Brexit, the big decision. Written in March 2016

A European ‘Brexit’ (The UK leaving the European Union) 

In the run up to the 2015 election, it was impossible to follow the political campaigns of all the major parties without listening in on discussions regarding Europe, and more specifically, an possible exit from the European Union. This subject was most noticeably in the domain of the emerging party UKIP, who’s representatives seem to be spewing an endless stream of disparaging remarks against the idea of our membership to the union. Fear mongering of course, was the chief tactic employed in ‘debates’ regarding the UK’s involvement with the EU.

The key arguments against membership were immigration, the cost of maintaining other countries as part of the EU and the EU’s impact on British law. There are of course, other aspects of EU membership that you could argue for and against, but as far the general public’s perception of the EU goes, these three were the main aspects that have caused controversy. Such was the British public’s concern about the European Union that the conservatives offered a referendum if they were to gain power, which they did, and UKIP gained a considerable following thanks to their campaigning. The issue here is that the majority of the British public is not aware of much of the complexities and details of how the European Union benefits the UK and was only fed the benefits of a short-term exit; such is the nature of modern politics. Indeed, the Labour party refused to offer the people a referendum in the event of their ascension, as they were unwilling to take the risk that came with offering people without a thorough understanding, the ability to make such decisions. The public then were told some pretty biased statistics to get them on side of anti-EU supporters, which forced the hand of the conservatives simply as a way of appease agitated Britons.  But for all the benefits we were told of an exit, bigger and longer lasting impacts would unfold upon the decision to leave.

Immigration is perhaps, the most widely fought aspect of the European Union debate. Opponents of European membership argue that giving the other members of the Europe free reign over living and working in Britain is unsustainable and that housing and jobs would be freed up if the borders were more closely guarded. If you needed visa’s they claim, then more work would go to ‘good, hard working, British citizens’. Yet, there is a flaw in this plan. Government data shows that over 3.3million jobs in the UK are dependent on ties to the European Union, mostly in vital sectors like agriculture, manufacturing or commerce. If the UK were to leave the EU, these jobs would have the potential to all fall through, leaving the UK in a undeniably poorer state and whilst immigration allows for ease of access for foreign nations entering and working in the UK so it also allow allows for the opposite. Over 1 million British nationals live and work across the EU, if Britain were to leave the EU, many of these people would be forced back into the UK, searching for work at a time when millions of jobs will have likely collapsed as a direct result of the exit. What Britain would see is a high number of unemployment and dependence on benefits, a high cost to pay indeed.

While on the subject of cost, we should take a look at the second reason behind much of the support for an EU exit, the actual cost of membership. £55 million per day is the famously quoted figure during the UKIP campaign, an undeniably high price. The concept of paying £20 billion per year to be in the EU rocked much of the British population. Considering much of the austerity the country is dealing with, it seems as if such financial power could be put to better use. First, it is important to mention that £55 million per day isn’t an accurate figure, after rebates from a number of EU polices the figure stands at just above £30 million, a lot but still a big difference from those used by the fear mongers during the 2015 election campaign. What many people are not aware of however is that while the UK is paying out a high amount, it is actually seeing far more in terms of profits from commercial exports and money given back by the EU in contributions from other nations than the overall cost of being a member.

This is thanks to the European Single market, a trade bloc which allows for free movements of goods, capital, people and services. The idea is that instead of having individual and separate national interests, that there is one large, intertwined market. This allows for a reduction in costs, paperwork in bureaucracy involved in exporting goods across the continent. In essence this means easier trading between member’s nations. Laws governing the market also prevent businesses from monopolizing European trade, ensuring a competitive environment and fair play. The single market has allowed for the creation of an economic powerhouse that annually produces a combined total £11trillion worth of economic stimulation for its member states. Of that money, Britain sees an average of £400 billion per year in trade, far outweighing the membership cost. Of course, trade would still be available if we were to leave the EU, yet it would require payment of EU import taxes and could be met with restrictions. Every country has their own laws on imports, their own tariffs, standards and more red tape. In order for a non-EU member to trade with those nations, they must comply to each of these stipulations, meaning if Britain left the EU, it would have to make 28 different versions of the same product to meet the requirements of every country in the EU, let alone those outside it. However, being part of the single market means all countries agree to the same import regulations, meaning only a single product variation is required to be produced to sell to all member states. Not only does this cut costs dramatically, but it also enables transversal of goods initially produced for one nation to be sold to another if necessary.

