Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have heard that a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union to be held on Thursday 23 June. Whether you’re eligible to vote or not, whether you’re British or not, you have an important role in getting those who can vote to do so and for them to understand the arguments.
To this end, City Savvy sent a set of questions to John Speed, a Brit living in Luxembourg for over 30 years. With help from friends at Pro Europa, here are the answers to help you make an informed decision. This may be our longest article to date, but it’s also one of the most important and as such, is comprehensive.
Oh and as soon as you can, register to vote here!
1. The EU & Britain’s role within it
Q.1.1 Can you give us a brief history lesson of Britain’s entry into the EU?
The formation of the European Union had its origins in the aftermath of the Second World War which ended in 1945, as the European nations sought to come together in a way that would make war between them in the future unthinkable.
When the European Coal and Steel Community was formed in 1951, however, Britain stood on the sidelines and declined an invitation to join the six founding nations of the European Economic Community in signing the Treaty of Rome in 1957.
But Britain’s economy recovered only slowly after the war, while France, Germany and the other EEC members prospered. In 1961 Britain changed its mind and applied to join the EEC. Its application was vetoed twice by France, in 1963 and again in 1969 (General de Gaulle considered that Britain had a “deep-seated hostility” towards European construction, and was more interested in links with the US and the British Commonwealth).
After de Gaulle left office in 1969 Britain resumed its efforts to join, and in 1973 the Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath finally led the country into the EEC at the same time as Denmark and Ireland joined. But opinion within the country remained divided, and the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson called a referendum in 1975 on Britain’s membership. At the time of the referendum all three main political parties were in favour of remaining in the EEC, as were most newspapers. The result of the referendum was 67% in favour of remaining in the EEC.
Thus Britain failed to commit itself to the construction of Europe at the outset, and missed out on the chance to play an influential role in shaping the way it developed. When it finally joined it had to accept policies such as the Common Agricultural Policy, structures and institutions as they had been established by the original members, which in a number of important respects did not fit well with Britain’s situation.
Britain and the EU
Q.1.2 What is Britain’s current role in the EU?
Britain has played an important role as the EU has developed. For example, it has been at the forefront of the development of the single market; and because of its historical position as a major power it plays a significant role in the EU’s foreign and security policy. Britain was instrumental in the pushing for the enlargement of the EC to include the former communist countries of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. But it has become a somewhat “semi-detached” member. It is not a member of the Schengen Agreement which has removed the internal borders between the participating member states, nor has it adopted the euro as its currency. As Britain has sought “opt-outs” in various policy areas, and as Euroscepticism has grown in the country as a whole and particularly in the ruling Conservative Party, Britain’s influence has waned. This started during the government of Gordon Brown, who was relatively uninterested in the EU, but has got worse since David Cameron became Prime Minister.
There is a lack of knowledge in the government about how the EU works, and its Euroscepticism means that there is little interest in finding out. The Cameron Government has not been good at building alliances with those member states which are sympathetic to its views on many issues, and its constant negative Eurosceptic comments and pronouncements have tended to alienate those it should be trying to work with. The decision of David Cameron to withdraw the Conservative MEPs from the main centre-right political grouping in the European Parliament, the EPP, is widely seen to have been a great mistake which reduced British influence. British MEPs also opposed the procedure by which the largest political group in the European Parliament after the 2014 elections would influence the choice of the President of the European Commission. Instead of taking a lead in trying to solve problems facing the EU, it takes negative stances on many issues.
This is a great pity, because Britain is a very important country in the EU and has the potential to be very influential. In the 1980s and 1990s Britain was more positive and active and “punched above its weight” in the EU. It was successful shaping many policies and programmes. Indeed, a frequent complaint from the French was that Britain was too successful, that free-market “Anglo-Saxon” policies were taking over and French influence was on the wane! There was a significant number of British Eurocrats in senior positions influencing policy at the important early stages, but now Britain has a smaller share than Poland. Careers in the EU civil service have not attracted British applicants for many years.
