The Worldly Meets Dr Anil Awesti: The Politics of the EU Debate

Ani Awesti, European Union expert at Warwick University.

Dr. Anil Awesti is a Tutor for the Department of Politics and International Studies at The University of Warwick, and an expert on the European Union. His research interests include European Union policy-making and the role of the state in the contemporary European Union. The Worldly Magazine’s Joshua Jose met with him to discuss key issues regarding the EU referendum.

Which of the sides do you think has led the most successful campaign so far in terms of strategy?

That’s a really interesting question actually. So on the face of it we have two sides, the remain versus the leave. However, in actual practice thus far there are many groups within both these sides. The remain side has been quite cohesive so far, its largely pan-political party behind David Cameron as part of Britain Stronger in Europe, which is the campaign group. There is another campaign group led by the SNP who refuse to share a platform with David Cameron, but the remain side are generally coherent. Now the leave side is fascinating, because it is split mainly into two groups. One is called Vote Leave and the other is one which was originally called Leave.EU but has changed its name to Grassroots Out. Vote Leave is centred on Conservative backbenchers alongside their business colleagues and big financial donors who want to leave the European Union. On the other side we have what was Leave.EU, headed by UKIP and Nigel Farage initially, which has morphed in the last couple of months and has launched themselves as Grassroots Out (GO). The problem for the leave campaign is that apart from wanting to leave the EU, they disagree on everything else. There are a lot of personality clashes on the leave side and that is causing a lot of problems in terms of trying to get a single coherent line to the public. Grassroots Out are focussing much more on issues of migration and security, which has been UKIP’s single line in the last few years. Whereas Vote Leave are concentrating much more on the economic benefits of leaving the Union and the burden of regulation on Britain’s economy. It seems thus far that the remain camp has led a more effective strategy by having a much more coherent voice with a structure and uniting behind one figure, David Cameron.

There’s been a lot of talk that the Remain campaign is one of fear, is this true – and why do you think so?

Yes, it appears that so far, the remain campaign’s strategy has been to focus on, to a large extent, the risks and dangers associated with leaving the European Union, rather than the positives of remaining in the European Union – this so called ‘Project Fear’. This is a strategy that appears to be a spillover from the Scottish Referendum, as the Conservative Party leadership thought it was very effective there. This ‘Project Fear’ tactic appeared to overturn a majority in favour of Scottish independence, and has been deployed in the European Union Referendum. There have been some complaints within the remain side about this tactic. Nicola Sturgeon for example has stated very strongly that there are risks and dangers with continuing to lead a negative campaign and she wants to highlight the benefits of remaining in the European Union. The issue with this referendum is that the polling is far tighter at this stage compared to the Scottish Referendum, and there are different dynamics at play with this referendum. Interestingly, this ‘Project Fear’ approach is showing signs of having spilt over to the leave side of the debate, with more speeches stating the risks of remaining in the EU, rather than their original tactic of painting an idyllic picture of Britain outside of the EU. 

All UK universities that have spoken on the referendum have supported the Remain campaign, what are the potential impacts (good and bad) of a Brexit on Higher Education in the UK?

Generally speaking, yes, the UK higher education sector is in favour of remaining in the European Union. There are a couple of big questions in play here, the most obvious of which is free movement. It’s very difficult, almost impossible, to try and predict what would happen to the rules and regulations regarding the movement of students if Britain was to vote to leave. The only thing we have to go on are the examples of other third country agreements with the EU, countries such as Norway, Switzerland and the Canadian example has bizarrely been bought up recently. The UK government hasn’t stated what its line would be – its position is effectively ‘we’ll deal with that when and if we need to’. The European Union has not stated what its line would be on this issue, so it’s a totally blank canvas. What we can say in terms of the benefits of remaining for students is that they are numerous. The most obvious is free movement, there is the chance for students to move across the European space and take advantage of the social, cultural and linguistic aspects of other countries. The Erasmus scheme is an example of this, a formal programme funded by the European Union to facilitate this movement of students. So free movement, not only during their studies but also after, in terms of getting a job across the continent, is an important benefit for students. Perhaps an indirect benefit is the research funding that many universities get from the European Union, which benefits students as well as academics. Britain is one of the largest receivers of EU research funding across the member states, and so our universities benefit greatly from this research funding for universities scheme. In terms of what would happen if we were to leave, the leave side has stated that Britain would be in a strong position to negotiate any deal in its favour because Britain has a lot to offer. What the leave side have implied but not explicitly said thus far, is that Britain would be able to benefit from the aspects of the EU that it currently does, but would be able to reject the aspects that they believe Britain does not benefit from.

