Sunday, 12 June 2016

Europe: More control when you're in the room than knocking on the window

We are now in the middle of the month when we are talking about little else but Europe, whether that's the football or something more important, a certain referendum that is less than a fortnight away. As someone on the left and a supporter of Scottish independence, the European Union ought to be the sort of thing I despised as a bureaucratic corporate centralising force with its  unelected headquarters in Brussels. Yet the main advocacy of Britain's exit from this club, a 'Brexit', is coming from the right and perhaps feels too jingoistic for comfort.

Twenty months on from the independence referendum it's easy to see the parallels emerging. The Brexit side saying "we are strong enough not to need dictating to by a foreign power" while accusing the other side of "Project Fear". But for me this is quite a different referendum needing quite a different debate. I personally favour remaining in the European Union and so it feels weird to find myself on the same side of the debate as David Cameron and George Osborne. Nonetheless we will be singing from completely different hymn sheets. The British Unionists are still having a dig at Alex Salmond even when they both agree on continued EU membership because we are contemplating another referendum especially if Britain as a whole votes to leave the European Union. We even have the cheek of Willie Rennie suggesting Alex Salmond should leave the Remain campaign because "he's an embarrassment". Talk for yourself mate! Not only that he thinks we "nationalists" will be voting to leave to ensure Britain gets taken out of the European Union so it would create the grounds for that second referendum. Well anybody with half a brain would realise how stupid that would be when the whole point with arguing for a second referendum in the event of a Brexit is because there is a strong Scottish vote for remaining in. So on that basis what we in Scotland should be campaigning for is a very strong vote north of the border (and in the short time we have before the referendum it is best for most politicians and campaigners to focus on one part of the UK when campaigning, whether Scotland, Wales, Wessex or Yorkshire) and let the rest of Britain decide for itself. The simple truth is that polls suggest there's going to be a strong vote to leave south of the border while in Scotland it will be quite the reverse. But Nicola Sturgeon is expressing strong support for a vote to remain in the EU not just within Scotland but across the UK. I certainly don't want the future for a Great Britain of three independent countries to include an England that is detached from the European Union while all its Celtic neighbours are committed members. But if it comes to the rump of the UK choosing to stay out of the EU then I would want an independent Scotland as soon as possible in order to bring the European Union back to at least part of our island.

So what are my reasons for wanting to remain? Well first I intend to dismiss the identity argument. I am English, I am British and I am European. Those aren't three different identities, they are simply three descriptions of different extents of place-association. For many people such descriptions are simply taken for granted not really a cause of pride. However, there are times I reflect on the cultural dominance and political unsavouriness of America and think how glad I am to be from this side of the Atlantic and then it doesn't really matter whether I'm talking about the continent of Europe generally or more specifically Britain. The United Kingdom for all its faults is simply not America. I feel European for the simple reason that I come from the continent Europe, its islands included. That is what I feel it was always supposed to mean. I am half Norwegian and Norway isn't part of the EU but as I see it it's still European. So I'm not "half European, half Norwegian". I am 100% European and within that is an English dimension and a Norwegian dimension. I didn't like the way identity politics was used in the Scottish referendum and I have no real time for it in this referendum either. I would still feel European even if we left the European Union. The debate about being in the European Union has to be about something more than identity.

So what are the other factors that should be informing our choice? Economic? Social? Diplomatic? Cultural even?
It is fair to say that the EU is a huge club and massive project. I would not reject such a thing lightly. Perhaps the most monumental thing that is talked about in favour of its existence is that the great European project has helped kept peace between the nations of the continent for some sixty years. Now nobody is suggesting that if the EU suddenly broke up, France and Germany would go to war again. That won't happen because whatever their individual flaws the major countries of the EU have reached a maturity that makes them realise the sheer undesirably of conflict on their doorsteps. But it is because of the social and economic bond they have developed, of which the EU is part of the complex story, that we have had the motivation to consider our shared values. And that has come into fruition in the form of a large social contract called "the European Convention on Human Rights" which protects the rights of EU citizens. And EU citizenship is a pretty big deal for many of us. As well as one's right to free movement within the EU you have the right to consular protection in any non-EU state. Although there are probably British embassies and consulates wherever there is of any other country it maybe that another EU country's consular support is closer. But that's probably not especially persuasive of the arguments for remaining. You have to read more up about EU citizenship to be more informed of its merits. There is also the European Health Insurance card which citizens of an EEA area can gain and granted that may still include Britain if there is a Brexit.

