Friday, 15 April 2016

What could happen if Britain votes to leave the EU?

On 23rd June of this year, the UK will have a referendum on its membership of the European Union (EU). The media commonly refers to this as Brexit, which is a combination of British and exit. The EU was originally established to promote economic cooperation and compromise among European countries in in order to maintain peace after World War II, which occurred as a result of extreme nationalism. Due to increased membership and extended control, the EU has changed since its establishment. It can reinforce inequality by standardising legislation for its member states with very different economies and cultures, and deciding who may and may not be admitted into its member states, which can be a matter of life or death for asylum seekers. Professionals are often admitted, but are limited to unskilled employment due to bureaucratic measures which consider the qualifications they obtained from their country of origin to be insufficient. On the other hand, opening borders and enabling inclusive free movement may lessen such inequality by dismantling the Global North–South divide. Thus some advocate the reform of the EU’s structure and policies rather than the extremity of leaving the EU entirely, or at least not leaving for the unsubstantiated reasons supporters of Brexit are utilising in their arguments.

There are many reasons for which the issue of Brexit is being advocated by the UK media. Some claim that the sovereignty of Britain is being threatened by the EU. However, nationalism is a phenomenon constructed by society that categorises humanity by nationality in order to better comprehend our identities. My experience demonstrates the irrationality of nationalism. I am indebted £28,000 to my country for my Bachelor’s degree and would be indebted by a further £10,000 had I studied a Master’s degree in Britain, yet in Finland, a country of which I am not a citizen, I have been given the opportunity to study a Master’s degree for which no tuition fees are charged. I originally thought that my Bachelor's fee was £21,000, but was shocked when I saw it was £7,000 more than I expected after being pestered for repayment just one month after graduating. I think Student Finance England should deduct some of my debt for the grief they have caused me and the cost of the countless letters and phone calls required to comply with their ridiculous bureaucratic measures! Unfortunately tuition fees for non-EU students will be introduced in Finland from autumn 2017 onwards. Evidently even the Nordic countries are suffering from the media’s propagation of racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Widely read tabloids in Britain, such as the Sun and the Daily Mail support such arguments through the use of emotive language and shocking imagery in order to increase sales. Broadsheets such as the Guardian and the Independent tend to be less popular due to their use of unemotive language and accurate representation of facts. However, it must be considered that unless presented in their raw form and provided with sufficient context, facts and statistics can often be manipulated to support either side of an argument.

How am I ever supposed to get a mortgage?

Whilst I believe that the media which you choose or do not choose to refer to whilst exploring a current media phenomena such as Brexit influences a person’s attitude towards it, I also think it can be significantly attributed to that person’s experiences. For example, in the case of Brexit, those who have not had the opportunity to travel outside of Britain, or have had limited meaningful interaction with nationalities and cultures other than their own, tend to be more prejudiced towards them and more convinced of an outside threat. I have been lucky enough to have had multiple opportunities to travel outside of Britain and spend a significant amount of time integrating into other cultures. I currently mostly socialise with people of a different nationality than my own, which has taught me more than any newspaper article ever could.

As an immigrant and a friend of non-EU immigrants in Finland I have at least some understanding of the difficulties that must be faced regarding obtaining a visa and setting up a bank account, and I cannot begin to describe the complications of job seeking, even for immigrants who are willing, hardworking, capable and qualified. Even as a friend of a Romanian immigrant in Britain I have witnessed complications with her student finance based on her nationality, despite her status as a long-term resident in Britain and being fluent in English and three other languages, which is more than can be said for the majority of Britons. The media’s use of the word ‘immigrant’ has such negative connotations and is connected to so many prejudices, even whilst referring to the immigrants in Britain that comprise 11%of our National Health Service (NHS) staff and 26% of doctors, yet all it really denotes is a person who has moved from one place to another. According to the BBC, “The UK's growth forecasts are based, in part, on continued high levels of net migration. The Office for Budget Responsibility says the economy relies on migrant labour and taxes paid by immigrants to keep funding public services.”