There has been a lot said over Britain’s trade with the EU, can you explain how the current free-trade system works, and how any agreement would work in the case of a Brexit?

The idea being that you cannot cherry-pick, there are four fundamental freedoms and to have one you must have them all.

What the leave side have said is that Britain would be exempt from the free movement of people within the European Union, but at the same time would still have free access to the single market. This is an awkward situation because all of the experiences so far show the opposite. There are currently non-member states of the European Union, Norway being a good example, which have negotiated full access to the European single market. The EU’s line has been very clear on this to both Norway and Switzerland – if you want free access to goods, services and capital, you also have to have free access to labour. The idea being that you cannot cherry-pick, there are four fundamental freedoms and to have one you must have them all. Norway, whilst being a non-member state, cannot ban European citizens from entering. Interestingly, Switzerland had a referendum recently to stop free movement of labour into the country from the European Union, which passed – stopping movement of labour. The EU has been strong in its response to the result, saying that you cannot have access to goods, services and capital if you are not willing to have free access to labour also. Whilst negotiating this impasse, the EU has suspended Switzerland from the Erasmus scheme, as well as other punishments. The leave side have maintained that Britain is different as it has more to offer to the EU, and so would be able to get access to goods, capital and labour, and be exempt from free movement of labour. The EU hasn’t responded; it is unwilling to put forward any kind of statement on this issue. This is very different to the Scottish referendum, when the European Commission president José Manuel Barroso was very clear in stating that if Scotland voted to leave, it would have to re-apply as a new member. Whilst the European Commission got involved in that instance, it hasn’t yet in this one so we simply do not know. This is the key question; both sides of the campaign want Britain to retain its access to the single market, aware that just over half Britain’s exports go to the EU. In the media recently we have seen the leave campaign talk about the Canadian example, as Canada has signed a free trade deal with the EU. The big issue with that trade deal is whilst it covers free movement of goods and capital, it does not include free trade for the majority of services. These services include financial services, which are a major part of Britain’s economy, so a trade deal similar to Canada’s would not work for Britain. So we essentially have no precedent to go by.

There are those who argue that the UK is better off out of the EU, controlling its own borders. What are the key issues of security in the EU?  

There are two complex sides of the coin here. Free movement of people means free movement, whoever they may be. As well as business people, students and workers who contribute to economies and societies, it also means that some of those may be criminals. That’s the way society works, it means that criminals can cross borders and commit crimes in other countries. EU rules state that people can be barred, despite free movement of labour, if they pose a serious threat to society – which is quite a high bar. You may have a criminal record, but only if you pose a threat can you be barred. The one issue which is different for the UK and doesn’t apply for us like it does most other European countries is that we’re not a part of the Schengen Zone. So yes we have free movement, but we still have passport control at our border, unlike many other European countries. As a member of the European Union, it has to allow free access to labour, and as I’ve already said, even if it wanted access to the single market as a non-member, it would likely have to accept free movement of people as well. If Brexit was to occur, it is possible that Britain would have more control over its borders, and could put more barriers in place to stop people coming in – of course there may be economic repercussions to such an action. However, by leaving the EU, depending on the type of deal struck, Britain would be leaving two important areas of European Security. One is the European Arrest Warrant, which allows all countries who are a part of the EU to deport people who have been charged in another country, and to bring back criminals who have fled Britain to other EU countries. This is something that the Home Secretary Theresa May has talked about a lot, in terms of tracking criminals across the European space and how the loss of this tool may be detrimental to British security.  Secondly, information sharing privileges could possibly be lost. The EU has databases, such as EURODAC, where fingerprints and other biometric data are shared. In theory, it allows law enforcement and security agencies across the EU to share data and track criminals. Those are two internal security issues concerning the EU, however there are external issues too. This is something mentioned a lot by the leave campaign, citing that Britain would still be a member of the UN, NATO, and we would still remain a nuclear power. On the other side of the coin, we would leave the European Common Security Policy and therefore the weight that comes with being part of a twenty-eight-member bloc and the international strength that the UK benefits from, may be lost. The EU doesn’t always agree, Iraq being a classic example of when the EU was very clearly split, so they didn’t have a single line on the issue. However, for the vast majority of security issues, the EU does agree and they negotiate a single line which gives them an international voice with significant clout. This helps countries including the UK – which is at best an international middle-sized power- whose global influence is being increasingly challenged by rising powers such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), to project strength and unity as part of a wider bloc.

The Brexit campaign talks a great deal about taking back ‘British sovereignty’, quoting figures regarding the proportion of British laws that are made by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. Are these claims true, and do you think ‘sovereignty’ is a particularly useful tool? 

