My reflections on the Guardian Live EU Referendum debate

Attending the Guardian Live referendum debate at Cadogan Hall, off London’s Sloane Square, last night were Chris Grayling MP, Daniel Hannan MEP and John Mann MP for the Leave side; against Andy Burnham MP, Caroline Lucas MP and our very own Tim Farron MP for the Remain side.    The debate lasted an hour, and gave the speakers an opportunity to put forward what they considered to be their best points.

Mr Grayling was on the defensive in relation to the economy.  He criticised the Institute of Fiscal Studies and National Institute for Economic and Social Research modelling for assuming  – in line with the raising of tariffs and other restrictions on trade that would kick in as a matter of existing EU law -that the pound would fall and that trade with the remainder of the EU would fall in a Brexit scenario.  He trotted out the facts that German cars and French food are sold in the UK, but had no answer to the riposte that all other Member States (including net importers from the UK and states with a small share of trade with us) would have to agree before tariffs could be reduced.   He said that studies showed we would be better off, albeit not as well off, in 12 years’ time.  This glossed over the predictions of short-term recession and permanently foregone output of the order of 2% to 5% every year compared to a remain scenario.  

On immigration, he said that ‘the population of Newcastle’ was arriving every year ‘in perpetuity’ and that this would require green space to be built upon.  It appeared to me that this both assumed that housing densities would not increase, and also failed to acknowledge that only 13% of the country is presently built-up with a population of 64.5m, and that 184,000 per year amounts to growth of less than 0.3% of the population annually.  Hence such growth does in fact seem sustainable for the foreseeable future.  Mr Grayling was similarly defensive on the question of influence in foreign relations.  He argued that the Eurozone was headed in the direction of greater integration and that if we remained, the UK would end up on the periphery.  However, that did not amount to a positive reason to surrender what influence we presently have over the EU.

Mr Hannan repeatedly launched into conspiracy-theory rhetoric that did not play well with the audience.  This included raising the support of big banks for remaining in the EU, claiming that the EU was ‘a racket’, demonising big businesses and lobbyists in Brussels, referring pejoratively to ‘elites’, and casting aspersions on the independence of the OECD and IMF analyses on the basis that they were ‘funded by the EU’ (even though contributions from the organisation comprise a small proportion of their funding).

Mr Hannan professed to want more immigration from the Commonwealth and illogically cited this as a reason to leave the EU.  He wrongly treated free movement rights for Commonwealth and EU citizens as being in conflict, when the two are perfectly possible to achieve in tandem.

On international affairs, Mr Hannan accepted that one ‘would have to be mad’ to disagree with belonging to an organisation that was about trade, co-operation and peacefully arbitrating disputes, but claimed that the EU was the only organisation with a ‘higher legal order’ and court. He also claimed that other democracies like Australia and New Zealand were ‘not rushing to join’ together in a common market. These points were simply factually wrong. Trade blocs such as EFTA, the Andean Community, ECOWAS, SADC, COMESA and CARICOM have similar institutional arrangements to the EU including a supranational court and legal order. Australia and New Zealand have been integrating into a single economic market with harmonised rules and standards since the conclusion of ANZCERTA in 1983.

Mr Mann seemed to be labouring under the erroneous assumption that zero hours contracts, falling wages, privatisation, and employers failing to advertise jobs locally were all the fault of the EU.  He wrongly believed that EU procurement and competition law required the privatisation of trains and healthcare, and prevented nationalisation of the steel industry, when in fact these legal regimes only apply if private providers are used to deliver public services and do not preclude nationalised industries or services – which was pointed out by Andy Burnham. He was critical of the Laval and Viking judgments of the ECJ which ruled that strikes against posted workers could be unlawful if they were launched for reasons other than protecting workers’ rights or were used disproportionately.  These judgments need to be seen in the context of other EU protections for workers and ‘floor’ protections to stop a ‘race to the bottom’(highlighted by Mr Burnham), and the potential for new EU legislation to overrule those court rulings and further protect rights to strike (an attempt at which was proposed by the Monti Commission but blocked by the national parliaments pursuant to the Lisbon Treaty).

Caroline Lucas pointed out the fallacy in assuming that there was only a finite number of jobs. She blamed a feeling of powerlessness among many Leave supporters on the unrepresentative Westminster political system and a failure by politicians to listen.  Andy Burnham called for practical measures including targeted funding to address pressures from migration on schools and GP surgeries.  Both pointed out that the UK retains passport control and information sharing to police its borders, such that the borders were not ‘uncontrolled’.

