(© European Union 2013 - European Parliament)
A ban on bent bananas and cucumbers, a demand for Oktoberfest barmaids to cover up, the banning of corgis and other dogs and even in using the phrase "two fat ladies" in the classic game of bingo. These are just some of the European Union myths that abound. The European Union. They are two words that seem to have more of a loaded meaning now than ever before. Quite similar to the buzz words immigration and benefits. They are significant topics of discussion across all ages, gender and class and everyone seems to have an opinion. There seems to be a lot of blame laid at the feet of the EU. But just how much of what we've come to know is fact rather than fiction?
Our initial flirtation with the EU began in 1973, when our economy was flagging in comparison to our European counterparts; we were struggling to deal with runaway inflation and even had to introduce a three-day working week due to severe electricity shortages. Former Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath firmly believed that joining the European Union would rescue the UK, and so in 1973, after a 300 hour Parliamentary debate, we did. The following year, Labour became the government of the day and Prime Minister Harold Wilson vowed as part of their manifesto to offer the British public a right to vote on whether or not to stay in what was then the European Economic Community. On the 5th of June 1975, in the only national referendum Britain has ever had, 67.2% voted to stay. In 1993, due to the Maastricht Treaty, the EEC became the European Union. Today the European Union has expanded to include 28 countries, has increased far-reaching powers to set laws that all its member states must obey, one currency and common agricultural and trade. Undeniable parallels can be drawn to the present day in which Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron finds himself in a similar situation to Wilson by pledging to hold a referendum in December 2017.
Some argue this is not soon enough and Conservative MP for Windsor Adam Afriyie's recent attempts to bring the EU referendum vote forward indicates that there are some MPs that agree, albeit small in number. Some of these MPs are part of the Better Off Out campaign launched by Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley, in April 2006. Speaking to him at Portcullis House, he said, "It seemed to me that the only way we were ever going to leave the EU was to persuade people that we would be better off out, i.e. financially better off out, economically better off out and so that's why I wanted to launch the campaign that tried to make that case."
Speaking about the referendum's recent passage to the House of Lords, Mr Davies discounted the notion that division in the party was prevalent. He said, "Virtually every Conservative MP is here today. We're all voting for this Bill, we're all voting together, we are amazingly united, and we all want to win powers back from the EU." Former Chief Deputy Whip Sir John Randall, Tory MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, agrees. He said, "Between 1992 and 1997, when they had the Maastricht Bill, there really was division. But there isn't a huge division, I mean there are differences but it's nothing like there was. There's not a sort of a real Europhile and a Eurosceptic wing."
Top economists, including Jim O'Neill, former chairman of Goldman Sachs, believe that Britain could still maintain its status in the global economy if it were to exit the EU. Leaving doesn't necessarily mean we lose access to the benefits of trading. We would have to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and sign a free trade agreement like Switzerland and other countries around the world. However, Mr Davies says he believes our future prosperity depends on trading with countries like India, China and South America and emerging economies in Africa. He said, "That's where all the future economic growth in the world is going to come from."
Statistics indicate that although nearly half of our exports were to the EU, nearly double that were to the rest of the world. Mr Davies MP said, "We'd be able to decide our own things, control our own borders and we'd be better off economically and save the £20bn a year membership fee that we currently hand over to the EU. We are not going to be best served economically by being stuck in a backward-looking, inward-facing, protection racket, propping up inefficient European businesses and French farmers which is basically what the EU is all about."
Dr Haile-Selassie Rajamani, a university lecturer, says of our relationship with the EU, "Can you put a price tag on peace? It has been an enormous benefit. Peace is something we cannot numerically count but seriously we don't think that we are going to war with any of our EU countries." He believes a more pragmatic approach is needed and that Europe and the UK has changed and, as a result of the global network, we now have other considerations. "The world is not the same as it was. What worked 20 years ago during The Cold War does not work today. It's not the same."
French Brunel University International Journalism Masters student Isabelle Marchand believes it's a much more complicated situation. "Since the Second World War we've been building a close relationship in the European Union. It's more than trading, of course. We built ourselves, our countries, together as a union and morally speaking we have something to lose, which is the unity. There is an ideal of nations together, despite the language barrier and different ways of life."
(© Craig Denford)
Sir Randall MP is an advocate of waiting until further details about the effects of leaving or staying are defined and that a referendum too early on would be unwise. "I think it would be a wasted opportunity if you have a referendum without something to offer people. It would be a bit like putting something in the shop window and covering it with a box and saying, do you want that or not?". Drawing parallels to the American system, he indicates it is possible for such culturally diverse people to come together but recognises that there is a need for renegotiation of the current terms.
But how will leaving the EU affect an education system that received £12.3bn in the past year through Erasmus and other scholarships and £58.5bn for research and innovation from Horizon 2020? How will it affect students? No one seemed to have a direct answer which seems to purport the idea that a clearer agenda is needed.
Mr Davies says, "I would anticipate that the government of the day would probably say that if people are already here they're entitled to stay here." Sir Randall says, "We're not going to have mass deportation of EU citizens."
Dr. Rajamani doesn't feel the higher education system would collapse if we leave, he thinks most things would still remain, as it would be hard to disentangle from all the current partnerships. "There is no reason that we can't still partner on any of these things. At the end of the day, partnership is an attitude." He commented on the effect on students and that it is not the same as it would have been 20 years ago. He believes they now have different expectations and are more global minded and willing to leave the country to look for work. He said, "I don't think we would be significantly affected but it is something to consider. What is Europe for?" Others argue that leaving the EU would limit the free exchange of labour and travel from the EU and restrict UK students to the UK labour market.
Miss Marchand seems to share similar views with Dr Rajamani and said, "I don't feel panicked about it because I don't feel like British people they want to get out of the European Union."
I asked Dr Rajamani what advice he would give to the Prime Minister if he were granted an audience with him. He said, "Be truthful. Be pragmatic about saying this is the reality of where we are in the UK. Being frank about what Europe has to offer. Allow people to discuss it and not belittling the arguments." Posing the same question to Miss Marchand, she said, "You know what your interest is. I think David Cameron is playing a double game appealing to both sides. You know what your people's interests are in. Just keep that in mind."
Labour and the Liberal Democrats are saying that a proper case hasn't been laid out for the referendum and the House of Lords, some of whom are pro-EU, with their no vote today have called into question the future of this Bill. The last day set aside for the House of Commons to deal with private members' bills, of which the EU referendum is one, is February 28th. With that date looming, time is running out. There is a potent clause in the Parliament Act that would allow for this Bill to be forced into law, if necessary, much like the ban on fox and deer hunting in 2005. However, adjustments to the Bill are still being finalised and it seems that we have a long way to go before we ask ourselves the question, "Should we stay or should we go?"
The divorce papers have been drawn up but will we sign them or opt for further counselling instead to repair some of the issues?