Politicians and commercial big-hitters ramp up their rhetoric, exchanging counter- accusations of scaremongering. The Queen is reportedly not keen to stay in, and the governor of the Bank of England is castigated for having an opinion (one that is possibly more informed and objective than most). The clouds of confusion grow denser by the day; members of the public are left with a worrying lack of insight into the issues associated with EU membership and are moved to ask: ‘What has it ever done for us?’
While we are no longer in ‘straight banana’ territory, the question is often supplemented by complaints about ‘foreigners coming over here, and all those silly rules and regulations’, and observations that ‘we were doing alright before we went in’. Largely as a consequence of a long career in and around high-technology manufacturing, reinforced by instinct (and the antics of the more ‘colourful’ Brexit supporters), I believe continued membership is the sensible option. But I’m no expert on macro-economics, I’m just the bloke down the pub, and the decision should not be left up to me.
To be in or out isn’t the only issue here. We elect parliamentary representatives to make decisions in the national interest, based on their experience and knowledge (and in the unlikely event that they have limited understanding of their brief, the considerable resources at their disposal); not to be driven by political expediency to bash the ball back into the court of a largely uninformed electorate. This referendum is unnecessary and irresponsible.
Prominent public figures will contest the figures up to referendum day and beyond, but whatever percentages you care to quote, the EU is the UK’s major trading partner. Not only that, but as members, we’ve seen major inward investment (EU membership might not be the only factor here, but it’s a very happy coincidence): for example, in car manufacturing – the mainstay of our manufacturing economy; and to be more parochial, the establishment and continuing development of one of the world’s leading machine tool manufacturers.
It’s not all about commerce; let’s look at some of the things that affect our quality of life. On the environment, EU legislation has given us cleaner beaches and rivers, improved air quality, lead-free petrol, wildlife protection, restrictions on landfill dumping and a better recycling culture. There’s more protection for consumers and better food labelling, restrictions on harmful additives, and improved animal welfare in food production.
CE Marking and the Machinery Directive have ensured that product safety is better, through a culture – backed by legislation – that embraces everything from toys to machine tools. All employees benefit from smoke-free working environments, and through the Working Time Directive, the right not to work more than a 48-hour week without overtime. Most people would recognise these as benefits; but given a default position of resistance to change and the relatively low priority given to such issues by UK governments of all persuasions, it’s less likely such improvements would have taken place outside the EU.
The European Coal and Steel community was set up in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the aim of securing lasting peace between neighbours. The spirit of cooperation that drove the six founders (Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) to sign a treaty that prevented them from making weapons to turn on each other, has evolved into one of the most important, but less visible benefits of the EU – its role in supporting collaborative research. EU-funded research is bringing together expertise from different sectors and countries to share knowledge and expand networks; and the UK is successful in attracting funding for Framework Programmes for research and development.
The multinational Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) also clearly have implications for UK prosperity and quality of life. Current JTIs include Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2, to accelerate market introduction of clean and efficient technologies in energy and transport; Clean Sky 2, to develop cleaner, quieter aircraft with lower CO2 emissions; Electronic Components and Systems for European Leadership, to boost Europe’s electronics manufacturing capabilities; and Shift2Rail, to develop better trains and railway infrastructure.
For more information, a key publication is The Royal Society’s report UK research and the European Union. The open letter from Stephen Hawking and more than 150 Royal Society fellows warning that quitting the EU would be a disaster for UK science is timely: “Investment in science is as important for the long-term prosperity and security of the UK as investment in infrastructure projects, farming or manufacturing; and the free movement of scientists is as vital for science as free trade is for market economics.