameron on many things but they are united in their belief that the UK should continue to be a member of the EU.
The two major campaigns – ‘stay in’ and ‘leave’ – have started their work of persuading the public which way they should vote. Stronger In, for example, began to drop literature through people’s letterbox in January. Leave.eu has similarly started started to bombard us with their side of the propaganda war. Meanwhile the media has been having a field day with constant news stories about who is saying what and who has done what.
For both sides of the argument, the hymn sheets have been made ready for politicians and business leaders to sing to. Both sides are honing their cases, the positions that claim are the key ones for the voters in June.
How long to get out?
What difference will the vote on 23rd June make? Will the UK suddenly become an ‘independent’ sovereign state on 24th June? Several commentators have said that the decision could be challenged in the European court; even the terms negotiated by Cameron over the weekend will not automatically fall into place, if we believe what the analysts are saying. Even if details of the terms go unchallenged in the courts, it would take two years to finally cut the chains holding our island to the mainland of Europe, I have heard it said. Indeed, some believe that leaving the EU is simply a ploy to get more favourable terms for staying in. Commentators have been saying that Cameron’s tour of the 27 member states was a weak manoeuvre and what he left Brussels with was hardly worth having. What he got and what he asked for, were separated by a gulf wider than the English channel. But if many millions of voters give a resounding OUT that puts the UK in a much more demanding position.
Meanwhile, the scare-mongers are lining up to frighten prospective voters. From the Scots, who are threatening to devolve from the ‘united’ kingdom through to the law, order and security brigade who see 24th June as being the start of Armageddon. What some say they don’t have is the facts; even so, what politicians are not short of is facts, even though many produce figures that are contradictory and hotly contested by others. Members of the public interviewed on the TV vox pop news films seemed to be roundly confused by it all.
An independent England?
It’s not just the Byzantine complexities of the EU; the question of tariffs and barriers and boundaries with the rest of the world is a mire of murky misinformation and misunderstandings. OK so the rest of the world is actually bigger than Europe and even if we did walk away from it, Europe will still be there long after we have voted with our feet. What staggers me is that we got so little support from our European neighbours when the PM sat down to talk. Cameron’s shopping list of ‘demands’ got watered down by the time he left Brussels. What Cameron came away from Brussels with was a feeble set of compromises.
Labour, says Corbyn, will campaign to stay in and he Tweeted his reasons why. Workers rights, paid maternity leave, equal pay and more being seen as the headline benefits conferred by EU membership. ‘Stay in and make it better’ seems to be the Corbyn mantra. He would love to see an end to the kind of austerity measures that embittered Greece. Writing in The Guardian (on 22nd June) Corbyn argued ‘… being part of Europe [sic] has brought Britain investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment.’ He meant to write ‘EU’, surely? He went on to say ‘The prime minister has been negotiating for the wrong goals in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.’
For Corbyn the real issues are about the steel industry, stopping the spread of low pay and insecure jobs and the exploitation of migrant workers. Well he is after all a Labour politician. It’s all a clash of philosophies – free marketism versus social co-operation. His point is a worrying one; he referred to the ‘bonfire of rights’ that could follow a British exit. No longer bridled by Brussels, a Tory government could wipe the slate clean on worker’s rights, pay and equality.
Norway is often paraded as an example of what independence can achieve. The reality is rather different. Travelling between Sweden and Norway you will not encounter a border control or need to show a passport. Even though Norway is not a member of the EU they still have to deal with fish quotas and tariffs but they have no say in how these are set. Norway is a member of EFTA and a member of the European Economic Area (the EEA) along with Iceland and Liechtenstein. Prime minister Erna Solberg said that Norway’s own arrangement would not work for the UK. The Nordic country voted in 1972 against joining and again in 1994, though, in both cases, by a majority of just over half. Norway still contributes a significant amount of money to the EU.
If England leaves the EU, it will still have to negotiate tariff deals. Bear in mind that the economy of Europe is not at its best right now and if and when it began to improve, the position of this country would change and our position might well have to be renegotiated if we leave after the vote.
EU and whose army?
In fact there are many associations and organisations that have a bearing on European countries and their trade – The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) of which the UK has been a member since January 1973. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has had the UK in its membership since 1949. There is a bevy of associations concerned with technologies; for example, the UK joined one that regulates atomic energy.