One argument of the Eurosceptics is that Britain is not able to influence decisions in the EU because since the accession of the Eastern European countries its voting power within the institutions has been diluted and it is always voted down by the other member states. Apart from the fact that this is simply not correct, Britain has a good record of getting its proposals accepted, it shows a curious lack of confidence and belief in the ability of British officials and politicians to negotiate successfully with their colleagues in the other member states. If they cannot obtain good deals when negotiating inside the EU, they are hardly likely to be very successful in negotiating new arrangements from outside the EU!
2. Brits in Luxembourg
Q.2.1. How many British nationals are there in Luxembourg?
According to Statec, there were at the beginning of 2015 just over 6 000 British nationals living in Luxembourg, and in 2013 there were just over 2 200 British nationals working in Luxembourg.
Q.2.2. How many jobs in Luxembourg held by British nationals are currently affected by the EU?
In a general sense, all the jobs held by British nationals are affected by the EU. Clearly, the British nationals working in EU institutions in Luxembourg (the European Parliament, the Commission, the European Court of Justice, The European Court of Auditors, the European Investment Bank) hold jobs which are directly EU-related. But British nationals working in the private sector in Luxembourg are also “affected” in the sense that the development of the single market and the free movement of labour within the EU have encouraged British nationals to seek employment in Luxembourg.
The Referendum in the UK
Q.2.3. What will be the impact of the referendum on them?
Whether or not the UK stays in the EU is a matter of considerable importance for those who live and work in Luxembourg, which it is why it is a matter of concern that only about one third of them, it is estimated, will be able to vote in the referendum. In brief, under the rules as they stand at the moment, if you have been resident outside the UK for more than 15 years you will not be able to vote in the referendum.
If the UK votes to stay in the EU, then there will be no change in the position of British nationals living and working in Luxembourg.
If, however, the UK votes to leave the EU, there will be considerable uncertainty about their position. The EU staff rules provide that only nationals of EU member states may work as officials in the institutions. Whether British nationals would be able to remain in their posts after a vote to leave the EU would depend on the exit negotiations. There have been some precedents for nationals of non-EU countries remaining in the institutions, for example staff hired to prepare for the accession of Norway and Iceland which fell by the wayside, but numbers are very small. It is likely that senior British officials would be let go with golden handshakes, but younger more junior officials would have a lot to lose as even if they were kept on, they could hardly expect good career progression. Some British officials may seek dual nationality in order to keep their posts – we have heard of this happening among British officials in Brussels.
The effect of a “leave” vote on British nationals working in the private sector will also depend on whatever agreements are negotiated between the UK and the EU. They will no longer benefit from the free movement of EU nationals within the EU, but if the UK negotiates to remain in the single market with free movement of labour, then their position may not change significantly. But if the UK decides that it wants to “take back control of its borders” and restrict the movement of EU nationals into the UK, then it is unlikely that EU member states including Luxembourg will accept the current degree of free movement for British nationals in Luxembourg. They will probably have to apply for work permits. This is all part of the uncertainty surrounding what will happen if the UK votes to leave the EU.
3. Negotiations in 2016
Q.3.1. What did David Cameron negotiate with the EU Council?
The negotiation was with the European Council, i.e. the other member states of the EU, not the European Commission. The Commission was involved in the preparations for the negotiations, but the decisions were taken by the Council.
Mr Cameron agreed a package of changes which will take effect immediately if the UK votes to remain in the EU, of which the main elements are:
- Child benefit – Child benefit payments to migrant workers for children living overseas to be recalculated to reflect the cost of living in their home countries
- Migrant welfare payments – The UK can decide to limit in-work benefits for EU migrants during their first four years in the UK. This so-called “emergency brake” can be applied in the event of “exceptional” levels of migration, but must be released within seven years – without exception.
- Eurozone – Britain can keep the pound while being in Europe, and its business trade with the bloc, without fear of discrimination. Any British money spent on bailing out eurozone nations will be reimbursed.
