I have already voted in the Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Tuesday 7 June was the last day for registering to vote in the EU referendum. However, if you are a Brit living abroad and you voted in the 2015 General Election, you will almost certainly still be registered to vote in your former constituency (only). Or if you’re away from the UK/ unable to get to the polling station on 23 June, you still have time to request a postal vote from your local authority, via http://www.gov.uk.
When your envelope arrives, inside you will find a ‘postal voting statement’ which you complete with your date of birth and signature. You don’t need a witness for this. You then fill in your ballot paper by putting a cross next to one of the two statements, based on ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’. You then put this into an envelope, marked A, seal it and place it, together with your completed postal voting statement, into the pre-paid postage envelope (B). You then simply post this (you don’t need to pay postage whether in the UK or abroad, neither do you need to register it or ask for recorded delivery) or you can deliver it by hand at any time before polling day to the local electoral services office, or on the day, 23 June, at any polling station within your electoral area, up until 10 p.m. Given that a small number of problems have arisen with the German Post Office (wrongly) not accepting pre-paid IBRS envelopes, it may be an idea to pass it over the counter, rather than putting it in the box, if you are posting from abroad.
Voting by post is as simple as A, B, C, and it’s important that everybody eligible to vote within the EU does so. Unlike in a General Election, expatriates from the UK have even greater reason to vote in the Referendum than residents. Apart from the EU citizens from other countries living in the UK who don’t have a vote (unlike in the Scottish Referendum), UK subjects in the EU are the group of Brits most directly affected by the result, especially if it goes in favour of the UK leaving the EU. The decision to restrict voting rights to those who have been resident abroad for fifteen years makes it even more necessary for those of us who do have a vote to use it both for ourselves and our children, but also on behalf of people who may have been disenfranchised.
Deciding how to vote may not be so simple, just as it wasn’t in the 1975 Referendum (see the picture below). This came just before my eighteenth birthday, so I didn’t have a vote, but many of my school mates did, and I well remember the debates and discussions which led up to polling day, even though I was doing my A Level exams at the time.
The result is as important now as it was in 1975, perhaps more so, especially for today’s young Britons. Then we were joining an Economic Community, now we are considering leaving a Union which offers them major cultural and educational opportunities as well. While the economic reasons for remaining in are as clear as they were in 1975, my reasons for voting to remain are far broader and deeper, as they were back in the mid-seventies. I’ve set them out below.
1. Integration is not assimilation:
‘‘Visit the great churches and cathedrals of Britain, read our literature and listen to our language: all bear witness to the cultural riches which we have drawn from Europe and other Europeans from us.”
– Margaret Thatcher 1988 in Bruges –
When Mrs Thatcher made this speech, she also spoke very determinedly of the need to reunite all the countries of Europe, at a time when the Berlin Wall was still standing and Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and all the old capitals of central-eastern Europe, still lay behind the ‘iron curtain’. Two years later, the dictatorships in those countries had fallen, along with the walls and fences dividing them from their western European ‘siblings’ and cousins. Mrs Thatcher had departed from office too, following the fallout from the Maastricht Treaty debácle in the Tory Party. It was this departure which came as the greatest surprise to many in central Europe, where the ‘Iron Lady’ was regarded with great affection for her steadfast support for their peoples’ bringing down of the old Soviet-style regimes.
Above: Margaret Thatcher with G7 Heads of State at Paris in 1989
Although it’s true that the Maastricht Treaty marked a period of deeper integration in western Europe and a transition from an economic community into a more political union, it is easy to forget that it also came just before the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a period of transition in central-eastern Europe which led to the political reintegration of the European continent as envisaged by Margaret Thatcher had envisioned in her Bruges speech. Over the following quarter century, the two processes have worked in tandem, so that the broadening of the Union to 27 countries has been rooted in institutions which have evolved, not always easily, to accommodate more divergent needs.
This process has been one of integration, not assimilation. The EU is not some giant Leviathan trying to swallow up all countries great and small. Countries seeking accession have had their terms of entry negotiated on an individual basis, and existing countries like France have been able to opt out of the arrangements for freedom of movement from these new member states. Since 2004, their intake of migrant workers from Poland, Hungary and (more recently) Romania has thus been far less than that of the United Kingdom. The UK is now able to apply an ’emergency brake’ on these migration streams itself, and to add conditions to the entry of future migrants, while still remaining at liberty to withdraw from any arrangements involving new accessor states like Croatia or Serbia. The fact that David Cameron has been able to maintain and extend the very different terms of the UK’s membership shows that sovereignty and self-government can be maintained as well as, in chosen circumstances, pooled by individual member states.