Such ease of trade means big business for the UK, and over half of the trade done by the country is between other EU member states. However, for all the gains we receive, there are some disadvantages. These are to do with constraints of trading between nations that aren’t members of the single trade market. Whilst being a member of the EU provides benefits, it also requires other countries see Benefits too, thus barriers are put up in the form of trade tariffs and non-tariff barriers – such as sanctions, levies or other types of restrictions that reduce the UK’s ability to trade with non-member nations. This works primarily by making it more expensive to trade with non-EU nations, even if their goods are cheaper, meaning savings that could be made are negated by further import and export costs. In essence, it forces the UK to purchase more expensive goods from EU nations rather than from other suppliers such as from America and Asia, however, this also forces EU nations to buy from us and not cheaper nations too.

David Cameron is campaigning to make a number of changes if the UK is to stay within the EU following his promised referendum, one of which simpler and less constrained trade with nations outside of Europe. However it is too early to say if his demands will ever come to fruition. If they were to be realised, then it would provide the UK with a stronger ability to manage trade, although it may come at the price of losing exports to other EU nations taking advantage of trade outside Europe as well.

It’s quite easy to say, stuff the EU and we’ll trade internationally, but herein lies an issue. The facts indicate that even while in the EU, British trade with non member states is on the rise, whilst previous decades have seen the total trade seen between Britain and the EU at around 65%, it is now down to near 50%, which the other 50% coming from developed and developing nations across the globe. Despite this success, however, the EU still proves to be a powerhouse of trade for the UK and the single market has resulted in a reduction of British trade deficit in the year of 2015 – the amount of imported compared to that of exported. The advantage the single market has over foreign trade is reliability. Our connection and sense of community with the EU means that trade on a large scale is guaranteed, improving economic prospects and creating jobs. A move away from the single market is a move into the unknown, into uncertainty. More importantly, it is hard to believe that 50% of British trade would be covered immediately after an exit from the trade bloc, thus trade would continue with EU nations, but it would come at a far greater cost.

If Britain were to leave the EU, they would lose all of the benefits of being part of the single market. The losses as a consequence of leaving the market vary and are only predictions, but we would lose a high amount of European trade as priority will be given to other member states before Britain and what trade we retain would cost a high amount in import tax. Thus, to avoid such losses, which would equate to many billions a year, – some predict £55billion – the UK would have to strike up a deal similar to Norway or Switzerland, whom are not members of the EU yet have agreed to the terms of entering the single market. As non-members of the EU, Britain would have more scope in how it conducted trade with nations outside the single market, while still reaping the benefits of being able to freely trade with other European nations. Now, you may be sitting there thinking, well, that seems like the perfect situation, the best of both worlds. Well, while that might be on the minds of some, others among you might have noticed the caveat in this deal. In order to be part of the single market, we have to agree to the aforementioned terms, free movement of goods, capital, services and people. This doesn’t simply mean workers; this means all citizens of the member states. Essentially, in order to retain membership of the single market, the UK must keep its boarders open to foreign EU nationals. This is a firm stipulation of the agreement to trade, as it allows for free flowing businesses to move people and commodities around without having to deal with red tape. Britain relies on its trade with the EU, without it not only billions of pounds of business would be lost but also those 3million jobs mentioned earlier, thus this is a stipulation it would have to be agreed to.

This would prove to be a difficult pill to swallow. The masses of Britain’s immigration will always remain the chief selling point of an exit to from the EU. No matter the statistics of many jobs cuts we might see, no matter the issues it would cause for expats and holiday makers, a deep-rooted concern amongst British people is the freedom of movement between people of Europe, especially in Eastern-European countries that arrive in the UK, absorb benefits and take jobs (allegedly). Another concern on the minds of people looking for a British exit from the EU, dubbed as the proposed ‘Brexit’ is that the freedom of movement allows for the growing threat of terrorism to more easily find its way to British shores. In the light of the Paris attacks of November 2015, the ease of access from other European countries has got many people worried about not only their jobs and economy, but their safety.

