Alan Omogbai provides an introductory summary for some of the challenges facing voters ahead of the UK referendum on EU membership.
The challenges facing voters can be divided up into two categories. Firstly we have ‘the misunderstood’: whether there is sufficient understanding of the European Union itself. Secondly we have ‘the unknown’: whether the electorate knows enough about the impacts of ‘Brexit’ or ‘Bremain’ to make an informed choice. These two items of discussion sound quite obvious but in them we find that there is much to unravel.
This article will focus on ‘the misunderstood’. The underlying fear is that, for a vote about such an important issue, we cannot risk having voters who are not at least satisfactorily informed on the issues.
Who would we be actually leaving?
Forgetting for one minute that many people who read this article may be reasonably informed or interested in the matter, it may be helpful to clear the EU’s name, so to speak. Leaving the EU would not relieve the UK from all international treaty obligations with other European countries, for instance we would still be a part of the European Economic Area (like Norway and Iceland). There are still other international organisations such as the Council of Europe and the United Nations which will hold the UK to account on various issues such as freedoms, rights and peace.
These international organisations are separate from the EU system and they have their own respective treaties and judicial systems: the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights as well as the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Court of Justice. However, it is important to note that these organisations do not deal with the economic prosperity of European countries.
UK Parliamentary Sovereignty
Every Member State upon accession to the EU and its treaties concedes that EU law is supreme, at least in the areas where they have given up national competence. This appears to be a feature of EU membership that people are uncomfortable with, raising allegations that their country, the UK in this case, is being run from Brussels. One problem is that many people completely misunderstand the issue of UK (parliamentary) sovereignty and how it actually operates in practice. Some even confuse it with a lack of democracy, as if the supremacy of EU law and democracy are mutually exclusive, whereas in reality that is not necessarily the case.
Furthermore, our un-codified constitution dictates that the UK Parliament is sovereign, effectively meaning that Parliament legislation is supreme and no legislation can bind a future Parliament. Therefore, we should consider which areas of competence the national governments, including the UK’s, are required to surrender to the EU. Also worthy of consideration is the impact of the EU and shared competence has had on the standard of policy and implementation. These areas range from common fisheries policy, to consumer protection. It may be helpful to research, for example, how the EU has contributed to market exposure or consolidation during periods of financial boom and bust.
Democracy in the EU
The fact is that there are 28 appointed Commissioners, one for each EU Member State, whose selection is somewhat scrutinised by elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). It is interesting, but not critical, to note that the election of MEPs is based on proportional representation – a voting system that some have argued for in this country as a fairer and more representative alternative. As far as is possible in a pan-European system, one may assert that democracy is present to a certain extent, and the European Parliament has also recently grown in its powers. Rather, the real issue may be the apparent disconnect with the decisions being made at the EU level.
Another relevant angle to take is how our membership in the EU potentially serves as leverage for other Member States to cooperate with the UK government’s intentions for immigration policy. Member States may be less inclined to care who makes their way to the UK if we decide to withdraw from the EU. Moreover, it is unlikely that the free movement of persons rules, which only govern the movement of those already in the EU, are to blame for the on-going influx of migrants and refugees into the EU. Arguably, that has more to do with foreign policy.
According to the Office for National Statistics, for the year ending September 2015, immigration of EU citizens was estimated to be 257,000 compared with non-EU immigration estimated to be 273,000. EU immigration appears to represent a little less than half of all immigration to the UK. However, this does not necessarily mean that leaving the UK will lead to the UK cutting immigration down by almost half. Unless we plan on taking a leaf out of Donald Trump’s foreign policy, EU immigration could remain at similar levels. Furthermore, no whole State has ever withdrawn from the EU so we do not have any data on the degree of impact that withdrawal from the EU would have on immigration, especially as the UK is one of largest economies in the world, according to GDP.
At its inception under the Treaty of Rome 1957, the purpose of the EU, or the European Economic Community as it was then, was the economic prosperity of Europe through economic integration of its Member States. This has led to the EU becoming the largest single market in the world. The voter’s challenge is the divergence in opinion over what the benefit and cost of EU membership is to the UK.
One example of the data available is that the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget for 2015-16 is expected to be £8.5 billion which is around only one per cent of the Government’s expected total spend in that tax year. It is also around only one per cent of the government’s estimated tax receipts for that tax year, so not as expensive to the taxpayer as it is made out to be. Although it is difficult to say exactly what benefit the UK receives in return, this does not mean that the UK does not benefit. It is a difficult value to quantify, regardless of whether the benefit outweighs the cost. There is no directly relatable stipend other than a rebate which merely represents some of the difference between the UK’s gross and net contribution to the EU budget.
The Business Angle
It may prove useful for the aware voter to note the internal contention over the EU’s effect on British businesses involving the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) and its former chief. After a conference through which the BCC officially confirmed its support for ‘Bremain’, Mr. Longworth declared his personal support for Brexit before being suspended and subsequently resigning. The UK’s seven per cent trade deficit (goods and services) with the EU also questions whether the current situation is sustainable and if David Cameron’s new deal does enough to change it.
The fact that there are so many considerations without even engaging with the issues in any serious depth shows how a layperson will be expected to skilfully wear the hat of an actuarial scientist or oracle in order to make an informed vote in this EU referendum.
You can also join in with the debate here on The Student Lawyer forum! Remember, all views contained in this article are the writer’s own, and don’t represent any position held by The Student Lawyer or Grad Media Limited.