As the days roll by, it seems increasingly unfair that someone in Rochester or Dundee has the right to make a choice that will affect my life much more than it will affect theirs. The possibility of a referendum on Britain’s EU membership is looming around the corner, and, to make matters even worse, the whole debate is mainly based on xenophobic anecdotes and scaremongering half-truths.
The Horsemen of ‘British Values’
According to the Eurobarometer 82 from last autumn, only a mere half of British citizens felt comfortable enough to declare that they understand how the European Union works. This is not sufficient. The anti-EU tidal wave – promoted by the right-wing, famously hostile media, and a red mug – has simply taken advantage of the public’s inadequate knowledge and lack of interest in European affairs. In their own separate trenches the pro-reform and anti-EU sides are plotting attacks against one another united by a very narrow-minded message; that immigrants are all Satan’s spawn and ruin everything that’s British. Oh joy.
From the trench where India is still part of the Great British Empire, it is no surprise that the EU may appear as a life-threatening conqueror expanding to swallow British sovereignty. But, of course, times have changed, which is exactly why it seems so out of place that even the more sensible side of the argument also embraces the vision that somehow issues such as unemployment, tax avoidance, and the budget deficit (and, apparently, also HIV) would all be miraculously fixed by reducing immigration. Indeed, fear and deception appear to be the driving forces dictating the course of the British EU debate.
Ignorance Demands More Cake
The alarm bells have been ringing day and night since it was revealed that the migration numbers have only increased despite Tory pledges to cut the flow to below 100,000. However, a UCL study from last year revealed that between 2000-2011 the UK has actually benefited from EU migration by gaining a net contribution of around £20 billion (that’s £20,000,000,000 – a rather large number) from EU migrants. Yeah, who’s providing for whom now? Against this background the EU migration doesn’t sound that bad after all, seeing as the EU migrants have higher levels of education as well as employment rates than the native British population.
It has been demonstrated that higher levels of objective knowledge of the EU correlate with having a more positive perception of the Union. The failure of consecutive governments to educate the population on the EU has enabled the populist fearmongering to blossom in the economically insecure times. Maybe if Brussels wasn’t so easily portrayed as this Continental bogeyman coming to eat British babies, the public might finally realise how the UK is already having its cake and now only demanding a second one too. With the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, the UK is nowhere near the top when it comes to the cost of the EU per capita. Compared to Denmark’s €221.93 or Germany’s €115.32 per capita net contribution to the Union, Britain’s €71.55 (£51.90) per capita cost seems only reasonable.
And these costs would just barely reduce if the ‘Brexit’ were to happen. The popular ‘Norway option’ would still mean having a Minister of EU Affairs and having to comply with EU regulations without having any say in the making of them. But if that’s your image of Britain’s European relations, then you’re more than welcome to promote that path. Under this ‘nearly but not quite an EU member’ scenario, the UK would still have to conform to the EU’s trade rules and face nearly as high a cost as it currently does. A complete secession, on the other hand, would have a major impact on UK exports, of which 50.5 per cent go to other EU states, according to UK-EU economic relations statistics released by the House of Commons. Risky business indeed.
Who Gets to Vote?
After bemoaning the current state of the debate, the important question surrounding an EU citizen living in the UK is who gets to vote in the referendum. An Estimated 2.34 million EU citizens live and work in the UK, all of whom are waiting for some clarity and stability to be established in the current situation. Indeed, having other people decide on your future can be nerve-racking, especially when the possible result would have a much stronger impact on the life of a democratically voiceless student from another EU country than it would on the life of a pensioner from Clacton. There are ways for me to make my voice heard, but in the end I will have no say in the democratic process that will affect my future – I will only serve as a by-product of some xenophobe’s dislike of Romanians.
Also worth considering, is whether the 2.2 million British nationals currently living in other European Union countries should be given a vote in the referendum or not. These people are at risk of becoming illegal immigrants if the secession happens, and thus might like to see some certainty to the continental hokey cokey – for the bureaucratic hell that awaits behind that decision will not be short or pleasant.
Interestingly, however, some of these UK immigrants seem to agree with the poll which concluded that UK passport holders think that they should have the right to freely live and work in other EU states while denying the same rights to EU citizens in the UK – conveniently demonstrating the meaning of levels of knowledge and ‘having one’s cake and eating it too’ attitude, which so heavily distorts the referendum debate.
Whoever gets to vote in the referendum, it needs to be made sure that aspects such as colouring books are not considered in the decision-making. Arguments like ‘Brussels is brainwashing our kids’ are only a sad reminder of how low the exchanges on the EU debate have sunk. And as the debate keeps sliding further away from reality, it becomes increasingly more difficult to watch from the sidelines.