It’ll be a surprise to virtually no-one that I’m voting to remain in the European Union today. I’ve been vocal in my intentions since long before this horrendous European Referendum campaign began and I make no pretensions to be anything other than pro-European. However, less than a decade ago I couldn’t have imagined describing myself as European. I was vehemently anti-EU and the arguments that the Leave campaign have repeatedly brought up about EU membership reducing the UK’s sovereignty and control over its own destiny are ones I made regularly. So what changed?
Put simply I was put in a position where I had no choice but to engage with the EU, to understand its policies and it’s processes. When I started my career a big part of my role revolved around understanding EU policies on business support, research and innovation; working on EU-funded projects; and writing bids for European funding. My instinctive antipathy for the EU was eroded over time by familiarity with how the EU worked and a deeper understanding of how the UK benefited from our membership. I don’t think that benefit is purely financial either – although you’ll be hard pressed to find a town in the UK that hasn’t benefited from EU money in some way given that the EU invests significantly in infrastructure, particularly in deprived parts of the UK, in a way that successive British governments have failed to do.
The benefits of the UK being a fully involved member of the EU far outweigh the financial though. Put simply we achieve far more through collaboration, cooperation and engagement than we would be able to as a country alone, even as an EEA member. As an EU member the UK influences policy in Brussels every day. Anyone arguing that we don’t do this enough should be looking at our shockingly low levels of engagement with European Parliament Elections – low turnout and low enthusiasm in these elections has produced a cohort of MEPs who don’t believe in the EU and don’t work to represent Britain’s best interests in Brussels. You simply cannot claim that the EU is undemocratic when as a country the UK overwhelmingly refuses to engage with the democratic processes that are already in place.
The ability to collaborate easily across borders, to operate businesses across national boundaries, to pool the knowledge of the best and brightest minds in Europe is, to my mind, the absolute best thing about the EU. Our universities and scientists are widely recognised as being world leading, the UK undoubtedly punches above its weight on all measures of scientific excellence. This is not an accident, UK science has always been at the forefront of discovery but I seriously doubt we could continue to retain this position in an increasingly globalised world without the scientific collaborations EU membership facilitates. Many of the UK’s major employers are European or global companies employing thousands upon thousands of people in this country because our EU membership facilitates access to the single market and because our research base is phenomenally successful at engaging with the European research and innovation base.
I don’t apologise for being pro-European, I’m not a reluctant European but I recognise that many are. And I’m not an idiot – the EU is not perfect by a long shot but then what organisation is? Big organisations require big bureaucracies to function whether they be governments or privately owned organisations. I used to be a small-state Conservative, I’m now a small-state Liberal Democrat – heavy-duty bureaucracy isn’t a thing I have a natural love for. The EU, certainly in terms of research funding has made efforts to reduce bureaucracy, but it certainly could and should be more efficient. But I don’t think an excess of bureaucracy is a surprise in an organisation the size of the EU and certainly not a reason to turn our backs on the European project.
I understand that the world is changing rapidly and that these changes are terrifying, particularly if you live in a community where high levels of immigration combined with savage cuts to public services have made life harder. The temptation to blame everything that’s bad in this country on strangers coming into your community is overwhelming and incredibly human – we’re hard-wired to see those we perceive as “other” as a threat. If immigration is your overwhelming concern I can see why you might consider voting to leave the EU and I accept that whatever I say about the benefits of EU membership is unlikely to change your mind.
But if you’re on the fence or unsure which way to vote please think about all that the European Union has achieved in the last half a century. Not least among these achievements is fact that we’ve seen over 7 decades of peace in a continent that was at war for over a thousand years. The UK was instrumental in setting up some of the core mechanisms that have created a peaceful Europe and I think turning our back on the close relationships we’ve developed over the past 70 years would be bad for the UK, bad for Europe, and bad for the world.