Making the Case for Europe

By Julie Ward MEP

As the UK heads towards an EU referendum, there is an urgent need to make the case for Europe - for openess, prosperity, and peace.

This article was published in Labour Briefing - June 2015

Less than two weeks after May's General Election I found myself in Lidice, 20 miles NW of Prague, looking across the empty space that had been a thriving rural community up until June 10th 1942.  Prior to that the village had been home to approximately 500 people with a school, church, village hall, shops and artisan services, a boating lake and farmstead. But on that fateful date the Nazi's arrived and began their sadistic obliteration of the community in retaliation for the death of Rheinhard Freydrich, who had been mortally wounded in an assassination attempt launched from the UK by members of the Czech airforce.  All the men of the village were rounded up and shot against the farmhouse wall, including several 15 year old boys. Women were separated from their children, unless they were mere babies, and sent to concentration camps where most of them perished. Apart from a handful of lucky kids selected for 'Germanisation' the majority of the children were gassed on arrival at Chelmno.

Terezin, the infamous Jewish ghetto, and its adjacent 'Small Fortress' which served as a prison for political dissidents as well as a holding camp for the Jewish population, is also nearby. In fact, it's hard not to be reminded of the raison d'être of the European Union if you come to this part of the world. For me, the EU has always been primarily a peace project and we forget that at our peril.

As a result of the recent election the UK's ongoing participation in this important peace initiative is now in question. Ironically, the historic significance of Cameron's promised referendum will be of paramount importance to those who cannot yet vote, children and young people, for generations to come, whilst minimally affecting older voters, unless of course they are one of the 2 million Brits who live in Spain.

Whilst a majority of MPs in the House of Commons do in fact support membership of the EU, the debate is cluttered by misinformation and misconceptions of what EU membership entails for this country. The pro-European camp, and Labour within it, must therefore move quickly to clear the clutter, and dominate and shape the narrative well ahead of the vote. While there is going to be a clear focus on the far-reaching economic and geo-political implications of a British exit (Brexit) from the EU, we must also emphasise the many other, equally important, aspects of EU membership. These include social rights and protection for workers, consumers, and the environment, and specifically for women’s rights. They also include European social investment in the UK’s most vulnerable regions, and financial investments in education, technology, industry, research, arts and culture. Membership of the EU, our connection with “the Continent”, is also important for our cultural identity, and our national self-perception, and in respect of how we govern ourselves. Overall, membership of the EU makes the UK more democratic, more open, more equal, more successful, and that is an argument that must be made emphatically; ongoing dialogue between 28 different Member States is far better than verbal or actual fisticuffs when it comes to difficult issues.

The economic impacts of Brexit are far too alarming to overlook: an LSE overview of economic studies determined that an UK exit, depending on its terms could lead to a loss of up to a quarter of trade with the EU, leading to a drop in between 6.5% and 9.2% of national income (GDP). Taking into account that the aggregated impact of the financial crisis on the UK was a loss of about 7% of GDP over a few years, Brexit would be a severe economic shock. The long term consequences of the UK quitting would be uncertain trading conditions with the EU, our largest market, and lack of access to the many high-skilled mobile Europeans who come to the UK to study and work, contributing to our economy, and vice versa, as 'mobility' or freedom of movement and goods is a pillar of the Union.  Also, the two million Brits living in Europe may need to consider returning home, depending on the outcome of negotiations.

The UK would also no longer benefit from advantageous trade agreements with the rest of the world, and would be much more vulnerable to being pushed around by its trade partners. Without an EU backbone, Britain could arguably find itself having the more unsavoury aspects of contemporary trade deals, such as investor dispute settlement mechanisms or de-regulatory annexes, foisted upon it.

The EU’s “cohesion policy” of structural and social investment in the Union’s most economically disadvantaged areas has an important impact on people’s day to day lives. From train stations to tourism initiatives, European money goes into infrastructure, social enterprise, cultural programmes and community empowerment in places where disadvantage is greatest, helping to address poverty, unemployment, urban and rural deprivation, etc.  (No surprise then that my constituency in the NW has been a net gainer in respect of EU funds.). This makes us a more just, equal and inclusive society.  We have no guarantees whatsoever that these significant investments in the UK, worth 11.8 billion Euros in 2014-2020 would be replaced in any shape or form.

 Our education and research also benefit directly from EU membership – access to the EU’s 80 billion Euro Horizon 2020 plan, or its Erasmus+ higher education exchange programmes are hardly likely to be maintained if the UK departs, with far-reaching consequences for universities and industry partners who rely on shared knowledge.

The plans to scrap of the Human Rights Act have been debated ever since the election, and would amount to a gross and scandalous transgression against British citizens. The Act, however, relates to the European Court of Human Rights, which UK citizens would no longer be protected by either in or outside of EU. But this dislike and distrust of all things 'European' is at the heart of the problem.

The EU plays a central role in guaranteeing our social rights. Areas such as equal treatment of men and women at work, preventing discrimination, representation and consultation of workers, the protection of children, elderly and the disabled, collective bargaining – all these are values enshrined in EU treaties, and put into place with many European Directives, and European Court of Justice decisions. European legislation on maternity and paternity leave, on current initiatives on the representation of women on company boards, or fighting against violence against women and girls – all these are important European initiatives.

The issue of children’s rights and wellbeing is one which I champion at home and abroad and it is clear that children would be seriously disadvantaged by a withdrawal from the EU.  European Social Funds direct money at social inclusion for vulnerable children, following a European Recommendation on “Investing in Children”. These sets of guidelines provide member states with a framework on early childhood care and access to services and education. Likewise, European Commission programmes produce cooperation to keep the internet safe for children, or maintain best-practice networks on children’s physical and mental health. As children turn into youths, programmes such as the Youth Guarantee aim at finding traineeships and jobs for young people entering the job market. Many of these are not hard-set laws, but form European best-practice policy networks that the UK may well lose out on. 

The debate on membership of the European Union, while it entails a wide range of material arguments, is at its core a debate about our very identity. Do we want Britain, and Britishness, to be fenced off from the rest of the world, closed up on our little island, wishing for a sentimentalised version of our past to return, while we shirk the challenges of the present? Or do we want our Britishness to be open, dynamic, cooperative, and diverse – a forward-facing nation that is willing to shoulder global and local responsibilities together with friends and neighbours? There is no doubt that we can only build a better future for our children with the latter option.

In the 21st century, being isolated on our island is no longer an option – the world is too complex for us to go it alone. The forces at work globally and the problems we face are too broad and sweeping to be dealt with by one nation-state. Even if the UK pulls out, we will still have to comply with EU legislation by default, as an add-on state, paying for the privilege to boot. In short we would lose our seat at the negotiating table. In all large-scale international processes which affect UK citizens, from trade to climate change, we would lose much of our voice. Membership of the EU makes the UK much more democratic rather than less – giving British people a greater say over their destiny than they would have otherwise.

And do we really want to turn our back on a peace project that many of our forefathers died for?  I think not. It is my view that if we don't talk to each other we will eventually ends up fighting. The narrative of 'othering' which prefigured WWII, the Holocaust and the massacre of Lidice, is now all too common. We live in dangerous times and the real enemy is a mix of genuine ignorance and arrogant narrow-mindedness, fuelled by a right wing media, and not 'foreigners' on the other side of The Channel.