Feeling confused? With the EU referendum less than a month away, I'd hardly blame you after all the misinformation of the last few weeks.
As a business person who isn't in politics but has been campaigning to keep Britain in the EU I've been shocked at just how much rubbish is being spoken in this debate.
Before I share my view of what the referendum really is about, the case to remain if you like, I'd like to clarify some of the things it really isn't about, at least in my view. I shall do my best to be even handed in this.
It's not about saving £350m per week and spending the proceeds on the NHS. Vote Leave insist on quoting our gross contribution to the EU's budget (it's even on their Boris Battle Bus). This ignores our rebate which is netted off our contribution before it even leaves the Treasury (a discount if you like) and the money we get back in grants and subsidies to things like farming, regional aid and infrastructure. So the real cost is less than half Vote Leave's figure. It's true that if we leave we could spend whatever we save on different priorities but does anyone really think they would differ hugely from how the money is spent today? And since Norway and Switzerland have to pay more per capita to access the European Free Trade Area than we pay for full voting membership of the EU we can't be certain we would make any savings at all.
Having said that, it's clearly wrong to argue that we have to stay in the EU because of their subsidies, since those payments are made with OUR money! And we do pay a large net contribution which would be great to keep if we could.
Secondly, it's not really about de-regulation. Tales of bendy bananas and under-powered vacuum cleaners may be amusing but in reality Vote Leave can't articulate which regulations might be ditched if we leave - I suspect very few. Can you imagine a British government organising a bonfire of health and safety or employment laws? They shouldn't and they won't. Climate change legislation may be controversial to some but the UK has been a prime mover in bringing about emissions reduction targets. So energy efficient lightbulbs are here to stay.
Equally, it's rather odd for remain campaigners to argue we need to stay in to protect employment rights for example. Surely the British government is perfectly capable of devising and maintaining good regulations for itself and if you're not sure they will it's
hardly democratic to hope that a supra-national body will do it for them! But it is true the EU ensures there is no "race to the bottom" among members of the single market.
Immigration may well be the number one issue on people's minds even if not everyone feels comfortable saying so. Yet all the evidence is that EU migrants contribute more to our country than they take out. As we actually take in more people from the rest of the world than from our European neighbours it's hard to imagine much will really change if we leave. Norway and Switzerland both take more migrants per capita from the EU than we do and of course freedom of movement is a cornerstone of their membership of the European Free Trade Association.
Like Boris Johnson I think we need foreign engineers, bankers, nurses and plumbers so we can and should live with the current levels of immigration. But where David Cameron slipped up is not to have agreed better interim controls if new members join the EU in future. New members shouldn't get free movement until their GDP reaches a given percentage of the EU average.
The referendum can't be about securing freer trade since if we leave we'll be the first country in modern history to negotiate a worse trade deal than the one we have now - with the customs union that takes 44% of our exports. The re-imposition of customs barriers, with extra costs of about £50 per shipment and risk of delays, is an inevitable consequence if we leave. All the suggested models for a post Brexit deal would have them, whether based on EFTA, Canada, Albania or the WTO. The latter has onerous tariffs. Of the rest, none other than Norway's cover service industries, a hammer-blow to our banking and professional services sectors.
The idea that we can make up for this by signing a deal with the likes of China is plainly wrong - we can't allow the Chinese free access to our market in their current guise. Think of Port Talbot if you're not sure.
We would obviously continue to trade with the EU. It's true that we don't yet have a free trade agreement with the United States, even if TTIP is being negotiated, which whilst less important than the EU as a whole is still our biggest bilateral trading partner. So there are things we could do to mitigate the lost trade with the EU if we leave. But I'd rather not have this damage to repair in the first place.
Next, the referendum is clearly not about the Euro or a federal Europe. I know the Euro is a disaster (I campaigned with Business for Sterling to keep us out) but we aren't in it and we have disavowed the commitment to ever closer union. So we're being asked to vote on the deal we have now. We already have an Act of Parliament that requires approval of any further treaty change by a referendum.
People often say that when we joined the Common Market Britain signed up to a free trade deal only. That's true and in fairness the EU has more than delivered on that as we are now members of the biggest single free trade area in the world with 500m people and British exports worth £229bn in 2014. That's 44% of our total exports. Three million jobs are sustained by this trade so I'd argue its benefits are clear. Vote Leave cannot tell us how this business will be protected if we leave so I'm concerned leaving would have a significant impact on British jobs with a trickle down consequence for everyone.
Our economy relies on foreign direct investment of which we are the leading recipient in the EU. I'm not saying foreign companies will all pack their bags if we vote Leave on 23 June but I do think such a vote places future investments in jeopardy. Whilst there are many fantastic reasons for companies to invest in Britain, free access to the single market has to be one of the most significant. If I'm right many future opportunities will be thrown away.
A leave vote would send shockwaves through our economy with multiple credible forecasts estimating we'd be materially worse off. Brexiteers sometimes gleefully say its knock on effects might cause the EU itself to collapse. They might be right. Such an outcome would trigger an economic tsunami making the 2008/9 financial crisis look like a walk in the park.
Whether you worry about the worst case scenario or think the consequences will be much less I think it's pretty clear that leaving the EU won't be in our economic interests in the short, medium or long term.
Lastly, we have to ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be. It's true that being in the EU necessitates the making of some common rules, so we have to pool some sovereignty if we want to be in. Vote Leave have based their campaign on ending this and taking back "control". That sounds attractive until you look into the detail.
First of all, if we leave, we will give up any say or control over the EU's rules. But as they're our biggest trading partner we will inevitably have to accept at least some of those rules anyway whether in competition, product specification or financial services regulation. Secondly, if we want to benefit from cooperation on things like security and the environment we will have to agree a common approach with the rest of the EU. Sure we will be able to throw our toys out of our pram in negotiations but so will they. And instead of being an insider in discussions we will be on the outside dealing with some pretty upset neighbours for years to come.
The EU's not the only area where we pool sovereignty, NATO membership means we will go to war if any fellow member is attacked. In both cases we have made such an agreement believing it to be in our interests, that we are safer and more prosperous as a result.
I fully accept the EU is far from perfect but we have to consider how we should respond. Is it right for Britain, yes Britain, to walk away and opt out of building a new future for Europe in our interests and those of all Europeans? To sit on the sidelines whilst massive decisions which will affect us whether we like it or not are decided? Ultimately I don't think so. You see I believe in a Britain that is outward looking, collaborative and cooperative, that wants to lead in Europe not leave that job to others. A country that wants to promote free trade, cooperate on issues like the environment and migration and work together to make our continent more secure.
Overall, the public must not be bullied by the agenda of political leaders. With such a big decision, so closely run in the opinion polls our leaders and campaigners have a duty to educate and inform the voting public fairly and without scaremongering.
This referendum can't be about the careers of David Cameron or Boris Johnson, it has to be about the futures of all our children instead. The Prime Minister is bound to defend the deal he negotiated and I'd be amazed if Mr Johnson has never noticed that a majority of the voters in the next leadership election back Vote Leave. Both of their campaigns have put forward some pretty extravagant claims in support of their positions which really don't help the public come to a well-informed view.
I vote for a fair fight and hope the public can see past the headlines when they make their choice on June 23rd.
For my own part I've decided that Britain will be stronger, safer and better off if we vote to remain.
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