The original version of this column appeared in The Journal newspaper on 27/4/16
I recently asked a friend how they thought the European Union referendum was shaping up. Her reply was, “I’m sick of the poor quality of the public debate, it’s heat not light”.
With as many as a third of voters yet to decide which way to vote we sorely need to decrease the heat and increase the light.
A lot of undecided voters are saying they want facts and here’s where we hit the problem. It’s a fact that there are 751 Members of the European Parliament, but it’s an opinion as to whether we do a good job. It’s a fact that if we leave the EU our automatic right to live and work or retire to any of the 27 EU countries would no longer exist, but it’s an opinion as to whether we could successfully re-negotiate this right.
This is why this debate is proving so problematic for many. We know what our current EU membership is like, ‘warts and all’, as Jeremy Corbyn described it. Conversely we don’t know what life outside the EU would be like. We are being asked to compare apples and pears, it’s what the philosophers call a counterfactual debate.
So maybe don’t treat the EU referendum debate as a mathematical problem to be solved, with an answer to be reached, because it’s not that kind of problem. You have to make up your own mind.
If we approach the debate this way then the pieces seem to fall more easily into place. We know where we don’t want to be. We don’t want to be living in war torn Syria, we want to be living in peace. The nations of the European Union are currently experiencing their longest period of peace since the Roman Empire. Central to the creation of that period of peace has been the European Union, as even the Daily Mail has acknowledged. As Churchill said, “Jaw, jaw, is better than war, war”. NATO has also played a role but the intertwining of national interests, the pooling of aspects of sovereignty, has hugely reduced the likelihood of any EU country fighting another member state.
In turn the EU shines as a beacon of democracy and stability to a wider more troubled world. A continent where the rule of law holds sway and 500 million people live in peace and relative prosperity. As evidenced by the fact that many others, less fortune than ourselves, around the world will do almost anything to get here and be part of something that at the moment they can only dream of.
As someone who sees themselves as an internationalist the idea that the EU is a way of helping poorer countries to develop appeals to me. In the 1980s the EU set about investing in Spain, Portugal and the Republic of Ireland. Major infrastructure projects, still there today, were the result of the movement of funds from the likes of Germany, France and the UK. I don’t deride that, I welcome it. Today, we, the rich countries, are transferring funds to the former countries of Communist Eastern Europe; to Poland, to Romania, to Croatia. I don’t begrudge that, I celebrate it.
Not only have funds been transferred from rich countries to poor countries, but also from rich regions to poor regions. So within the UK money has moved, as a result of our EU membership, from the rich south of England to the poorer North East of England – resulting in our region getting more money out of the EU each year than we pay in via taxes.
As the historian Tony Judt wrote in his masterful Post War: the history of Europe since 1945:
“… taken all in all, the EU is a good thing … from the late eighties , the budgets of the European Community and the Union nevertheless had a distinctly redistributive quality, transferring resources from wealthy regions to poorer ones and contributing to a steady reduction in the aggregate gap between rich and poor: substituting, in effect, for the nationally based Social-Democratic programmes of an earlier generation”.
In other words, the EU can be seen as a socialist plot, but be careful who you tell that to.