Squaring up

EU money has helped regenerate northern cities. The first of a two-part series on both sides of the referendum debate

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Campaigners for an out vote in June’s EU referendum often say they are challenging a vast establishment consensus. Taking the country as a whole, that’s a debatable claim. After all it’s hard to see what kind of establishment Boris Johnson is not a part of. And in parts of the country that mainly vote Conservative, it’s more a case of which side of a divided establishment voters choose to come down on.

But in the north of England, the Leave campaigners are basically right – it is the establishment they are up against. Labour is the dominant party in the region, and Labour town halls and MPs overwhelmingly prefer to stay in. So too do many of the region’s representatives of big business.

In fact, as far as the north goes, it’s sometimes hard to see the difference between Labour council leaders and their corporate sector equivalents on the subject of the EU. Both make the same range of points in the same ways.

Indeed, on the day the date of the referendum was advanced, council leaders of Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle announced that they would campaign jointly for a Remain vote. The cities had agreed that leaving “could only harm” their economies, said Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council.

This kind of convergence between business and local politics is no accident, says Scott Lavery, research fellow and specialist in the British and EU economies at Sheffield University.

Lavery: huge trade with EU

“The north tends to depend more heavily on exporting than other parts of the country,” he tells Big Issue North. “Nationwide, about 40 per cent of businesses are exporters. In the North West that figure is over 50 per cent. The North East is the only part of the UK that exports more than it imports, and a huge amount of that trade is done with the EU.”

According to Vanda Murray of the Manchester Growth Company, a private-public sector organisation promoting economic growth in Greater Manchester: “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the EU to the northern economy.

“Over 20,00 businesses in the North West alone trade with the EU, 5,000 in the North East, 15,000-17,000 in Yorkshire.”

It’s not simply a matter of northern business being more dependent on EU markets, says Lavery. Over the years the EU model has become baked into the way the north of England does economic development.

“There’s no doubt that the approach to economic development by the EU has more in common with that favoured by, say, local authorities in the north of England than in the south: a greater role for the state and a partnership-based approach with the private sector,” he says.

The EU literally builds bridges, like the one over the River Irwell

The visible results, say Remain campaigners, are clear: a cornucopia of EU funding has created an endless glittering vista of business parks, research facilities and cultural jewels in the crown. It funds job training, innovation in businesses and builds destination sites for tourists. It literally builds bridges, like the one that crosses the River Irwell in Manchester city centre.

In the North East, funding from the European Regional Development Fund (which Britain insisted was created as a condition of membership back in 1973) is backing a new port for Sunderland. In Yorkshire, £743 million is going to fund a “scientific renaissance”. In Liverpool, the EU helped pay for the expansion of John Lennon Airport. In Manchester it helped fund expansion of the tram system and pay for the National Football Museum. Thanks to its support, the good people at the University of Manchester will finally be able to work out what to do commercially with graphene, the much publicised wonder material. The list is apparently endless.

There’s no one point where the lightbulb suddenly switched on and northern local authorities and the economic development bodies they sponsor became aware of the potential of EU markets and funding. It was more like a gradual realisation starting at some point during the early 1990s. Things have now moved to the stage where a kind of fusion has occurred.

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Cox: EU best practice

“It’s very clear that local administrations have come to identify strongly with their European counterparts,” Ed Cox, director of the IPPR North thinktank tells Big Issue North. “They look to each other for examples of best practice in city governance, economic development and many other things.”

The political and economic north has ‘Europeanised” itself as a way of solving the intractable problems caused by its de-industrialisation. And in doing so, it may have actually helped the north become more, well, northern.

“One of the great things about EU support is that you can get things done without going through London,” says Murray, previously a chief executive and board member of publicly quoted companies. So the EU may have helped create a northern powerhouse before George Osborne’s media people even thought of the phrase.

So who are the Euro-northerners? Do you know what Objective 1 is? Can you find your way around the Berlaymont without a map? Have you met more than one Estonian? Do you use the phrases “world class” and “peer city” in casual conversation? Does your job involve innovation, in a way that you find difficult to explain to people? Do you work in a building described as a hub?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then congratulations – you’re Euro-northerner! And now you have a referendum to fight. The only problem from the Remain campaign’s point of view, is that there are not enough of you.

The polling firm YouGov recently mapped opinion on Europe throughout the UK. Northern cities, the natural habitat of the Euro-northerner, were all more inclined to stay in, with the exception of Bradford. But not much more. West of the Pennines is more Euro-friendly than the east, but it includes three of the most Euro-hostile areas of the country in Cumbria, Blackpool and Blackburn. Meanwhile, nowhere in the north displays the confirmed Euro-enthusiasm of London or Edinburgh. Clearly, despite the trade links and destination architecture – despite the huge Euro-bet the regional establishment has placed on its economic future – everything is still to play for.

“There doesn’t seem to be a distinct difference between north and south England on the referendum,” says Anthony Wells, YouGov’s director of political polling.