Yes, this is an interesting issue, and one that Boris Johnson has talked a lot about and cited as the main reason why he’s campaigning to leave after spending a long time deciding which camp he was in. As a member of the European Union, you are not a sovereign state in practice because within a member state of the European Union, European law is supreme. The rulings made by the European Court of Justice take precedence over national law in the case of any clashes. In theory you are still sovereign because you can leave the EU, as we’re seeing now in Britain. This idea that leaving the EU would allow Britain to reclaim its sovereignty which is pushed by the leave campaign is complex. First of all, as I’ve mentioned, both sides of the debate want Britain to remain in the single market, and if you want to remain in the single market, you have to abide by all European laws governing the single market. That is all current laws, and all future laws that govern the single market, much like Norway’s situation currently. A non-member state would be subject to all laws concerning the single market, but would have absolutely no say in them. We would no longer send elected MEPs to the European Parliament, or have a seat in the European Council of Ministers which creates policy – but whatever they decide, must be implemented if we wanted to stay in the single market. So there are massive question marks over the extent to which we can reclaim sovereignty and British democracy, and still have access to the single market. However there is a broader question, as you mentioned, in terms of the extent to which sovereignty is beneficial. It is talked about in a positive manner by the leave side as something we need to reclaim. But we need to ask whether a dilution of sovereignty for middle-sized countries such as the UK is required to solve shared problems. In the 21st century, globalised world, there are core challenges which we face as societies, which are international in nature.  These may require a diluting, or pooling of sovereignty in order to solve these problems, which independent states are increasingly incapable of solving on their own. This applies not only to economics, but involves areas such as environmental degradation, human trafficking and drug trade – and requires countries to pool their sovereignty to tackle these issues. The idea that by leaving the EU, the UK’s borders will become firm, strong and nothing will be able to enter, thus we will be protected from the world’s ills, is a very clear falsehood. There remain questions for the leave side concerning how Britain will be able to equally effectively try to solve these issues if the UK were to leave. Nigel Farage has talked about strengthening ties with the Commonwealth and the USA. Interestingly the leaders of these countries such as Barack Obama and Narendra Modi have been as clear as they can be using diplomatic speech – they want the UK to remain a member of the EU, they believe it is stronger and would be more useful to them as a member. So in theory, leaving the EU would allow the UK to reclaim its sovereignty, however in practice its much more complex, as market forces have so much power – leading us to ponder whether medium powers such as the UK can reclaim full sovereignty, and if this can help us solve the challenges we face as a society. 

Is there anything either side hasn’t bought up yet that you could see appearing in the debate? Anything you’d like to see?

We see both sides focusing on very generalised, simple arguments that form easy to digest narratives

We have this idea from people that favour more referendums, that referendums allow the public to become more informed about the issue. I have seen very little of this, it has been a depressing campaign, as most referendums are. We see both sides focusing on very generalised, simple arguments that form easy to digest narratives. So one thing I’d like to see more of, but which I see no sign of appearing, is both sides informing the public of the actual reality of how EU polices are made. I spoke to somebody recently, who was in favour leaving the EU, who said “I’m sick and tired of a man in Brussels sitting behind a computer telling me what to do” – but that is not the reality of how EU policy is made. There is very little understanding of this process, or how the European Parliament works and its role in policy making. You mentioned before that the leave side state that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels are telling Britain what to do. That simply is not the case. When they say ‘unelected bureaucrats’, they mean The European Commission, yet the Commission do not make policy. The European Commission only proposes policies to bodies which make polices such as the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, both of which are elected. The European Parliament is voted for by the European public, and the Council of Ministers are elected ministers of respective member states. The European Commission has approximately 30,000 people, and is about the same size as The Home Office in the UK, with the largest UK department being Work and Pensions with 80,000. So in fact the European Commission is very very small, and suffers from a chronic lack of ability to deal with a variety of issues the EU faces because it is such a small body. Some councils in the UK have more than 30,000 people working them, so the European Commission is very resource-light in comparison, and is trying to cover a space of 500 million people. So I’d like to see more informing the public on how the EU makes policy, but it’s complex and I therefore see very little sign of this coming up in either campaign. Referendums are often about simple narratives, and this does not fit into one, which is great shame as I think the UK public would benefit greatly from it. This doesn’t necessarily just work for the remain campaign, UK ministers are sometimes outvoted, and the UK doesn’t always get what it wants. So this is something that both sides of the campaign can pick up, but I am resigned to fact that they will not.

Dr Anil Awesti will be giving a talk about the EU referendum on 15th June in Coventry. Visit the link for more details:


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