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The second part of our EU referendum series assesses what Brexit might mean for the north

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Last week Big Issue North asked Ed Cox, director of the IPPR North thinktank, what would happen if the UK voted to leave the EU. “There’s a simple answer to that question,” he said. “Nobody knows.”

These are uncomfortable words for the north of England, where business is more dependent on EU export markets and where the public sector relies more on EU grant money and partnership initiatives than elsewhere in the UK.

In the event of Brexit, the north faces a series of what former US secretary of state Donald Rumsfeld once called known unknowns. We know that if we vote for Brexit there will be a long series of negotiations with the EU over access to its markets. But we don’t know how these will turn out.

Attempts will be made to sign economic treaties with other countries around the world. But we don’t know what terms would be offered. Local authorities will lose access to EU grants, and Britain’s financial contribution to the EU will end. But we don’t know how the repatriated money will be used.

According to Scott Lavery, specialist in the EU economy at Sheffield University, the uncertainty around EU exit will itself affect the regional economy.

“There’s no doubt that the EU as an institution needs serious reform.”

“There’s no doubt that the EU as an institution needs serious reform and the British economy could recover from any damage Brexit caused,” he says. “But the uncertainty around the whole negotiating process for leaving is likely to have consequences: the depreciation of the pound, delays on investment decisions, and at least in the short term more austerity policies.”

EU membership has never shown up in the polling data as a particularly big issue among the electorate at large. It is, however, a big issue with Conservative activists and MPs. The referendum started out as a solution to the Conservatives’ party management problems, and one effectively imposed on the north given the Conservatives’ comparative lack or representation in the region. But once set in motion it has begun to turn into a kind of magnet for concerns of all kinds: over working conditions and pay, security and terrorism, control of borders and migration.

It’s a general rule in politics that uncertainty benefits the status quo. This may be why the government has refused to offer any contingency plans at all for what will happen if the country votes for Brexit – the choice is between the way things are or whatever worst case scenario can be plausibly argued.

There’s been some pushback to this approach. On 12 March, the Yorkshire Post published an appeal by the Country Land and Business Association calling on the government to say what it would do in the event of a Brexit vote. Some 370,000 jobs were potentially at stake, the report said.

“I am more interested in the government doing everything it can to present the British people with all the arguments for staying in a reformed EU, rather than expecting the worst,” says Julian Smith, Conservative MP for Skipton and Ripon and member of the Conservatives In campaign.

For the Out campaign, of course, it’s more a matter of escaping the clutches than expecting the worst.

“If we vote to leave, the almost certain scenario is that we do so under the provisions of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty,” says Jonathan Arnott, Ukip MEP for the North East. “That means all the existing rules apply while we renegotiate with our current partners for two years.

“The EU has a distinct historic pro-women’s rights agenda.”

“That will mean that the world’s fifth largest economy – the UK – will be negotiating with the world’s second largest economy – the EU. It’s in everyone’s interest that we get a good deal.”

Some Remain campaigners prefer to stress the benefits of membership rather than the threat of leaving. “The EU has a distinct historic pro-women’s rights agenda, much more so than this current Tory government. Gender equality is a core principle for the EU, enshrined in its founding documents,” says Julie Ward, Labour MEP for the North West.

Ward says that laws protecting equal pay for women, paid holidays, maternity rights, parental leave – and a return to work at the same level for women taking it – all stem from EU legislation, along with employment protection for part-time workers and equal access to pension schemes.

That raises the question of how a body whose main purpose is supposedly economic came to embrace the cause of women’s rights.

“The economic element of the EU was built on the principle of equal treatment – not only of workers being able to move across borders, but also equal treatment of products, capital, equal treatment of national regulations and institutions. Without that principle, free trade across borders would be impossible,” says Ward.

“These principles of equal treatment over time allowed for the European Court of Justice to rule in a series of landmark decisions that gender-based discrimination is against principles of EU law and, over time, these principles became enshrined in law.”

The idea of the EU as a politically progressive organisation is at the heart of the specifically Labour case for staying in. From this point of view, a country works with its EU partners on legislation, gets them passed at European level and then incorporates them into national law. That way their existence is preserved against changes in national government. According to this view, an alliance of free democracies helps create and preserve the kind of social changes the northern Labour-voting public wants to see. “EU legislation will remain in force in the event of an out vote. However it would mean that the Tory government would then be able to get rid of social protections and equality legislation with impunity,” says Ward.

Not all of the north’s Labour politicians agree. “Fundamentally the only way the Labour Party can protect the people who vote for it and working people in general is to get elected,” says Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton and board member of the cross-party Vote Leave campaign.

“I’d be the first to agree that the EU has produced some pieces of progressive legislation, but it’s also produced a whole lot of reactionary legislation,” he adds, citing attempts by the European Court of Justice to overturn minimum wage laws in Sweden and Finland.

Constituents in his solidly Labour seat straddling the Manchester-Salford borderlands are not feeling the economic benefits of EU membership, says Stringer.

“The issues people raise with me are overwhelmingly about economic security, jobs, contracts, work conditions and pay.

“The pro-EU orientation of the Labour establishment is simply not in line with the majority.”

“We’ve been going through an extended period of at least some economic growth and reduced unemployment. That should result in higher wages and better conditions, but this is simply not happening. And it won’t happen while there’s an effectively limitless supply of very poor people mostly migrating from Eastern Europe to compete for jobs.

“The pro-EU orientation of the Labour establishment is simply not in line with the concerns of the majority of our voters in the north.”