Britain is surrounded by an army of international bodies, organisations and multilateral treaties. The EU itself operates through a clutch of institutions: the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the European Central Bank, and the European Court of Justice, to name but a few. That is not forgetting a basket of charters and conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights.
Europe is not something a country can just walk away from. Even two years for a divorce would be highly optimistic. Let’s not forget that the United Kingdom is in membership of the EU; that leaves open the position of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Voting patterns could vary enormously in the countries of the UK. Geography is just one of many dimensions of how this question breaks down.
It was a British prime minister who first thought up the idea of bringing together European countries – Winston Churchill. “We cannot aim at anything less than than the union of Europe as a whole and we look forward with confidence to the day when that union will be achieved” Churchill said when he was in Amsterdam after the end of the war. It was a prophetic statement but it was just tub-thumping, pointing to the way forward without having idea of where to go with it. It was Robert Schuman who joined up the dots. He was, and is regarded as, one of the founding fathers of European Union. Even as early as the 1950s it was always the vision that there would be a federal union and if Britain would not accept that it, then it could not join. We did not join and so we did not invent it and we were not there at the origin, Tony Blair was to say. Back in 1955 the vision was limited to coal and steel until ministers came to together to discuss a wider concept that would harmonise not just economic but also social policies. The Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 by six states to create the European Community. Britain had therefore played no part in the writing of the rules on which the common market was based. Harold McMillan sent Edward Heath to see how Britain’s trade could be wedged into this new order that had been put together in Brussels. It was in 1963 that De Gaulle effectively vetoed Britain’s entry to the common market, leading McMillan to feel that he had been betrayed by his old wartime ally. In 1971 both major parties were split. Labour MPs broke ranks and joined the Tories in the ‘yes’ lobby. Heath went to Brussels to sign the treaty in 1972 but it still had to be ratified by parliament.
The EU in Leicester
I take Leicester because it is in many ways a microcosm of the wider nation. Localism gets right to the heart of the debate. It’s not just about what might happen to one member state; it’s also about regions and cities, both here and on the continent.
Here in Leicester – one of the most diverse cities in England – the impact of the EU is widely present and easy to see in this city. A thriving Polish community testifies to the success of migration; their shops are everywhere and most large supermarkets now stock products that reflect Polish tastes. The city’s hospitals are staffed by European doctors and nurses and in the streets of the city centre you hear the cacophony of foreign voices amongst the shoppers. Local businesses rely on migrant workers coming in to fill the vacancies left by indigenous workers. They clean our homes and offices. They care for our children and old people. They cook our food and fill our supermarket shelves. They pay taxes but take little or no benefits from the public coffers they enrich. They do however put pressure on our schools; in this city the birth rate is high and the streets are crowded with the pushchairs and prams of migrant workers. Here health and care services are open doors; is there room enough inside for everyone who wants a place? Migration is not itself an issue for most voters; it is the impact of immigration that divides opinion. Closing the borders between England and Europe would almost certainly harm many local businesses – those that depends on the skills provided by migrant labour. Depending, of course, on what border controls remain in force or would be changed by an exit. Even if England left the EU, it is doubtful that cross-country migration would decline, all that much. Let’s not forget that around 125 million Brits go to the Europe to work and/or live.
The issue of migration
It’s very clear that England has, for a very long time, been unable to fill the vast range of vacancies created by the services sector of the economy, let alone hospitals, construction and food production. The EU came into existence, partly, to enable the free flow of workers between its member states. Just as Europeans come here to work, so 125 million of our own people went to Europe in search of jobs or housing. Over three million jobs, it is said, are linked to the UK’s trade with European countries. Over 200,000 UK businesses trade with the EU member states. Without European migrant labour many UK businesses would grind to a halt, as would many of our hospitals. Workers who come to this country pay into public coffers through their taxes; they spend their wages in our shops, they help maintain the productivity of the companies in which they work… but all this depends, in the last analysis, on how you look at it. The one thing I have noticed about the EU debate is that opposing sides are throwing statistics at each other in large numbers.
Immigration is not about numbers but the rate at which people arrive. We must, as a country, as a state and as a community, integrate new arrivals. These comments from campaigners struck a chord with me. Some come, the migration issue is not about the absolute numbers coming into the country but more about what happens to them as they arrive and to the people already here.
Many people see EU membership as taking away migration controls. I am not sure this is correct. Several Brexit campaigners said that leaving the EU would enable the country to make its own arrangements for who it will allow in. Some suggested that we should adopt a points system, similar to that used by Australia.
