I know a lot of people are still wondering how to vote on 23rd. There is so much confusing and contradictory information and polemic it is hard to sort out facts from fantasy and know who to trust when so much seems to be a matter of opinion and judgement rather than absolute knowledge.
For me (and I emphasise that this blog represents only my personal opinion, and not that of any organisation with which I am, or have been, associated), what is most important is how the decision may impact on those who are most vulnerable – in the UK, in the rest of Europe and in the wider world. Does free movement of workers within the EU make it more or less likely that the poor, homeless, unemployed and unwell will be properly protected and cared for? How would leaving the EU affect the world’s poorest, and those whose lives have been torn apart by humanitarian crises? What difference would leaving or staying make to the global environment, especially to the depth and impact of climate change? There is a lot of talk about the European Convention on Human Rights – what is it and how would leaving affect our ability to uphold the rights of those whose rights are abused and violated in Europe and elsewhere?
But there is also a wider and deeper question – a question about what kind of world we want to live in, about how we see the world with all its borders and boundaries and divisions between people and cultures – and whether we want to break down barriers or strengthen them (tearing down the Berlin wall or building the Trump wall?!) What concerns me most about some aspects of the debate about Europe is the feeling that it is about “us” and “them” – that somehow “they” are stealing “our” sovereignty, our democracy, our money and even our country. But who are “we” and who are “they” – are people worried about Brussels bureaucrats, or immigrants, or the so-called “establishment” or foreign cultural influence in general? Is there a sense here that the leavers in particular want to protect some idea of British culture from contamination by the “other”? I prefer to think of every human being as “us” – we share a small and fragile planet and the suffering of any one, however far away, should be something we all care about. These are my values – and I think they are deeply held by many in this country as demonstrated so often by their generosity to international charities and human rights organisations. And in the end I think values are going to be an important part of everyone’s decision.
Obviously we don’t know what will happen in the event that the UK leaves the EU, so forecasts are matters of opinion. But some of those opinions are expert and well informed, and based on thorough analysis, while others appear to be based more on positive, or negative, thinking and prejudice. Sorting out one from the other can help, perhaps.
What we do know is how things are at the moment, and how they have changed in recent times. We know about levels of economic growth and migration, about changing demographics, about levels of employment and some aspects of the impact of migration on public services. We can’t easily attribute changes to our membership of the EU as there are always many factors, but we can use what we know to test what we are being told. We also know how the EU works – how democratic is it really? What is the European Convention on Human Rights and how does it work? And we know what laws have been implemented on the basis of EU decisions and whether we value the protections which those laws provide to UK citizens (we don’t know whether or not those laws would be maintained if we leave, whatever the leave campaigners might say now).
Let’s look at the issue of migration and population growth. Observing the debate, one would imagine that the UK’s population is experiencing an unprecedented level of growth driven almost entirely by migration, especially from the EU. In fact, while net migration is higher, the level of population growth is now lower than in the mid-1960s, and only a little over half of the current growth is due directly to migration. Over the last decade the UK’s annual population growth has been stable at around 0.7%, while global population is growing at more than 1.1% (down from over 2% in the 1960s). While the gap is closing, non EU migrants are still more than those from the EU. And the statistics are based on migration of at least a year. This excludes tourist visits, for example, but does include those who come to study at University or to work on time limited contracts – they are not necessarily here to stay.
What is important is the impact these net migration and population growth figures have on our society and economy. It is a matter of opinion whether we believe that exposure to a diversity of cultures is positive – I believe it enriches our society. But it is a fact that our population is ageing – around a third of those born today will see their hundredth birthday. There are currently 4 people of working age supporting each pensioner in Britain, by 2035 this number is expected to fall to 2.5, and by 2050 to just 2. Britain needs more migrants, not fewer. In future we could be competing to attract immigrants!
And there is no clear causal relationship between migration and levels of employment and unemployment.
