The EU Referendum

Time to talk about the EU referendum, because this vote will be on a knife edge and Lewisham is a swing state.

There's lots not to like about the EU, including an overpowered and unaccountable Commission, and a tendency towards pork barrel politics , visible everywhere from the distortions of the Common Agricultural Policy to the regular migration of MEPs from Brussels to Strasbourg and back again.

We can also ignore any pro-EU arguments that say "without the EU, we'd end up making decisions for ourselves that I don't happen to like". For example, anything about protections from the EU relating to working conditions and human rights. We don't need the EU to give us these things. We have a mature, pluralist democracy. If we want them, we can vote for them ourselves. Likewise, the UK is a net contributor and if we value the things that the EU is supporting, we can spend the money ourselves.

The real benefits of EU membership come from economies of scale in terms of trade, collaboration and common strategies and standards. This is what we stand to lose by leaving a frictionless union.

Take investment in science - an area where the EU has enjoyed remarkable success in recent years and where Britain punches above its weight. It's not a decline in funding that we should fear, but the lost opportunities to participate in EU-wide projects, to pool resources and work on problems together with the brightest minds across the continent. Next time there's a comet to be landed on, we may not be there.

As this graphic from the Economist shows, Britain has done disproportionately well out of the EU set-up. When we joined the EEC, our GDP per capita was well below the member average. Since then, we've become considerably richer than the average:

In part, that's due to sclerotic growth of countries like Italy and France, but it's also because the UK's strengths (flexible labour market, business-friendly regulatory environment, open society and specialisation in high-value service and advanced manufacturing industries) have allowed us to become to the EU's service sector what Germany is to its manufacturing sector.

London is at the heart of this success. We are the business capital of Europe, dominant in finance, technology, law, media and a range of other fields. Our unique agglomeration sucks in talent and investment from across the continent, attracting many more European and global corporate headquarters than any other European city and putting our capital at the top of almost any economic development index you can find.

London is a victim of its own success, to be sure, with soaring house prices forcing people further out, but we need to do a better job of managing growth, rather than wrecking it.

Lewisham voters are lucky enough to live in a city at the height of its powers, enjoying relative success and prosperity. We've become complacent about our success and angry with our leaders - like Charlton fans under Alan Curbishley, who got so used to the comfort of the Premier League that they wanted to boot him out so they could climb to even greater heights. Today, the club languishes in League One.

It's not impossible to imagine a Britain that thrives outside the EU, but it seems much more likely that our hubris will lead to nemesis. At the very least, Brexit guarantees a few years of utter chaos, currency depreciation and economic slowdown. There need to be some bloody good reasons why we'd risk it. So let's look at the three key areas of the argument:


Brexiters claim we'd be freer to trade with the rest of the world, leading to long-term success. The EU hasn't stopped Germany selling cars or machine tools to China, and it hasn't stopped the UK rapidly growing its trade with the rest of the world in recent years. But exiting a free trade bloc and having to spend years renegotiating terms with the EU and the rest of the world would certainly do massive damage to our trade in the short term. More importantly, it would disadvantage us in the long-term. As Lord Mandelson said in his excellent speech to the EEF:

"Let me tell you a bit more about free trade agreements. I have negotiated many in my time as Trade Commissioner.

"They only start when the other side wants. They are very difficult to conclude. They always take longer than you think. The advantage is always with the bigger party. And to get what you want you have to concede far more than you bargained for. They are not a cake walk."

Even Brexiters have conceded this point and have fallen back on the argument that Brexit would force exporters to raise their game, because the EU has been 'too easy' a ride for them. This is not a reassuring argument. If you care about trade (and the jobs and growth that go with it) then you have to vote remain.


This has been the Brexiters' strong suit. Immigration from the EU has accelerated sharply in recent years and, while the net economic effect is neutral-to-positive, rapid immigration does create problems, putting deflationary pressures on wages in certain sectors and jobs and placing strain on public services.

Remainers can argue that the answer is simply for Britain to invest more in infrastructure and the public services but that carries with it political challenges, like increasing government borrowing or relaxing green belt protections around cities like London. The reality is that rapid immigration will always be hard to manage and the EU makes it harder to control.

I like London's diversity and its status as an international melting pot. But not everyone is so comfortable with change - or in a position to adapt to it as comfortably. If the speed of change is too unsettling for you, then Brexit might make sense. But here, I'd offer two caveats:

Firstly, London's economy is built on immigration. So whether you are in work or reliant on state support and the taxes that pay for it, clamping down on immigration could have a material, negative impact on your standard of living.

Secondly, many Brexiters have acknowledged how important immigration is and have tried to argument that the real problem with the EU and immigration is that it favours European migrants over those from India, China and elsewhere. In other words, Brexit would probably have a minimal impact on total immigration, but the countries of origin might be different. That seems like a very weak argument in favour of Brexit.

Meanwhile, traveling among, working in or retiring to EU countries will become much more complicated.

Democratic control

If sovereignty matters above all to you, then Brexit offers the restoration of British democracy and the hope of better decisions being made. But, the EU will go on making laws that will effect our lives and which will be forced upon us by trade agreements. We will have surrendered our voice in these processes.

We'd also lose some ability to shape international co-operation. The EU helps us respond more effectively to issues that cross borders, from climate change to defence.

If democratic reform is an itch we want to scratch, there are lots of domestic issues we could be focusing on first, from voting reform and devolution to the role of the House of Lords and the Queen as Head of State.
Ultimately, there seem to be very few strong arguments for leaving and a lot of reasons to be worried. Even though the EU is an unlovely institution, leave offers huge risk and very few obvious upsides.

I will thus be voting "remain" but please share your views below.


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