Why is it that so few people from this country choose to go to Europe to work? I remember it being said that over a million Brits have gone to Europe to work.
The vote should not be decided on a single issue; membership of the EU is not a single issue question. It would be wrong to base one’s vote on the issue of immigration alone.
Its not just the numbers and rate coming into the country as a whole but how they are distributed. Certain towns have been over-run by migrants and clearly are unable to cope, such Ipswich, some commentators argue. It’s not a question solely of border controls; it’s far to do with the qualifications of migrants and what they intend to do when they get here and what work they intend to look for. That varies considerably from one area of the UK to another.
Housing, schools, health… these have to be able to cope with new arrivals. UK should change the way that EU migration happens. A key issue during the campaign was whether incoming migrants should be able to claim state benefits.
Claims that the EU is undemocratic figured widely during the campaign. It probably is, many thought, but then how exactly could it be made democratic? We elect our MEPs in our own country. But we have no vote in which gets the top jobs – which all go to white males. Several commentators and campaigners challenged people to name any of the presidents of the EC. Leave campaigners were often quick to point out that all the presidential office holders were white males.
How the future of the EU could affect Britain.
What if there was a right wing take over of the EU by parties even more right wing than the Tories? What if Turkey joined and created a sudden increase in the influence of Islamic fundamentalists? There are many questions about how future tends in the politics of the EU might affect life in this country. Much was made during the campaign of the desire of some euro-politicians to move towards a federalised Europe. Nigel Lawson argued that there is a movement towards the creation of a European superstate. He clearly does not want Britain to be part of that. Federalism is already in place in various parts of the world. The USA is perhaps the prime example. There are several models of federalism; some tighter than others, some more able to function effectively than others.
Originally, when Britain joined, the European institution was a common market. Since the 1970s, there has been a drift towards ever more political integration. As Lawson said in his article: ‘…That is the creation of a federal European superstate, a United States of Europe. Despite the resonance of the phrase, not one of the conditions that contributed to making a success of the United States of America exists in the case of the EU.’ [Telegraph, 2nd May 2016]
Europeanisation begs the question ‘what is European about?’ This comes into sharp focus when we consider the accession of Turkey to the EU. As it stands today, Turkey is anything but European. The issue calls into question what defines European-ness. The extent to which all 28 member states share the same root political philosophies is open to debate. I suspect that some Americans might be exercised about what the USA American. It could be argued tat across Europe there is an even wider diversity of cultures, values and political philosophies than may be found in north America.
Will the UK be able to govern itself?
Has England ever enjoyed a period of absolute sovereignty? Over the past 500 years, even during the days of monarchical absolute power, we have been hemmed in by external influences both of our foes and our allies. Go back twice as far and you find a country being ruled by the Italians; then it was the Danes; then it was the French… the Victorian era was perhaps the golden age of the British Empire. Even then there was no absolute freedom; our territories and dependencies exerted influences over what the British could or could not do.
Having heard some of the opinions expressed in the media about sovereignty, it appears that plenty of people think we would start governing ourselves on 24th June. Boris Johnson referred to ‘independence day.’ Nothing of the sort. I doubt there ever has been a time when the UK enjoyed absolute sovereignty and leaving the EU will not give us much more power than we already have over our own affairs. After all, the EU affects only part of our governance; it does not reach into things such as taxation, the operation of the NHS, defence… and we will still be members of the commonwealth. And NATO.
Chatham House said, in a paper published from its website
In a world that is more interdependent today than it was when the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, the notion of ‘absolute’ British sovereignty is illusory. It is also worthless if it limits the ability of future British governments to ensure the security and prosperity of their citizens. Judging from the UK’s experience and its future prospects, the opportunities from remaining in the EU far outweigh the risks of doing so, and the risks of leaving far outweigh the opportunities.
I liked this statement; it views nation states as being ‘ interdependent’, and sees absolute sovereignty as being an illusion. In my view, the idea that Britain can rule itself autonomously without regard to other countries is not something that is possible in the current world order. Whether or not Britain is in the EU, it will always be a signatory to a variety of international treaties. Each time a country signs a treaty it agrees to forgo some of its powers of self-determination. Trading with other countries and particularly with a regional block always requires some degree of diminution of independence. Referendum campaigners often referred to British law being made in Brussels and found figure to quote that, in their minds, represented the percentage of laws made in Westminster. In fact Brussels give us rules and regulations, not laws. It might well be the case that the EU has imposed hundreds of rules and regulations on us and the most important decisions that affect us have all been made by our own elected politicians sitting in the House of Commons.
