On the evening of Friday, 29 April 2016, a capacity audience in the University of Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building Great Hall witnessed and participated in a lively and impassioned debate, supported by PolicyBristol and the University of Bristol Alumni Association, about whether the UK should leave or remain a member of the EU.
Introduced by Professor Nick Lieven (Pro Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Aircraft Dynamics), and professionally chaired by Dr Phil Sypris (Reader in Law), the ‘Leave’ team consisted of Daniel Hannan (Conservative MEP) and Graham Stringer (Labour MP), while the case for ‘Remain’ was put by Molly Scott-Cato (Green MEP) and Will Hutton (former editor-in-chief of The Observer and currently Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, and Chair of the Big Innovation Centre).
Before inviting the panellists to open the debate, Dr Syrpis asked the audience for a show of hands. Roughly 80 per cent were in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, 10 per cent for leaving, and 10 per cent were undecided. The formal proceedings themselves began and ended with each member of the panel summarising their case in a one minute presentation. In between the same format applied to a series of six questions chosen by students from those submitted by members of the prospective audience and circulated to panellists in advance. Contributions from the floor followed. Before the event ended, a second show of hands saw little change in the initial figures, with Remain still standing at around 80 per cent, Leave dropping to about 5 per cent and the proportion of undecideds increasing slightly to around 15 per cent.
Acknowledging that both staying and leaving created risks, the Leave team began by claiming that Brexit would benefit the UK in two main ways: it would restore national and local democracy, undermined by the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’, and it would also revive the flagging national economy by creating dynamic economic opportunities, particularly for new trading relationships in the internet age, both with non-EU countries and with the EU itself. For Remain the key issues concerned continued involvement in a noble, outward-looking, internationalist cause, where sovereignty was pooled rather than lost in pursuit of solutions to transnational challenges, such as maintaining peace in Europe and the effective regulation of the environment and the corporate sector.
How would leaving the EU affect the UK’s global standing?
Remain had no doubt that the UK would be more globally significant as a member of the EU than outside, not least because Brexit was likely to trigger Scottish independence, thereby reducing the UK’s international presence, and because other countries generally pay more attention to bigger, than to smaller players on the global stage. The Leave team claimed, however, that by exiting the EU, the UK’s commitment to internationalism would be enhanced because it would then be free to embark upon a much more independent foreign policy.
What is the economic case for staying in/leaving the EU?
According to Leave, Europe is the only economically stagnant continent in the world, the EU caused the southern European economic crisis, and the economy of an independent UK would thrive as a result of freer international trade, national representation on the World Trade Organisation, and cancellation of the £350 million weekly EU membership fee. In a rare moment of consensus, later paralleled by recognition that the EU’s democratic deficit contributed to the rise of political extremism, each side agreed that corporate power needed to be more effectively regulated but differed on whether this was more likely to be achieved in or outside the EU. An impassioned exchange between Will Hutton and Daniel Hannan over the extent to which the UK can currently trade with non-EU states further enlivened an already vigorous debate. Challenging both, Molly Scott-Cato argued that the extent to which any given economy harms or conserves the environment matters more than its size and that the EU manages this better than most states on their own.
How would leaving the EU affect young people?
Remain claimed that leaving would generally affect young people adversely since the resulting visa and quota restrictions would limit their horizons, particularly regarding student exchanges which are currently funded by the EU. But, according to Leave, young people would be in substantially the same position as everyone else post-Brexit – better off on all fronts.
What consequences would leaving the EU have for immigration and geographical mobility?
The Leave team acknowledged that it was undesirable to have either completely closed, or completely open borders, and that, while those fleeing persecution from abroad should be offered refuge, immigration to the UK also had to be controlled. It was also claimed that the UK’s current immigration policy is both racist and economically irrational because it privileges EU citizens over possibly more deserving, predominantly non-white, would-be non-EU immigrants whose services might be more urgently required. Remain argued that an open attitude to the outside world is more desirable than a closed one, that geographical mobility in the EU is a two-way street, with Brexit likely to result in up to two million mostly retired ex-patriate Britons being forced to return home, thereby increasing pressure on the NHS and social care, and that infrastructure pressures caused by EU immigrants could be addressed by more investment funded by their contribution to the national economy.
What prospect has the UK of forging a special relationship with the EU if it remains a member or leaves?
Remain argued that the UK already has a special relationship with the EU, other member states are reluctant to concede more, leaving could have a dangerous and unpredictable cascade effect, and that belonging to the European Free Trade Association, as advocated by the leave campaign would, in common with Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, entail a continuing commitment to receive EU migrants. It was also claimed that, typical of most divorces, the post-Brexit atmosphere would be embittered and, although the EU would still wish to trade with the UK, it would be unlikely to grant particularly favourable terms, not least in order to deter other states from following suit. Leave argued that, on the contrary, economic rationality would prevail over any desire to hold the rest of the EU together by vindictiveness to a departed UK.
What are your greatest fears if the Brexit vote succeeds or fail and who do you think would be the biggest winners and losers in both scenarios?
The greatest fear for Leave was that the failure of the Brexit campaign would further erode what remains of UK sovereignty as the UK became permanently locked into irreversible deeper and wider European integration including monetary and banking union. The biggest winners would be Eurocrats and big business, while the greatest losers would be ordinary people. For Remain, a vote for Brexit would be a permanently lost opportunity to participate in a visionary, though imperfect, international project, coupled with turbulence and economic uncertainty at least in the short to medium term. The biggest winners would be big business, climate change deniers and a ‘rogues’ gallery’ of other elite interests, while the biggest losers would be ordinary people, particularly farmers, young people, and small and medium enterprises.
The event could be followed on Twitter with the hashtag #TheWestDecides and a full recording is also available on the University of Bristol Soundcloud account.
In the run up to the EU Referendum on 23rd June, PolicyBristol will be publishing a series of blogs on policy issues and topics related to the UK’s membership of the European Union.