The following is a speech delivered by Dr Helen Parr, Senior Lecturer in International Relations in SPIRE, during the Keele Student Union Debating Society debate on the EU Referendum, held at Keele University on 7 March 2016
For me, the case for staying in the EU is chiefly about 3 things.
It’s about Britain’s identity; it’s about Britain’s influence; and it’s about European peace and prosperity.
First, Britain is different from continental Europe but Britain’s history has always been bound up with the fate of Britain’s nearest European neighbours. British governments have always seen this. Britain committed itself to war, twice in the twentieth century, to prevent a single power from dominating continental Europe; and to preserve democracy against totalitarianism, militarism, and misery. We cannot isolate ourselves from continental Europe. British identity is stronger because of its willingness to embrace change and British identity is enriched because of its engagement with other cultures. The importance of Europe to Britain’s identity is obvious. We define ourselves with and against the things that are closest to us.
Second, Britain’s influence is greater when it is a full member of the European Union. A Conservative government under Harold Macmillan recognised this in 1961 when Britain first applied to join: once it was clear that the European Economic Community was going to succeed, and once it was clear that Britain’s influence, not just in Europe, but in the world, would weaken if Britain did not fully participate. A Labour government under Harold Wilson recognised it again in 1967. Wilson wasn’t a passionate Euro-phile, but he understood that Britain had to enter the EC because the alternatives for Britain were worse. That to me seems an important centre ground. We don’t have to love the EU to know that it’s a good idea for us.
Once in the EEC, Britain has been enormously influential in shaping its development – and we should not forget this – Britain is part of the EU and has been for 43 years. Britain makes up 12.5% of the EU’s population; 14.8% of its economy and 19.4% of its exports – Britain has a lot of influence. Britain has helped to create the EU in its current form: the Single European Act, enlargement to the Eastern European countries, the recent competition agenda, are all things that have been pushed for by Britain.
Britain has also been able to stay out of the elements of integration that it does not like. Thatcher got a rebate on Britain’s budgetary contributions, Britain did not join the Euro, Britain is not in the Schengen agreement and Britain has stayed out of recent steps towards closer economic harmonisation. It is possible to be in the EU, to remain firmly British, and to shape the way it works. The EU countries want us to stay – and not only Britain, but also the EU, would be weakened if we pull out.
Thirdly, the EU was born out of the horror of the Second World War and the EU has proven adept at securing Europe’s peace and prosperity. The idea that France and Germany – those great enemies – would harness their economies together in the way that they did would have been unthinkable ten years previously, and I think that this should give us hope about the possibilities of world politics. Britain conducts just under 50% of its trade with the EU. The EU is the largest single market in the world. British people are free to live, work and travel throughout the EU – over 1m British nationals live permanently in the EU, and the UK is the EU country with the largest outflow of people to live in other EU countries each year (about 60,000 British people leave the UK each year to live and work in other EU countries). These are all reasons not to leave it.
If you look at yougov polls regarding voting intentions; areas with higher concentrations of young people – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, York – are more likely to want to stay in the EU. 63% of people aged between 19 and 29 want to stay in. Britain has been in the EU for over 40 years. 40 years from now, when people look back at this, if Britain votes to leave it will appear as a far greater change in Britain’s history, traditions and politics, particularly if it triggers a further vote on Scottish independence, than a vote to remain.
Dr Helen Parr is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University. Her research focuses on contemporary British history and British foreign policy, particularly towards the European Community in the 1960s and 1970s. She has published widely in these areas, and is currently working on a history of the Falklands War. More on Helen’s research can be found here.