- Protection for the City of London – Safeguards for Britain’s large financial services industry to prevent eurozone regulations being imposed on it
- Sovereignty – There is an explicit commitment that the UK will not be part of an “ever closer union” with other EU member states. This will be incorporated in an EU treaty change.
- ‘Red card’ for national parliaments – It will be easier for governments to band together to block unwanted legislation. If 55% of national EU parliaments object to a piece of EU legislation it will be rethought.
- Competitiveness – The settlement calls on all EU institutions and member states to “make all efforts to fully implement and strengthen the internal market” and to take “concrete steps towards better regulation”, including by cutting red tape.
- Some limits on free movement – Denying automatic free movement rights to nationals of a country outside the EU who marry an EU national, as part of measures to tackle “sham” marriages. There are also new powers to exclude people believed to be a security risk – even if they have no previous convictions.
Q.3.2. Does this change anything for me as a British national working in Luxembourg?
The short answer is “No”. There are no immediate effects on British nationals in Luxembourg. If the UK votes to remain in the EU these changes will not have any effect on the position of British nationals in Luxembourg either. The impact will come if the UK decides to leave the EU. In such circumstances the package of changes negotiated will fall, and the longer term impact will depend on what is negotiated between the UK and the EU.
4. Campaigning in Luxembourg
Q.4.1. Who are the campaigners in Luxembourg for each side?
On the “Remain” side, Pro Europa is one organisation. Further details about Pro Europa can be found at the end of this article.
I do not know whether there is an organisation in Luxembourg actively campaigning for the UK to leave. But there are some UKIP and Eurosceptic Conservative supporters in Luxembourg.
Q.4.2. How can I help in the campaign?
For the “Remain” side, British nationals who live and work in Luxembourg and who want the UK to remain in the EU should do whatever they can to persuade friends and family in the UK of why we should remain in the EU, what the benefits are and what the risks are of leaving. The Eurosceptic side of the argument has predominated in the UK for more than a decade, with an enormous amount of misinformation, so that most people’s “knowledge” of the EU bears little relation to the reality. The “Remain” side has a huge task in front of it to disseminate correct information about the EU, what it does, how it works, and what benefits it has brought to the UK and can bring to the UK in the future.
5. The Arguments for and against
Q.5.1. Why do (some) people want to leave?
They believe Britain is being held back by the EU, which they say imposes too many rules on business and charges billions of pounds a year in membership fees for little in return. They also want Britain to take back full control of its borders and reduce the number of people coming to the UK to work. One of the main principles of EU membership is “free movement”, which means you don’t need to get a visa and work permit to go and live and work in another EU country. They also object to the idea of “ever closer union” and any ultimate goal to create a “United States of Europe”. They argue in the EU we have surrendered sovereignty to unelected officials in Brussels (i.e. the European Commission) and to the European Court of Justice. Leaving the EU will restore the sovereignty of the British Parliament. Some think that Britain can be more effective in negotiating its own bilateral trade deals around the world rather than working through the EU – these people often reflect arguments that have been made from the early days of the EU that Britain should develop its trading relations with its historic partners in the Commonwealth and the United States rather than with Europe.
Q.5.2. Why do (some) people want to stay?
They believe Britain gets a big boost from EU membership – it makes selling things to other EU countries easier and the flow of immigrants, most of whom are young and keen to work, fuels economic growth and helps pay for public services. Access to the single market of the EU is very important as 50% of UK exports go to EU countries. They also point out that the EU is already doing a great deal to streamline bureaucracy which affects adversely competitiveness, and that it is better to work within the EU to support this than to leave the EU. They argue that Britain should stay in the EU where it can influence the rules of the single market rather than leave and have to accept the rules decided by the EU over which it will have no say. They note that OECD research shows that in reality British business has one of the least regulated markets in Europe, that a single market cannot operate without rules designed to establish a “level playing field”, and that the most significant rules in the UK hindering business are not from the EU, but are things like Britain’s planning regulations.
