Should the UK leave the European Union? I think not
On June 23, 2016, the people of the United Kingdom (UK) will determine their destiny, and the whole world is watching. The decision on membership of the European Union (EU) is the most significant choice to be made by the country this century so far, with far reaching consequences not just for the UK, but for Europe and beyond.
I write as a British citizen, born and raised in the UK with a Pakistani heritage and I practice as a human rights barrister. However, my decision for the referendum will not be based on what is best for me, but what I believe will bring the greatest happiness for the greatest number for now and the generations to come.
The EU is failing and the tide of discontent throughout the continent rises high, but I will be voting to remain in the EU and then I will join others in bringing greater transparency, democracy and accountability to the EU institutions so that they better serve the people that they are there to govern.
The EU began with just six countries forming the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1958 with the intention of fostering economic co-operation. It has since evolved in to a vast and highly complicated organisation spanning 28 countries and 510 million people with its own president, judiciary and parliament governing on issues including banking, commerce, trade, agriculture, health, climate, environment, justice, migration, external relations and security.
In the UK, approximately 50 per cent of all laws are influenced by EU laws and regulations, and approximately half of the UK’s imports and exports of goods and services are traded within the EU. In 2015, an estimated 270,000 citizens from other EU countries immigrated to the UK, and 85,000 emigrated abroad, making ‘net migration’ to the UK around 185,000 individuals from the EU. The cost of UK’s membership to the EU is approximately £8.5 billion per annum, with £13 billion being given to the EU and £4.5 billion spent back in the UK.
Given the enormous significance the EU has in governance of the UK, it is surprising that voter turnout in the EU elections has hovered around only 35 per cent and perhaps unsurprising why debates over continued membership have been so heated in the run up to the referendum.
In a continent in which two World Wars have been engineered and fought in the past century, taking the lives of hundreds of millions and bringing desolation around the world, one of the crowning achievements of the EU is to have secured relative peace and stability between European countries over the past 60 years. Indeed, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this reason in 2012.
However, the price of peace has not been equally shared between countries or between different economic classes. In the post 2008 global recession era, it has been clear that the leaders of the EU have compelled the poorest countries to accept shameful austerity measures that ensure their deprivation and loss of independence to the benefit of stakeholders with a vested interest in maintaining continuity within the EU. In Greece, the ruling government was forced into imposing a series of disgraceful measures on its own population that would eliminate protection for the most vulnerable, compel the privatisation of valuable state institutions, scrap a range of tax exemptions and amnesties and forcibly increase the age of retirement by withdrawing pension support.
When the Greeks elected Syriza, a party that ran a campaign on anti-austerity, the leaders of the EU responded by threatening complete political isolation and financial suffocation and, in the end, even Syriza relented and accepted terms despite a referendum in which 61 per cent of the Greek population voted against such an agreement. The Greeks are now guaranteed to continue paying a heavy price for continued EU membership with a 174 per cent debt as a portion of GDP compared to just 22 per cent when it joined the EU in 1981. The outcome of the Greek struggle sent a message to all other countries suffering from crippling debt that the reins of power over the financial direction of EU countries is not for a country’s population to determine, but for the leading bureaucrats of EU institutions.
The UK is, of course, not a poor country and is not faced with the draconian imposition of austerity measures by the EU in the same way that Greece was. In theory therefore, on June 23, 2016, the UK population should be in a position to vote on continued membership without a climate of fear and divisiveness generated by EU bureaucrats. Instead, it is our own ruling government in Westminster which has relentlessly pursued aggressive austerity measures since 2010 that has threatened its population with financial catastrophe if the UK votes to leave the EU. The UK’s prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer have warned that the UK would become ‘permanently poorer’, shrinking by six per cent by 2030 costing every household the equivalent of £4,300 per year, that mortgages would be significantly more expensive and that the UK would ‘plunge in to recession’ with as many as 820,000 jobs lost within just two years.
The claims have been vehemently denied by the Leave campaigners, including other members of the government’s cabinet who point towards the UK’s growing trade with the BRIC countries and who argue that the UK would still remain in a free-trade zone with other European countries, regardless of EU membership. However, the Leave campaign have so far been similarly guilty of employing tactics of fear and division by forcefully condemning the arrival of migrants ‘taking British jobs’ and the possible ‘influx of terrorists’ making ‘excessive immigration’ the number one most cited reason for leaving by those intending on voting to leave the EU. Regardless of which side of the debate is presenting, the facts and figures relating to the UK’s memberships of the EU are rarely presented neutrally and throughout my conversations with fellow voters, fear, confusion or plain ignorance over the role of the EU seem to prevail.
The referendum concerns how the UK’s population will be governed, whether it will be primarily by Westminster by members of parliament appointed to govern the UK alone, or by both Westminster and the European Parliament in Brussels which will govern all European Union countries as a whole. This is neither a question about left or right wing politics, nor a question of liberalism or conservatism as both Westminster and Brussels have demonstrated their propensity for decision making on all shades of the political spectrum.
The important question is whether or not there are issues that we face that would benefit from having the involvement and co-operation of countries across Europe. For me, the answer is yes, but only if that involvement operates in a transparent, democratic and accountable way that works to the mutual benefit of all those to whom the decisions concern.
In the 21st century, it is imperative that countries work together on reducing climate change, promoting green energy and protecting human rights and the environment. Contrary to the assertions made by the Leave campaign that ‘British jobs’ should be for ‘British people’, all jobs should be available to the best candidate regardless of their race or nationality in order to optimise genuine productivity and meritocracy. Achievement in the fields of scientific research, space exploration and technological innovation require us to learn from and collaborate with others beyond our own borders. Europe has a rich and abundant history with diverse scenery which begs to be travelled to and explored free of burdensome check-points and visa controls. For these reasons, now is not the century for isolation and confinement to national boundaries and the UK must not therefore sever its ties by voting to leave the EU. However, there is an enormous democratic deficit within EU institutions that must be addressed. It is entirely unacceptable that the UK population should be so extensively governed by leaders which so few people voted for or have any way of challenging.
If the UK remains in the EU after the referendum, there must be fundamental improvements to overcome the widespread discontent on how the EU functions and to re-establish trust amongst those it seeks to govern. I will vote to remain in the EU and that will be just the beginning of a movement to promote greater democracy in Europe.
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