I will be voting to remain in the EU on Thursday. I’ve not really written much about politics in recent years (apart from on science funding, where I feel somewhat qualified) because the issues can be overwhelmingly complex, and I’m often not convinced that it’s possible to hold a meaningful opinion. However, as the referendum campaign has dragged on, my conviction to vote remain has solidified to an astounding degree.
So, just in case anyone who reads this is undecided, here’s why I’ll be voting remain.
The vast majority of economists predict a loss of economic output in the event of leaving the EU. We can, of course, never know what the future holds in when it comes to economics, but the near-universal consensus of economists is not to be taken lightly. These forecasts aren’t the same as those which famously failed to predict the economic crash of 2008.
As economics prof Simon Wren-Lewis puts it in the footnote to this blogpost, ‘Assessments of the long term impact of Brexit are counterfactuals, or conditional forecasts, of the “if the supply of apples falls, their price will go up” kind. They are much less uncertain than the unconditional forecasts about what will happen to inflation and growth in a year or two.’
1% of GDP is about £300 per person per year, and most forecasts expect a loss of several times that. That’s a lot of moolah, so any argument to leave will need to be more convincing than that.
Around 10% of UK funding for R&D comes from the EU, and what would happen if we left is highly uncertain. Research funding is vitally important, for economic growth, for tackling disease, for creating new energy sources and for scrutinising government policy, amongst a plethora of other things. Investing in research generates health and wealth for individuals and governments in the long run, and there’s no guarantee that research would be protected post-EU. For more details, see the blog post I wrote over on Scienceogram. There are also a variety of other large risks to our ability to collaborate internationally, again depending on the outcome of post-EU negotiations.
Research is one of the most important and under-funded areas of government spending—certainly it’s the only line item I’d happily double—and this multi-pronged risk means that any argument to leave will need to be very convincing to outgun that too.
The leave campaigns
In spite of seeing many protests that we aren’t electing Vote Leave—which is true, we aren’t—there is no doubt that a vote to leave in this referendum is an endorsement for the serially misleading, barefacedly opportunistic, anti-intellectual, sometimes outright racist apologists for violence leading the two bickering factions. Whilst the exact nature of the politics post-referendum defies prediction in a way that makes economic models look downright certain, handing the political initiative to these individuals and campaigns cannot be a good thing. If you’re a Brexit supporter hoping for a liberalised, free-trading, outward-looking post-EU Britain, remember that these figures will be the ones laying the groundwork for the complex, decades-long negotiations which follow leaving.
It would be wonderful if leaving the EU finally removed the spotlight from Nigel Farage but, with UKIP polling 13% of the vote in the 2015 General Election, it is far from obvious that electoral vindication of their headline policy would be a death blow.
Any argument to leave therefore needs to be stronger than the genuine risk of handing power to the leave campaigners too.
A vote for leave is not a vote for any clear alternative. This referendum is, in many ways, intellectually and legally incoherent. Quite apart from its being on a topic which is exactly the kind of complex issue which should be dealt with by parliament, it’s not a choice between two specific things, it’s between the status quo and a nebulous ‘something else’. This makes it all the more important that there be huge, clinching benefits of leaving which would apply regardless of exactly how those in charge choose to do so, and how a post-UK EU might act in extremely complex negotiations.
So, what are these benefits?
Finally, and most crucially, I have yet to hear a single convincing argument for leaving. I’m sure there are some and, in spite of the one-sided tone of this blog post, I was and am genuinely willing to be convinced. But most of what I’ve heard can be reduced to a lot of bluster about democracy, sovereignty and immigration.
The EU is certainly an opaque institution in need of some reform, but it’s clearly not as bad as most people think: with nearly half of voters not realising that they get to elect MEPs, public perception of the EU’s democratic deficit is well wide of the mark. And the UK democratic system has some pretty clear deficits of its own. As David Allen Green observes, ‘It is not Brussels which is the greatest enemy of [parliamentary sovereignty], but Whitehall.’
Meanwhile, whilst immigration does cause local issues within some communities, it isn’t the scourge it’s often presented as. The NHS is getting more expensive due to inflation, not immigration. The evidence suggests that immigration has no effect on real wages. Even the anti-migration group Migration Watch admit that ‘immigration has not been shown to have any significant impact, either positive or negative, on GDP per capita’. This is great news: it means that people arriving in the UK from poorer countries get to enjoy the same GDP per capita as us, at no cost to the UK.
Nothing I’ve heard in favour of Brexit has been anywhere near convincing enough to be worth a probable several hundred pounds per person per year in the UK, a huge risk to 10% of research funding and our international scientific standing, and handing even a fuzzy electoral mandate to the divisive and dishonest leave campaigns to perform an ill-specified task.
I still don’t feel qualified to assess the complexities of the EU, but it’s nonetheless pretty clear to me which way I should vote.
If you’re thinking of voting leave, I’d implore you to ask whether your reasons are worth all of the above to you too.