Indeed today the employment rate – the share of 16-64s in work – is 74.2pc, the joint highest since 1971. Unemployment is falling, down by 148,000 over the past year and the unemployment rate is the lowest since 2005. Average earnings are up by 2pc over the past year, while vacancies are up by 17,000.
As we approach the referendum, we are in a period when historically high levels of employment coincide with relatively high levels of net migration and when the long term need for migrant workers is increasing as our population ages. Unless we are going to kill off the baby boomers (please don’t!), we will need increasing numbers of migrants of working age – just what we are getting from free movement of labour within the EU – we should be grateful so many are choosing to come to the UK!
Data on the fiscal impact of net migration is contentious and different studies have come up with various results (http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/fiscal-impact-immigration-uk). But the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that higher net migration would reduce pressure on government debt over a 50-year period. Based on OBR projections, a high net-migration assumption resulted in a public sector net debt as a share of GDP at 73% by 2062-3. With zero net-migration public sector net debt as a share of GDP would rise to 145%.
A positive fiscal impact means more money is available for public services such as health and education, provided governments make the decisions to invest some of the benefits of growth in those services (the current problems arise from inadequate investment ). And we know that the NHS is particularly dependent on migrant workers. Statistics, produced by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), show that 11% of all staff who work for the NHS and in community health services are not British. For qualified doctors it is 26% (10% from the EU). As restrictions on non EU migration have tightened we have become increasingly dependent on EU migration for NHS staffing.
But this is all about the impact on the UK. What about the effect of our referendum decision on the rest of the world?
Action Aid has looked at the impact of EU membership on international development (https://www.actionaid.org.uk/blog/news/2016/06/09/the-eu-referendum-what-does-it-mean-for-tackling-global-poverty). They conclude that ending poverty and inequality; responding to climate disasters and ending deep and bitter conflicts require stronger, not weaker international collaboration. As part of the EU, the UK plays an active role and adds its weight to a European community with global influence that is committed to human rights, equality and development. The ODI Executive Director Kevin Watkins has argued that “Brexit would over time erode Britain’s role as a global leader on development”. The 2 billion euros in British aid transferred to the EU contributes to a pooled fund that is the world’s largest source of multilateral aid. Aid delivered through EU institutions greatly extends the geographic reach of UK aid and the EU is also the largest single source of humanitarian aid for the Syria crisis response. An EU mission — NAVFOR — has contributed to a dramatic reduction in piracy off the Horn of Africa – the UK would not have done that alone. By pooling a portion of our aid and having a seat at the table of the world’s largest multilateral development player, the UK is contributing more effectively to the achievement of global development goals and making a bigger difference for the world’s poorest. The EU could do even better and the UK, as an EU member and a world leader in international development can help make that happen. As Kevin Watkins says: “If Britain wants to leverage the assets of the EU development club it needs to retain club membership.”
The picture for the environment is similar. In the words of Friends of the Earth: “while far from perfect, EU membership has greatly benefited the UK’s nature and the environment. Being part of the European Union has given us cleaner beaches and drinking water, less air pollution, safer products and protected wildlife … exiting the EU would leave the UK’s environment in even worse shape”. Of course, a UK outside the EU could maintain and enhance existing EU environmental protections, but I am inclined to agree with Greenpeace who said it was “much more likely, given the history of the UK resisting and weakening environmental directives from the EU, that we would ditch all the good bits and keep most of the bad bits” in the event of Brexit.
Research commissioned by WWF, RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts concluded that on balance, Britain’s membership of the EU has delivered benefits for our environment that would be hard to replicate in the event of the UK leaving.
For the rest of the world, Europe’s action on climate change is vital. If we don’t succeed in tackling climate change, we will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we will see more natural disasters and more vulnerable people plunged into desperation, as well as more migratory pressures across the world. Without the EU, the climate struggle would have been lost already, but as it is European diplomacy helped forge the global coalition that in Paris last year finally brought real progress. The UK was at the forefront of negotiating the strong EU position that was key to the global agreement in Paris. If you are concerned about climate change, leaving the EU is a very bad move indeed.
