EU referendum debate reaches ‘rock bottom’

And so, finally we have it... the European referendum debate has hit rock bottom and revealed itself to be about just one issue: immigration. What a travesty!

Dame Pauline Green was the Labour & Co-operative MEP for London from 1989 to 1999 and leader of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament from 1994 to 1999. She tabled the motion of no confidence that led to the resignation of the European Commission led by Jacques Santer in March 1999.

Dame Pauline Green
Dame Pauline Green

Since retiring from the European Parliament at the end of 1999, she has worked as president of the International Co-operative Alliance and campaigned for three years to ensure that the voice of the one billion worldwide owners of the global co-operative movement is heard in the G20 discussions. In 2014 and 2015, she sat in the task forces of the Business Advisory Group of the G20. She has also spoken at the World Bank and IMF Forum, the General Assembly of the UN and taken part in the Pontifical Commission on Poverty and Social Justice in support of Pope Francis’ campaign to ‘put the human being back in the global economy’.

Here, she explores why the referendum debate should be about more than a single issue, how the EU resonates with a co-operative’s democratic process of working together for the common good – and why she will be voting to remain on the 23rd …

And so, finally we have it… the European referendum debate has hit rock bottom and revealed itself to be about just one issue: immigration. What a travesty!

After having tried and failed to wrap the anti-EU arguments in issues of economic control and wider trade possibilities; after arguing and failing to make the case that every national and international person, government or institution that called for the UK to remain in the EU was incompetent, or a proven failure in economic and strategic forecasting; and after attempting to invoke the sense of a rampant and glorious Britain by throwing down the challenge that a move into the unknown represents a huge opportunity – the leading voices for leaving have fallen back on the one issue on which, sadly, they have strong public traction – too many foreigners in the country. With so much at stake for the economic, social and environmental future of our country – how very depressing.

After speaking or being present at local co-operative meetings and discussions, the key grassroots frustration I hear is that there is not enough factual information

And yet, the economic control, global trade and institutional accountability made possible by the European Union membership has resonance with our co-operative democratic process of working together for the common good and to build a better world.

After speaking or being present at local co-operative meetings and discussions, the key grassroots frustration I hear is that there is not enough factual information. What is worrying, if not surprising, is that the knowledge and understanding of how the EU works is woeful. As a result, voters across the country feel that they have to fall back on the arguments made by the most vociferous advocates from both sides of the referendum debate, i.e. those who attract media attention – usually, of course, those with the strongest vested interests and, in consequence, those arguing the most partial case. Why is there this sense of helplessness when it comes to finding out the facts? Why are people so reluctant to exercise the freedoms of living in a democracy? Why don’t they seek out the answers for themselves? And it is not difficult in today’s technology and information-laden world.

As an EU member, the UK still retains control over who crosses its borders [photo: Danny Howard/Flickr]
As an EU member, the UK still retains control over who crosses its borders [photo: Danny Howard/Flickr]


The UK has accepted the free movement of people as part of its Treaty commitment for membership of the EU. However, the UK has not signed up to the greater freedoms set out in the Schengen Area which allows essentially border-free movement between its member states. Anyone trying to enter the UK from Europe, about whom the immigration authorities have concerns, can be challenged and refused entry. It is also entirely up to our government to set the rules for those entering the country from outside the EU. So what is the problem?

The European treaties have been agreed by all the EU governments; the UK signature is on every treaty – Conservative and Labour prime ministers both. The treaty sets out our obligations to allow free movement. So, if a European citizen wishes to come to work here or anywhere else in the EU, and their entry to the UK does not excite any interest from the immigration, police or security authorities, then it is true that they can come. And they do, as do our citizens to the rest of Europe.

It is true that the UK has been an attractive venue for many EU citizens, particularly following the entry of the newer member states from the poorer parts of Europe. It is true that this has put additional strain on British public services, which are already under huge demographic pressure, and this at a time when there are significant funding reductions as a result of government austerity measures. But the evidence is now very clear that EU migrant workers put more money into the Exchequer than they take out of it in services. So, where is the problem that many of our fellow citizens are so exercised about?

The European Union currently has 28 member states
The European Union currently has 28 member states


Perhaps, once again, we need to look to ourselves. It is perfectly possible for our government to legislate to stop the exploitative contracts that allow European workers to be employed on lower wages than UK workers; they can also beef up and extend the role of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, given the role of Gangmasters in bringing some of the least qualified and most exploited migrants into the country. The government can also look to its own administrative arrangements for the arrival of migrants into the UK, ensuring it has real oversight on migration trends within the UK. This would allow it to more appropriately plan for the public services in those parts of the country most affected.  These measures are in our hands and would go a considerable way to dealing with the legitimate concerns of British citizens.

