Saturday, 4 June 2016

Why I'm in! Voting in the UK's referundum on the EU

So the UK's referendum on membership of the EU is fast approaching and I thought it about time I wrote a blog on why I'm voting for the UK to remain. The first reason is that fundamentally I am pro-Europe. I don't think the EU is perfect. There are clearly elements that need reform and there are valid questions of sovereignty, but I don't believe we have much hope of delivering meaningful reform if we exit and just shout from the sidelines. I was at a debate at the Royal Society recently on the impact of leaving the EU. The audience was overwhelmingly in favour of staying and one of the phrases that stuck in my mind was "corridor diplomacy". By leaving we'd be relegated to trying to have corridor conversations with those making decisions. It has to be better to be in the room where the discussion is taking place than standing in the corridor outside!
Second, I think the economic case is clear. The Brexit campaign continually quotes £350 million a week we give to the EU, although when pushed they acknowledge that the net contribution is actually significantly lower. The IfS - in their report - Brexit and the UK's Public Finances - suggest that the UK's net contribution to the EU stands at around £8 billion (0.4% of national income or around £150 million per week). If we stopped making this contribution we could reduce public spending by £8 billion a year (or divert that money elsewhere - to the National Health Service). Just to put things in perspective, public spending is forecast to be £801 billion in 2018-2019 (the year when the money would be available), so the net effect of an extra £8 billion is relatively small - around 1% of public spending.

More importantly, however, is the other side of the argument. What would be the effect of Brexit on the UK economy? If the economy shrinks then tax receipts would fall and this could have a far greater impact on the economy and the public finances than the "saved" £8 billion. The IfS report reviews eight different studies examining the impact of Brexit on the economy - six of which forecast a negative impact (ranging from a 1.2 to 7.9% reduction in GDP). One group - Economists for Brexit - predicts a 4% growth in GDP, while the group other predicts the possibility of a small growth. The balance of evidence is that the economy is likely to shrink in the short term at least. A 0.6% reduction in GDP would wipe out the £8 billion savings.

While the economists can argue over their forecasts, my job brings me into contact with lots of different people. Inevitably a common topic of conversation is the referendum. The vast majority of people I talk to would err on the side of remain and indeed many of them provide anecdotal evidence of adverse economic impact. Just yesterday I was talking with the manufacturing director of a FTSE 250 sized firm. They told me that the analysis they had completed suggested that their firm would take a £2 million hit on profits (around 4%) if we left the EU because of increased regulatory and trade burdens. Their argument was that as part of the world's largest trading block we have relatively free movement of goods and services (as well as people). Leaving the trading block will undoubtedly increase paperwork and red tape! In a separate conversation, with a Managing Director of one of the large banks, I learned that the bank had already seen a downturn in merger and acquisition activity - something they blamed on uncertainty about what will happen to the pound if we decide to exit.

Beyond economics, of course, there is then the argument about migration. Brexit will mean that we take back control of our borders! We can stop people coming to the UK! Yet European countries that agree trade deals with the EU also end up agreeing to the free movement of people! So when the Brexit campaign claim we can have a trade deal agreed with the EU immediately, that will be better than the one we have already - by being within the market - and yet we'll also be able to take back control of our borders, the argument just doesn't stack up.

The two final issues that I have been thinking about are safety and security, and sovereignty. The first of these - safety and security - is pretty clear. Part of the reason for creating the European Union was to seek to create a safer, stronger and more secure Europe. I don't see many people - on either side of the campaign - arguing that the EU has not delivered this. This leaves sovereignty - which I think is actually the strongest argument for Brexit. I can understand those who argue that we should have control over those who create laws for us. That we should be able to vote for EU representatives, but don't we do that by electing members of the European Parliament and asking them to ratify proposals from the EU on our behalf. By engaging with Brussels we gain influence - having representatives there allows us to engage in policy discussions. I can live with a little less direct control and share sovereignty with the rest of Europe, if this delivers the benefits of better and more open trade, increased safety and security and the opportunity to move, live and work freely throughout the EU.