There has been much debate about the EU and human rights. One of the criteria for membership is respect for human rights, normally measured by commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights. The Convention and its European Court of Human Rights is not in fact a part of the EU at all but falls under the auspices of the separate 47 member Council of Europe. In the UK the Convention is incorporated into law by the Human Rights Act. Leaving the EU would not automatically change our adherence to the Convention or prevent us being subject to the Court, but it would increase the possibility for the UK to withdraw from the Convention and establish its own Bill of Rights instead. For me that is a powerful reason for remaining part of the EU. You can find out more at https://www.amnesty.org.uk/issues/Human-Rights-Act. Human Rights are universal obligations and Governments are under a legal duty to uphold them, though many don’t. The UK has always championed human rights but the demands for a separate Bill of Rights are based on an interest in weakening our commitments, and would weaken our ability to stand up for universal standards of human rights anywhere in the world. Those who are imprisoned unjustly, disappeared, executed or abused rely on these standards. If we in the UK renege on these the most vulnerable will be the victims.
There has been much debate about democracy and sovereignty in the EU. These are complex questions, but the real position is often misunderstood or misrepresented. The ultimate authority lies with the Council made up of the democratically elected leaders of member states and legislation, while initiated by the Commission has to be approved, and can be amended, by the democratically elected European Parliament. The lack of a built in Government majority, and election by proportional representation means that in some ways the European system is more democratic than our own. The pooling of sovereignty on issues of wider than local relevance is not unique to the EU – it also happens within the UK – local authorities are subject to decisions made at national level and the devolved jurisdictions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are subject to certain decisions reserved to the UK Government. Just as it makes no sense for each village to have its own foreign policy, so it makes sense to combine forces to achieve international goals on climate change, sustainable development and human rights. The EU is a powerful, effective, and generally successful forum for addressing these very issues and that is why I support remaining in the EU, in spite of its imperfections.
When all else is said, there remain many unknowns and many opinions. Facts are disputed and opinions vary. No-one it seems has all, or even many, answers on which the voter can depend. So many will no doubt back the side that is supported by those whose judgement they respect the most. For me that reinforces my commitment to remain. This is not about those who stand for the people against those who stand for the establishment – there are plenty of the latter on both sides! But let me get a bit personal for a minute! if I have to choose on the basis of whose views I trust the most, it would not be Nigel Farage and George Galloway, or Boris Johnson or Michael Gove or Ian Duncan Smith. On economic matters I prefer to give greater weight to the views of the Governor of the independent Bank of England, the IMF, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and 90% of economists. As one letter to the Telegraph has it “economists are a fractious group, but they all want to stay in Europe”. They could all be wrong, but I don’t think we should take that risk unless there are some very strong non-economic arguments in favour of leaving. But there are not. Looking at the dominant Brexit arguments on migration and sovereignty, they don’t add up, while on international development, environment and human rights the case for remaining is strong.
In the end, from my perspective, it is a question of humanity. We need to reach out and join with others to tackle the world’s problems, to see ourselves as a single “us”. That should certainly not be limited to the EU, but that is an important part of asserting our common humanity after centuries of war in Europe. As the opportunities of technology and communication bring us closer together and the threats of climate change and conflict and poverty demand shared action and common solutions, now is not the time to retreat behind our borders – it is a time for us to reach out and work together. My blog is about development, environment and human rights. All of these require deeper international co-operation. They require us not only to think about what is best for ourselves within one country but to consider what is best for the poor, the vulnerable, the excluded, those whose rights are violated across the world and those who are discriminated against and marginalised wherever they live. For all its faults the EU has acted in many ways that have strengthened the rights of these people – through international aid, through strong commitments to human rights, through combined diplomacy on climate change and through EU laws to protect our own environment and human rights.
And it’s also nice not to have to pay excessive roaming charges, to be able to claim compensation when flights are late, and to be able to travel freely throughout Europe!