As anyone who reads this blog probably knows, the UK will hold a referendum about its continued membership in the EU later this month, on 23rd June. I already discussed my views on this in my previous post, so I won’t go into any depth on that here. The discussion is raging, not only in the media but no doubt in many family homes and workplaces (would be curious to be a fly on the wall when Boris Johnson and his brother, science minister Jo Johnson, talk about this in private…). I do think I have said most that I can say about it already – but I keep hearing the same tired, naïve arguments over and over. So I’ll write something about it, one last time before putting my future career, my civil rights, and most likely my continued life in this country in the hands of voters. Here I address six flawed arguments for leaving the EU:
1. “It will change everything”
Actually, most likely nothing major will happen at all. By far the most likely scenario is that the UK leaves the EU, and then joins the EEA in which free movement of people remains in turn for having full access to the single market. EU citizens in the UK will retain the same rights they had previously. Parliament comprises a large number of MPs from Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and one (I think?) from the Greens, plus a healthy number of Europhile Conservatives. This means that this outcome is essentially guaranteed, at least until the next general election (and even then it seems highly unlikely that this situation will change dramatically). Of course, the UK would nevertheless give up its rights to influence EU policy. Sounds like a rotten deal to me. Anyway, leaving this aside, in the remainder of this post I will pretend that a vote to leave the EU will mean also an end to freedom of movement, which is the illusory scenario the Leave campaign is peddling.
(Update 11 June 2016: The above EEA scenario of course assumes that the UK is allowed to remain in the single market. Wolfgang Schäuble seems to think that isn’t going to happen. I don’t agree with Schäuble much about anything but then again he is also highly influential in EU politics so it’s difficult to know what to think about his argument.)
2.”We can spend the money we save on UK science”
One reason I and many scientists are vehemently opposing this nostalgic independence nonsense is that a great deal of British science funding comes from the EU and that science in the UK would suffer if that were lost. An oft-repeated counterargument to this is that by leaving the EU the UK would no longer pay contributions to European funds and could thus use those savings to spend on British science. This is based on false economy and wishful thinking. The UK brings in more science funding than it pays in, so it would have to increase its science funding. When was the last time a British government did that? Do you honestly think it is likely they will do that now? Of course this argument is not even taking into account the strain on the economy now. It also ignores the likely hit the economy will take after leaving which will reduce and quite possibly wipe out any potential savings. And it blatantly neglects the substantial cost that the UK must pay to leave the EU in the first place. None of these things suggest there will be lots of spare pennies to fund UK research and development. (For similar reasons I also don’t believe this money will be used for the NHS or building homes but that’s outside the scope of my post).
3. “We will be free of EU bureaucracy”
Science has always been collaborative and it is increasingly so in our age. We need international science projects and the EU science initiatives (which go well beyond EU member states) can facilitate this far better than any single national body could. So the UK will quite likely continue to contribute to those initiatives, just as other non-EU countries (like Switzerland) are contributing – without any say in its direction.
4. “Scientists can still collaborate”
Funding is a big factor in science and the cynics on the Leave side are probably right that it is one of the driving factors why all vice-chancellors and governing bodies of British universities want the UK to stay in the EU. But it’s not just about that. Because science is collaborative and international, universities and research centres are usually extremely multinational. This may be especially true in English-speaking countries and this ability to attract bright minds from all over the world is what boost British science output (e.g. a large proportion of research grants brought to UK universities are brought in by people who are not UK citizens). You do not help this by putting up barriers. Leave campaigners like to talk about “point-based immigration systems” that would allow the UK to hire people in professions it needs and that makes it possible for excellent students to come here. Sure, because the best thing is always to have more bureaucracy and paperwork! That will doubtless attract great applicants who could instead be free to move to Paris, Berlin – or Dublin.
5. “EU citizens already living here can stay”
Much of this referendum debate has focused on immigration. Recent years have seen unprecedented immigration of people from other EU nations (although this still only accounts for around half of overall immigration to the UK). It is not surprising that this could cause some issues and concerns. More people making demands on the health system, on housing, or on jobs may strain the country’s capacity. Stopping EU immigration dead in its tracks will perhaps relieve this strain – however, one question Leave campaigners steadfastly ignore to address is what happens to the people who are already here. Unless they all pack and leave voluntarily on 24th June they will still put a strain on the capacity for some time to come. One argument I often hear is “nobody will be kicked out”. However, non-EU citizens are being deported left and right, sometimes for ludicrous reasons and in ludicrous ways. Under the Reign of Terroresa May, neither having a doctorate nor a British spouse necessarily protect you from this. Unless some sort of special agreement is negotiated, the same rules will apply to EU citizens if the UK leaves the EU. There is a lot of conflicting information out there, the most insidious of which is blatant (but presumably lucrative?) scare-mongering by law firms pushing people to apply for citizenship. Now, I don’t think many EU citizens will be deported, especially not those who are already settled here. But Leave campaigners show an obvious disconnect: On the one hand, they seem to believe that by leaving the EU the burden on the NHS and housing is magically lifted. On the other hand, they (at least the sane ones) maintain that there won’t be any mass-deportation of the very people they blame for this burden.
6. “We will regain our sovereignty”
The UK still is, and remains to be, a sovereign nation insofar that such a thing exists in this globalised world. I wasn’t overly impressed by David Cameron’s performance in that cringe-worthy ITV townhall meeting but one compelling answer he gave is that voting to Leave the EU will give an illusion of independence from foreign powers whilst sacrificing actual influence on the world and European stage. I call this the Libertarian Fallacy because it is the same faulty logic that leads many self-declared Libertarians to oppose all sorts of policies in the name of “liberty” without achieving any individual freedom at all. It’s the reasoning that allows some to decry background checks on guns as tyranny but sees no problem with strict tests for driving licenses. It’s the cognitive dissonance in which citizen ID cards evoke the spectre of fascist dictatorship but nobody worries about the far less controlled surveillance via credit card transactions or online activities. Whatever utopian dreams you may have about a “sovereign” UK after EU exit, it will lose its seat at the table and have reduced sway in any decision-making process in Europe – and by extension also in the world. Perhaps it’s fine with many to be an isolated island in a big sea dominated by China and the US, and a new Russian empire rattling its sabres. Fine, not all nations need to be world players. Perhaps these big guys will even leave you in peace. But don’t think for a second that by leaving the EU Britannia will rule the waves again.