          To discover then, that the primary reason for many wanting to leave the EU – to abolish the freedom of movement rights – is simply not plausible, will not be appreciated by those promised tighter control on the borders. It is worth noting though, that European migration isn’t the negative force that the media might portray it as but, as with everything else, it has its benefits and disadvantages. The advantages are, the UK sees highly trained individuals with expertise in areas across a broad range of fields that can travel and contribute to the economy, all without having to pay for the investment of their education, which was done in their home nation. Statistics show that immigration from members of the EU working inside Britain has contributed £20billion to economic growth in the decade beginning 2001. This was a nearly 65% more than those on benefits cost the of the UK and, what may come as even more of a shock, is that those from eastern-European nations, the people many fear as the biggest drains on the economy, contributed 15% more than they cost the country. On the whole then, migration is actually highly beneficial to the economic growth of the country; EU citizens are by and large, not a drain, but a blessing. However, while the costs for the country as a whole may be overshadowed by the contributions of foreign EU nationals, on a personal level their presence has a very different impact. With the collapse of the public job sector market under austerity, more and more people are being forced into the private sector, where rules are more relaxed and competition is high.

This competition leads to a rivalry, between British citizens and foreign nations and many argue that they should be the contributors to the UK economy, as it is their sovereign right to access the jobs in their own country before those of another nation. Indeed, millions of jobs in the UK are taken by EU citizens, as it is their right to do, but conversely, millions of British people have emigrated to EU nations and taken up their jobs. This is of little importance to people on the shores of Britain though, living under poverty lines, unable to find a job in their home town, while somebody born in another country earns a comfortable living. This is the situation that breeds hostility and a longing to leave the EU for so many. However, as discussed, even with an EU exit there is unlikely to be a limit on the freedom of movement around the UK for EU nations; thus many fight for a prospect that will never actually materialise. Indeed, 1 in 6 people in Britain don’t feel that the benefits of immigration outweigh the disadvantages, but if freedom of movement was still a factor after a Brexit from the European Union, would people still care so much about the referendum? It is unlikely. However, while it may actually see little impact to immigration, an exit from Europe is being hailed as a way to loosen the constraints of the EU on British laws and legislation. But would anything change?

Being a nation under membership of the European Union, Britain must abide by certain legislation put into place by the governing bodies that cannot be overruled. These laws, such as human rights, have supremacy over domestic British law and thus have been inter-weaved into the current legal system to allow for them to remain a dominant force. The argument of those against EU membership is that Europe has too much control over our laws, as demonstrated recently when the Conservatives attempted to bring in internet censorship. The idea, spearheaded by David Cameron, was to bring in a piece of legislation that created an ‘opt-in’ method whereby anyone interested in using to internet to view explicit content had to request access with their internet service provider. Unsurprisingly this got many people up-in-arms about control of their rights to use the internet, widely accepted as an uncensored platform. The EU agreed with the British public, deeming it to break laws about internet censorship and ruled that the legislation could not be passed. Thus, EU law directly influenced a piece of UK government policy.

While this was not a popular piece of legislation, the intervention of the European Union did highlight its ability to control British law. Supporters would claim it ensures fair and impartial ruling, opponents would argue that it means the British government have effectively relinquished control of bringing in laws they believe are approbate for the UK, and this is something they should be able to do as our elected leaders. However, far from being a simply, we’ve left EU, we don’t have to listen to them, European law is so well integrated with British law that things would be a lot more complicated. First, to change the law, you’d have to adjust everything else around it, as legislation would have to be introduced to make up for the rules lost by casting aside EU regulations, but this is not the biggest hurdle the government would face.

