Sunday, 20 January 2013

Some 'Facts' about the EU

I read an article today about the YouGov poll which has shown that since 5 January 2013, outright support for a British withdrawal from the EU has reduced sharply from 51% to less than 42%, with a rising number now supporting Britain's place at the heart of Europe, at least dependent upon a renegotiation of our position in it.

The EU is one of those strange subjects - almost no-one knows anything about it, but everyone has an opinion on it. UKIP would supposedly pull us out of it, despite the fact that it's the only part of politics where they wield any genuine influence. Labour admit they were wrong about it, but don't seem to know where they currently stand on it. Dave and his backbenchers quarrel over it all the time, and the promised referendum on continued membership still looks about as likely to arrive as the Rapture.

The thing that annoys me most is that amongst all the intelligent debate, there are a number of people who will insist on presenting their opinion as fact. For your benefit (and not least my own), I have done a little bit of research on the opinions of one 'elsyd', who does just that on the article above. Hopefully, it will answer some of those nagging questions that you always see thrown around in Facebook debate.

CLAIM: Britain's net contribution to the EU is in excess of £50 million a day.

ANSWER: False. The enclosed graph from the BBC shows that the UK contributes a net 3.5bn Euros per year, or approximately 9.831m Euros a day. Still not chicken feed, but let's at least be accurate. To give the figures context, the UK receives approximately £550bn in tax revenue each year, meaning that net EU spending accounts for less than 0.63% of our national income annually - akin to a person on an above-average income buying a Starbucks coffee each day. Or to express it exactly, we are contributing approximately 16 Euro cents each day for each person living in the UK.

There are those who will argue the value of what we receive, but just some of the potential benefits we receive in return for our money are that we avoid having to pay potential trade tariffs on new trade agreements, there are no legal obstacles for those who wish to set up businesses in any EU country, we receive subsidies for farmers and fishermen (though many will question the appropriateness and value of these), and we also gain a political union that can stand up to China, USA, Russia, Brazil and India in the global war for resources. As part of a bigger power base, the UK is more likely to be globally influential.

CLAIM: Auditors have failed to sign off account EU spending for the last 18 years.

ANSWER: True. This article in the Telegraph shows that the EU had an overall error rate of 3.9% in 2011, which is too high for the European Court of Auditors to sign off. The European Commission nonetheless point out that the error rate does not mean the money is lost, because when fraud or irregularities are detected, the EU claims the money back from the member state.

CLAIM: Britain cannot control immigration from EU because of open border regulations.

ANSWER: EU citizens have the unrestricted right to live and work in the UK where non-EU citizens require authorisation before taking a job. This is a strange thing to make an issue of, as citizens from outside the EU can still live and work in the UK if they fulfill certain criteria. The jury is out on whether this is a good or bad thing. Immigration brings skills that UK workers do not have and increases the flexibility of the labour market, but it also puts greater pressure om infrastructure, such as the housing market and the NHS.

CLAIM: Apart from Belgium, Holland and Malta, Britain has the highest density population in the EU, and is rising dramatically due to immigration.

ANSWER: True, or at least according to Wikipedia. The enclosed page gives these statistics. However, the UK has the second highest population in the EU too, so perhaps this is not surprising. As a comparison, Greece has one of the lowest population densities, so it cannot be suggested that low population density in itself is something to aspire to. Nonetheless, all the main political parties seem to be in agreement that the level of immigration should be controlled somehow.

It should be mentioned that there are potential benefits to high population. Many immigrants are young people looking for work, and this article from the Guardian suggests that this could help avoid shortfalls in pension liabilities that will be experienced in other nations where the numbers of young people are falling.

CLAIM: In excess of 500,000 Polish migrants alone are known to be in the UK (2011 Census).

ANSWER: True. The BBC have released the following figures from the 2011 census, showing that an estimated 579,000 Poles live in the UK. Once again, it is difficult to see the significance of this figure, particularly given the previous articles about how the population in the UK is set to grow to approx 77m by 2060. I am privileged to know several Polish people who work alongside me in local government, and the following Wikipedia page lists many individuals of Polish descent who have made significant contributions to the UK - including Labour leader Ed Miliband, who was born to a Polish mother.

CLAIM: If we left the EU, many of these jobs would be available to the British unemployed. Where sufficient British skilled workers are currently not yet available, visas could be issued to EU workers, as is the case for non-EU migrants at present.

ANSWER: Potentially, it would be possible to set up an arrangement whereby every immigrant, wherever they were from, would require a visa to work in the UK. However, immediately leaving the EU would not guarantee that many of the current immigrant population were forced to leave the UK - many could expect to receive visas by virtue of successive generations living and working in the UK - and as 'elsyd' himself implies, this does not guarantee that UK workers could be found to fill the gaps.

The counter question I would ask is that if you have a worker in post, who is diligent, effective and contributes both to your culture and your economy, why would you seek the upheaval of replacing them en masse just because of their nationality? Then again, perhaps we could find jobs for them in the new, massive, bureaucratic visa service...

CLAIM: There is a serious housing shortage in the UK which requires building on swathes of Greenfield sites. If we were not in the EU, many existing homes would become available, thus protecting our countryside.

ANSWER: Once again, this seems to imply that as soon as we left the EU, we could force large numbers of people to become immediately homeless, necessitating their swift return to the country of their origin. Leaving aside how ridiculous this suggestion is, we could instead look to articles such as this one, which suggests that greenbelt policy has more to do with boosting house prices than protecting the countryside. Then there are BBC articles that suggest only around 10% of land in the UK is 'urban', and that even less than that is actually built on. The one fact we can agree on is that if the population really is going to jump by 17 million people in the next fifty years, they will need homes to live in, so someone had better start building them, pronto.

