MEDIA – Ignore the Brexiters: The EU still has value

(originally published in Varsity 2016, Cambridge)

Although the EU has its flaws, leaving it won’t solve our problems, says Fabian Stephany

This is a reply to a Comment piece published last week in Varsity entitled ‘It’s time to break the Brexit taboo’. The article started quite promisingly: “70 per cent of 18-24 year olds [think] that we should remain in the EU“. Great news! Unfortunately, as on many other questions, generations are divided. The same ORB poll claimed that only 38 per cent of those 65 and older would like to stay. Interestingly, those who still have a life with the EU ahead of them seem to like the idea, and I guess this applies to the majority of Cambridge students, too. Dear author: how and why would you like to change your generation’s mind? Like most Eurosceptics, the author refers to four main issues, namely: migration, economics, bureaucracy, and democracy.

The author’s main argument with regard to migration is that the increasing number of EU citizens in the UK is keeping non-EU migrants away. It is cynical to claim that the stream of legal EU migration leaves no space for those fleeing from conflicts which are “uncomfortably intertwined with historic British foreign policy”. What keeps those migrants away is not EU legislation; it is the English Channel and a miserable UK immigration policy, which excludes citizens of European countries as well as refugees. Let us not forget that a lot of those people are freezing right at Britain’s doorstep, in Calais.

On the author’s economic argument, some things should be set in perspective. The author claims that three of the world’s four largest economies, ranked above the UK according to the IMF, are not part of a supranational union. But with its free flow of people, goods, and capital, the EU should correctly be considered one single economy. In fact, cumulatively the European Union comprises the largest economy in the world and is growing. The author seems to hold the opinion that the EU is holding Britain back, unable to handle today’s problems. The reality is quite the contrary: membership of the EU is the only realistic way for its members to cope with the demands of the modern world. Make no mistake, no single country in the EU – not Germany, not France, and not the UK – would have the bargaining power to negotiate, face to face, at the WTO tables or with the US in a TTIP deal.

Bureaucracy appears to be one of the sceptic’s favourite topics. “…there is no such thing [as EU money]. It is simply our money which is given back to us”. Of course, some of the money which the UK receives from Brussels comes from Britain itself. Some of it comes from Germany, some from France, some from Luxembourg, some from Estonia, and so on. Instead of listing the many European funding schemes of which the UK has been benefiting in the past, I will name just one, the European Research Council (ERC) grants. Of the 372 ERC consolidator grants in 2015, worth €713 million in total, 86 have been given to UK research institutions. This ranks the United Kingdom first among all 24 receiving countries. These grants have gone to leading researchers at top universities, and 12 Cambridge projects were funded by the ERC consolidator scheme in 2015.

Lastly, the author‘s main complaint is that the Union is undemocratic, since fewer than 10 per cent of the MEPs are British. It is correct that of the 751 MEPs, only 73 are British. That ranks the UK third, together with Italy (73) after France (74) and Germany (96), quite accurately reflects the proportions of the population of each member state. The British MEPs have all been elected in a free, equal and public election in 2014. Every British citizen aged 18 and above had the right to vote – quite democratic, I think. What is more worrying from a democratic point of view is that only 36 per cent of all eligible voters made use of this right.

Nobody ever said that the EU would instantly be the best working supranational union. Well, right now it is the only one in the world which works. But it is certainly not going to improve if everybody just complains about it or tries to leave. To all the advocates of the ‘British Exodus’: the European Union is YOUR Union, too. Whenever you dislike its rules or its rulers, why don’t YOU do something constructive about it? Pointing the finger is the first step, but after that protest, get involved and don’t turn away. If the toilet in your house is clogged, what do you do? Do you move out, or do you put the rubber gloves on? For sure, some things need to be improved in our community in order for it to function more democratically and efficiently. So don’t run away: open your mind and think not what Europe can do for you, but what you can do for Europe!