With less than a month to go before votes are finally counted, the debate about Britain’s future role in the EU is going from hyperbole to hysteria. On one side, the PM warns of impending financial meltdown if we leave the EU. On the other, the Brexiteers spread fear of impending invasion by hordes of migrants intent on rape and pillage.
This makes it difficult for the rest of us to sift fact from fiction or know what a vote for either side will actually mean.
Personally I’ve tended to be in favour of the EU, partly because the alternative was so unappealing – if the likes of Farage, Galloway, Le Pen et al are against it, I must be for it. Not an intellectually rigorous position, I admit.
Researching NCVO’s Guide to the EU debate helped me to get things a little clearer. So for what it is worth, here is my contribution to EU myth busting:
The EU is anti-democratic: this is a bit of a red herring, as the EU is not a democracy. It is an intergovernmental body, ie top-level decisions are agreed by our Prime Minister and other Heads of State, while the detail of policies are agreed by ministers from each of the 27 Member States. Members of the European Parliament, who are elected, can veto decisions made at both levels.
It might not be ideal, individual governments will sometimes have to compromise, but it does enable Member States to get together to make the Single Market work and tackle common challenges such as globalisation, climate change, or an ageing population.
EU migrants just want to take advantage of our benefits system: its fairer to say that people come to the UK to work, paying more in taxes than they take in benefits. For example, between 2000 and 2011 EU migrants to the UK made a net contribution to the public finances of £20 billion – approximately £5 billion of this came from East European workers.
And its not all one way: significant numbers of Brits have moved to other EU countries to live, work or study, including over 400,000 retirees. Others have bought second homes in places such as France, Italy and Spain, made easier with the introduction of cheap flights to Europe, a benefit of a common transport market.
There’s too much costly red tape: while its true that some EU regulations have been very cumbersome, Boris’s stories of bendy bananas and the like are entirely bogus. Indeed, common standards actually reduce regulation, enabling British firms to sell the same product in all 28 Member States without having to meet 28 different regulations.
And one person’s regulatory burden can be another’s benefit: the EU has often led the way on equal rights, for example, or action to tackle pollution and global warming. I’ve not really heard anyone say what will happen to these vital protections should we leave the EU.
Sovereignty, the slogan of the Brexiteers, is a means not an end. So the million dollar question for them is: If you win, what are you going to do? What deals will you make with the rest of the world? How will you protect people’s rights? How will you hold global corporations to account or tackle climate change? We know what you are against, but what are you for?
The wrong debate?
There is much not to like about the EU as it stands, but we shouldn’t forget what it stands for. Its original vision is as critical today as it ever was: ‘a vision of society that combines sustainable economic growth with improved living and working conditions’, of social justice and solidarity. .
And that is my real problem with the debate so far: its not just that the facts have gone flying out the window, crucial though that is. Its that we’re having the wrong debate. It shouldn’t just be about markets and migrants, but what sort of world do we want to live in? And do we have a better chance of achieving that world as an independent sovereign state or by working in partnership with others?
As for me, I’m off to Rome for the weekend, with my European passport and European health insurance card, taking advantage of a cheap flight and reduced roaming charges courtesy of the EU …
 C Dustmann & T Frattini, 2014, ‘The fiscal effects of immigration to the UK’ in The Economic Journal Royal Economic Society / John Wiley & sons
 European Commission Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion Directorate, 2011, Buying Social: A guide to taking account of social considerations in public procurement