If there is one thing people can agree on as they prepare to vote on the UK’s EU membership: comprehensive, comprehensible and trustworthy information is in short supply. Every day, the quality of the debate sinks to a new low – yet the stakes are as high as ever.
How, then, are you supposed to make your decision on June 23? What questions should you ask yourself when you enter the polling booth?
Ultimately, I suggest, there are three core questions you need to consider as you make up your mind. Will you (individually and collectively) be better or worse off? How do you feel about your country, where it is headed, who it is made up of and how it interacts with others? And what does sovereignty really mean to you?
Question 1: will you be better off?
There is a near-universal consensus that EU membership has benefited the UK economy, making it more open and, consequently, bigger. And not just for the fat cats. Clearly – as in any economy – while some individuals, regions and businesses have thrived, others have not. But EU membership has demonstrably boosted both economic growth and general living standards.
Many fingers still point at Brussels red tape. And true enough, EU regulations entail costs, which often hit small businesses particularly hard. But consider that many of them would need to be in place in a UK outside the EU as well. Also, most regulations actually protect citizens’ interests – from environmental and food standards to gender equality and workers’ rights.
As a proportion of GDP, the UK’s net contribution varies every year; in 2015, it came to £8.5 billion. This amounts to 1.5% of the UK government’s annual spend. The NHS budget is £135 billion, the pensions budget £150 billion. Also consider that leaving would not simply free up the full sum.
So, would Brexit trash the economy? The Bank of England certainly anticipates a severe short-term shock to confidence. It is more difficult to predict long-term costs but the vast majority of economists think they would be significant. It all depends on which trade arrangements the UK can strike after leaving.
Ultimately, these options boil down to a trade-off. Remaining in the single market will mean accepting immigration and continuing to abide by EU regulations. A free trade agreement means the UK could make its own rules, but it will take years for such an agreement to be concluded and the end result is unpredictable.
As you linger in the polling booth, your decision on this question will need to be informed by your view on the right balance between national sovereignty and international trade, between risks and opportunities.
Question 2: who do you want to be?
In the context of the referendum, the answer to this question usually begins with free movement. Such is the level of concern about this matter that immigration has become the beating heart of the Leave campaign.
First: the facts. EU citizens have the right to live and work in any other EU country. Currently, 3m EU citizens live in the UK, while 1m Brits live in other EU countries.
As such, the UK cannot significantly reduce the number of EU immigrants. It does however retain control over its own borders and over asylum.
The question is how this all matters. The evidence is clear: the UK is not worse off because of EU immigration. Impacts on wages and jobs, no matter how significant for individuals, have been small overall. EU migrants pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits. They make a positive contribution to UK public coffers. And while increasing numbers add to existing pressure on public services, EU migrants also play a significant part in financing and delivering them – particularly the NHS.
Nevertheless, there is anxiety as we struggle with the fallout from a changing (global) economy, compounded by (domestic) austerity politics. To many, immigration is above all a sign of a more entrenched loss of political power. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the biggest concern remains cultural: the historically burdened suggestion that immigration changes the national character of the UK. Ultimately, your answer to the question posed will have to take issue – or not – with this claim.
Local or national political communities will always attract more loyalty than a transnational one of 500m. But is this an either/or question? Do you think that what is good for one can be good for the other: that we have a common stake in the future? In other words, is what ties people together exclusively cultural, a shared heritage – or is it shaping and sharing a set of rules?
Question 3: what does sovereignty mean to you?
With low voter turnout, weak understanding of how the EU operates, no pan-European party politics and a lack of scrutiny by national parliaments, the EU is often called undemocratic. Certainly, compared to a country, it has its shortcomings.
But it is incorrect to say Brussels imposes everything on the UK. The European Parliament is directly elected by you. It decides on legislation together with the Council of Ministers – made up of national ministers you voted for. The most important decisions are taken by the European Council, which is made up of national political leaders, including the UK prime minister. They also nominate the top bureaucrats of the EU Commission, the EU’s civil service. In any case, the commission can only propose, not adopt legislation.
The EU’s democratic credentials will therefore depend on what you look for.
The Leave campaign’s call to “take back control” is an appealing phrase. But it ignores that in order for any rules-based international order to work, participants must agree to abide by common rules. It also, incidentally, raises more general questions about representative democracy – the idea that you vote for people whose job it is to represent you in political decisions. Direct democracy – such as a referendum – is certainly not about shoring up parliamentary sovereignty.
The EU arose out of a postwar compact. Nation states pooled some aspects of sovereignty to help their economies flourish and to address geopolitical uncertainties. You may feel that part of history is over. You may feel the inevitable compromise and negotiation that comes with joining forces means belittling the status of Britain. Or you might think that in a world that continues to pose significant challenges, bowing out of a compound might bring more disadvantages than benefits.
Ultimately, as you stand in that polling booth, it is entirely up to you to make up your mind. But one thing we all know is this: the outcome of the EU referendum will shape the future of the UK for a long time. So make use of your power and cast your vote.