On the question of sovereignty they argue that throughout its history Britain has signed treaties and agreements where it considers that it is in the country’s interest to share or pool sovereignty for reasons of security or the prosperity of the country. They consider that one must look at sovereignty and power at the same time. In the modern globalised world sovereignty is a complex matter, there are many issues such as climate change, terrorism, organised crime, nuclear proliferation, multinational big business and finance, scientific research, where countries can work together far more effectively than they can on their own.
They believe Britain’s status in the world would be seriously damaged by leaving the EU, pointing to the views of world leaders who have stated openly that they want the UK to stay in the EU. Recent threats to security with the rise of militant Islam, Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its intervention in the Ukraine and Syria, they argue, mean that Britain’s security would be put at risk if we left the EU.
Those who want to remain in the EU consider that those who wish to leave have not put forward a credible case for the alternative arrangements for the UK outside the EU, and that the risks and uncertainties are too great.
Q.5.3. What do the people on both sides think the benefits will be if we stay or leave?
On the economic side, the people who want to leave think that Britain will grow more quickly outside the EU as it frees itself from what they see as the constraints imposed by the EU. On the other side, those who want to stay argue that the British economy gains substantially from being inside the internal market, and they point to the inconsistency of those who want to leave who argue that they want to get rid of the constraining rules and at the same time say that the UK will negotiate a trade agreement with the EU’s internal market, which will require it to accept those same rules while not have any say in fixing those rules. There is no option available which would give the UK access to the EU internal market without accepting the rules of the internal market.
Most credible studies show that Britain gains economically from its membership of the EU. Specifically, over 3 million British jobs are directly or indirectly linked to UK exports to the single market. Further British jobs would be created by 2030 through completing the single markets in digital services and energy. Second, membership of the single market contributes some 4 to 5% of UK GDP. Third, Britain’s membership of the single market makes it a prime country for foreign direct investment creating even more British jobs. More foreign banks operate in the UK than anywhere else in the single market and Britain now has more car factories than France. Fourth, over 200 000 British businesses benefit from quota and tariff free access to the single market of 510 million consumers. The value to the UK economy of exports to the single market is put at GBP 187 billion per year and could rise to GBP 277 billion by 2030 with the completion of the single market.
Brexit would bring significant economic costs. First, markets dislike uncertainty and we have already seen sterling fall on the start of the referendum campaign. Second, following a Brexit there would be at least two and quite possibly more years of uncertainty whilst the divorce arrangements are finalised. Bilateral trade deals with Switzerland took up to 12 years to finalise. This uncertainty would threaten investment decisions, resulting in new regulations for British businesses, raising the cost of living and threatening British jobs.
“Brexiters” say that Britain would no longer have to pay into the EU budget, but that ignores the fact that those countries like Norway and Switzerland that have negotiated access to the single market have to contribute: Norway pays in net terms per person an amount which is 90% of Britain’s contribution.
Membership of the EU brings substantial consumer benefits: consumers benefit from lower prices because of the single market, including in the supermarkets and in deregulated markets such as air fares and roaming charges. Second, the EU is tackling tax evasion by multinationals ordering major companies to pay back unpaid tax following illegal tax deals with states.
Those who want to leave argue that the UK will benefit from being able to negotiate directly bilateral trade deals on its own rather than having to work through the more cumbersome machinery of the EU. Those who wish to remain dispute this, arguing that the EU is a far more powerful negotiating body and able to obtain much better terms when negotiating with, e.g. the United States and China. As a member of the EU, the UK currently benefits from free trade agreements already in force with over 50 countries.