2. Freedom of Movement can be managed for everyone’s benefit:
The voluntary movement of Labour within an internal market has long been a feature of successful economies, including Britain’s. A hundred years ago, the majority of the working population was concentrated in the industrial areas of Scotland, the North of England and South Wales. Some of these areas in 1911-1921 were continuing to attract labour from impoverished rural areas at a net in-migration rate second only to that of the United States. When the older industries which attracted these workers then went into decline, many of them moved to the light engineering centres of the Midlands and South-East of England. This included a mass migration of half a million coal-miners and their families from South Wales alone in the twenty years between the wars. Most of these workers fulfilled a need for their skills and capacity for hard manual work, adapted to their new environment and integrated into their new neighbourhoods. From the 1950s, they were added to by streams of migrants from the Empire and Commonwealth, again bringing their own cultural traditions to integrate themselves into their new environment. Again, these were, economically, ‘internal migrants’ from within Britain’s traditional trading areas overseas who were actively invited and recruited to come to Britain. Now that trading area is determined largely by the decision taken by the British people in 1975, when the UK decided by 2:1 to remain within the European Economic Community.
The logic of joining a ‘free trade’ union has always been that it would lead on to ‘free movement’ not simply of goods, but of services and therefore of people as well. This basic economic ‘mechanism’ of free markets cannot be denied by economists and economic historians, but it can be managed by politicians. There is nothing to stop British politicians doing what the French ones did in 2004. All they have to say is that they want to be able to channel the migration streams from both EU and non-EU countries to match demand, given that, like France, they have strong ties to the latter. The idea that the EU does not allow us to control our own borders and our own immigration policy is a myth (convenient for many), but belonging to a single trading market does mean, in principle, that the British government accepts and upholds both the rights of people from elsewhere in that market to work in the UK and of British people to work abroad. At the moment there are 1.2 million EU migrants who have moved to Britain since 2010, compared with 600,000 moving out, a rate of 2:1. This gives an average of a hundred thousand per year. Last year, this number increased but was still less than the number of those longer-distance migrants coming to the UK to settle permanently from non-EU countries, out of total net in-migration of 330,000.
The rights of EU migrants have nothing to do with the rights of illegal immigrants to the EU from the Balkans and the Middle East, or with the very distinct rights of the Syrian Refugees. We don’t know yet how many of the EU migrants are intending to settle in the UK permanently, but anecdotal evidence both from the UK and from Hungary tells me that, for home-loving Hungarians at least, they will be in a small minority. The majority of EU migrants, by contrast with those from further afield, are on temporary contracts and are intending to return when their contracts expire, many having done so already, to be replaced by others. They arrive in the UK often with jobs already to go to, or with clear intentions in finding employment. They rarely claim unemployment benefit, at least not until they have paid into the National Insurance system, and then only for short periods. Nearly all make a net contribution in taxation as soon as they start working. In the future, they will not be able to claim either unemployment benefits or in-work tax relief for four years, as a result of David Cameron’s renegotiation. The Poles who are fruit-picking in Kent, the Hungarians in restaurants in London, and the doctors and nurses working in Bristol are all making up for shortages in local labour.
In terms of their impact on local services, evidence also suggests that, while language problems have a temporary implication for schools, most EU children settle quickly into a fairly familiar system, and learn/ acquire English very quickly, so that they are not as ‘high impact’ as students from other continents and cultures. Once they have learnt the medium of their education, these ‘bright’ children, from traditional European school backgrounds, more often than not go on to gain better GCSE results than their British peers. Health services are funded differently in the UK than in other EU countries, where workers pay into a National Insurance scheme, but since most migrant workers in the UK are young and single, it is unlikely that they are making disproportionate demands compared with the ageing native population.