We sacrificed some of our sovereignty when we joined the EU but voting to leave will not confer on us a new golden age of complete self-governance. The world is a much too complicated place for any country to enjoy that kind of thing.
Would the EU survive a leave vote?
What if the British decide, in June, to leave the EU? Would it survive? Several commentators suggest that Britain’s withdraw from the EU would be its downfall. Leaving the UK might lead to other countries leaving too. When we last voted on the issue, 40 years ago, Europe was dominated by Germany and France. Today, German is the single most dominant economy in Europe. Some member states worry that a British vote to leave could spark off a series of similar votes around the 28 states that would leave to collapse of the entire EU edifice. Indeed, if the British can re-write the terms its memberships, that would lead others to do the same thing, some politicians in Brussels believe. If enough building blocks are changed, the entire structure ceases to be the same thing that 27 countries thought it was or wanted it to be when they joined.
Do I look bothered?
Are the British people really that bothered about the result of the referendum? There are two sides to this story: one is the vox pop interviewing of random members of the public and the other is the polls? Many voters might be concerned about specific issues – such as border controls and immigration – but appear to be befuddled by the whole thing. What is most worrying is that many voters will mark their ballot papers based on what they believe will be the effect stemming from one or two specific issues rather than having weighed-up the whole case. Ten years ago the French and the Dutch voted NO to the constitutional and Lisbon treaties. It’s not just the voting public who fail to see the wood for the trees. Many of the leaders who have sat together in summits and other get-togethers have become so bogged down in details that they have failed to address the bigger pictures. Even British prime ministers it would seem have failed to grasp the wider issues. Many of the interviews I have seen, read or heard in the media take a single-issue approach to the question. Business leaders look at as though it was about only trading.
Are other members island states?
Cyprus is an island. Malta is an island. Ireland is partly an island. Greece is a country of islands. Denmark has lots of islands. Is there something about being an island that makes a people different to their counterparts who live on the main land? Do the British have an island mentality that makes them think differently to more mainland countries? I like to look back at the time when there was no channel and the landmass of what is now Britain was simply an archipelago on the mainland of the continent we now call Europe. Our ancestors simply walked from their homelands to this country and so, in historical terms, we are all descendants of migrants. Genetically, the British have the DNA of most Europeans and the peoples of North Africa. Being an island did not stop the Victorians from creating an empire. Many of those who are arguing in favour of leaving the EU base their case on opening up new markets in other parts of the world; drawn by the prospect of trading on a much wider footing – they can hardly have an island mentality. Being part of something bigger (Europe or the world) is an idea and whether you are an island or a mainland country, it’s about what you think being part of something bigger will give you.
My referendum diary
The BBC reported that EU reforms cannot be reversed (by judges) according to Donald Tusk, EU Council president. Tusk told MEPs that the deal negotiated by Cameron was “legally binding and irreversible.” What promoted this was Michael Gove (Justice Secretary) saying that the European Court of Justice could throw out some measures without changes to the treaty. But Downing Street and the Attorney general maintained that the reforms could not be reversed. Gove is one of five cabinet ministers for are for an exit from the EU. Only when the treaties are changed will be European Court be bound by them. If the British people vote to leave, the deal with cease to exist, Mr. Tusk said.
This is not a simple issue; states can express their consent to an agreement in a number of ways; 28 nations have agreed to the deal and intend to be bound by it. Simply agreeing to a deal does not change treaties; any of them could raise the matter with the European Court of Justice. The chances that the court would rule to overturn a measure in the deal is remote.
In a piece published on the website of the Electoral Reform Society Josiah Mortimer revealed the results of a poll taken to predict the turnout for the EU Referendum. In a poll conducted by BMG research, it reported that
We asked what people thought turnout would be in the referendum – When asked, the average response shows that the public predict turnout will be 57% on June 23rd. What is interesting is that this is broadly in line with non-poll based predictions, particularly amid valid fears about low turnout being a big issue in this referendum. And it certainly links in with the fact that most people do not feel informed about the vote. – See more.
The government’s controversial booklet about the EU referendum arrived in the post today. Controversial because of the cost of it producing it and it gives only side of the argument and several sources claim it is factually in accurate. As I read through it, here are my thoughts:
The commentary begins with some simple facts:
The UK has not joined the euro
The UK has not joined the Shengan border controls -new rules have been applied to migrants seeking welfare benefits
It reads partly like a public information leaflet put together by civil servants and party like a party manifesto. It some respects it is both. The leading argument is that staying inside the EU will given Britain a stronger economy. This gets to the nub of the whole debate: do we see the future of this country in trading with Europe or with the rest of the world. It is claimed that Europe offers us the world’s biggest single market. Is that true? Would we be better off trading mainly inside the EU or are we thereby missing out on trade with other parts of the world that could offer much more.
According to the brochure, the EU is ‘by far the UK’s biggest trading Partner.’ It goes on to assert that ‘remaining inside the EU guarantees our full access to its Single Market.’ Despite the arguments given in the brochure, business people and industry leaders are divided over the issue; some want to stay in and argue that this is good for business; others want to leave and seek better markets elsewhere. The brochure claims that ‘over 3 million UK job are linked to exports to the EU’, a claim that has been challenged by a variety of commentators and analysts.
Writing in the BBC’s Reality Check Peter Barnes looks at the question of how many UK businesses trade within the EU. He notes that there have been differing claims over how many businesses trade with EU member states. As he points out ‘There are no official figures for the total number of companies that export to and import from the EU. Both numbers are estimates. ‘
Statistics are a minefield and it depends on which sources you choose to believe.
It is little wonder that many of the people interviewed by BBC news reporters feel confused by the welter of conflicting statistics and find it hard to make up their minds given the arguments they have heard about which set of figures are correct.
In the view of the brochure’s authors, leaving in the EU could leave to years of uncertainty, as we unpick our relationship and negotiate a new deal with Europe. As Harold Wilson was once famously quoted as saying “a week is a long time in politics.” Well if a week is a long time, then 20 years is an era. That could be the length of time any exit from the EU could take. We know that David Cameron will not be prime minister for longer than a few years more. Over even ten years, the Conservatives could very well be replaced by another party and the position could change. The result of the vote on 23rd June could well have major repercussions on the outcome of the next general election in 2020. EU membership could become a major plank on which parties contest the next election. Whatever the outcome of the vote on 23rd June, that will not be the end of the story. The parties are very likely to present the next election with post-vote views on how the country should react to what ever result is given.
Today I received, by post, a copy of The 2016 EU referendum voting guide issued by the Electoral Commission. This leaflet had six sides of text. The headings included: What is the referendum about? Can I vote? Who has produced this booklet? Information from lead campaigners How do I fill in the ballot paper? How do I vote? How do I find out more?
Under the heading Information from lead campaigners the brochures explained that ‘the text two pages’ provide information about the arguments for and against leaving the EU. The content of these two pages was not written by the Electoral Commission. The website addresses of the two campaigns were given.
The brochure provided an informative guide to the process of technicalities of voting. The question was stated as being: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
Two choices were available: Remain a member of the European Union or Leave the European Union.
Voters were advised to place a X in only one of the two boxes.
The Electoral Commission is an independent body set up by the UK Parliament, its website states.
In article on the BMG research website, it was given that 45% of voters would vote to leave the EU compared with 43% who who would vote to remain with 13% being undecided (data appears to be rounded up.) The shows a fairly unchanged picture from the previous results. Based on political affiliation, the results suggest that Labour voters are more likely to vote to remain. Conservative voters are fairly split with a narrow majority voting to leave. Liberal Democrat voters are likely to vote to remain and UKIP voters overwhelmingly likely to vote to leave.
What has characterised the debate about the Referendum recently is the battle of claim and counter-claim and the barrage of statistics from either side. Coming under fire has been the £350 million figure claimed to be what the UK pays every week to the EU. This was heavily qualified by those who say it is a gross figure and in fact we get a rebate on that; and those who claim that the real figure is even higher than this. it is understandable therefore that the average prospective voter is caught in the middle of all this, not know which side to believe – if any of them.
I got the idea that the EU will have do, or should have to, work out how the UK will do business with the rest of the world and negotiate with on the tariffs that affect trade outside of the EU membership states. This applies particularly to those countries that do not have trade treaties with the EU. Comments are saying that Britain is the fifth most economically strong country in the world.
