Jonathan Arnott MEP: How do people from outside the EU view Brexit?
Guest Blogger, 25 April 2016
When we look at Britain’s membership of the European Union, we often do so from an insider’s perspective. From British citizens to citizens of other European Union countries, we feel as though we have a vested interest one way or the other in the result. I meet people from other European countries who, for one reason or another, are in favour of Brexit; others who want us to stay.
It’s rare that we consider the perspective of those who are outside the European Union, and that’s something that gives a different view. What does the EU look like, or Britain’s place in it, to someone looking in from the outside? One of the interesting parts about the last couple of months has been speaking to people from non-EU countries, and learning their take on the European Union issue. It’s been most instructive. In this article I’ll give just three examples of people I’ve spoken to.
1. International students from Taiwan, who are now studying at a university in my constituency. They came up to a Vote Leave stall at the weekend; as I’m a member of the European Parliament the campaigners on the stall introduced them to me. They were interested, attentive, wanting to know more about the coming referendum. They were inclined to believe that Britain would be better out of the European Union, but they were inclined to ask searching and probing questions.
The immigration argument seemed to win them over immediately: the fact that anyone from France or Romania could come to the UK to live and work simply by showing their passport, yet coming from Taiwan they had a very difficult time getting to the UK, instantly had an impact. Why specifically mention Romania, they asked. I explained that Romania was one of the last two countries to join the European Union, and as such the free movement had only begun relatively recently.
Although they were students, our society was treating them as second-class. EU students studying here could pay the same fees as British students; they had to pay much more. EU students could come in to the UK no questions asked; they had to submit masses of paperwork. EU students could work whilst in the UK; they were not allowed to work to help make ends meet. EU students could get a student loan in the UK (which might never be paid back as it’s so difficult to chase money in other countries); they could not. The difference between them and EU citizens was staggering. What good reason could I possibly give to justify this discrimination?
They were interested in the mechanics of withdrawal from the EU: how would it work? They were comforted by the 2-year negotiation period set out in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. When I mentioned that the UK might possibly choose as part of that negotiation process to ‘buy back in’ to certain EU programmes, for example relating to universities, they questioned again. How do we know that the European Union would want to do such a deal? Six of the world’s top 25 universities are in the UK, I explained. None are in other European Union countries.
We discussed everything from the migration crisis to the impotence of Greece whilst in the euro straitjacket, from the plight of the British fishing industry to the fact that the UK are net importers from the European Union. Doesn’t that put the UK in a bad position? Quite the reverse, I argued: it makes us the customer. If we’re buying, they need to continue selling. Also, we’re unusual as an EU country in that only 44% of our exports go to the European Union; 56% – and rising – do not. They were surprised to learn that Iceland has a free trade deal with China, or that Switzerland has more trade deals globally with the world than the EU does. It occurred to me that they were examining the Brexit case, point by point, and checking that it seemed logical. It was; they took photographs, collected various Vote Leave literature, badges, car stickers and assorted paraphernalia, said their goodbyes and left.
2. A Turkish lady, who was particularly proud of her Turkish heritage. She worked in the tourist industry, so you might expect that she would be pro-European Union and interested in joining. Instead, she expressed the opposite view. She was scared of Turkey joining the European Union because it would eventually be committed to joining the euro. Although she traded in euros on a daily basis working with tourists, she took the view that the Turkish lira was part of her country and culture. She feared joining the European Union would lead to a mass exodus of Turkish people from Turkey, and that it would hurt their economy. She was surprisingly proud of the Turkish government, of the fact that it is a predominantly Muslim country, the legal systems are secular. She didn’t want to have to accept EU laws, and felt that they’d lose part of their sovereignty and what makes Turkey unique if they were to join the European Union. It struck me that many of the concerns I heard mirror the complaints that we hear from British eurosceptics on a daily basis.
3. A taxi driver, who implied that he was originally from the Congo though this wasn’t totally clear from the conversation, now working in an EU country. He aspired to come to the United Kingdom but wasn’t able to obtain a passport for any European nation. Although he’d lived and worked for a number of years in other EU countries, he wouldn’t be allowed to work in the UK. He noted that anyone who was able to get an EU passport, often a French or Belgian one from former French or Belgian colonies, would be able to come to live and work in the UK merely by showing that passport – whereas he would never be able to meet the strict entry requirements. He had a strong sense of identity, and kept telling me that the United Kingdom should do whatever is in our interests as a nation. He implied, though, that he wasn’t referring to economics but to our national freedom. He had a strong belief in the nation state and felt that the United Kingdom was somehow losing our independence and identity by being in the European Union.
I could go on, but my abiding feeling from all these conversations is that none of these countries question their size. No-one asks whether Turkey, Taiwan or the Congo can survive on their own as independent nations. All, in different ways, valued the sovereignty of their home nations. For two of them, the current British immigration rules were discriminatory. They considered it to be fundamentally unfair; I consider it to be fundamentally un-British.
One of the arguments that’s often made by Leave campaigners is that by being members of the European Union, we neglect the rest of the world. Over the last few weeks the reality of that argument has really been brought home to me
Jonathan Arnott is a UKIP MEP for the North East and has been since 2014. You can visit his website here.