CLAIM: Uncontrolled numbers of Bulgarians, Romanians and Roma Gypsies will have freedom to come to Britain at the end of this year.

ANSWER: As those nations become part of the EU, they will gain the right to move and work anywhere within Europe, as any other EU citizen already has. Some are likely to come to Britain, with the positive and negative impacts that have already been discussed. The Independent may like to suggest that Romanians in London are either 'beggars, pickpockets and prostitutes', but this ignores the fact that as with Poles and many other races before them, most of those that come here will do so to work and offer their families a chance at a better life.

CLAIM: EU migrants have the same access to benefits as UK citizens – jobseekers, housing, etc.

ANSWER: Partly true. However, the implication here is that anyone can stroll out of the EU and demand a huge house and limitless benefits without ever having worked in the UK. This presentation to Islington council makes it clear that those who have never worked in the UK are likely to have 'no recourse to public funds' (i.e. they are not eligible to receive benefits) and that the UK already has the right to restrict access to the labour market in the UK under existing EU treaties. This means that the UK can freely decide to restrict people from working, and by default, restrict their access to benefits.

CLAIM: The tremendous pressures on our NHS, Schools and Transport would be considerably reduced, if we left the EU.

ANSWER: The answer to this is far more complex than a simple statement of this kind can address. If fewer people lived in the UK, there would be less need for infrastructure, but also fewer taxpayers paying for it, and if all the foreign nurses employed in the UK were asked to leave the UK immediately, this would leave the profession in crisis. You could respond with a similarly incongruous argument - namely that the NHS, schools and transport could all do more if they received more funding, so logically, we should automatically increase the tax rate to do this.

CLAIM: UK trade is declining with EU whilst exports are growing to emerging economies such as China and India.

ANSWER: Figures from UKTradeInfo suggest that for the last two years, UK imports and exports both inside and out of the EU have remained largely static - significantly, long term trend data is not easy to come by, so this is surely a generalisation. The sentiment that 'elsyd' is expressing - that it is advantageous for the UK to trade with emerging economies - should not be taken to suggest that we do not benefit from trade with EU markets.

CLAIM: The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has all but destroyed our own Fishing Industry. Free from EU rules we would be able to resurrect this great, renewable resource.

ANSWER: Short of sending out warships, it is hard to see exactly how we could protect our fishing waters. Regardless, it could be argued that the CFP has played a role in protecting future fish stocks through a number of policies which are explained in detail here. With many of our stocks already overfished, it is not as straightforward as simply leaving the UK and sending boats back out to sea.

However, there remain stories about boats dumping dead fish back into the sea, and CFP will retain its status as a contentious cornerstone issue of the UK's place in Europe.

CLAIM: As a member of the EU, we pay huge subsidies to French farmers. Is it not time we supported our own agricultural industry?

ANSWER: France receives farming subsidies, as does the UK. However, the figures show that like the UK, France is a net contributor to the EU.

CLAIM: Our country is virtually governed, not by British Law, but by EU regulations, including many of the idiotic rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. If we left, we would be free to keep the 'sensible' ones and create a 'UK Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.' Britain would then be free to legislate in the interests of its own people.

ANSWER: Ah, damn those human rights...if only we didn't have them, there'd be none of this nonsense requiring employers to pay a minimum wage, nothing obliging them to provide a safe and comfortable working environment and nothing preventing governments from installing whatever crazy laws they wanted, without anyone being able to do a thing about it.

Since EU law is created from a consensus based on member law (something that the UK contributes to), it is arguably more democratic than anything we have in the UK. Yes, it still makes silly mistakes, but those are inevitable in any legal system and a system external to the EU would not make the UK immune to this problem.

CLAIM: The EU is moving towards a Federal State of Europe, with ever greater fiscal and political integration. Britain’s ability to rule itself would disappear and we would be ruled by the bureaucrats in Brussels.

ANSWER: Those would be the same MEP bureaucrats that we...elect democratically on a regular basis, correct? Fiscal and financial integration does throw up some minefields (e.g the Euro, common interest rates) but these are not a cast iron argument against integration. You could argue, for example, that integration of members states hasn't worked out too badly for the US.

There are genuine questions to be answered about the UK's role in Europe, and we cannot afford to let our biased newspaper owners and editors to own the debate. I don't claim to have the answers, but I can at least frame the questions. For example, large numbers of us would apparently prefer a renegotiated relationship with the EU. What, then, should we be negotiating? It is perhaps ironic that Germany, the country traditionally viewed as the one that gets the most benefit from the EU, is its biggest contributor.

1 comment:

  1. Good post mate, but there a couple of points to bring up.

    Yes it is true that many 1000s of Eurpean migrants have arrived to work in the UK, but under the same rules there are 1000s of British expats in Spain etc. Many of whom have been there for years and not even made the slightest effort to learn Spanish (you'd struggle to find a Pole or Portuguese here without at least a rudimentory ability to speak).

    It should be pointed out that Bulgaria and Romania are already part of the EU, the only difference being that in their joining treaties, a clause was added delaying their citizens migration rights throughout Europe.

    True all EU citizens have the same rights to benefits as UK citizens, this was also true when I lived in France and was able to claim housing benefit from the French state ;)

    The European Court of Human Rights is nothing to do with the EU - it was set up under the Council of Europe, to which all (geographical) European countries are part of. Even Russia is a signatory to the ECHR, so exiting the EU would have no impact on this whatsoever.

    Ruled by bureaucrats in Brussels? Well, we have equal if not greater influence there than in Washington. I live in Norfolk, what difference does it make to me if the capital I'm "ruled" from is in London or Brussels? I'm democratically represented in both...