As David Cameron recently confirmed, the UK is heading for an in-out- EU referendum by 2017. Given that just over half of the electorate voted for either the Eurosceptic Conservatives, or Europhobic UKIP, it is likely that those in favour of retaining the UK’s EU membership will have to make a strong case for reform rather than a clear cut Brexit. Despite the EU’s issues, critically the democratic deficit, research strongly suggests that a flat out withdrawal is not the best option for the UK and will lead to harmful consequences. Research suggests that pushing for Brexit presents threats to our GDP, European and world status and our universities, all dependent on the kind of deal our politicians can thrash out. Unfortunately, all this risk will potentially return little or no progress towards the desired goals of increased autonomy over our borders and laws. With such friction over the issue internally, and the recent SNP explosion, the quest for Brexit poses real threat of the end of the UK as we know it.
It is widely accepted that Brexit would bring economic problems to the UK in the short term. Unless the UK was able to negotiate a very favourable free trade agreement with the EU, we would face costly import and export taxes. If a favourable deal turns out not to be possible, it is likely that the UK would revert to exactly the inward economic protectionism that the EU was designed to combat. Losses to GDP, as estimated by LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, would be around 8% in a worst case scenario and 2% were the UK to get a favourable deal. These losses, even with no longer having to pay £11.3 billion annual membership fees, would be felt hard by a Britain already facing severe austerity. In fact, even unreformed membership is still gaining each household about £3,000 a year, or 5% of GDP overall, although this must of course be taken into the context of worries about immigration and loss of sovereignty.
A Brexit would affect how and what we trade, which in turns affects the make-up of our society. The UK is overwhelmingly service based, comprising 84% of the total market in England, with similar figures for the rest of the UK. Losing or restricting our joint market access to Europe will be bad for business; in order to keep London a top financial centre, the service sector would need to deregulate and liberalise further. For those of us who care about the effects of inequality, tax evasion and over-reliance on the city this is not something to be encouraged. The EU represents a great hope for a fairer Europe, already spending nearly a third of its budget on regional development for poorer areas of the union.
EU withdrawal poses a threat to the quality of UK universities and to the opportunities of young people in general. It would almost certainly mean that EU students studying in Britain would have to pay full international-rate tuition fees and have no access to the UK loan system. Despite the prestige and UK student life, this price hike would certainly dent the numbers incoming, and make it more difficult to hire EU staff or collaborate on research internationally.
UK students currently benefit from the new and improved ERASMUS+ higher education mobility scheme. This extra funding, about €350 per month, is a vital boost to the living allowances of students on years abroad. The UK sends fewer people abroad than other EU countries, but the skills and experiences gained from an international study or work placement are personally enriching and beneficial to the UK upon return. Having so many Europeans at university here creates a rich and multicultural environment that is conducive to debate and learning. Labouring the comings-and-goings of Erasmus students can only hinder us and our participation in the scheme remains contingent on our membership to the EEA. While the EU is not perfect in its approach to higher education, the best way to remedy that is to have the strong backing of the UK’s world class university system in a push for reform and continued development of what the EU offers students and academics.
For those who think the UK is better together, an outright withdrawal from the EU poses a serious threat to the union. With Scottish nationalism, despite the narrow loss of last year’s referendum, seemingly stronger than ever, the Europe issue could present an irresolvable bone of contention between Scotland and the rest of the UK. It would be a shame if in fighting over the EU and all the time and energy a Scottish succession would present distracted the government and people at large from the more pressing issues at hand such as cutting the deficit and climate change.
We must not let the EU reform conversation take place behind closed Westminster doors, being handed merely a Yes or No platter in 2017 having had no say in what’s on the menu. We must push for detailed, regular public consultations of every issue of this multi-faceted decision and encourage debate in diverse settings such as universities, trade unions and businesses. People should not vote along muddled party lines or assume that because of our broadly Eurosceptic government that leaving the EU is in practice a done deal.
When discussing the EU, Europhiles must therefore galvanise people to engage and not people fall prey to the false guarantees or lazy xenophobia of UKIP rhetoric. The onus is on us to educate ourselves about the EU, so our position is fact based and coherent leading up to the referendum. The EU has great potential and we must fight for what it could be, not abandon what it is.