On the 30th April 2016, Durham University Politics Society along with Team Global held an insightful debate arguing the pros and cons of Brexit. Apart from learning more about why we should or shouldn’t leave the EU, there was another function of the debate: to poll the audience’s view at the beginning of the debate and see whether this would change at the end of the debate.
To swing the audience’s opinion in their favour Jude Kirton Darling, a Labour MEP from the North East of England and Bob Hull, the former director of the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels took the stage to defend the UK’s EU membership. The pair were to meet opposition from a vocal Jonathan Arnott, a UKIP MEP for the North East of England along with ex-Durham law student Anna Firth, who’s currently the Chair of Women for Britain.
Supervising the four speakers, the Chairs of the debate, Laurence Smy, Chairman of Team Global and First Vote and Dr. Christian Schweiger, Senior Lecturer at Durham’s School of Government and International Affairs both initiated the debate by outlining the historical context of the EU and how it functions. In particular, Smy, explained how European integration was first initiated when the European Coal and Steel Community was created after the Second World War to maintain peace amongst European countries, especially France and Germany. Dr. Schweiger went on to emphasise how decision making in the EU is intergovernmental, despite the claims by eurosceptics that it is made by supranational bodies such as the European Commission. This is because all members of the Council of Ministers have to agree for legislation to be passed. He ended by observing that since the 1990s there has been more debate concerning the transparency of the EU as a result of Angela Merkel doing backroom deals with other EU countries, leading to fear of German hegemony within the EU.
In contrast to Dr. Schweiger’s analysis of the Germany’s hegemony within the EU on an international level, Jude Kirton Darling opened the debate on behalf of the Europhiles, by providing an inspiring story on a more local level. Her mother, who fought to ban toxic waste incinerators with the help of EU law, which she read about in Durham University’s Bill Bryson Library, managed to ban these toxic pollutants despite the opposition of corporate lawyers defending the firm in charge of the installation of incinerators. This, she felt, demonstrated how the EU has enabled people like her mother to protect locals from “the power of vested interests”.
She went on to create a feeling of personal solidarity and belonging with the countries of the EU by reminding us how “ERASMUS schemes have enabled us to learn about and from each other” and that our world is bigger because the EU exists. After all, “You can fall in love in Barcelona and stay there with your partner or come back to London and live with them” all thanks to the EU’s freedom of movement. Kirton Darling was clearly highlighting the sense of common identity that the EU has managed to create amongst its member states.
Other arguments included reiterating Barack Obama’s assertion that we are more likely to have a bad deal with the US if we leave the EU, then emphasising how the EU has improved labour rights, while at the same time, improving economic inequality, especially through the Labour and Socialist MEPs, which through the EU, have brought together programmes such as the youth employment initiative, involving investment of £50m to help young people get jobs. On a more local level, even the Lumiere festival in Durham received EU contributions.
To conclude, Jude Kirton-Darling warned that Russia continues to enxourage and support the far right, in order to further their strategic interests. The implication being that leaving the EU will prove a threat to the UK’s security, especially with regard to Vladimir Putin, now considered one of the world’s “most dangerous security threats”, a claim that many eurosceptics such as Jonathan Arnott disregarded as characterising euroscepticism as far right in order to “poison the well”.
Arnott began by insisting that the money we get from EU comes from our own money and that we could replace every single penny and, according to him, more of the UK’s EU contributions are redistributed throughout the EU. He immediately rebutted the Labour MEP’s claim that the EU improved worker’s rights by pointing out that the Equal Pay Act of 1970 existed before the UK joined the EU.
One of the most interesting moments of the debates for your correspondent was when instead of arguing that the EU was too lenient on immigration like most of the prominent UKIP figures, Arnott turned the tables, criticising the EU for being too harsh on immigration, particularly on immigrants from outside the EU, who face higher studying costs, more difficulty to obtain work and residence within the EU member states followed by the inability to obtain student loans. He therefore argued for an immigration system that treated all immigrants equally.
Arnott made it clear that EU reform was a “piped dream”, as it requires negotiation between all 28 member states for trade deals to be made or for EU treaties to be modified. He even had a humanitarian argument for leaving the EU, suggesting that we cannot help poor countries through trade because the tariffs that the EU puts on their exported goods reduces their demand within the EU.
