EUROPE DEBATE: Vote to remain is an on-balance decision

Coun John Woodman, Richard Wearmouth and Gordon Castle manning a Remain stall in Alnwick last weekend.
Coun John Woodman, Richard Wearmouth and Gordon Castle manning a Remain stall in Alnwick last weekend.

The debate on whether or not to remain in the EU is depressing – not least because both sides shout their views with the utmost certainty regardless of the facts.

But the truth is no-one knows what will happen if we remain or leave. And however noisy the campaigning, in the silence of the ballot box most of us will vote based on a gut feeling for the right thing both for ourselves and the country. This is why on balance I think we should remain.

The EU was formed to underpin peace and stability for Europe. Despite some serious economic upheavals over the past 60 years, it has succeeded in this prime objective. We benefit from that.

Lots of us live and work in the EU – a much greater proportion than those from the EU who live and work here. This opportunity to mix and live and work makes us better people, gives us better lives and we should welcome it.

In a world where we have to look outwards, where most of what happens is determined by external events, we should be close to and work with our nearest neighbours.

Those are the positive reasons. There are defensive ones as well.

Economically, leaving would bring uncertainty while we negotiate our new position with the EU and the rest of the world. When things are uncertain, businesses delay or postpone investing; people delay or postpone spending. We saw this in the financial crisis. As happened then, such delays would cost jobs and growth.

The US and Asia invest here partly because we are a gateway to Europe. We would lose some of that investment. This would cost jobs and growth.

We will eventually renegotiate trade deals. But over three-quarters of our economy is services, not trade, larger than the rest of the EU which will have less interest in them. It’s likely that – again at the margin – a lot of service activity would move from this country to elsewhere in the EU simply because the EU is a bigger economy. This would cost jobs and growth.

The EU is particularly important to the North East because of the scale of EU grants. If we leave then knowing how much investment we’ve seen in this region from Whitehall, is it really likely that these grants will be replaced by the UK Government? Some, yes, but not all.

Brexiters talk about being shackled to a failing EU economy. But economies move in cycles. For most of the 50 or so years of its existence, the other countries in the EU have performed as well or better than the UK. It is only in the last five or so that they have done worse. They are fixing some pretty serious problems caused by excessive debt – and we’ve already seen countries like Ireland make real progress. Economies don’t stay the same. At some stage the EU countries will recover and at some stage we will falter. That’s what economies do. Brexit is a long-term decision; it shouldn’t be based on the evidence of just a few years.

I also don’t believe the number of ways we can spend ‘our’ money, the famous £350million a week that’s actually nearer £150million, which have been outlined by some leave campaigners. Firstly, because the leave campaign has suggested so many ways of spending the money – the NHS, repaying debts, making good EU grants and subsidies – and second, because the most independent research agency, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has pointed out that if we leave, public finances will suffer and we’ll have less money to spend.

Moving on, security is a concern for all of us. Russia has an interest in generating external problems to prop up its leadership; the Middle East is in the middle of a major set of civil wars as different sects fight for land, power and influence; the US may well elect a President who does not support either NATO or the ‘special relationship’. These are dangerous times and we need to work with our neighbours. If we leave and our time and attention is focused not on security but on renegotiating our relationships both within and outside the EU, our voice will also matter that much less globally. A Brexit is bound to create a security risk and to make the world less safe.

The Leave campaign complains about EU bureaucracy and the EU certainly does promote new regulations. I can only speak with knowledge on my business area, finance and professional services, but EU regulations have permitted UK firms to employ more people and to be more profitable. The regulations simply replicate the sort of things the UK Government would introduce if we weren’t in the EU. In fact, in many cases the UK Government chooses to add additional requirements over the EU ones. Anyone who thinks that we would be freed of red tape, that there would be significant de-regulation if we left the EU doesn’t understand that Governments, ours in particular, promote regulation. If we leave, don’t expect a real change.

And of course we have the immigration issue. In fact, immigration and freedom of movement is good for us. It works both ways: More of us live and work in the EU than vice versa. And immigrants consistently pay more taxes than they receive in benefits – by billions a year – so contributing to the costs of public services. ‘They’ don’t take our jobs; as a country, we are quite close to full employment; we have seen a rapid rise in UK nationals’ employment – it’s up about 1.5million since 2010. Our economy has been doing well, people want to work here and we need them to work here.

- The EU is only part of the story. Non-EU net immigration is, as it has been since we joined the EU, higher than EU immigration. We could already reduce that significantly if we wanted to, and leaving the EU would make no difference. But in practice successive governments haven’t reduced it because of the benefits.

The issue of asylum seekers is an emotive one. It is not one that the EU has handled well. But it has arisen primarily as a result of the troubles in the Middle East and will not go away if we leave the EU. Indeed, because our borders won’t start at Calais but at Dover and because we will be less involved, at least initially, in cross border co-operation, it could easily get worse.

And a final thought; if we remain and it turns out I’m wrong and it’s a mistake, we can always leave at a later date. But if we leave and we regret it, we’re stuck with that choice.

I think we should remain. I hope you agree and even more I hope you will vote.