Far from being a drain on resources, EU migrants are major contributors to maintaining and extending economic growth in Britain. Indeed, politicians in their home countries frequently express their fears that the temporary loss of these young workers means, for them, a loss of skills, talents and revenues which are much in need back home. English teachers from Hungary are washing-up in London restaurants because, even at minimum wage rates, they can earn more in a forty-hour week in the kitchens than they can in their schools. It is the UK which is benefiting from EU migration, whereas the ‘donor’ countries are dealing with the negative impact, but progressive politicians seem unwilling to make this case in the face of populist scare-mongers in UKIP and elsewhere.
Freedom of movement also includes many things that we take for granted, like freedom from work permits and work visas, intrusive medical tests, transit visas, unfair phone tariffs, border checks, currency exchange charges, etc. It also encourages cheaper and cleaner travel options.
3. Peace and Security are continuous processes which have to be worked on:
John F Kennedy once remarked that ‘peace is a process’ which requires the daily, weekly, monthly breaking down of barriers and the building up of new bridges. That image has much to commend it, but too often people regard peace as ‘a period of cheating between battles’ (at worst) and as an ‘absence of war’ (at best). Yet all the world’s truly great peacemakers have seen it as ‘the presence of justice’. If this is so, why do the Brexiteers bear so much antipathy towards European Courts in general (some of which, like the European Court of Human Rights, are not part of the EU’s institutions) and to the European Court of Justice in particular? Can you think of any organisation or club which allows individual members to set its own their own rules, or which doesn’t try to apply some standard code of conduct for all its members to follow?
Even if we simply take the definition of peace as ‘the absence of war’ we can see that the EU has been instrumental in keeping the peace in Europe over the last sixty years. Of course, NATO, founded a decade earlier, has been more important in overall strategic terms, due mainly to its nuclear capabilities, and despite the fact that on at least two occasions it has led us to the brink of Armageddon. The EU has itself made important strategic contributions in Europe, in the wars of the Former Yugoslav territories in the 1990s and most recently in sending a clear signal through sanctions in response to Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine. This latter situation, together with that in the Baltic states is being watched very carefully by both the EU and NATO. I hear people saying, ‘but why should Britain be concerned about what is happening in far-away European countries?’ I would want to remind them that this was precisely the position of those who appeased Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930s. First they went to war in Africa, and Britain and France took part in a carve-up. Then they went to war in Spain, and Britain actually aided Franco’s troops. Then Czechoslovakia was considered a ‘far-away country’, even though Prague is far closer to London and Paris than Berlin and Vienna. The warning is clear. Appeasement of dictators is not peacemaking.
Little less than a century ago, both the PM, Lloyd George, and the economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out what they predicted The Economic Consequences of the Peace of Paris would be, especially the crippling reparations it placed on Germany, and to some extent Austria and Hungary. By placing such a huge financial burden on these ‘losing’ governments, together with the additional losses of land and resources, the Allies prevented these countries, especially Germany, from becoming a strong trading partner, helping to contribute to the conditions for ‘economic nationalism’ and another war. The peacemakers after the Second World War were determined not to make the same mistake, and the reason that our present-day EU began life as an Iron and Steel Community, followed by the EEC, was precisely because of the recognition that peace cannot be ‘decreed’, but has to be worked at through establishing trading agreements and arrangements. Trading relationships make the antidote to war.
4. Educational, Language and Cultural Exchanges are essential for all our futures:
The reintegration of Europe has not happened by chance, but by exchanges of goods, services and people. At first, ‘people’ exchanged were instigated by people themselves, run on a shoestring with the help of local councils and charities. These exchanges began in the early 1990s with the help of the EU through its TEMPUS programmes which helped fund universities and colleges from both western and central-eastern Europe who were looking to establish relationships for mutual training and study. More recently, permanent programmes like Erasmus and Comenius have enabled students of all ages to develop their language skills through extended placements in each other’s countries.
I have written about the personal benefits of this to my own family elsewhere, but, again, people have suggested that Britain, through the British Council and other organisations, could easily set up alternative programmes if the UK votes to leave. This ignores the fact that multilateral, if not bilateral cultural exchanges would be much harder to establish from scratch, and would not be as effective as centrally funded networks, whether at student level or among academic researchers. The impact on schools, colleges, universities and young people in general of these programmes is impossible to measure simply in financial terms. There is a huge multiplier effect in the pooling of linguistic skills alone, apart from the inter-cultural benefits which exchanges can bring to the creation of long-term, peaceful cooperation.
5. The European route is the way to a broader internationalism: