Brexit – a call for change in Europe

We were in London last Thursday 2 June for our event “Social Boom or Bust? The EU referendum and the fate of social rights”. I listened to five speakers from the “leave” and “remain” campaigns debating with the audience on the possible impact of the referendum on social rights. We were there at a time of a shift in the poll results – the day before The Guardian released a phone and online survey showing a 52% – 48% split in favour of Brexit. It got me wondering what is truly shaping opinion in the UK on the referendum. Is it that people want to see a real change in European and national policies? If so, can this only be done by leaving the Union? How to people feel about the chain of events that will be set in motion on 23 June?

I found fascinating that both sides – leave and remain – were calling for a change. The leave advocates were calling for a change by leaving the EU. But the remain advocates were also calling for a change by improving EU policies quite radically after the UK referendum in order to keep people’s support for the EU project. An interesting example was the lack of transparency in the negotiations on the EU-US trade deal – also known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Nick Conner from the Vote Leave campaign rightly asked, “how can I influence a document that I am not allowed to read”, referring to the confidentiality of the negotiation and the few people who are allowed to read it. Member of the European Parliament Jean Lambert has been fighting for more transparency in the TTIP negotiations and recognised that it was a major problem to maintain people’s confidence. For our part, we are campaigning to keep services such as health and education services out of TTIP altogether, but as a civil society organisation we have no way of telling whether our opinions have been taken into account by the negotiation team led by European Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.

Another issue that both sides agreed on is the need to address the dire economic and social situation in the Eurozone. The leave campaigners had a point: “who wants to be part of an economic and monetary union where there is no growth and high unemployment? The UK can promote social rights on its own”. The remain campaigners agreed that current European economic policy is a major issue, and that the Union should strike a better balance between economic and social policies. For example, Nick Crook from UNISON advocated for a strong pillar of social rights to change existing austerity policies. The remain side knows that remaining in the EU as it is will not be sufficient to respond to the need for change – the EU itself will also have to change.

Big Ben is ticking ahead of the referendum. We have to listen to people and propose real choices for change. I believe a stronger, better Europe is possible, but the onus is on pro-Europeans to set the agenda for change and take the issue of Europe back from nationalists and eurosceptics.

Let’s engage!

Pierre Baussand