With the upcoming referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU, Laurie Presswood investigates the historical relationship Britain has had with Europe and the potential consequences of a European Brexit.
Britain’s potential exit from the European Union currently dominates the attention of our press, and could signify the biggest single change to our constitution in decades. Those of us who were living in Scotland in September of 2014 will be familiar with the passionate debate such a referendum stimulates, but equally can recognise that there is no way of truly knowing how our lives will be affected in either outcome.
The foundations of what is now the European Union come from an agreement made in the aftermath of the Second World War, stipulating that the combined coal and steel resources of France and Germany should be pooled together. This combining of resources, at the time essentially focused on the vital resources for war, aimed to ensure that Germany would not have the capability to arm for war again.
Most international economists agree that there is a four-step path to international integration, starting with a free trade area (an agreement between states to abolish all customs duties in relation to goods moving between them), and eventually developing into economic and monetary union, which means the introduction of a single currency. The third stage of this plan, a common market, is the source of what many feel to be the way in which EU membership is most detrimental to the United Kingdom.
In order for a common market to exist there must be not only free movement of goods between member states, but also the uninhibited movement of the means of production of goods – capital and labour. Free movement of labour means permitting the free movement of persons, and it is on this point that the European Union elicits the majority of its criticism.
Any person with citizenship of a European Union member state has the right to move freely between the member states, working and living where they choose, regardless of their country of origin. For many this had long been a problem: as the Union had rapidly increased in size upon the accession of 10 former USSR countries in 2004, the number of eastern Europeans moving to Britain dramatically increased, prompting much unhappiness from members of society who, particularly as the economic downturn hit, felt that they were being overlooked in favour of workers of other nationalities.
In recent months it seems the situation has come to breaking point, with refugees from Syria attempting to find a better life in the EU through any means possible. The increasing numbers of people attempting to enter the EU has led to eight countries withdrawing from the Schengen Zone – the European countries between which you may pass without a passport – since September in an attempt to deter illegal immigrants. Although the United Kingdom is by no means sacrificing more than other member states in terms of accepting refugees (the leader in this regard is Germany, which took a third of all refugee applicants last year) there is still undoubtedly an impact on the country’s resources. Many consider this to be unsustainable, particularly in a time of such economic uncertainty.
Ultimately the role of the European Union in the refugee crisis is a matter of personal opinion. The choice between assisting in the face of global strife and ensuring that our own are taken care of first is not easy and it is one which most likely will be decided by the outcome of the referendum. However even after this crisis is resolved, free movement of peoples around the EU will continue to pose a problem. We do not have control over who gains citizenship to other countries, so countries where citizenship is relatively easy to gain, such as Portugal, may end up permitting entrance to non-EU nationals whom we otherwise would not have welcomed.
Another worrying potential outcome, particularly poignant at the University of Edinburgh and relating also to the free movement of peoples, is the right to study in any member state uninhibited by any barriers which would not have been placed on a national of that country. The free tuition offered to Scottish and European students at Scottish Universities is an important cornerstone of Scottish education, but as numbers of students arriving from other member states increases, it must be asked what the toll to our education system will be. Whilst this may not be economically sustainable, to many it also seems ludicrous that we offer free higher education to students from France, Germany and Spain, but not to our closest neighbour south of the border.
It seems what has to be considered in the making of this decision is whether the benefits brought by those coming to our shores, such as their new skills, cultural diversity and a greater international understanding and integration, are worth the added strain it seems we may be undertaking.
The other problem many perceive the European Union as creating is the loss of the autonomy of the state. For hundreds of years Britain has maintained its own Parliament to be the supreme governing body of the country; but the introduction of the European Union signifies a higher power which may take decisions out of the hands of the government we have voted for.
However, the loss of state autonomy is not necessarily a bad thing. Decisions taken at a European level are by no means undemocratic, with elected members in the European Parliament and committee members sent on behalf of our national governments. For many, decisions taken by the EU have saved us from unpopular moves at state level, and the European Court of Justice – the court of the European Union – offers another level of appeal against unjust decisions within Britain.
An important distinction to make in order to understand these decisions is the one between the European Court of Human Rights, and the European Court of Justice. The Court of Human Rights is that which has produced several seemingly unpopular decisions in recent years, such as that which declared prisoners must have the right to vote. The Court of Human Rights is not an institution of the European Union and as such our membership of the EU has no bearing on whether or not we are bound by such rulings – this is ensured by the European Convention of Human Rights, and our Human Rights Act.
Conflicting reports exist relating to the amount of money that Britain pays into the EU versus what it receives, with the majority suggesting that we do not get nearly as much money as we put in. However, we do pay comparatively less than most other countries in relation to average household income, and it is important to remember that we receive things other than money as part of our membership.
Ultimately with so much doubt surrounding the UK’s fate in either case, the decision must be made based upon a balance of what we give and receive from the EU. As a country we must decide whether we can sustain the sacrifices that must be made in order to enjoy the benefits brought by membership.
IMAGE: Stephen Spillane