With the referendum on the UK’s exit from the European Market only a few days away I have been trying to come to grips with the reasons given by Brexit supporters for a “Leave” vote. After all this will be the biggest event for the British people for many a long year.
I have to put my cards on the table. I have always believed that the UK should be part of the EU. Britain has always been closely linked to Europe, politically, economically and culturally. Over the years we have fought wars with or against virtually every European country. Take away all reference to Europe and there would be very little British history left.
However many people believe passionately that it is in the best interests of the UK to leave the European Community, and no doubt there are many others who could be persuaded.
Let’s examine the reality of their case.
The EU has caused the immigration crisis
So let’s look at the facts and numbers that support this argument:
In 2015 net immigration of non-UK citizens rose to 373,000, after adjusting for a net outflow of British citizens of 39,000. Wow!
But – less than one half of the 373,000 originate from within the European Community. The rest come from countries outside the European Community, and would therefore not be affected if the Brexiteers had their way.
This means that if there was no immigration from EU countries in 2015, an additional 188,000 people would still have come into the UK.
Is EU immigration of 184,000 unsustainable or even undesirable? After all, this amounts to no more than 0.003% of the existing population. Let’s look more closely at where these people have been coming from.
Immigration from countries that were EU members before 2004 (the EU14 states) increased from 7,000 in 2002 to 18,000 in 2010. In 2011 numbers started to increase because of the eurozone crisis, in 2014 reached 79,000, and remained at that level in 2015.
Many Western European citizens came into the UK over that period because of worsening employment opportunities and high taxation in their home countries. Over the same period unemployment in the UK declined by 32%. EU migration has if anything been beneficial to the UK and our economy, and has made few demands on public services.
Immigration from new EU member states in Eastern Europe (EU8) started to take off in 2004, followed by additional numbers from Bulgaria and Romania (EU2) in 2007.
After 2004 immigration from the EU8 countries rose rapidly to a peak of 87,000 in 2007, but has been declining steadily to 47,000 in 2015. The trend is downwards, and will probably remain so as the economic benefits of EU membership translate to improved employment prospects at home.
Finally, let’s look at the effect of immigration from Bulgaria and Romania (the EU2 countries). This increased sharply from 2012 onwards and totalled 58,000 in 2015, or 15% of total immigration. There seems ample evidence that a large proportion of these immigrants have taken jobs that nobody else wanted. Large parts of the farming industry as well as the care sector would go out of business without Eastern European immigrants.
Moreover, most EU2 workers are economic migrants. They want to earn money for their own upkeep, and also to send home to their own families. There is nothing new or wrong about this. The whole resurgence of Germany’s industry in the 1950’s and 1960’s depended on immigrant labour from low wage economies.
It is too early to predict the long-term trend of EU2 migration. However, we do know that the number of EU2 immigrants who decided to return home increased by 40% between 2014 and 2015, so in all probability the increase in net immigration from Bulgaria and Romania will diminish over a period of time.
Countries in the Middle East and North Africa have been devastated by wars over recent years. Millions of their citizens have been made homeless or have fled religious persecution. This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. Maybe as many as 1.8 million refugees from these war-torn countries entered the EU in 2015.
The UK has opted out of any plans for a quota system but, according to Home Office figures, 1,000 Syrian refugees were resettled under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme in 2015. The Prime Minister has said that the UK will accept up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next 5 years.
Rightly or wrongly the European migrant crisis will have little impact on the UK, and is therefore not relevant to the Brexit argument. (Personally, I am appalled by the reaction of the international community to this crisis, and in particular of those states which were the original cause, and are now prolonging it for their own political reasons. But that is another matter).
If immigration rates are indeed excessive, a Brexit decision would have no effect whatsoever over the more than 50% of net immigrants from outside the EU.
(It is worth noting that migrants from outside the EU are down 25% from the peak of 370 in 2004, while numbers leaving the UK remain almost static since 1991. It seems that the UK is becoming a less attractive place for people to come and live!)
It may well be true that immigration is causing undue pressure on public services in some parts of the Country, and in particular health (the NHS) and education. Migrants always have preferred to live in their own communities when they arrive, so there will be local pressure on services.
However, additional pressure on education and health resources has been caused primarily by the net increase in migrants from outside the EU of 3.8 million over the past 20 years.
If, and it is a big if, EU migration policies remain the same and we continue our membership, immigration from EU states will continue to benefit the UK economy with little additional burden on public services.
Overall, immigration from the EU under the current regime is a good thing and will remain at an acceptable level in future.
Conclusion: In summary, the argument that leaving the European Union will significantly reduce immigration is extremely weak and cannot justify the Brexit risk.
Brexit and “Getting our Country back”
Brexit campaigners claim that leaving the EU will hand back “sovereignty” to the British people. However, like many Brexit slogans, we are never told what this actually means.
Very few EU regulations have any direct effect on the man in the street, apart from many progressive laws such as health and safety, employee rights and protecting the environment, which benefit us all.
There is a lot of confusion over the EU and Human Rights. However, the European Court of Human Rights is totally separate from the European Union, although all EU states have signed up to the Convention. The Court is an organ of the Council of Europe, formed in 1949, even before the EU came into being.
Much publicity has been given to high-profile cases about extraditing suspected terrorists for trial. Among these were the extraditions of Abu Hamza al-Masri to the USA and Abu Qatada al-Filistini to Jordan after long delays and unsuccessful legal defences. To rub salt into the wounds, substantial legal costs were paid out of public funds (aka taxpayers’ money). However, this has nothing to do with the EU.
There is a general feeling that the Convention on Human Rights is due for an update. However, the concept of universal human rights was developed after the Second World War by the Americans, British and French as a basis for war crimes tribunal hearings. Any modification would be some hot potato, but still totally outside the control of the European Union.
The European Arrest Warrant (EAW) system was established in 2004. Once issued it requires a member state to arrest and transfer a criminal suspect or sentenced person to the issuing state so that the person can be put on trial or complete a prison sentence. This procedure has been successfully used by successive governments to extradite gangland and drug baron fugitives, in particular from Spain.
If the UK leaves the EU it will be much more difficult for the British courts to bring criminals who have fled overseas to justice. No doubt many such persons who are still at large will vote to leave!
Conclusion: The case for “Getting our country back” has not been made.
EU membership costs the UK £360 million each week
Leading Brexiteers have claimed that the UK would save £360 million each week which could be spent on the NHS if we left the EU.
However, more recently they have admitted that this is the gross amount paid to the EU, before deducting well over half that amount which flows back to the UK in rebates, subsidies and grants. The actual cost to the UK is closer to £135 million each week or about 12.5% of what we spend on defence.
Is this value for money? Well, the only way to really find out the value of what the UK gets from the EU is by leaving it. However, a report prepared by the Confederation of British Industry concludes that the commercial benefit of EU membership massively outweighs the cost.
There is of course the wider economic argument which has been debated at length elsewhere. However, the unanimous view from national banks within and outside the EU, as well as the many financial think tanks and commentators is that Brexit will have negative economic consequences for the UK. Brexit campaigners have been vociferously dismissive of “experts”. Economic forecasting is difficult at the best of times, but I have yet to come across and reasoned argument that Brexit will be beneficial.
Conclusion: The global economy is weak and any disruption following Brexit could have disastrous consequences for the UK.
If you have read this far – congratulations on your patience! Also you won’t be surprised to read that I will be voting “Remain” come referendum day.