But on that latter point let us consider for one moment what people arguing for Brexit from both the left and the right are saying. We can still be part of EEA and EFTA, they say. And we certainly could. But don't forget these are also subject to EU rules. In other words, we'd still have to do what Brussels says but without having a say ourselves. And that surely brings us onto one of the big reasons we should remain as many are pointing out:

The EU is not perfect and there is a lot wrong with the top-down way it's managed. But if we want to change it we are better off being inside where we have influence than outside where we don't.

I have to echo the concerns of many about the EU. It is run by an unelected commission in Brussels which we did not elect. And that should change. The president of the European Union is to the EU what the U.S. President is to America, the head of the union and its most powerful person. The citizens of the EU should be the ones entrusted with choosing the president of the European Commission and holding him or her to account. Indeed other positions of power within EU institutions ought to also be considered for democratic accountability. Now having mentioned that we may still be subject to rules laid down in Brussels depending on the type of post-Brexit relationship we attain we have to wonder if it really would be a good thing to find ourselves without representation in the European Parliament. Strasbourg is the very place where we could debate with other European parliamentarians the ways in which the European Union should be reformed and where we could try and put pressure on the institutions to change. Or the actual European Council where, if our government ministers shared our own concerns they could raise the issue themselves. Or maybe I don't understand the structure of the EU enough to understand what I'm talking about. Which is kind of the problem. The EU is a complicated institution and it's probably the case that this is needlessly so. But the general drift of what I'm saying is if we choose to leave the EU then we really lose the right to complain about our lack of influence on Brussels as we have only weakened it further.

EU Headquarters, Brussels

What then about the financial side of the debate. Well that's obviously a big talking point. But we are really looking at a load of figures banded about which can easily be disputed and which for ordinary people are a case of 'so what?'. If you tell the British public that the EU will cost £Xbillion to the economy if we stay or it will cost £Xbillion if we leave the EU then it's just an overall economic forecast of vague consequences. For most people any debate about economy and jobs will come down to what's in it for themselves personally. There's little in it financially one way or another for me personally and if there is I can't tell what exactly it is. There probably is a benefit coming from the Common Agricultural Policy and its farm subsidies on, among other places, my area of Scotland, the south-west. If so this may have a positive impact other industries that depend on agricultural productivity such as the local cheese and yoghurt factories which would be good for their own productivity. There could be a knock-on risk for them if we leave for these local businesses and their own staff. While I don't really know what that would be it is worth gauging the opinions of local industry personnel, like people in farms, what their first hand experience is with EU programmes and what they feel would be at risk as if we left and what that would mean for the people they trade with. As for many other jobs directly linked to our EU membership, that's for the people in those jobs to work out why those jobs matter to themselves and to other people they think benefit from their services.