Finns could complain that I am costing their government money, yet I have never heard this uttered from anybody’s lips, although perhaps such things have been said in Finnish and I have not understood! Through a dehumanised and economic lens, international students such as myself are raising the profile of Finland and increasing by encouraging our friends and families to visit, or even immigrate. I volunteer with various initiatives and I am a proud taxpayer because I want to give back to the country that has already given me so much. In short, I feel that I receive better treatment in a foreign country than I do in my own, therefore I cannot consider myself a nationalist or patriot of Britain. The closest I have felt to feeling patriotic is towards Finland, yet that is as irrational as nationalism itself because I am not a Finnish citizen and never will be truly Finnish, although that in itself is also a socially constructed stereotype.

Immigrants are often criticised for claiming benefits, leading to their association with benefit fraud. This is a popular argument against EU membership and subsequent limited control over borders. However, the take-up of benefits is lower for entitled immigrants than the UK-born population due to lack of awareness, limited English fluency and insufficient documentation. Between 1998 and 2011 European immigrants were almost 8% less likely than Britons to receive a form of state benefit or tax credit. Furthermore, the number of Britons receiving benefits in wealthier EU states outnumbers their citizens receiving benefits in the UK. This suggests that the respective association of immigrants with benefit fraud may be somewhat unsubstantiated. Terrorism is also a common concern of less control over borders as a result of EU membership. Contrary to public belief, as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is not an EU institution, leaving the EU will not impact the ECHR overruling the possibility for Britain to deport terror suspects. Furthermore, “withdrawal from the European Arrest Warrant could mean delays for the UK in extraditing suspects from other European countries.” Undoubtedly there are some immigrants who do take advantage of the benefit system and are potentially dangerous, but I believe in any group of people there are a small minority with bad intentions. The media tend to take such negative stories and exaggerate them in order to increase sales whilst the positive stories often remain concealed. This is supported by politicians who use defenceless minorities as scapegoats for their own mistakes.

Many advocate Britain leaving the EU in order to prevent more immigrants entering into Britain, but do not seem to consider the global context and implications outside of the UK for emigrants such as myself. I do not want to have to envisage myself or other Britons battling with a visa or being unable to freely travel within the EU for study or work purposes. Some argue that if Britain left the EU, but remained within the European Economic Area (EEA) single market, it would be likely to retain free movement rights. However, according to the BBC, “Britain might have to agree to allow free movement of EU migrants as the price of being allowed access to the free market.” Some suggest that Britain could follow the models of Norway, Switzerland, or Turkey, or rely on its World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership, although others claim that the applicability of such models to the case of the UK are questionable.

Brexit could also increase trade competition between the UK and the EU, which could damage British export industries. Furthermore, global finance specialist Malcom Sweeting claims that “the success of the UK financial services industry is to a large extent built on EU Internal Market legislation.” According to one study, in the best-case scenario “UK gross domestic product (GDP) would be 1.6% higher than if it had stayed within the EU. However, these are outliers. The more realistic range is between a 0.8% permanent loss to GDP in 2030 – where the UK strikes a comprehensive trade deal with the EU but does nothing else; and a 0.6% permanent gain in GDP in 2030 – where it pursues free trade with the rest of the world and deregulation.” This suggests that leaving the EU may not necessarily be particularly beneficial for the British economy and therefore not work the risk of leaving. Another study claims that in the worst-case scenario “there would be income falls of 6.3%to 9.5% of GDP, a loss of a similar size to that resulting from the global financial crisis of 2008/09."

Spain is a popular destination for British retirees and such expatriates would undoubtedly be affected if Britain did not remain within the EEA because their situations would depend on Britain’s trade negotiations with individual EU member statesFurthermore, if the work permit restrictions advocated by UK Independence Party (UKIP) were to be imposed, other countries would most likely reciprocate and British expatriates would have to apply for visas“and those already living there may face integration rules, such as proving they can speak the language before gaining long-term residency rights.”  Former attorney general Dominic Grieve suggested that British expatriates in the EU could become illegal immigrants overnight “if Britain left both the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights without keeping free movement as part of anew trade agreement.” In the worst case scenario, my current residence in Finland and my Finnish girlfriend's potential future residence in Britain would be much more complicated. As the Finnish Social Insurance Institution (Kela) does not consider us a couple because we are the same gender, we may be pressured to register our relationship for the sake of a residence permit. This is a very damaging notion for all transnational couples affected indeed. 