Economic control:

Who makes the key decision on the direction of the global economy? The G20. Will leaving the EU help us to regain national decision making over our economy? No, it will simply reduce our effective input to decision-making at the G20 where, yes, we will retain our own national voice as one of the 20 largest economies in the world; but where, currently, we influence the positioning of the EU voice that is also present at the G20. And let’s be clear here, our own civil and foreign service is extremely effective and respected internationally. When given a good mandate by their political masters, they can and do have a disproportionate influence on decision-making.

Global trade:

In this global market in which the UK now trades, who makes the overarching trade rules? The EU? I think not. It is the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that sets out the frame of reference for all world trade rules. So once again, let’s not fool ourselves that we will be able to establish bi-lateral agreements that will somehow give us a larger share of the cake – we will still be constrained by the agreed World Trade regulations.

Flags fly at the European Parliament building in Strasbourg
Flags fly at the European Parliament building in Strasbourg

Much has been said of our ability after leaving the EU to reach out to the emerging economies and build our trade links – I seem to remember numerous recent trade delegations led by the prime minister or chancellor to places such as China, India, Brazil… how does that happen then if there is nothing that we can do, being constrained of course, by all those EU rules?  Come now, really! Of course we can still build bi-lateral trade deals with other parts of the world whilst in the EU. In fact, we have the huge advantage of offering market access to 500 million Europeans, not just 65 million in the UK!

Institutional accountability: 

In 1999, the European Parliament, led by the largest ever British Labour Group. sacked the European Commission and forced a change of president and several other members of the commission. How could that happen? Because the EU has a directly elected European Parliament, which the British people would know more about, if successive UK governments had not sought to use European elections to test the popularity of the domestic British government, rather than campaign on truly European issues that affect the people.

At the last European election the president of the European Parliament, in a serious attempt to deal with this perceived lack of accountability, argued for the president of the European Commission to be drawn from the political family that won the majority of the seats in the European Parliamentary election – now that would force proper European election debates in each country and drive greater accountability.Will it happen? Not if those in power domestically have anything to do with it – after all, that would make European issues and institutions much more relevant and interesting to the national electorates, and we can’t have that, can we? After all, it would destroy the whipping boy! But, we also can’t have it both ways. Are we really dissatisfied with European democracy?

Do we want Europe to be more accountable or not?

Co-operatives were founded on the ethical values of honesty and openness, and on the idea of an organisation being fully accountable to all of its members. Perhaps we should take a look at the accountability of some of the key regional and global institutions to which the UK has put its signature, and see how the EU fares compared to other bodies that determine the rules of the global game in the 21st century.


NATO – a treaty that binds us to go to war without question if one of our fellow signatories is attacked. Where is its accountability?  The World Trade Organisation – no better. So, isn’t it time we really owned up to a dismal record of honesty and accuracy on the European Union?

There are two things of which we can be sure.

Firstly, in an increasingly global market, where business and capital is moved around the world electronically at unimaginable speeds; where multi-national businesses are setting the agenda hand-in-hand with the governments of the G20, setting the agenda for the best outcome for multi national businesses – not for the small and medium-sized businesses of all types, including co-operatives, which respected research has shown will be the vehicle on which the world will have to rely for job creation going forward; where the USA and China are locked in a struggle for economic dominance; where political and economic power will continue to shift from west to east and north to south over the coming decades – why would we want to put our children and grandchildren’s future at stake by arguing ‘to get our country back’ by leaving one of the largest economic blocks in the world? When it is already patently clear that we can never return to the sort of nostalgic history book Britain that the leavers are waving in front of the electorate.

Secondly, the European Union has arguably been the single greatest initiative for conflict resolution that the world has ever seen – something the co-operative movement has also been working towards since its inception. Do we learn nothing from our history?

Dame Pauline Green speaking at the International Co-operative Alliance's Global Conference and General Assembly
Dame Pauline Green speaking at the International Co-operative Alliance’s Global Conference and General Assembly

The nations currently within the EU have fought each other for centuries and we British have fought most of them. The aim of the founding fathers of the EU was to create an economic union that would ensure that those joining could never go to war again – they would have much too much to lose.  Those for leaving the EU argue that this is poppycock and that NATO has kept the peace. However, nobody on any objective reflection can deny that the European Union has played a significant part.

The European Union is far from perfect. Neither is our own or any other domestic political and parliamentary structure, as we have seen all too clearly in recent years.

For me, born just after the second world war, I would far rather that British ministers and civil servants went to Brussels to talk through a serious problem for years if that is what it took, than my son or grandson had to go to war as their grandfathers and great grandfathers did before them.

I’ll be voting to stay in on the 23rd.

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