U3A members gets some facts on the EU referendum

EU referendum on June 23
EU referendum on June 23

More than 50 members attended a meeting where some members of its World Affairs Group presented facts about the referendum debate.

Firstly they were told the EU Commission in Brussels cannot impose any policies, rules or regulations. It makes proposals which are subject to consultation with various bodies.

The proposals with any amendments have to be agreed by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers. If they cannot agree the proposal does not proceed. Major issues such as admitting new members, matters outside the treaties, workers pay, and taxation are decided by the Council of Ministers where each member has a veto.

The EU budget cannot be more than one per cent of the EU GDP. The UK`s contribution is about 0.6 per cent of its GDP. Its net contribution amounts to about £13 billion per year. Only 6 per cent of EU budget is spent on running costs and expenses including the Commission, Parliament and its other agencies. It is unlikely that all the annual contribution would be saved if UK left the EU. A trade agreement with the EU would involve making a substantial payment to the EU as Norway does.

Like all members the UK benefits from grants from the EU mainly through the Regional and Social Development Funds and for scientific research. A small local example of EU funding is the grant for the restoration of Hebden Bridge Town Hall.

Common Agricultural Policy aims to maintain a balance between supporting EU agriculture and ensuring food supply at reasonable prices. EU Fishing policy aims to conserve fish stocks by imposing quotas which results in the wasteful disposal of excessive catches. Changes are being made but it is not clear how they will work. Conservation of fish stocks will still be essential if the UK leaves the EU and it is no clearer how it will be achieved.

An essential requirement of the Single Market is common performance and safety standards for products and services to ensure that all compete on the same basis and prevent states using local standards to prevent access to their market. This applies to Norway and Switzerland which have trade agreements with the EU. If UK left the EU it would have to comply with the standards to sell into EU. Although it could still be involved in developing them it would not have a final vote on adopting a standard.

Immigration, a contentious issue in the referendum debate, was considered. In 2015 net immigration was about 330,000 – about 150,000 from the EU and 180,000 from outside the EU. As free movement of labour is a fundamental principle of the EU there is no way of controlling EU immigration while the UK is a member.

There is some evidence this helps to depress wages and may impact on employment opportunities in some areas. Youth unemployment is high throughout Europe except for Germany, but EU membership has little impact on this issue but equally it does little to combat the problem. There is evidence of some impact of EU immigration on the NHS and education, although the NHS depends on immigrants.

There is no certainty that immigration will fall if UK leaves the EU. One price of a trade agreement may be acceptance of freedom of movement of labour, as is the case with Norway.

On the major issue in the referendum debate, the economy, it was explained that initially the then Common Market was highly successful. With expansion came increasing problems caused by the wide divergence of economies in the EU –particularly in the Eurozone – compounded by global economic problems.

The resulting slow growth is likely to continue with many difficulties anticipated. Despite the EU’s relatively poor performance it has been estimated that the UK`s GDP has grown 5 per cent more in the EU than had it not joined - it is worth the cost of membership.

Forecasting the impact of leaving is difficult but the overwhelming consensus of economists and economic institutions is that in the short term at least there will be a negative impact – with foreign investment, vital to the UK, falling – currency exchange rates volatile- difficulty in negotiating trade agreements with the EU and across the world. The head of the World Trade Organisation says the UK will have to negotiate new agreements with 53 countries.

The UK may be a stabilising influence within the EU and its departure would make internal conflict more likely, especially with the rise of right wing extremism. Security concerns arise from Brexit- would Europe’s collective stance against threats from Russia be weakened and would the UK have less influence? Globally the UK is likely to have less influence on global issues such as climate change and may have less influence within the UN.

There may be no definitive answer to many of these issues but at least those attending the meeting seemed to feel they had received unbiased information.