On 23 June 2016, the British people have a big decision to make. To remain in the European Union or leave. Both sides of the divide have been making their case and some important points have been made so far. The Remain camp warns of dire economic consequences if the UK leaves and the Leave camp has warned of continued uncontrollable immigration into the UK if it remains, threatening the very fabric of British society. With all the arguments flying around, most British people are understandably confused.
The current rhetoric is surely different from what obtained in 1975, the year of the first UK referendum on the EU (then called the European Economic Community). The debate was much less toxic back then. Today immigration is the hottest topic on the agenda and it is a very sensitive and divisive subject all across Europe.
The EU is not just a strong economic bloc but a powerful political one too. Free movement of citizens has been enshrined in EU law since 1958 when it was created. In 1973 when the UK joined, it had 9 member states, today it has 28 countries. Now 28 populations can mix as freely as they choose. This is understandably a concern for many citizens, especially in the richer countries.
The free movement of EU citizens across its ever expanding borders has created an influx of people from relatively poorer countries (i.e. Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania etc) into the richer ones (UK, France, Germany etc) at a rate which has caused socio-political tension in the destination countries. Many in the UK for example cite the pushing down of workers wages and salaries, because immigrants from poorer EU countries are willing to work for less. The impact on social services like schools and hospitals have been mentioned. Many also believe EU laws have strangled UK laws thereby reducing the power of the UK government to deport foreign criminals, control access to the benefits system and its ability control the rise in population.
I do see the reasoning behind these points and believe population management is vital to ensure supply of resources meet demand for those resources. But there are two options to resolve an issue like this, create more resources to meet demand, or keep demand to the level of available resources. In business, cutting demand to maintain supply will be a retrograde step, ensuring supply keeps up with demand is forward thinking. Why is it different with the business of governance?
The increase in immigrant numbers from Poland (or Romania) should not be a problem if these immigrants pay taxes, pay rent and conduct business here as all it does is increase government tax revenue. Why is this revenue not translating into more resources? If there are not enough schools, why not build more, if there are not enough hospitals, why not build more? UK population has been increasing since 1066 when the Normans invaded the ‘island’. London was once a small town with a population of 200,000 in 1600, now its a metropolis with nearly 9million people. Resources available have grown with the increase in population for centuries. I know many people will say we cannot continue to have population increase on the scale we have now as the resources to support it are not infinite (e.g. land), but this has been the rhetoric since 1948 when the famous ship, SS Windrush carrying 500 Jamaican immigrants landed at the Tilbury docks. The fear of overpopulation has always been at the fore-front of immigration debates in the UK for decades. Before Poland joined the EU, many scare-mongerers thought the whole of eastern Europe will relocate to Britain, but no, it hasn’t happened. There are still many young Polish people who prefer to stay and work in Warsaw or Krakow than come to London. The same with Romania, many Romanians are still at home in Bucharest, not in London. Yes people move in search of greener pastures, but it takes a lot to relocate and thrive in a different country and most just won’t do it. Many of the movements we see into the UK today are temporary and they usually return to their home countries when they’ve saved enough to live the life they have dreamt for themselves back home. Many are young men with wives and children back in their home countries, only here for a few years to make some money and return.
Another point the Leave campaign makes is the impact of unlimited supply of labour on wages and salaries in the UK. The EU provides the world’s largest pool of labour within a common market. This army of workers is accessible from every member state and their movement is unrestricted. The aim is to ensure businesses can readily obtain the skills needed and power-charge the EU economy. It is also true this free movement ensures cheap labour is accessible to businesses, hence a company may prefer to hire Romanian cleaners rather than British-born cleaners because they could work for less and deliver the same level of service in the same time. But if the pay is at or above the minimum wage and thats what the company can afford, then where is the problem? Every business cuts cost where they can. Its like saying UK businesses should only buy British made raw-materials rather than Chinese or German made. If the Chinese made material is the same quality but cheaper, why not? So long as it is a legal product, they are free to source their raw materials where it delivers most value for money. Why is it different with labour? Of course there are wage abuses in some sectors where some people are paid less than the minimum wage, in these cases government regulation needs to be stepped up to ensure the minimum wage is adhered to and no one is paid below it.
Many people see immigrants as net consumers of British jobs and not creators of them, but they forget that Polish and Romanian immigrants own legitimate businesses in the UK (e.g. shops, stores, cafes and bars) which employ british-born workers, many are also skilled and self-employed like plumbers, auto-mechanics etc. If they choose to bring all these skills here to the UK, it can only be a good thing. Bad for their home countries due to the skills drain, but like I mentioned earlier, most of them are usually here for a specific time period before they return home to establish bigger businesses. But until we know the exact proportion of ‘British jobs’ taken and ‘British jobs’ created by immigrants, I don’t think we can make the conclusion that immigrants are net ‘takers’ of British jobs.
Another point made by the Brexit campaigners is that EU laws are stifling British laws and a main example is the Human Rights Act of 1998 (HRA). Many believe this law is abused regularly by foreign criminals and illegal immigrants who use it as a way to avoid punishment. The UK tabloids pick the worst cases of these alleged abuses and put it as their headline, cherrypicking the facts and misrepresenting the scale. Obviously, this evokes strong reactions from the reader.
The Human Rights Act guarantees fundamental freedoms for every resident of the UK and the EU at large. These freedoms include: Right to life, Right to liberty and security, Right to a fair trial, Freedom of expression, Freedom of thought, belief and religion, Freedom of assembly and association, Freedom from slavery and slave labour to name a few. These rights are absolute. What some people are saying is that because there are abuses in certain cases, then the UK should withdraw from the Human Rights Act (and substitute it with a British Bill of Rights). My question is why would you scrap a good law because of a few bad cases? It will be like scrapping the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ premise in criminal law because some criminals get away with their mischief due to lack of evidence even though they actually committed the crime. We cannot do that, we cannot throw away a law that guarantees fundamental human freedoms just because there are a few instances where it has been abused. And we cannot apply the law selectively, in certain instances and not in others, basically we cannot cherrypick the law. If the law states that every man is guaranteed a right to life, then there should be no instances where execution is permitted, no matter the depravity of the crime. There are other laws to ensure the right punishment is meted out. The Human rights Act has helped many people get justice they deserved, when their home governments have failed to uphold these rights. The European courts in Strasbourg ensures that any violation of the HRA is reversed accordingly. It serves as a second opinion and a system of checks and balances on EU governments. I think this is a good thing.
These are just some of the points time and space will permit me to address here. I think Brexit is a high risk idea, full of minefields and unknowns. We may all be wrong in the end and Brexit may not be as bad as it sounds now if the UK votes to leave, but who is to give that assurance? This is uncharted waters, and why head for uncharted waters when there are charted ones especially when there is so much at stake. People’s livelihoods, health, happiness are all at risk here. Why take the shot when it is not absolutely necessary? Well I don’t know, maybe I am wrong.