David Cameron and Nigel Farage weren’t the only ones facing difficult questions about the EU referendum on Tuesday evening. While the prime minister and the UKIP leader were busy practising their soundbites ready to face live questions from the audience, NUJ branch members in Oxford were having their own debate about what the referendum result could mean for them.
Leading the debate and facing questions from an audience of around 25 members, were two men who have, in their different ways, shaped futures and this has contributed to their diametrically opposed views on the EU. In the absence of Julie Etchingham, who was otherwise engaged with Dave and Nigel, the speakers were introduced and questions fielded by a rather more down-to-earth moderator – me.
First up was Antony David, Managing Director of Solid State Logic in Begbroke, arguing the case to remain in the EU. His company produces high-end digital equipment for the music industry which is manufactured exclusively in the UK, creating jobs locally, and 90 per cent of their equipment is exported worldwide. Antony employs 130 people and many of his R&D team are EU citizens. He argued that the UK economy – and his company – depends on its EU workers and highlighted the benefits of free movement.
He believes that more context is needed on the movement of EU citizens. Around 1.9m citizens of other EU countries live in the UK – and exactly the same number of UK citizens live in other EU countries. The difference is that the EU citizens in the UK are generally younger, economically active people who contribute positively to the UK economy and don’t use its healthcare as heavily as the mainly older, often retired UK expats do in Spain and France.
Robert Wilkinson, a retired 6th form teacher and lifelong trade unionist, spoke next and argued that leaving the EU was the only option for the UK if it was to have any chance of clawing back control of almost every aspect of British life from the EU.
While Antony had suggested that the holy grail of democracy and sovereignty championed by the Leave campaign was unrealistic, especially in the light of other treaties of which the UK is a part, Robert believes that the EU’s stranglehold on our sovereignty is already pretty tight.
He mentioned in particular EU rules that are designed to make it impossible to bring industries or services in the private sector under public control, except on a temporary basis. This is currently a big concern in the education sector, he argued, with government plans to fragment the state education system into independent academies. EU laws, he said, act as a ratchet, that allow countries to privatise and contract services out, but prevent them from being taken back into public control if and when everything goes wrong.
He also argued that that the privatisation and dramatic decline in the funding of public services in the UK was a direct result of economic and fiscal pressures imposed on all member countries by the EU. He was challenged on this by many members who countered that it was convenient to blame the effects of government’s harsh austerity measures on the EU. Robert quoted the EU’s Excessive Deficit Procedure of Stability and Growth which seeks to ensure that EU members have a balanced budget by 2020. Perhaps that was behind George Osborne’s claim in the most recent Budget that he intends to move the UK economy into the black by 2020.
Members went on to discuss a range of other topics until yours truly was reminded that David Cameron and Nigel Farage were about to face the people and many members were keen to see the live viewing that had been set up. We hadn’t managed to cover everything with Antony and Robert but it was great to get the chance to hear from people in our local community about how they felt the result of the referendum could impact on their particular field.
Listening to it all, in the audience, was a young man from Italy, who pointed out in the discussions that followed what a blow ending freedom of movement would be to people like him who face staggeringly high levels of youth unemployment in their home countries.
Should we go or should we stay? Many of us left still weighing the pros and cons. A huge thanks to both speakers for their insights and for sparking off a great evening of debate.