"The idea that the UK would be freer outside the EU is based on a series of misconceptions.” If Britain had not been a member of the EU, I would not have received the grant from the Erasmus programme, which is an EU student exchange programme, and may not have been able to work in Spain during my Bachelor’s degree. I may not have met my girlfriend whilst she was studying in the UK through the Erasmus programme, which ultimately led to my decision to study my Master’s degree in Finland. If we leave the EU the experiences that I have had may not be possible for the generations to come, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. Hence when many argue that British membership of the EU costs more than it is worth and that we do not get much back, I do not think they realise the extent to which my and other expatriates’ experiences depend on free movement within, and in some cases funding from, the EU. These experiences are particularly important for Britain. As it is easy for us to emigrate without making the effort to learn another language due to the use of English as a lingua franca, our intercultural awareness is already somewhat restricted because I believe that our understanding of another culture is fairly limited until we start to learn its language.

My experience concerning education and immigration is just one example of the ways in which Britain benefits from its membership of the EU. The EU provides the UK with an annual rebate, which totalled £4.6 billion in 2014/15, in the form of payments to farmers and regional development grants, which are used to fund various infrastructure projects for instance. The cost of Britain’s EU membership depends on the methods of calculation utilised and the interpretation derived from the results. Some media present the figure of £20 billion as Britain’s annual contribution to the EU, although this is based on gross figures and therefore disregards rebates and other financial contributions from the EU. The National Audit Office claims that the UK's net contribution for 2014 was £5.7 billion using a different formula which also considers the EU’s direct financial contributions to companies and universities. If the indirect financial contributions of the EU to Britain, such as tourism, were also to be considered, the cost of EU membership to Britain is significantly lower than many tabloid newspapers report.

Economic cooperation and compromise through the EU is important to due to increasing competition from emerging economies, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS). It could be considered that Britain made a good decision to retain the pound because of the Eurozone crisis. Due to the exchange rate when I arrived in Finland transferring pounds to euros was advantageous for me, but transferring my wages, which are in euros, to pounds, is disappointing to say the least. Membership of the EU also facilitates easier trade. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is an agreement currently being negotiated between the EU and US which will create the biggest free trade area in the world. Advocates of TTIP claim that it will reduce the cost of American imports and increase British exports to the US. However, TTIP would provide multinational corporations with more power, and undermine basic rights, public services and food standards. If Britain left the EU it would not partake in TTIP, but rather negotiate a trade deal with the US independently. This is the one positive aspect of leaving the EU that I can envisage. Furthermore, after leaving the EU “tax avoidance and evasion will reach crippling levels as our economy becomes increasingly wholly owned by foreign multinationals that make tax avoidance in Britain central to their business strategy.”

In February David Cameron attended a European Council summit in which he negotiated a special status for the UK in the EU. Although the agreements reached at the meeting, one of which was retaining the British pound, do not meet Cameron’s original promises made in the lead up to the 2015 general election due to the pressure of competition from UKIPhe is advocating Britain remaining a member of the EU. Such agreements indicate the potential for reform within the EU. With the possibility for such reforms, leaving the EU appears to be a risk due to the unclear repercussions. Such a risk is perhaps not worth damaging Britain’s international status, the high cost of the campaigns in the lead up to the referendum, and the bureaucracy involved if Britain voted to leave the EU. The official EU referendum campaign period begins today on 15th April and continues until the day of the referendum on 23rd June. The official campaigns will receive a £600,000 grant, a spending limit of £7 million, and free advertising and access to meeting facilities. Whilst younger people are more likely to vote to remain in the EU, older voters tend to favour leaving, although older people are more likely to vote in elections than younger people.

Therefore it is evident that if Britain voted to leave the EU the changes would not be immediate or even certain, but would rather take some time to be implemented, during which time Britain would be required to continue to abide by EU legislation, but be unable to partake in any decision-making. The considerable amount of money and time involved in Britain leaving the EU could instead be used to invest in public services and negotiate reform in the EU that may be prompted by the British referendum on EU membership. Britain is already isolated geographically, and leaving the EU is likely isolate us culturally, politically and economically. According to the BBC, “America and other allies want Britain to remain in the EU. The UK risks becoming a maverick, isolated state if it leaves.”

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