What has the EU ever done for us? Peace, togetherness, investment, and prosperity

The EU referendum is taking place today, with millions flocking to polling stations in order to register a vote for either remaining, or leaving, the EU. Here, Andrew Crines argues that the vote is an opportunity for us to examine what kind of country we want to be, and that EU membership has given us countless benefits. 

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Sir John Major, veteran of many Euro-battles (Credit: Chatham House, CC BY 2.0)

With the referendum taking place right now, it is a good time to reflect on the historical impact of EU policy on Britain’s political parties. Our relationship with Europe has long been a big ‘party management’ issue. The Conservative Party has been in a mess over Europe since 1990. Before that, even. As the Common Market, Edward Heath failed to convince his party to the reality of the UK’s position in the world.

The Labour Party had the first implosion over how to respond by promptly having a referendum as soon as we joined. This didn’t settle the issue in British politics, and the Conservatives followed with a far more protracted implosion over the following years. In 1988, Thatcher responded to the idea of a social Europe through her Bruges Speech, arguing ‘Let Europe be a family of nations, understanding each other better, appreciating each other more, doing more together but relishing our national identity’.

It was an important point in laying the foundations for Conservative disunity, as Europe ended up contributing towards her demise. Howe famously summarised it as ‘like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.’ Weeks later, Thatcher was gone, and the Tory Party was traumatised.

Subsequently, Thatcher’s departure and the grievances over Europe tore the party to pieces over the course of John Major’s premiership, and in opposition, it remained a constant theme. In 2001, it was there during Hague’s election campaign where, he argued ‘talk about Europe and they call you extreme. Talk about tax and they call you greedy. Talk about crime and they call you reactionary. Talk about immigration and they call you racist; talk about your nation and they call you Little Englanders’. And in 2005, the longstanding hostility was again present, embodied by the ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking’ posters which led the Conservatives message on anti-immigration. The Conservatives have never gotten over Britain’s membership of the EU. It took three defeats in a row before they were ready to listen to David Cameron’s argument that they should talk about something the voters care about and should stop ‘banging on about Europe’. With the issues unresolved, they did.

But the Lisbon Treaty brought it all up to the surface again, and the expenses crisis created a climate that enabled the accelerated rise of UKIP, whilst the migrant crisis each put sufficient pressure on Cameron to call for an ‘In Out’ referendum after the 2015 election. Still reeling over Europe, it was again safe for the anti-European, pro-Thatcher right of the party to begin openly attacking Europe.

But what is it about the UK that can’t accept the EU, and the position we are in today? Brexiteers typically ask ‘what has the EU ever done for us?’

I would like to answer this directly. Firstly, the EU has constructed an environment that has facilitated more jobs and prosperity across the UK. Indeed, according to the Centre for Economic and Business Research the UK will have an extra 790,000 jobs created by 2030. Also, accordingSmith and Williamson’s independent survey 81% of small businesses say they would be damaged if we left the European Union. Sir Ian McKellen has argued ‘the EU played a vital role in promoting LGBT rights’, not only in the UK, but across the EU. These steps are not to be sniffed at, and yet opponents of our membership of the EU spend their time arguing against them.

But just to be sure, here are a few other things the EU have done for us. Membership of the EU has brought lower prices in shops, 60 years of peace, receives at least 44% of UK exports, access to a domestic market of over 500m consumers, cheaper flights, paid holiday leave, maternity and paternity leave, legislation on equal pay, a stronger voice in the world, consumer protections, compensation for delayed flights, investment in arts and culture, the ability to deport criminals across borders in weeks not years, cleaner air and beaches, the working time directive, cheaper mobile calls, combatting tax avoidance, visa-free travel across Europe, the right to work across the EU, funding for our deprived regions, opportunities for young people, funding for start-up companies, Erasmus and overseas study, safer food standards, strong animal welfare rights, rights for part time workers, a tariff-free single market, product safety standards, safety standards in the workplace, patent and copyright protection, EU-wide counter terrorism, protection against discrimination, strong wildlife protection, and investment in science. This is an impressive list of social and economic progress that makes the EU one of the most dynamic institutions in the West. And we have it on our doorstep.

But what does the other side offer? Aaron Banks has said that a cut of £4,300 is a ‘price worth paying’ by every household for Brexit. Iain Duncan Smith has called the working time directive into question during an interview with the Andrew Marr Show. Enda Kenny has said ‘Common membership of the EU project is part of the glue holding that transition process together’. Given the peace process is predicated upon an international treaty supported by the European Union, it would be highly dangerous to resort to Diane James’ famous retort: ‘we just don’t know’ what will happen in the event of Brexit. Also there is the indication that leaving the EU would justify another referendum over Scottish independence. In that event, the Brexiteers would lose the very thing they are claiming to try and save – the UK. The Union would be over, and all that would be left would be an increasingly divided England, and a Wales looking in envy at Scottish autonomy.

Fundamentally, that is the position of the Brexiteers that makes least sense. This is an untried, dangerous experiment yet they seem so confident in their position as so to avoid addressing questions about real issues. The EU has brought the UK a great deal, yet Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are content to use it as a strategy to unseat Cameron from the Conservative Party leadership. It always seems to come back to issues of Conservative Party management(!)

So, what has the EU ever done for us? Much more than can be explored here today. But whilst the EU has brought peace, togetherness, investment, and prosperity, the Brexiteers would bring us economic decline, uncertainty over our civil rights, a disintegrating United Kingdom, and an unethical willingness to turn refugees away at the door. Also, as Major observed, the British people are being subjected to a deceitful campaign that is designed to drag us out of the European Union and into oblivion at any price.

There is a choice facing us today. What kind of country do we want to be? I would suggest we are better off adhering to the social democratic principles of togetherness and unity, rather than resorting to the economic libertarianism of those who seek to turn back the clock far further than 1972.

Note: this post originally appeared on the PSA blog and is reposted with permission. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

Andrew Crines is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool. He tweets @AndrewCrines. This blog is based on a paper delivered to the Europe and the World Centre at the University of Liverpool.

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