“There are strong regional differences in Scotland and London, and the East Midlands and East Anglia tend to be a little more anti-EU. Beyond that the rest of Britain is quite similar, so in itself the north doesn’t seem particularly distinctive.

“The demographics that seem to have a strong correlation with EU voting intention are age, education and class – so one might expect to find the north a little more anti-European because of class, but that’s not immediately evident from polling data.”

That might indicate that the overwhelming pro-EU message of the great and good is getting some traction. It might also point to a more uncomfortable truth.

“One of the main areas where EU membership has affected the northern economy is in Labour regulations – things like the working time directive, rights to maternity and paternity leave, and rights at work for part-timers,” says Lavery.

“This is especially important as the post-industrial north has created a great many low-paid jobs of the sort where labour protections are more necessary and many of the labour protections we have come as EU directives whose future would be – to say the least – uncertain with Brexit. Of course, this is what opponents of the EU like to classify as red tape or as burdens on employment.”

For some in the north, the EU points the way towards a shiny, regenerated future. For perhaps many more it offers some basic protections that make working life tolerable. For all, the question is: what would happen if the electorate voted to leave?

“There’s a very simple answer to that question,” says Cox. “Nobody really knows.”

Read the second part of our EU Referendum feature here


What is the EU?
The European Union (EU) was established after the Second World War and joined together countries in Europe based on economy and politics. It now includes 28 countries that can freely trade and travel between each other. It runs as if it is one big country, having its own currency – the euro, which 19 of the EU countries use – its own parliament and its own rules and regulations.

What is a referendum and when is it?
A referendum is a general vote that normally includes a “yes” or “no” response to a political question. Whichever side gets the majority of the votes has won but the referendum is not legally binding and meetings with the EU will have to take place before we can officially leave. The referendum for whether or not to stay in the EU will take place on 23 June.

Why are we having a referendum?
Britain had a referendum on this issue in 1975 when we opted to stay in. However the EU has changed considerably since then, moving from only having 10 countries involved to 28. Some say the EU has gained more control and added more restrictions on the countries involved. This meant increasing demand from both the public and politicians to re-evaluate the EU’s influence over the UK. In his campaign preceding the general election in 2015 David Cameron promised if re-elected to hold a referendum within two years.

What will happen if we stay?
If the UK agrees to remain part of the EU then David Cameron and the EU have agreed to several changes in the UK’s membership. These include keeping the pound as our currency, child benefits for children living overseas to be recalculated to reflect their country’s cost of living and a limit on in-work benefits for EU migrants for their first four years if the UK reaches “exceptional” levels of migration.

What will happen if we leave?
We will be given two years to negotiate terms and agreements of issues such as border control and trade restrictions.

Key terms

Brexit – British exit, possible withdrawal from the EU.
Eurozone – The economic region formed by the countries in the EU that have incorporated the euro.
Red tape – Excessive regulation and rules, which restricts businesses and decision-making
Single market – Free movement of goods, capital, services and people between the members of the EU.
Trading bloc – A group of countries that agree to reduce trade barriers between themselves to focus upon trading regionally and to increase economic growth collectively.


How to vote
Firstly you must register to vote and if you’re not already on the electoral roll or need to change your details you can do so at gov.uk/register-to-vote. Once registered you will receive a card in the post informing you when the voting takes place and the polling station you need to go to in order to vote. When you go to the station you will receive a ballot paper with the referendum question on it. You then will approach a booth that will already have a pencil inside, mark your answer with an X and then place the paper in the ballot box. Alternatively, if you are away you can register for a postal vote.

Who can and can’t vote?
British, Irish and Commonwealth residents of the UK over 18 and who have registered can vote. UK nationals living abroad who have been on the electoral register in the UK in the past 15 years can also vote. Members of the House of Lords and Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar are also able to vote. However EU citizens including those living in the UK (besides Ireland, Malta and Cyprus) cannot vote.

Outside opinions

Norway: Recently Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg met David Cameron to discuss the EU and the upcoming referendum. Norway has never been part of the EU despite having two votes in 1972 and 1994. Despite this Norway still has access to the Single Market, has to pay a fee for this and must abide by a lot of EU laws. Solberg reportedly told Cameron that Norway’s method would not work for the UK. She urged the UK to remain in the EU and supported Cameron’s agreed changes for our EU membership if we remain a part of it.

Switzerland: Switzerland has less input in the EU, deciding not to be part of the European Economic Area, unlike Norway. It has access to EU trade, but had to sign 120 agreements with the EU to achieve it. It pays a smaller fee for this than Norway. Switzerland sells over half of its exports to the EU but has also been able to secure trade deals with China.

Overall both countries have strong economies, with Switzerland being ranked the world’s most competitive last September. Both countries also have unemployment rates lower than the EU average but both highlight the risk of cutting ties with the EU because it is such a critical and competitive market.

Sophie Grace

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