The UKIP MEP reassured his audience that the UK will not be isolated if Brexit occurs, mentioning how the UK economy is bigger than those of non-EU countries such as Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein put together: if they can establish trade deals, the UK could get better ones through the sheer bargaining power of being the world’s 5th largest economy.
He argued that it is the EU that is making UK businesses go bust or sack staff, as a result of increases in VAT and finished his speech by accusing Cameron of “campaigning for the EU to keep his job”.
To counter Arnott’s economic arguments, Robert Hull used his expertise obtained in Brussels to make us aware of how the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) reported that each household benefits by £3000 due to EU membership and that average households could be £4000 a year worse off if we leave. He went on to insist that The US will not be as bothered about establishing a trade deal with the UK since its GDP is less than that of the EU.
After citing the common pro-EU argument that the UK would still have to contribute to the EU budget if it ‘Brexits’, he insightfully revealed how Norway pays more to the EU per capita than the UK despite not being a member state.
Hull concluded by making us aware of the inconvenience that Britain would have to renegotiate the EU legislation it signed up to if it leaves the EU, which will keep the UK’s civil service busy for the next two years and that they “could be doing better”.
However, the inconvenience of renegotiating EU membership was not a major issue for Anna Firth, as she was more concerned with the fact that the UK would not get a say in EU legislation, she illustrated this by pointing out that the UK was outvoted in the council of ministers more times than every other country, showing that the UK already has very little influence in the EU. However, it is not only the EU where the UK lacks influence as a result of its membership: the UK used to have a seat in the World Trade Organisation, but it has been replaced by one EU seat, which only represents “1/28th of British interests”. But that is not where it ends: 500 MEPs voted for the UK to lose its seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and be replaced by an EU seat. For the Chair of Britain’s Eurosceptic women, it is clear that EU membership only seeks to undermine British influence both domestically and worldwide.
Firth drew upon an economic argument to counter that of Bob Hull illustrating how in a presentation from the director of The British Hovercraft Company, the biggest European exporter of leisure hovercrafts, she claimed that inside the EU they have massive problems with exporting because the EU imposes some of the highest tariffs in the world concerning the countries that don’t have deals with the EU. Tariffs increase the price of the £50,000 hovercrafts by 226% spoiling potential business deals.
On the matter of security, she made it clear that it was the US who defended Europe against the USSR and that intervened in Yugoslavia to preserve peace during the war in the 1990s, highlighting that the EU was a disaster when it came to peacekeeping in Yugoslavia. She went on to assert that the NATO community is 900 million people rather than 500 million and the US pays more into NATO than 11 EU budgets put together, hence it is more of a force to be reckoned with. This assertion is slightly inaccurate, as NATO’s website indicates that the US spent $649 billion on defence in 2015, while the EU’s budget for 2015 according to europa.eu, was €145 billion ($165.3 billion), but Firth still makes a valid point in arguing that NATO spends more on defence, hence it is more effective when maintaining peace and security.
She concluded by notifying us that the rest of the world is 6.5 billion customers, as opposed to 0.5 billion people in the EU, hence the world market has a lot more potential than the EU. Furthermore, Firth denied that being members of the EU will let us have trade deals with much larger global markets, even arguing that the EU is utterly useless at making trade deals, drawing upon examples of its failures to obtain them with the US, Japan, India, China, Australia, Canada.
After Firth’s conclusion that the choice was “between being in or out, but either being out or out and a little bit in”, the debate ended with a Q&A session. This got a bit heated when Firth was accused by the europhiles of mixing facts, which ended the conference in an entertaining manner. Everyone left the lecture room with a lot more knowledge and even a shift in opinion. This was reflected in the poll that took place at the end, where the percentage of those who were undecided rose by 8% from 9% up to 17% in the subsequent poll. The percentage of pro-leave votes increased by 14% from 14% at the start, to 28%. Finally, the pro-remain votes fell by 21% from the original 77% to 56%*.
Both votes didn’t seem reflective of recent opinion polls regarding EU membership: YouGov, observed figures from April 2016, which indicated that 42% of British people surveyed are pro-leave and 41% are pro-remain, but as we all know, pollsters have proven notoriously inaccurate of late.
*The percentages of the second vote added up to 101%, as they have been rounded to the nearest full number.