The thing though that has to be thought about with this referendum is what exactly the forces are driving the desire to leave and which are ultimately the reason we are having this debate? And what impression does their rhetoric make on you? We need only listen to people having a dig at immigrants to understand one striking undercurrent among many who want out - xenophobia. Now I'm not accussing all leave campaigners of xenophobia, many have good reasons to want to leave the EU and there are even some who are not considering migration as a factor at all. But vast majority of people who are anti-immigrant and anti-refugee are going to be people who want to leave the EU and these will be people, numbering very many, who voted for UKIP politicians and Eurosceptic Tory MPs often on that issue. So a vote to leave the EU is going to be a profound victory for xenophobes and that would only further create a climate of fear among many people in the immigrant community, a community of people who are here for the right reasons, to have a better life themselves and to make a contribution to our economy. Now I have a huge amount of respect for immigrants. I know from having worked in a factory that immigrants from the likes of Poland, that we call 'unskilled workers' are very often the ones who learn quickly, who go on to operate the machines and drive the forklifts. These are no menial tasks, these are positions of substantial responsibility in factories and warehouses. Plus, they learn English, some speaking it better than others. Personally, I can't help feeling that I should see the issue of immigration from their point of view, the immigrants' perspective not our own. The countries they come from are former Eastern Bloc countries that have not enjoyed the strong economies of Western Europe. They come here to make a better living for themselves and their families. And in the process they gain skills themselves and their children growing up in this country themselves pick up skills they might not have done in Poland, notably of course English, probably better English than their parents. So when many of them go back to their own country (and that's up to them of course, they're more than welcome to stay as far as I'm concerned) they take home with them the skills they need to allow their country to develop economically. Because of the free movement of people these countries will benefit in the long term especially when the younger generation grow up and are able to invest their imagination and skills in fresh new ideas that will take their country forward. This may also be good for the economy of Europe as a whole including our own. If more countries in the EU become more prosperous then that means a stronger EU economy.

The common complaint made about immigrants by Leave campaigners is that they undercut wages. It is true that immigrants are willing to work for low pay but there is a hell of a lot our government should be doing to not only protect workers' wages but also improve them. We should have a full living wage as a national minimum wage but the current "living" wage is not really that at all which would be £8.25 an hour, just over a pound more than the new £7.20 minimum wage. The UK government should not only be making positive action on wages, they should be doing more to tackle the other big problems that are really costing our economy millions, billions even. Like tax avoidance. And critically lets take one look at what's written on the side of the Leave bus: "We send £350 million a week to Brussels, let's fund our NHS instead". With Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith parading this message around, people who are in a party that actually want to privatise the NHS, we have to feel incredibly suspicious. Many feel this money really will not be spent on the NHS, it is just being used to stir emotions among would-be leave voters.

Perhaps therefore I should conclude by referring to one of the most useful contributions made outside Scotland to this debate, the 'warts and all' speech made by one Jeremy Corbyn. It spells out in some detail about an important social democratic case for staying within the EU even if there is much much room for improvement. I won't attempt to paraphrase the speech, you would be best reading the whole thing here.

Jeremy Corbyn: stay and reform the EU, warts and all

I feel we should stay in the EU for many reasons and I really do not want any part of the UK to leave. Even if leaving means the likelihood of a second independence referendum after Scotland voting heavily to remain I don't want the UK to pull out. A vote for Scottish independence was a vote for Scotland to say 'look we are a nation, we can manage without your governance, people from other countries are more than welcome to make a contribution to our future' while a vote for leaving the EU looks very much like England sticking two fingers up not just to Brussels but to people across the continent of Europe. That makes me uncomfortable and I feel there is more value to preserving a modern union that brings together many countries in a wider range of common interests than the narrower old-fashioned union between Scotland and the rest of the UK. The EU, unlike the UK, is not a union that shows up on a map of the world as one country but a union which preserves each country's sense of being independent and sovereign. Leaving the EU wouldn't make me feel any less European but the EU remains a good framework to work with and improve for many countries across Europe to reap the rewards of participation. And being an EU citizen as opposed to being merely European is something I feel has wide reaching benefits for the traveller setting out on whatever journey they intend to make in the EU.

It is for everyone to make their own mind up and for many the heart will do most of the talking. But if you spend what's left of the next 11 days or so reading what other Remain campaigners arguing the positive case for staying, then you could find yourself on the 23rd June even wiser and more informed in your choice to stay part of this significant genuine partnership of nations.

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