Saturday, 11 June 2016

Brexit or no Brexit?

The referendum campaign, to decide whether or not the UK should leave the European Union, is nearing its climax. Voters will have their say and it will then be up to the politicians to implement the wishes of the majority. The main attraction to voting Leave would seem to be largely emotional. Unlike the Scottish independence referendum this campaign, in my view, is based far more on emotion. In the case of Scotland the economic arguments won out in the end. Who wants greater unemployment and a weak currency arrangement? The Scots made their decision based on cold facts . The emotional feelings of nationalism were cast aside.

Immigration, Nigel Farage tells us, is the single biggest issue facing Britain today. A growing security threat, due to the EU’s open borders policy, is also talked about by the Leavers. On the economic front, they say, Britain’s future will be far better outside the control of the bureaucrats in Brussels. The UK is a proud country. It boasts a strong multi ethnic society. Yet growing immigration has made some feel the situation has become a problem, a problem which can only be solved by leaving the EU.

It is true that Britain is one of the most prosperous nations on earth. Leaving the EU may not be a bad idea (for Britain at least) if they were part of an alternative network of trading nations, outside the EU. However this network has not yet been established and it is hard to imagine it ever being established. Leaving the EU now would be like someone walking out of a secure job with no alternative employment lined up. A ‘Brexit’, which looks increasingly likely at time of writing, could lead to greater economic risk. In addition there is only so much a democratic country can do to stem immigration levels.

On EU bureaucracy Mr Farage, Boris Johnson MP, Michael Gove MP, Priti Patel MP, Chris Grayling MP and other prominent Leavers, may have a point. The EU is too political in nature (largely to form a bulwark against Russian expansion in Eastern Europe) with too many member states than is necessary. Forming a consensus between all member states must be a real problem for those in charge. Reform is badly needed if the EU’s reputation is to be salvaged. If the British vote to leave this club of nations then the over politicisation of the organisation will be to blame.

Turning to Northern Ireland, visited recently by former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair. At first I was amazed at the decision of the DUP to support a ‘Brexit’. How on earth do they sell this to the large – mainly Unionist voting – farming community, I asked myself? Surely if Britain leaves the EU this would mean farmers would no longer receive subsidies. In such circumstances Arlene Foster would have to go cap in hand to the Treasury in London to make up the shortfall. At present funding to the NI executive is being cut by the central government at Westminster. It is hard to see how the province can benefit economically from Britain leaving the EU. The emotional factor plays well with Unionists but wrapping oneself in the Union Jack won’t stop an economic slump, which would be the likely outcome – at least in the short term – of a ‘Brexit’. Again there is much that needs to change in relation to the EU but separating from that group of trading nations would be akin to throwing the baby out with the water, a serious – unnecessary – risk.

On the Remain side the most credible argument for staying is economic. If it weren’t for that it is likely there would be no referendum held on this issue. The matter would’ve been decided long ago. As I write, the Leave campaign has received a boost in the polls. This puts them ahead of the Remain side (55% to 45%). If this is a true representation of voters’ intentions then it may be that the issue of immigration has greater traction with the public than economics. The latter is a more abstract subject for people to get to grips with than the former. By contrast, immigration is understood better by the ordinary man/woman out on the street. The economy is a more long term consideration, but no less important. The benefits to the UK of staying inside the EU are considerable. These benefits will probably only be fully realised if a ‘Brexit’ is triggered on the 23 June. It is important for voters to keep this in mind as Polling Day approaches.