Tim Farron made judicious interventions as to why the EU does in fact have a democratic legislature and oversight, with its proportionally elected Parliament; as to the sense of nations clubbing together to face the challenges of a globalised world; and to point out that the UK would lose control over EU rules and policies if it left.  He emphasised the importance of listening to experts.  He rightly pointed out that the EU had been blamed by politicians refusing to take responsibility for failings that were their own fault in areas such as schools, housing, and health.  He stressed the personal freedoms that the EU brings and rejecting the politics of fear, division, nationalism and identity politics; in favour of a politics of values including neighbourliness and collaboration.

The debate revealed that there is no compelling case to justify the economic harm and loss of individual freedoms to travel, trade and work across the EU that Brexit would risk.  Claims that Brexit would result in more ‘control’ of our national destiny ring hollow in a global world where small and medium sized nations mostly club together and pool sovereignty, and Britain would be left by itself.

* David Graham is a Lib Dem member in London

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  • Dr David Hill 21st Jun '16 - 10:45pm

    Well Tim and Mr. Cameron, where is democracy in the EU and something that all MPs cherrish. For what about the voice of the 500 million EU citizens that is being overlooked when the EU is going to do what it wants and democracy is destroyed.This is what it appears that the EU project is about, overidding their 500 million people.

    REVEALED: EU To Bypass National Parliaments On Controversial TTIP Deal’ –

    Just shows what the EU is all about, give me your money and we shall do whatever we wish. The people mean simply nothing.

  • What a load of old cobblers, Dr Hill. Trade treaties have to be agreed by the council of ministers – including the UK – and the European Parliament that has some 80 UK MEPs. They also have to be enacted into law by national parliaments. That’s how the EU work, democratic to the core. Any other reading of the EU treaties is false.
    Please get your facts right before committing such elementary mistakes.
    Sure there are a load of conspiracy theories out there, but only the gullible believe them.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Jun '16 - 9:33am

    Some of the EU citizens seeking to make a living in the UK must be building workers. Some of these people are used to moving around within member states according to where the work is. Many Irish workers have done so over long periods in the UK, both before and after 1921, before and after 1973. It is in the nature of contract work that immigration to the point of settlement is unnecessary for shorter term contracts. The freedom of movement of labour provides for this.
    The lobbying power of the farming industry created a provision for Bulgarian seasonal farm workers, but was abolished when Bulgaria became full members of the EU and completed its transitional period. The workers would apply for specific visas for limited leave for a few months and move from farm to farm for periods of weeks as the various crops matured for harvesting. The visas required that the workers return to Bulgaria at the end of the season and mostly they did, knowing that they could apply again the following year. A small number applied for asylum, claiming, for instance, on the basis of persecution of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria under communism, which was refuted with the help of evidence from F&CO. Post-communist Bulgaria was democratic and had a much improved human rights record. Turkey cared about the well-being of ethnic Turks in neighbouring countries and received the Bulgarian President royally.

  • Maybe it’s just me (chorus of, “Yes it’s just you”) but the ‘spontaneous’ jumping to their feet and ‘hand-above-head’ applauding of Boris’s closing speech, by the ‘Brexit’ supporters, reminded me of a Nuremberg Rally…..

  • Expats, know what you mean. Phrases I have been given by some Brexit supporters I know well, “they are taking our jobs, they are destroying our culture, the prisons are full of them, these people etc, all you people are concerned about is money and the economy!!”, and worse there is no objectivity, it is like an obsession, a brick wall of emotional hard ware. You ask, is there anything good about the EEC, and they look bemused, I say well it cannot all be bad 100%, is there just a 1% of benefit? Again blank looks.

  • theakes 22nd Jun ’16 – 12:11pm
    Expats, know what you mean. Phrases I have been given by some Brexit supporters I know well, “they are taking our jobs, they are destroying our culture, the prisons are full of them, these people etc, all you people are concerned about is money and the economy!!”, and worse there is no objectivity, it is like an obsession, a brick wall of emotional hard ware. You ask, is there anything good about the EEC, and they look bemused, I say well it cannot all be bad 100%, is there just a 1% of benefit? Again blank looks…………….

    As you say, “Been there; got the tee-shirt”….

    Sensible questions are met with, “We’ll take back control” (No details as to, “Why, Where, How”)…”We’ll stop immigration” (Again, no details; just parroting “An Australian points system”) When you say, “But those from the EU are working and paying tax” or “How will our hospitals/care homes function” or “How will that help our lower skilled/paid workers”, …They just repeat the mantra….
    Persist in the argument and, as Jayne Mansfield said on another thread, your loyalty, patriotism and ‘faith in Britain’ are questioned….

    I believe that the polarisation (in some cases,’hatred’ seems not too strong a word) generated will continue long after tomorrow’s vote…

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