First up the good story, which occurs onelate summer’s afternoon on the beach at Bamburgh. My son and his friend are jumping the waves up to their waists. A little way to their left a boy of a similar age and with a shock of blonde hair is tentatively paddling. His father, as it turns out, speaking in German encourages him to go in deeper. The son baulks, retreats and comes over to me and asks, ‘Is it safe?’ I explain it is and he returns to the water, venturing in further. His father comes over. ‘We’re from Austria, we’re landlocked, we only have lakes, and my son has never been in the sea before’.
We chat a bit. They have just arrived today on the ferry from Holland for a holiday. He asks me what I do. I say I’m a member of the European Parliament and the tone of the conversation changes. ‘My father was conscripted by the Nazis into the SS aged only sixteen. He survived the war but my aunts say that he was never the same again; it destroyed him as a person. That’s why I’m a big supporter of the European Union, it’s kept the peace in Europe’. Good.
Second the bad, the setting Sunderland, a workday lunchtime. As I walk into the citycentre, I pass a pub and outside there is a sign on the pavement. A workman is standing next to it and he stops me. ‘Does this say two pounds thirty a pint?’ ‘No’, I respond, ‘It says, kick-off at two thirty’. Bad.
Finally, the ugly tale resulting from a mackerel fishing trip from Seahouses. Our lines cast, I strike up a conversation with the man next to me on the boat. He has a southern accent. ‘Where’re you from?’ I ask. ‘I’m from Kent’. ‘Are you here on holiday?’ ‘No, I moved here last year’. ‘Why Seahouses?’ ‘Because there aren’t any foreigners’. Ugly.
The North East, along with the rest of the country, is embarking on a prolonged debate on the pros and cons of our membership of the European Union (EU) that will conclude with a referendum before the end of 2017.
My three stories tell us something of the context and potential nature of how the debate will play itself out here in the North East and beyond.
Our region has a long North Sea coastline with several major ports that for centuries have been the entry points for people from all over the world but especially from mainland Europe. The Austrian father and son are a recent example of that ebb and flow. For many there is a recognition that immigration has made us who we are in thisregion and we like who we are. For many the EU, along with NATO, has played a key role in helping keep the peace in Europe since the end of the catastrophe that was the Second World War. As a consequence many would see the EU as a good thing.
For others the opposite is the case hence for them the free movement for EU citizens within the borders of the EU is a threat and a worry not a good thing. Central to these concerns are issues around jobs and housing hence EU immigration is to be opposed not embraced. This will also be part of the context and if we don’t manage this part of our EU debate with care (and it is a legitimate part of the debate) then it could become ugly.
The North East is also a relatively poor region with the associated depressing indicators; high unemployment, poor health and low educational attainment as a resultwe have some of the highest levels of male illiteracy in the country. How then do we ensure that the large number of voters in the North East who struggle with basic reading are able to engage with the EU referendum debate and ultimately able to vote in an informed way? It will be bad if we fail to achieve this.
To conclude, are we up for the challenge ahead? Can we work to ensure we have a good EU referendum debate here in the North East and not a bad, ugly one?
This article was originally published in The Journal on Monday 15th June 2015