There’s some backing for this view from the pollsters. “In general terms, people who are the most Eurosceptic tend to be older, white, identify as English, have few or no higher educational qualifications, and feel pessimistic about their future prospects,” says Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at Kent University and co-author of definitive Ukip study Revolt on the Right.

Economic security is also on the agenda for Smith’s comparatively well-heeled constituents in North Yorkshire.

“My constituents have brought a range of concerns to my attention, but I would say that their overriding worry is financial security and ensuring that growth continues in the coming years. Some believe that we can achieve this by leaving the EU, while others do not.” he says.

Across the north it’s not clear that the economic security argument is working in the way that the Remain campaign intended. Another factor here may be the absence of the Liberal Democrats. Before the 2015 election, the UK’s most enthusiastic pro-EU party had substantial numbers of northern MPs and a place in the coalition government. Well represented in both traditional Labour and Tory areas, they acted as a kind of political glue binding the region to the EU. Post-election, they are out of government and have almost been wiped off the north’s electoral map.

“The collapse of the Liberal Democrats could be significant in one sense,” says Goodwin. “Though many of its traditionally pro-EU voters may be expected to vote to remain in the EU, without a prompt to vote they may not turn out in the numbers that are needed. With Ukip filling the space vacated by the Liberal Democrats much will depend on whether the former third party can maintain activism at the grassroots and help to mobilise the Remain vote.”

With the Lib Dems absent and the Tories irrevocably split, that leaves the campaigning in much of the north as a contest between Labour and Ukip, says Anthony Wells, political polling director for YouGov.

“I’m sure there will be a proxy Labour versus Ukip battle in the great northern cities. There obviously are an awful lot of Lab-Con marginals in the north still, but in South Yorkshire, Tyneside and so on where the Conservatives no longer really exist as a functional party organisation the people manning the campaigns will in effect be Labour activists and Ukip activists.”

Ukip’s Arnott insists they are voting on principle but believes it may also be an opportunity for his party to gain support from one time Labour voters. “This is what we’re about. I want to stress that. But if the north – the Labour heartlands – votes to leave after the Labour establishment campaigns for Remain, I can certainly see that being of benefit.”

Stringer: wholesale defections

It’s a prospect that also worries Labour Eurosceptic Stringer. “If we don’t try to represent the concerns of our supporters, they are eventually going to lose patience with us. I can see wholesale defections to Ukip, and if we’re not careful a complete realignment of British politics might follow.”

The apparent wasting disease affecting pro-EU centre-left parties across Europe should give Labour in the north its warning, he says. “It just shows us that if we don’t represent our people then they will simply stop voting for us, whether moving to the extreme left, as in Greece, or the hard right.”

“There are lots of different causes for the shift in European politics,” says Arnott. “In Greece, it’s obviously the effect of austerity while in Holland and France it’s fears over borders and migration. Both are partly a response to the fact that electorates feel that political system doesn’t respond to their needs, and the EU is very much a part of that.”

So what happens to it if the electorate votes to leave? Surely that’s the mission accomplished moment. Time to pack up and go home?

“We’re the party of direct democracy. We’re not just going to stop if power reverts to Westminster, though it’s hard to say right now what our role will be. These are exciting times in politics.”

With the polls getting closer, it’s a toss-up whether it will In or Out on 23 June. Either way, it won’t be Over.

Main photo: the recently closed Kellingley Colliery, where workers have not felt the benefits of EU membership. By Mark Pinder/Meta-4 Photos. This article was first published in Big Issue North’s print magazine on 4 April. Here’s the first part of our EU referendum series

Down on the farm

Established in 1962, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) tries to ensure a decent standard of living for farmers through subsidies. British farmers received three billion euros under the CAP in 2014. CAP payments made up 55 per cent of farm incomes. If Britain were to leave the EU, the government would have to decide whether to continue subsidising famers and how that would be funded.

However, there will be fewer subsidies left for British farmers if EU enlargement continues – for instance, if Turkey joined. And Leave campaigners – and many others – insist the CAP is fundamentally flawed and in urgent need of reform.

George Eustice, farming minister, said: “We would do far better as a country if we ended the supremacy of Europe and shaped new fresh-thinking policies that really deliver for our agriculture,”

“The truth of the matter is that if we left the EU there would be an £18bn a year dividend, so could we find the money to spend £2bn a year on farming and the environment? Of course we could. Would we? Without a shadow of a doubt.”

The EU has given several grants to develop fishing harbours in the UK and we sell the majority of our fish to countries in the EU.

A new EU “discard ban” set in place for 2019 worries British fishermen. It means any fish caught accidently will not be allowed to be released back into the sea and will count for each fisherman’s total allowable catches.

Trading terms

More than 50 per cent of our exports go to the EU. If we choose to leave the EU and fail to establish a deal with it on trade. We could lose 2.2 per cent of gross domestic product – our economic output – according to the thinktank Open Europe Today. The EU is also in the midst of negotiating a trade deal with the US – TTIP – that some in the Remain campaign argue will bring great benefits for the UK economy.

But Open Europe Today also argues that if Britain left the EU but did manage to negotiate a trade deal with it – as well as new ones with the rest of the world, GDP could potentially go up by 1.6 per cent by 2030.

Leave campaigners claim Britain would be able to establish trade agreements with export markets such as China, Singapore, Brazil, Russia and India through the World Trade Organisation. Meaning imported food and other products from non-EU countries could get cheaper, as tariffs are lowered. They also point out that Norway trades with the EU extensively without being part of it.

Last week the Bank of England’s financial planning committee said the uncertainty surrounding the referendum has created the “most significant near-term domestic risks to financial stability” and “could lead to a further depreciation of sterling and affect the cost and availability of financing for a broad range of UK borrowers”.

Sophie Grace

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