The referendum is almost upon us and there have been many arguments made on both sides. When you’re talking about the future it’s difficult to say with any certainty what will happen whatever the result because none of us have a crystal ball. So it is important at this point in the debate to think about what it is we actually know for certain and what questions are still unanswered.
We know that we are currently members of the European Union and that it is the world’s biggest single market, bigger even than the USA. We also know that because we are inside the Single Market we have tariff free trade with 27 other countries with a combined population of over 500 million people. That is big business for the region and the business perhaps most argued over in the referendum, Nissan, exports 80% of the cars made in Sunderland.
The North East is still a manufacturing region and we are the only region to export more than we import. As a country 44% of UK exports go to the EU but less than 8% of EU exports come to the UK meaning that we over whelming benefit from our EU membership. This means that 160,000 jobs in the North East are reliant on the trade with the European Union.
We do not know what our relationship with the EU will be if we leave and whether we will have access to the single market. Economists have produced forecasts of the impact but they are of course just that, forecasts and not certainty. That is where we have to make up our own minds based on the arguments put forward and that’s what Martin Lewis from Money Saving Expert has done. In a very balanced view he has said that ‘A vote for Brexit is unquestionably economically riskier than a vote to remain.’
We know that immigration has been a big issue in this referendum. We know that as members of the EU there is not only freedom to trade but freedom for people to live in other EU countries. We also know that this is a two way street because there are British people living elsewhere in the EU, with hundreds of thousands living in Spain alone. We also know that we do not have open borders and everyone who has been on a foreign holiday will know that they have to show your passport when you come home.
We do not actually know what impact leaving the EU would have on immigration. More people come to the UK from outside the EU than inside and the number of people coming here has gone up not down. That is because we have a relatively strong economy and we know that people predominantly come here to work. Immigration is an issue which gets people very angry but is often a debate had without the facts. We know that in the North East only 1.6% of the population is foreign born. We also know from academic studies that immigrants pay more into the system in taxes than they take out in services.
We know that a big part of the campaign has focused on the money we pay to the EU in terms of our membership fee. It has become absolutely clear that the amount the leave campaign say we pay each week is not true and the UK Statistics Authority has told them that the claim is misleading. However, it is true that we do pay money to be in the EU. As the poorest English region we actually get our money back in its entirety through regional development funds that have played a part in almost every major regeneration project in the region over the past few decades. We do not know if we left how much of this money, if any, would come to the region from the Government in Westminster.
It is true that as a country we pay more to the EU than we get back but that fee is in return for access to the single market. Estimates reckon that for every £1 we pay into the EU we get £10 back, not in cash, but in terms of the economic growth, as well as increased jobs and growth that the single market creates. We know that Norway pays into the EU budget about as much as the UK does in order to get access to the Single Market so we do not know how much we would still end up paying if we left.
There are a whole range of issues that have been in the background of the referendum that haven’t really had much attention but which are in themselves important. When we think of the EU we look east and think of France and Germany but perhaps forget to look west to our closest European neighbour, Ireland. We know that as members of the European Union the link between the UK, with Northern Ireland in particular and the Republic of Ireland are very close and again, we do not know what might happen if we leave.
The fact that we don’t know what will happen if we leave has become one of the main features of the campaign. All we know for certain is what it is like to be a member of the European Union because we currently are. What people have to decide is whether they want to take that risk of voting for an option which could tank our economy and kill our exports industry, or if they want to vote for an option which has bolstered our economy and fostered peace across Europe. On the 23rd of June, it’s up to you.