Another issue to emerge is that Britain now has one of the highest – if not the highest – levels of minimum wage in Europe. Of course vast numbers of people want to work here because our minimum wage levels are the highest and certainly far higher than in most of the countries that they come from.
The Leavers say that Britain on its own could be great again and able to trade with the rest of the world on its own terms. I simply do not believe this. That does not fit with my idea of world trade.
Another interesting point recently comes from those who say that the EU simply cannot keep up with the pace of change in technology. Its machinery of rule making is far too slow and cumbersome to keep up with the way that technologies are changing.
Someone from Tate and Lyle appeared on TV saying that the EU is imposing tariffs on importers of sugar and using the money from those tariffs to subside beat producers. Similar arguments were made around fishing. But this referendum is not about single issues and it would be completely wrong for voters to make up their minds on issues at this level of scale. It must be about the bigger picture, not about the minutiae. Many of the regulations established by Brussels ensure food safety and have been imposed to protect consumers. Would a post-Brexit government simply wipe them off the books?
Someone claimed that the UK is a relatively low regulation economy; probably one of the least regulated countries in the world. But if we leave the EU and set out sights on trading mostly with the rest of the world it is highly likely that many of those countries with require us to comply with their standards of safety on products and meet their requirements for labelling and testing.
Leaving the UK, it was claimed, would result in short-term pain as the country slides into recession but this is the price we need to pay in order to achieve our long-term gain. Three quarters of our economy is services, not manufacturing. Some are bullish about this and see the rest of Europe as being so dependent on our services, mainly based in the city of London, as being so important they would continue to use those services even if we left the EU. The short-term recession resulting from Brexit would be outweighed by the benefits we would enjoy from trading with the rest of the world, it has been claimed. It is however, a gamble; it is not something that anyone can guarantee.
So, leaving the EU would be very risky; but, some would argue, so would remaining in the EU. The Euro is about to collapse and even though we are not part of it, we would be affected by it. But to exert a tighter control over the eurozone would require countries to work even more closely together.
Both sides have completely opposite views as to the economic consequences of the vote.
The 23rd June is seen as being out ‘independence day.’ Those who take the historical view looked back on the time when the United States declared its independence from Britain. There is no evidence, the historians argue, that the supporters of that move were mainly concerned with the economic consequences of their actions. Fears about commerce and trade might have been present in 1947 when India declared independence but that did not stop them.
Tuesday 7th June
The original deadline to register to vote at the EU referendum was midnight on Tuesday 7 June. Problems with the Government’s registration website during the final hours before the deadline resulted in the UK Parliament passing legislation to extend the registration deadline in Great Britain for 48 hours to midnight on Thursday 9 June. I heard that there was a late surge in registrations.
At around this time I received a leaflet through my door from the Leave campaign. The European union and your family: the facts stated that ‘this document is to help you to make your decision in the referendum… ‘ and went to to state: ‘FACT: Britain’s official bill for EU membership is £19 billion per year or £350 million every week…’. This figure was widely criticism during the later stages of the campaign of being inaccurate and misleading. The BBC’s realitycheck web page reported that this figure was ‘not entirely true’; for one thing it fails to take account of the rebate that we get. As Theo Leggett explained ‘it’s money that never leaves the country.’
Thursday 16th June
News broke of the murder of Jo Cox, MP. Campaigning is temporarily suspended as a mark of respect. Following her death, Jo’s husband told us that she was killed for her political views. Parliament was recalled early and an emotional session was held in Westminster to honour the much respected member. Vigils held around the UK soon spread world-wide as people around the globe gathered to mark her murder and to express their desire for better politics and to voice their concern for the world’s nastiness. No one could have predicted this turn of events but it had a profound impact on the electorate in this country.
Tuesday 21st June
The BBC broadcasts ‘The Great Debate‘ live from the Wembley Arena with an audience of over six thousand. Impressive performances from the speakers especially from Ruth Davidson and Boris Johnson. I watched some of it. The audience was vocal and passionate about the issues. The programme lasted for nearly two hours.
Thursday 23rd June
A record 46,499,537 people are entitled to take part, according to provisional figures from the Electoral Commission. It is only the third nationwide referendum in UK history and comes after a four-month battle for votes between the Leave and Remain campaigns. states the BBC News website.
I voted to remain in the EU.
This was what I wrote before the vote; I will be writing more as the picture unfolds, watching how to issues unravel and how Britain is affected by the impact of the vote.