The current economic climate and a fear inspired by instability are evident throughout Europe, the ‘European crisis’ becoming ever more closely entwined with the debate on Britain’s participation in the European Union. Now, with a referendum potentially on the horizon, it is fundamentally important that the British public is not just conscious of the issue, but well-informed on the subject. In 1975, we voted as a 2:1 majority for the Common Market – what has changed ? What is there to be gained from remaining in the EU ?
Together with the EU we hold a much stronger sway in the world : to argue alone is weakness, and why jeopardise the free trade we currently have within the EU ? In 2011, 53% of what we produce was bought by our European neighbours and, whilst they bought £159bn worth of goods from us, we imported goods worth £202bn from them . Exit from the EU may subject us to tariffs on what we import from the continent ; and if they raise their prices, we would have to raise ours in turn. In this case, they would simply turn elsewhere : it must also be remembered that the lesser sum of what we export is split between many countries – what they lose, pales into insignificance compared to what we would lose.
Many argue that there are other options, half-in-half-out agreements, or other organisations that could keep us tightly within the European markets without having to be a member of the EU, like Norway, for example. But, as the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry explains : “The EEA (European Economic Area) secures market access legally, but the EU decides the policy and Norway has to implement it without having participated in the policy-making process”. Why choose this alternative for Britain when we could have a say in the decisions that affect us ? Another argument would be our participation in the Commonwealth ; but given that the UK trades more with nations within the EU, whose economies are much more similar to ours, this still does not represent a more advantageous option for us.
EU membership also plays an important role in travel throughout the continent. Tourism is a huge industry in the UK and, after a recent decline in visits to the UK from North Americans, it is a big risk to put our income from European tourists at threat by taking the benefits we share as EU members away from them - benefits which are also enjoyed by Britons travelling in other EU states. When travelling within the EU, we go without a visa ; the European Health Insurance Card ‘enables [us] to get any health care [we] might need during a trip… the same right to statutory health care as people insured in the country you are in’ ; if we face huge delays or other such complications when travelling by air and by rail we are guaranteed help – compensation, refunds, meals and refreshments or a replacement journey. Millions of us venture abroad every year - an estimated 5.9 million in June 2013 alone - and traditionally a huge proportion of this figure goes to Europe, a figure which increased by 2% in the 12 months to June 2013  .
The economic and financial arguments to support or argue against the case go on. But for many, myself included, they can be incomprehensible or at best, so abundant they leave us lost and confused amongst the facts and figures. What the media often allows us to forget are the social benefits of remaining in the EU, far too important to ignore when considering the choice offered by the proposed referendum. The guarantee of equal treatment stretches across work, study and travel, to such a developed and intricate extent that it is hard to deny it pulls its weight in the debate.
Currently, when looking for work in the EU we are entitled to the same rights as the nationals of the host country in terms of access to work as well as support from employment services, including financial support to help us find that job. Once in a job, the benefits continue : maternity and parental leave is an important right stipulated by European Union law, securing the rights of a woman not to work night shifts while pregnant, ensuring a minimum maternity leave period of 14 weeks and guaranteeing against unfair dismissal or prejudice related to pregnancy and maternity leave. Also with regards to parental leave, male and female workers have individual entitlement which is non-transferable, meaning each may take at least four months off work to care for their child. The laws also protect the subject’s right to return to the same or an equivalent job at the end of parental leave.
As a student myself, it could be argued that my view is strongly influenced by the benefits EU membership brings to study. But this is and should be considered a hugely important factor in the social benefits of any country : the more opportunities youth have to gain experience and the best possible education, the better the future is for the collective – one day, it is these young people that will be in the important positions. The EU provides the same conditions and treatment for EU students as for nationals at any EU university, including the same course fees and the same grants, protects against refusal on the grounds of one’s nationality and also provides a series of different programs to pave the way for international integration in terms of study and research.
The Erasmus project – through which students undertake study or a traineeship abroad – requires no registration, no tuition fees, counts towards the student’s degree in their own country, and provides the student with a grant to allow them to fulfil their experience. Similarly, the Leonardo da Vinci programme ‘enables organisations in the vocational education sector to work with partners from across Europe…. By helping people to gain new skills, knowledge and qualifications, the programme also boosts the overall competitiveness of the European labour market’.
As Mary Dejevsky points out in the Independent, just because the EU’s impact on Britain has been gradual does not mean it never existed – and she believes it to have been ‘almost entirely beneficial’ . The necessity of sticking together with a bloc in which are found some truly great global political and economic powers for financial and political reasons is a strong argument, one which has been put forward much better by many others in other places. Maybe the argument for social benefits has also been made. What is rarely found is the argument which so strongly links the two : think of the chances we now have to go abroad, to study, to travel ; by renouncing our fluid connections to such broadly reaching opportunities, we are distancing ourselves from powerful allies… and couldn’t such a sacrifice come back to bite us when we wish to build relationships in future ?