The Brexit Argument Deconstructed

Tomorrow the UK will decide whether it should continue as part of the European Union, and recent polls indicate that it is too close to call. I don’t presume to think this post will change anyone’s views, but what follows is my attempt to expose the fallacies of the Brexit argument. It doesn’t focus on the reasons for the EU, although that is implicit in arguing against leaving it. For a more wider argument, I’d encourage you to read this article on the economist.

Immigration

This is by far the biggest pillar of the Leave EU. It’s also the thorniest issue for the Remainers because a central tenant of the EU is the free movement of people, and net migration is almost at highest level. So what can be said? Firstly, there is a small number of people who oppose immigration on the basis of xenophobia or a feeling that there are “just too many” migrants in the country (This isn’t to be confused with concerns people may have with the effect of migration on public services – more on that later). These views are based on prejudice and self-entitlement, and often stem for a need to project blame for their own dissatisfaction with their lives, status or income (which is not to say it is their fault). It’s these kind of views, when they start to gain wider attraction, that serve as a cauldron for intimidation and de-humanisation of minority groups, and even genocide. This isn’t hyperbole, we have seen countless times through the last century, even in the nineties.

Now to claim that all Leave EU supporters are racist would be plain wrong. However those fronting the campaign, and in particular Nigel Farage have been stoking fears of public services and laying the blame at the door of the migrant. NHS, schools, housing, are all under-pressure because of migration. Are they?

Let’s take the NHS. A few years ago the Nuffield Trust conducted an analysis of the NHS. They found that major factor in increasing number of hospital admissions was… an ageing population. Now you might say, but surely stemming migration will help? Not necessarily. The percentage of EU nationals in the NHS roughly matches that of the percentage of EU nationals in the UK (about 5%) – in fact when you take doctors alone, that rises to 10%. In addition, with an end to free movement of people it becomes harder for the UK to attract nursing staff. The Royal College of Nursing concluded in this report:

Whilst some countries move towards opening up their immigration policy to encourage the inward migration of nursing staff, the fact that the UK is reforming its immigration rules – with a view to making it more difficult for nurses to remain in the UK – places it at a real and significant disadvantage.

I must stress that this was a report was an analysis of the affects to the tightening of non-EU migration into the UK in 2010. It is however, indicative of the consequences if we apply that to EU migrants too.

So what is putting strain on the NHS? As noted, Britain has an ageing population (largely the result of the post-war Baby Boom). It’s also under strain because of the Tory government’s austerity measures. While the government “boasts” that it is pouring in £8 million, the reality is that was the minimum required to keep services going.

We should also not forget that EU migrants contribute to the UK budget. (David Cameron also negotiated a deal with the EU by which non-UK EU citizens can only obtain full benefits after being in work for four years). This Full Fact article looked a couple of studies on the ‘net effect’ of EU migrants and has this to say:

As the studies cover sixteen years in which several trillion pounds were gathered and spent by the British state, these are relatively small differences, suggesting that EEA migrant tax revenues have been at least in the same ballpark as the money spent on them.

Lastly, if fear of what will happen to the NHS is your driving motivation in this referendum, I’d ask you to seriously consider the views of Gove & MEP Daniel Hannan, Johnson who said on this:

If NHS services continue to be free in this way, they will continue to be abused like any free service. If people have to pay for them, they will value them more… this extension of private funds into the NHS would help the Chancellor’s straitened circumstances.” – Boris Johnson, The Essential Boris Johnson, 2003

and Farage on the NHS.

Economy

This an easier argument to counter; the leave campaign have roundly lost the economy argument. The vast majority of economists predict that the damage done to the UK economy from Brexit would outweigh the money reclaimed from our EU contribution (a contribution which the Leave campaign misleading state as being twice as high).

The independent fact-finding charity Full Fact also point out that most economists predict (What would it mean for my job?) that in the near future, following a vote to leave, job creation will be stagnate. Additionally the economical impact of Brexit would leave the government with less money to fund public services, which would put the jobs of those working in the public sector at risl.

The TUC has released a report indicating the real value of average wages in 2030 will be £38 per week lower if the UK chooses to leave. This in addition to negative forecasts following a vote to leave from the OECD, Bank of England, CBI, IMF and others. If you think they have a vested interest consider that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has recently indicated that a vote to leave will have a negative impact on the US economy. This is important because the Federal Reserve is completely independent, its sole interest is in the US economy. However given the amount of trade between the US and UK, its findings are relevant as it has knock-on effects for the UK and EU.

The Leave campaign point to countries like Greece and Spain as examples of where the EU has failed. To date I’ve not seen any reasoning or evidence as to why they would have fared better outside of the EU, even less, if they are so concerned, what a UK outside of the EU would have done to help. Most claims put it down to their adoption of the Euro, which may well be right, but it’s an odd point to make when the UK (quite rightly) opted-out of the single currency.

Sovereignty

The “65% of UK laws are made in Britain” statistic is misleading. It includes EU regulations (not just laws) which do not require any UK legislation to implement. The House of Commons published a report which put the figure closer to 13%. This statistic is further muddied by two further observations.

Firstly, it doesn’t consider rulings made by Judges which have the force of law. Secondly, it gives the false impression that laws passed by the EU are of equal importance to UK laws. For instance a few years ago, in a bid to improve (reduce) energy consumption the EU banned energy inefficient vacuum cleaners. While I’d agree this an important step in reducing our environment impact, it probably doesn’t rank as high in importance as the Parliament Act on Restructuring the NHS.

