The talks were organised by the European Movement and I was invited as a speaker on behalf of the Green Party .
There are left-wing and right-wing arguments for staying in, and left-wing and right-wing arguments for staying out. The mass media have concentrated on the right-wing arguments on both sides: sovereignty, economics, democracy and whether Boris Johnson dyes his hair.
My position is basically that of Caroline Lucas, Jeremy Corbyn and Yanis Varoufakis. I am critical of the EU as it is now because it has gone down the road of neo-liberal economics. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Greece is treated appallingly in order to frighten the people of Spain, Italy and France into working longer hours for less pay. But the British Government is even more strongly committed to neo-liberal economics, and some of the leading characters in the Leave campaign want to leave precisely in order to make Britain even more neo-liberal.
We should stay in both for Britain’s sake and for Europe’s sake. Britain needs the safeguards the EU gives us, and we need to re-establish the European solidarity that existed before the financial creditors took over.
EU benefits so far
So far there have been many benefits .
Peace and security. We don’t know what would have happened to Europe without the EU, but we do know that it has helped keep the peace after the Second World War. It also has a vital role in spreading democracy and human rights in other parts of the world.
Environmental legislation. The biggest problem the world faces is climate change. Our grandchildren will be horrified at how we’ve just let it get worse and worse, when we’ve known for 40 years that it’s destroying our future. It’s only through concerted international efforts that we have a chance of making progress. The EU isn’t enough but it has made a positive contribution.
The EU has boosted renewable energy in Britain, cleaned up our beaches and rivers, improved protection against toxic chemicals, banned animal testing for cosmetics and suspended the use of pesticides that kill bees. We benefit from over 100 European laws protecting people and the environment. One of the main difficulties is the British Government. The week before last we heard that the EU has proposed tighter restrictions on air pollution but later watered them down because of lobbying by the British Government.
Employment. EU membership has given us paid holidays, maternity rights, health and safety regulations, fair treatment for agency and part-time workers and equality and diversity regulations.
Some Brexit campaigners are making no secret of the fact that these are things they are keen to get rid of. Since many of them are in the Conservative Party, if we do vote Leave, they will probably succeed. Just a few days ago Priti Patel made a speech to this effect, and she’s not the only one.
Controlling big business. Many large corporations operate across national borders. If they are going to be regulated at all, we need international rules. EU rules are helping to close tax loopholes and clamp down on tax dodging. They need to be much stronger, but without the EU things would get worse.
The EU put a cap on bankers’ bonuses and introduced a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions. Unfortunately the British Government refused to comply. We need proper regulation, and it is best done internationally.
Tackling poverty. EU funds help some of the most deprived communities in Europe.
Freedom of movement. As EU citizens, we are free to live, study, work, travel and retire anywhere across Europe. Spain alone has a million British citizens living in it. Freedom of travel is particularly important for students.
What does this list tell us? It tells us that on a lot of issues the British Government has had lower standards and the EU has made us raise them. We have a better quality of life because of EU directives than we would have had if the British Government had had a free hand.
You can respond in two ways. You can say ‘Good! The higher standards benefit us all!’ Or you can say ‘Bloody foreigners! Why can’t we make our own decisions?’
A large part of the desire to leave is the fantasy that the British are better than everyone else. We’re not. If foreigners have improved our standards, it is to our shame that we elect governments who would have settled for lower standards.
Some regulations need to be international, like the controls on multinational businesses. When it comes to the others – like cleaning up our beaches, or giving more financial support to poor areas like Liverpool – it’s fair to ask why the EU does it better than the British Government does. Why does the EU have higher standards? Would you really rather have lower standards just because they are British?
The fact is that the British keep electing governments with lower standards. Why is that? One of the reasons is the lack of democracy. Brexit campaigners complain that the EU isn’t democratic. It’s the British system that has a democratic deficit. Our archaic voting system, First Past the Post, produces skewed results and benefits some parties at the expense of others.
We can’t have free and fair elections unless voters have reliable and balanced information. In Britain, it is not provided. Our newspapers are owned by a tiny number of very powerful people. The BBC is under constant pressure to follow the lead of the privatised media.
Two Christian additions
Civilisation. The quality of civilisation in any country is to be judged not by how rich it is but by how it treats the most disadvantaged and oppressed. We live at a time of declining standards, both in Britain and the EU. The driving force is neo-liberal economics, an ideology that says that, whatever else goes wrong, the most important thing is economic growth. Because of the way economic growth is measured, this actually means the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. If you have followed the news about Philip Green you will know just how unequal our society is. He can give a billion pounds to his wife as a present and BHS goes bust. Britain is one of the richest countries in the world and we could easily feed the hungry, house the homeless and abolish hospital waiting lists whether we’re in the EU or out of it.
EU standards are still higher than British ones. We need to stay in the EU to improve it, both for Britain’s sake and the EU’s sake.
The unity of humanity. This idea is one of Christianity’s gifts to the world. The logic behind it is that everybody has been made by one god, who loves and cares for everybody, so people who consider it right to align their desires with God’s desires will want the well-being of everyone. You are three things: a human being, a member of a family and a member of the human race. All the in-between identities – British, English, European, etc – are political inventions. We need the in-betweens but they do not tell us who we really are. If we are to live well we should not pull up the drawbridge and say we don’t care about people the other side of the Channel.