Divided Opinions at European Question Time

By Kate McIntosh 

The question of the UK’s continued EU membership has perhaps been the most debated of recent months, with Prime Minister David Cameron moving towards a referendum in June following negotiations for reform. On Thursday the Durham University International Office, in conjunction with Durham County Council, held a forum on EU membership, which included words from some of Durham’s Erasmus students and a ‘Question Time’ style question and answer session with two North East MEPs; Jude Kirton-Darling of the Labour Party, and Jonatahn Arnott from UKIP. The event was well attended by students and staff alike, and the variety of topics discussed suggests there is a lot of concern for the UK’s place in Europe within the university.

The event began with speakers who highlighted the positives of the UK’s EU membership, especially for students at Durham. The Erasmus programme offers EU funded year abroad programmes to students at participating universities. One Erasmus student, a fourth year from Slovenia, said she was very grateful that she had had the chance to come to Durham as part of her degree, and a returning student explained a handful of the many things she had learnt while working in Paris and Barcelona on her year abroad. While the university’s formal stance proclaims neutrality as regards EU membership, these speakers seemed to convince many audience members that Durham benefits hugely from the EU Erasmus programme.

Jude Kirton-Darling is a Labour Party MEP, and they have said they will be campaigning to stay in the European Union come the referendum. Jonathan Arnott spoke behalf of UKIP and the Eurosceptic position. Each MEP was given the chance to explain why they were campaigning to stay in or to leave. Jude Kirton-Darling said she wants a ‘strong, responsible Europe’; among her five key reasons to stay in the EU she listed the protection of workers’ rights and measures to reduce our impact on the environment. She’s for an EU that enables us to secure our international interests. ‘We need to amplify our voice in the world and increase our influence globally,’ she argued, pointing towards figures that suggest the North Eastern region gets more back from the European Union than it puts in. Jonathan Arnott opened with a statement of his affection for the continent. ‘I love Europe,’ he said, ‘…but I hate the political union that holds this country back.’ He shares Kirton-Darling’s global aspirations for Britain, but believes that they can be better realised if we leave the EU. To Arnott the EU is outdated and he was quick to quote statistics that suggest Europe’s share of global share of GDP has been falling. Furthermore, he condemned David Cameron for fronting an illusory negotiations process which was always bound to end in unsatisfactory terms.

The debate was led by the audience, and the questions focussed primarily on the economic arguments for and against our EU membership, as well as touching upon issues of defence, protecting the environment, and the EU’s democratic legitimacy. When one audience member asked whether the UK would enter the Eurozone if we do remain part of the EU, Kirton-Darling recalled Gordon’s Brown refusal of the euro back in 2007. The ‘euro project’ is flawed, she claimed, because a single currency across multiple states where fiscal policy is not coordinated is inevitably unstable, yet it would be dangerous to break up the Eurozone now. The key question is whether the UK can maintain an influence in the EU without being part of the Eurozone. Arnott feared that if the Conservatives or Labour were to take the UK into the Eurozone it would not be possible to leave at a later date.

The pair moved on to discuss whether EU membership burdens the UK with a net loss, and Arnott was keen to emphasise so-called ‘hidden-costs’ of EU membership, such as destruction caused by the common agricultural and fisheries policies. Instead of trading with the EU, he claimed that we need to focus on trade with Commonwealth partners. However, Kirton-Darling was quick to impress upon the audience the impossibility of trade with the Commonwealth alone, she argued that the Commonwealth is not a substitute for the EU but a companion to it, and compared Arnott’s plan to a multi-national company giving up on its home markets in order to find custom abroad. She praised the EU for its redistributive tendencies, and claimed that national losses do not reflect regional gain.

One audience member asked Kirton-Darling and Arnott to speak about the security risk to the UK if we were to vote to leave the EU come the referendum, especially as regards our ‘vulnerability to the East’. Arnott said NATO has kept the peace in Europe thus far, and that the EU has done much to antagonise Putin, the Russian President, who presents the most substantial threat to the UK. Kirton-Darling disagreed entirely; she claimed that NATO was solely about keeping guns off of the streets in Europe, and that the EU was the much more complex political peace task-force which had secured peace since the Second World War. According to Kirton-Darling, Putin wants to split the EU, and has been antagonised not by its existence but by the growth of right-wing groups like the Front National.

At the close of the question and answer session, the chair Dr Christian Schweiger asked each of the MEPs to predict when the referendum would be held, and what the result would be. Both agreed that the referendum would most likely take place in June this year, and whilst Arnott said he just did not know what the electorate would decide, Kirton-Darling said the result would be very close. She hoped for a high turnout like that of the Scottish referendum on independence, and said any result based on a low turnout would be a ‘national tragedy’. The organisers of the event held a vote to gauge the views of the audience; a simple ‘stay’ or ‘go’ choice. Of the 102 people who took part, 20 voted to leave the EU, and 82 voted to stay. Whilst this suggests that the speakers in favour of continued EU membership were more convincing, it also reveals that a substantial minority are sceptical. The popularity of the event, and the vibrancy of the debate, makes it clear that the issue for EU membership is still contentious for many.

Photo: Rock Cohen via Flickr

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