In deed, EU law tends to be focussed on issues such as trade, the environment, and consumer and worker rights. Welfare, education, criminal law and the NHS are less impacted by the EU except in as far as regulations on worker’s pay or use of banned environmentally-damaging substances etc.

Now the battle cry of Vote Leave is that we would have worker’s rights without the EU and that we would keep them. It’s of course true that a vote to leave wouldn’t trigger an automatic appeal of those laws. But it’s not hard to see that these would eroded over time. Labour MP & leave campaigner Gisela Stuart said that she (I paraphrase) “[trusted] voters to vote for a government who would protect those [worker] rights”. It’s an odd thing to claim from an opposition MP. It’s also not an issue of trust. At a General Election we vote between a few broad and typically very vague election manifestos, and UK government can be elected as with as little as 25% of popular support. In short it’s naive to assume that a UK government will protect the interests of all groups equally; they will use their election as mandate for pushing through laws which typically benefit their own supporters even if the majority of the electorate do not agree with those laws.

To give an example of one such law which was ‘imposed by Brussels’ on Britain; When Working Time Directive was implemented in 1988, 2 million people got paid leave for the first time. The directive limits the number of hours an employer can make you work (you can voluntarily opt-out) and the minimum number of hours between shifts. The Conservative government wants to reverse that legislation, I doubt that most of the electorate would support that.

Vote Leave have been far less vocal on less politically-sensitive topics such as (unfortunately) the environment. The EU has been an important bastion in this regard (as with worker and consumer rights) and there’s an important reason for this. Climate change, for example, is an issue without borders. The EU passes regulations (such as the one on vacuum cleaners) that help reduce the environmental impact of each of the member states. By applying this EU-wide, it prevents a race to the bottom with states competing on the less politically-hot topic of environment. I fear such ‘red tape’ will be the first to cut in a bid to make the UK, outside of the EU, more competitive. The same can be said for the EU-ban on pesticides considered harmful to health or various chemicals banned from food for the same reason. These are issues which the EU excel at, but they are simply not headline-grabbing.

More widely, membership of the EU is a trade-off. It allows a country to ‘buy’ access to a common market and all the economic benefit that brings (and as noted, it does). In return that country has to abide by range of minimum standards including those designed to protect workers, consumers and the environment. To say the EU has failed is to ignore the plethora of improvements that has brought in and maintains on those matters. In the age of globalisation it’s naive to assume these rights and protections are still solely national issues. The EU prevents a race to the bottom, with businesses and states undercutting each other at the expensive of pay, safety or environmental impact.

In short, the EU secures these various protections in return for economic benefit, preventing a race to the bottom between companies and states and where worker’s rights and environmental protections are likely to be the first victims. If you are not convinced consider that the “EU costs households £9,625 a year” claim by Leave is based on this study from the IEA which makes two assumptions: 1) That the UK would take the incredibly unlikely step of removing all barriers to trade with the rest of the world. 2) That the UK would abolish all EU environment and labour market regulations. You will not see that on Leave’s campaign posters.

Nor are British businesses “British businesses are drowning in EU red tape”. The UK is ranked is sixth by this survey by the World Bank for ‘ease of doing in business’. (Red tape, is any case a by-word for worker’s rights and environmental protection.)

It’s also worth pointing out that Norway and Switzerland (outside of the EU, but part of the European Economic Area) still have to pass substantial number of EU laws (and pay into the EU budget) to enjoy the common market. The difference is they have no say in those laws.

I’ll end this section on another claim that has been made by the Leave campaign, that the EU forces the UK to discriminate against non-EU workers. This is entirely false. It’s true that it’s easier to recruit people from within the EU but this is because there aren’t the barriers in place that they are for non-EU migrants (the very barriers they claim should be in place). Whatever checks or rules, or points system, the UK puts in place for non-EU migrants is entirely of the UK’s choosing. In deed, in 2010 the UK government made it harder for non-EU migrants to live and work in the UK. The result was a shortage in nursing staff, for which EU-migrants made up the shortfall. That was not the EU discriminating against non-EU, it was UK government policy.

In this respect, billionaire Dyson’s reasoning for leaving the EU is baffling. He claims:

“We’re not allowed to employ them, unless they’re from the EU. At the moment, if we want to hire a foreign engineer, it takes four-and-a-half months to go through the Home Office procedure. It’s crazy.”

His first statement is simply not true. However, he qualifies it in the second sentence to suggest that he is allowed to employ from outside the EU, it’s just harder. There are a number of reasons why his argument makes no sense. 1) The procedure for allocating visas to non-EU migrants is UK policy, not EU. Leaving the EU won’t improve that. 2) If anything, leaving the EU would increase the work-load of the Home Office in processing visas, causing further delays. 3) The EU allows Dyson to employ EU citizens without a “crazy” four-and-a-half month wait.

The Leave campaign have been consistently dishonest with voters, from the blatant “untruth” painted on their bus to the more subtle hint that a vote to leave would mean they could control immigration (but never, even when challenged, actually saying they will). They’ve brushed off legitimate concerns for the UK economy and it’s knock-on effect for our public services as ‘Project Fear’ while operating their own fear campaign that Britain is creaking at the seams, and it’s all due to migration. All the while, the largely Tory Leave campaign have been conning UK workers with false promises of being better off and urging an end to “red tape” while concealing from that that really means worker’s rights.

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