On the migration front, those who want to leave say that the UK will be able to limit the numbers of people coming into the UK to work and that will relieve pressure on housing, schooling and other public services. This will also reduce the downward pressure on wages caused by EU immigrants accepting jobs at low wages. Those who want to remain point to the economic contribution that the migrants make, they are drawn to the UK by the strength of the economy and their participation rate is high (i.e. they work, they are not “benefit tourists”). Employers frequently complain that they are unable to find suitable British workers and need to employ immigrants for their businesses. The reality is that controlling immigration is very difficult: the British government has not been able to limit immigration from outside the EU to the extent that it wants to, and if Britain leaves the EU it will struggle to limit immigration from the EU, irrespective of whether it has to accept free movement of labour as a price for access to the internal market or not. People go where the jobs are. We should also note the benefits that British people have enjoyed from freedom of movement: remember the British building workers from Tyneside and other parts of Britain who went to work in Germany during the Thatcher period when the British economy was struggling: it spawned the TV comedy “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” and inspired Mark Knopfler’s song “Way Aye Man”. Thanks to EU rights, British citizens can settle to live, work or retire anywhere in the EU. Indeed, more British people live in other EU countries than any other nationality. The Erasmus+ scheme enables thousands of British students to study in other EU countries each year.
The EU brings important benefits to workers in Britain: the EU is the only regional grouping in the world in which employee rights are protected in the constitutional treaties and upheld by its supervisory court, including equal pay for work of equal value, equality of treatment and non-discrimination on grounds of genre, sexual orientation or disability. Thanks to EU law, all EU employees benefit from paid annual leave and maternity leave.
Those who wish to stay in the EU point to specific areas where Britain does very well and where a decision to leave would put these benefits at risk. In the area of scientific research where there is a big EU budget, British universities and research institutes have been very successful in directing the funds to where they can best be used, obtaining more than 15% of the funds allocated while contributing about 12% of the budget.
It is important not to ignore the wider, non-economic benefits that Britain enjoys as a member of the EU. Building on its origins, the EU is a driver of peace in Europe and beyond, providing a beacon for the former fascist dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal, the communist bloc states after the end of the Cold War including the former Yugoslav countries as well as facilitating the Northern Ireland peace agreement. Many commentators have stressed that membership of the EU complements and enhances the benefits that Britain obtains as a member of NATO in today’s uncertain world. In the areas of justice and security Britain benefits from the European Arrest Warrant, simplifying long extradition procedures to and from the UK. Its membership of Europol, Eurojust and the Schengen Information System makes it part of the combined European law enforcement agencies, facilitating judicial cooperation between countries and allowing UK police forces to receive and share data with police forces across the EU on terrorism, organised crime, missing persons and stolen vehicles.
6. What can I do?
Q.6.1. Will British people abroad really make any difference to the vote?
The result of the referendum is likely to be close, so all votes will count. British people abroad are among those who will be most affected by a vote to leave, and are more likely to be in favour of staying in. So it is very important that those who are eligible to vote exercise their voting rights. Everyone who is entitled to vote should make sure that they are registered and then use their vote.
Q.6.2. I’ve been outside Britain for over 15 years and am disenfranchised. Is there anything I can do?
You may not be able to change your voting status. But you can be active in informing your friends and family who do have the vote of the reasons why they should vote to stay in the EU. So you can still have a very important role!
CONVINCED YOU ONE WAY OR ANOTHER? REGISTER TO VOTE HERE.
This article was provided by John Speed, with assistance from other members of Pro Europa. John has lived in Luxembourg since 1981, working in the European Court of Auditors until he retired as a Director in that institution at the end of 2011. He is also the Secretary of the Cambridge Society of Luxembourg.
Pro Europa was set up in Brussels shortly after David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech as it became clear that the likelihood of an in/out referendum was becoming greater although, of course, it only became certain after the Tories won an overall majority in the 2015 election. Pro Europa is a group of mainly British, mainly business people and members of NGOs who are passionate about the UK remaining in the EU and engaging positively with it. The group has strong support from non-Brits who would prefer not just that the UK stay in the EU, but that it remain at the heart of decision-making. The Luxembourg branch was established in September 2015 following a Bridge Forum Dialogue event on Brexit. If you would like to learn more, please send an email to Proeuropalux@gmail.com. You can also see Pro Europa’s website at www.proeuropa.org.uk.The main campaign organisation for REMAIN is Britain Stronger in Europe: www.strongerin.co.uk
Photo: Rock Cohen/flickr (Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))