It is not specially being part of the EU which gives European law supremacy over British law, but instead the European Committees Act of 1972 that does this. The act is a piece of British legislation, which cannot be repealed while we are members of the EU, that ensures all laws of the EU, both present and future, are upheld by the courts. If the UK were to leave the European Union, this act would have to be repealed, which it now could be, except for one problem. Judges in Britain have the power to stop parliament from repealing the act as it is so intertwined with British law that it could be considered a part of our constitution.                                   If deemed so by the judiciary system, parliament will be unable to remove the law, as they cannot repeal constitutional rights. This scenario, while theoretical, is entirely plausible thanks to the entrenchment of EU law in British courts. A change to this would dramatically alter the way in which the British legal system operates and thus British judges would instead be more likely to seek to retain the European Committees Act of 1972 in order to maintain the current system. As the government does not have the power to stop them, EU law would still hold supremacy in the British courts and therefore, an exit would have very little impact of the way the courts operate.

One final noteworthy area of Britain that will see perhaps the largest impact of a ‘Brexit’ is the agricultural industry. Currently, British farmers are supported by a network of European trade and subsidies from the European Union, around £3Billion a year. As a highly valuable and vital commodity, farmers producing food are given money equating to roughly 40% their annual wage to ensure that operations remain stable and that all of Europe sees a plentiful supply of food. A strong community of trade also ensures food is sold and that the agricultural sector of Britain remains profitable and financially sustainable. Thus far, this system has worked very well. The 21st century has seen a steady rise in productivity and output from British farms, however, predictions of a ‘Brexit@ don’t look favourably on life as a farmer. An exit from the European Union would see those trade networks diminished. While farmers could look to trade further afield, this would by no means be guaranteed, just like other forms of trade the UK relies on. The biggest problem faced though, would be the cut to subsidies, such a loss of income would be a devastating blow to the British agricultural industry, with some predictions believing that only 10% of farms would survive under the new constraints. On the surface this might sound like a ridiculously high rate of collapse, but when you consider the facts, it makes an alarming amount of sense. Supposing you ran a farm and received 40% of your income from the European, that would mean if your farm had to be producing more than 40% gross profit in order to remain successful without such input. In the farming industry, only the most highly efficient and largest farms can make such large profit margins, around 10%. The rest would see immediate output losses compared to investment in livestock, machinery, manpower etc. In order to be profitable they would have to increase efficiency. Shed jobs, use cheaper machinery and cut corners. Farms such as organic and free-range, those that have higher running costs would be hit the worst. This also brings the questions of ethics into the picture. In the years following the European exit, farms would see diminished assets and unprofitability until the majority collapses, leading to greater problems for British society; such as economic loss and a rise in unemployment.

The battle for membership of the European Union arguably has its merits to either side, yet it is being fought for the wrong reasons. The biggest reason people want to leave is to control immigration, something that would see little change in the event of an exit, and the overall cost of being part of the EU, something that is made up for in guaranteed trade. Conversely, the aspects that the public care less for, such as international trade and law changes, will be the things that see a greater impact. The problem here then is that the political parties have been garnering points through distorted views of the EU and preying on the fears and desires of the British public. If the people of Britain feel they want to leave the EU because they disagree with the operations of European trade, then that would be an acceptable and even worthwhile cause to fight for, yet this is not the case. The British people are being misled by a political race where parties care more for votes than offering the cold hard truths of the matter, truths that would likely have been viewed in an unpopular fashion. The truth is though, being in the EU or leaving it will see no major consequences to the issues that matter to the people. Society has been led into appropriating the idea that leaving the EU would a move that will directly benefit them, but in fact it is unlikely to do anything of the sort. Where we have gone wrong then, is to allow this to happen. Millions of pounds have gone into campaigning and more will go into devising a referendum, when in actual fact, the vote with either a yes or no will have only a marginal effect one way or the other. The fact of the matter is that EU law, business and culture in the UK is so heavily imbedded in our society that it cannot be removed with a simple no vote. The biggest impacts will be negative; having a major impact on jobs and British society, the positive will be almost unnoticeable. Society has to understand the importance of community, not just domestically, but in our ever shrinking world, an international one too.            The nations of the European Union help to support each other, yet in the modern day people are obsessed with how things affect their lives, not that of their community, and herein lies one of modern Britons biggest issues, one that has led to fear and anger at a Union that we helped found to support ourselves and our neighbors.