The EU Referendum: The Most Significant Vote Of Our Lives

Participants hold a British Union flag and an EU flag during a pro-EU referendum event at Parliament Square in London, Britai
Participants hold a British Union flag and an EU flag during a pro-EU referendum event at Parliament Square in London, Britain June 19, 2016.

I’m not one for bombarding people with my own political views. This is the first time I’ve written publicly on a voting matter. But I’m convinced that the EU referendum is a crucial vote that could have long-term consequences for all of us. I don’t think the EU is nirvana. It certainly needs some serious reform. But I do think it’s had a hugely positive effect on the lives of Brits and our fellow Europeans. So I’m writing to ask you to vote to remain in the EU. Here’s why.

Staying in the EU is a good call for two main reasons: the EU is predominantly a force for good, for progressive change, for peace and cooperation. It’s also the pragmatic choice – why leave a club whose rules we’d still have to abide by but would no longer be able to influence?

What the Leave campaign has got most wrong is the idea that the UK would be able to regain or retain most of the benefits of EU membership from the outside. For the UK to maintain access to the single market – which almost everyone accepts is vital (almost half of the UK’s exports go to Europe) – it is almost certain that the UK would need to accept free movement of people, contribute to the EU budget and abide by EU rules (as Norway and Switzerland do now). But we would no longer have an influential voice in setting those rules or deciding how that budget is spent. This makes no sense to me.

So why do I think the EU is a force for good? Here are just a few:

Peace and cooperation in Europe.

This really isn’t to be sniffed at. Most of us have grown up in a world where Europe – or at least the countries within the EU – have been peaceful. War and insecurity have only breached our borders though terrorism, not from conflict with neighbouring states. There has been no war between EU states or in Western or Central Europe since 1945.

Or was this the effect of NATO? Undoubtedly NATO has been a positive force for peace in Europe. But military alliances have come and gone because they do not bind countries together like the political, economic and social cooperation that the EU represents. Why is it now unthinkable that the UK would go to war with France? Because we share so much now.

The EU has made the UK a better country.

The ability of the EU to agree on progressive cross-country values and policies that overcome vested interests is something to be cherished, not rejected. Here are just a couple of examples that have improved the UK and EU together:

We have a much cleaner and healthier environment as a result of joining the EU. No UK government wanted to take on vested industrial and agricultural interests that had turned our beaches into some of the filthiest and most dangerous in Europe. It took consistent pressure from Brussels to make us clean up our act on the physical environment. Only after consistent EU pressure did the UK finally end dumping of sewage sludge at sea in 1987. (There’s a similar story about the EU’s impact on air quality in the UK.)

Another example is the Landfill Directive, before which the UK buried almost all its rubbish. 45% of household refuse is now recycled as a result, greatly reducing methane emissions.

Consumers have massively benefited. Here are just three big benefits: 

1) Lower mobile phone roaming charges (they are already a fraction of the cost compared to a decade ago and will soon be eliminated in the EU).

2) The Consumer Rights Directive of 2014 reduced hidden charges for purchases across the EU and outlawed pre-ticked boxes for preferences you almost certainly didn’t want.

3) The European Health Insurance Card gives UK citizens access to public health services like hospitals anywhere in the EU. Peace of mind when on your holidays!

As for the economy, it’s incredibly hard to accurately forecast what the economic effects would be of leaving (or indeed staying). However, a few things are highly likely:

The economy will take a hit. The Leave campaign really doesn’t dispute this. How much of a hit is difficult to tell but recession is highly likely.

Inward investment will probably suffer – many multinationals have questioned whether the UK will be such an attractive place outside the UK, considering its high labour costs.

Jobs will likely be lost – especially in the industries dependent on exports to the EU. While we may be able to strike a decent free trade deal, it will be years in the making, in part because trade negotiations are famously slow and we’ve also delegated that particular expertise to Brussels so have very little in-house capacity for negotiating.

I want to deal with one particularly annoying myth: Brussels and the European Commission are not “unaccountable”. The Commission is really not that different to Whitehall’s civil service – it contains bureaucrats who develop policy for the consideration of the elected executive and the legislature, which in the case of the EU is the Council of Ministers (including the UK Government ministers) and the European Parliament (including EU MEPs). The UK contributes to all EU policy and has considerable weight in negotiations. Yes, there are inevitable compromises. But I can’t think of a single piece of EU law that has been introduced in recent years that has been bad news for the UK. Data protection? Preventing money laundering? Curbing industrial emissions? Increasing protections for animals?

Immigration – there is no doubt that certain communities in the UK have been disproportionately affected by immigration, including (but by no means only) migration from within the EU. However, economic studies show a pretty consistent picture of net benefits from immigration, in terms of contribution to the economy. The UK is an ageing society – we simply need people to come and work here in the UK to remain competitive. It’s up to Westminster to do a better job at mitigating local impacts, such as pressure on schools and hospitals. A shrinking GDP as a result of a Brexit would make funding public services even harder.

Ultimately, the Brexit vision harks back to an age before nation states were so connected – it is essentially a pre-globalization vision. For better or for worse, we need to accept that we live in a global society with international agreements and pooled sovereignty. Retreating from the EU would mean the UK has fewer opportunities to influence global processes, politics and standards. The UK has set the agenda for so much of the EU’s history, including the single market (giving British businesses huge opportunities) and enlargement to the East (making Europe a safer and more united place).

And I worry about the UK’s future role in the world – there is no doubt that the UK has more diplomatic and political clout because of its membership of the EU. From trade negotiations to use of joint diplomatic missions, it has enabled the UK to preserve a place around the top table in global affairs. Let’s not rely on the “special relationship” with the US…

It doesn’t surprise me at all that few of us have particularly positive views of the EU – UK governments have for years used Brussels as a scapegoat. But I believe we would be living in a poorer, less healthy and less progressive country if we hadn’t joined. And I fear for our future if we leave. For one thing, it would make the break-up of the UK much more likely.

Please don’t fail to vote to remain in the EU on the 23rd June – it’s probably the most significant vote of our lives and there would be no turning back.

These are my own personal views and in no way reflect the view of Omidyar Network.

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