Wondering aloud

It says that I am a European citizen
It says that I am a European citizen

Somebody on Facebook took the trouble to explain their thinking on the EU referendum in the UK. If that person had been standing in front of me saying these things. How would I have responded? To create a dialogue, I mean. Here is how he started:

Joe Average: On June 23rd, I am expected to make one of the most important decisions in my life which could affect my children and grandchildren in a way I don’t even understand yet. I am an average guy with a family, a house, and a normal lifestyle. I am sort of Joe average. Some people have asked me recently about how I’m voting, mainly because they don’t know themselves and want another view or opinion. I’ve actually been quite interested in the opportunity to vote in the referendum and I’ve done some research and a lot of thinking and I know how I’m going to vote and why.

Me: I would congratulate this person. This is how I would hope that the majority of voters approach the decision. Willing to learn and starting from an agnostic viewpoint.

Joe Average: I am however, concerned about the broadcasting from our elected government. They also know what they want and why but we, the people, need our government to provide us with a balanced view so we, the people, can make our own mind up. For that to happen, we need to understand all the good points, and all the bad points. At the moment, I can understand why some people are gripped by fear that the world will end if we leave the EU.

But will it?

Me: There are differing opinions on whether the government should be neutral when communicating about the referendum. But since it is government policy to remain, I would expect them to be able to defend that stance. I am wondering if this was a referendum on the death penalty, foxhunting, voluntary euthanasia or abortion, if you would expect the government to remain neutral on those issues too? Because governments are run by the majority political party with an agenda, I would want to know what that agenda was.

Joe Average: Well, I see 3 main areas, which I thought about. Political, economic and immigration.

Before I go any further, I have already accepted one thing. Any change will result in good things and not so good things. I can’t think of one example, which has changed, which hasn’t created some benefits and burdens.

Me: Agreed! I guess the campaigns on both sides cannot admit to the disadvantages on their side but people know this is unrealistic and they may come over as more authentic if they admitted them. I congratulate you on recognising that this is not a straightforward issue.

Joe Average: Let’s get the easy one’s out of the way….

Political. – As a UK citizen, I want my laws determined by the MP’s we elected as a democracy should be. Our Lords are the regulators of the decisions made in the commons and I’m good with that. What I don’t want are laws imposed on me by people who weren’t elected and are trying to find a “One size fits all” solution to many different countries who all have different tolerances, expectations and cultures.

Of all of the imposed laws from the EU, I can live without a law that stipulates that cucumbers must not have a bend in excess of 10 degrees. Some of our politicians quite fancy a career in the EU after their own political career has come to and end in the UK and this is the reason why I think some of them are so keen to stay.

Me: Well did you know that although the infamous cucumber standards were relaxed in 2008,  that they are in fact part of a global set of standards which we would have to meet whether we are in or out of the EU? See the Codex Alimentarius section on this page. This is true for most standards. The EU makes a proposal for the European version and national member governments implement these as a minimum. Did you know that the UK often gold plates required EU legislation? This means that in implementing EU law, the UK often makes it stronger than required by the relevant EU Directive? Anyway you won’t be able to escape the laxer cucumber regs by leaving the EU. Whether in or out, if the UK wants to continue selling abroad, it will have to meet a slew of global standards across almost all industries.

Joe Average:  Economic – This is where I see, and accept, that things will be a little worse before they get better. Let’s get one thing clear though. Big business leaders only want one thing. More sales and bigger profits. That’s not wrong, it’s their job, and what shareholders expect. Quite simply, if the companies they’re running don’t make more money every year, they lose their job.

Imagine owning the only supermarket in a town where for the past 10 years, more and more people have come to live there and for the next 10 years, more and more people will arrive. If you owned that supermarket, you’d be rubbing your hands together. Now imagine that someone said that no more houses could be built and some people had to leave. You wouldn’t want that to happen so would disagree. And that’s what the impact will be, less people spending less money is not good for business. You can’t blame them for voting for Remain, but they’re only concerned about themselves.

Me: Fair enough as a description of one narrow area of economic activity. But you can’t look at the average UK High Street and not agree that there is something wrong with that industry in spite of increasing numbers of people?  The High Street has been ravaged by Internet sales and austerity. Perhaps you will argue that you only took supermarkets as an example of wider economic activity? In which case I would argue that most governments, if they agree on one thing, it is that they should increase total well being of their population. And carrying out a policy that reduces economic well-being is not something that would get them re-elected easily. You can argue about how total prosperity is shared. Certainly I would. You can also argue for reduced prosperity from a sustainability perspective. I would prefer to see shifts rather than reductions. It seems that we have for example reached ‘peak stuff‘ and are buying less tangible goods which is good. But we can still increase prosperity through intangibles (services, experiences etc).  In short, I think you need a really strong argument for reducing people’s prosperity, especially if you are addressing young people who have not had a chance to accumulate a safety net of capital or steady employment.

Joe Average: I’ve also thought about the impact on house prices and rent. In 2000, I remember renting a massive house while I was in between house moves. The rent was £750 per month. Since the bulk addition of several European counties in 2004, rents have consistently increased beyond the rate of inflation. This is easy to understand, more people, not the equal number of more house increases competition for housing and increased rents. Increased rents mean better profits for landlords so people start to buy houses to rent out. Competition for houses increases which increases house prices.

And we all think this is great that the house some of us bought in the 90’s is now worth 3 times what we bought it for, we’re rich! But then I think of my children who can’t afford to buy a house now and I sometimes wonder whether they ever will. I was chatting to a guy at work last week who at the age of 32 had bought his first modest house with a 30 year mortgage. He was so pleased. But that doesn’t sit with me right. I bought my house (3 bed semi) when I was 22 with a 5% deposit and 3.5 times my salary. If the average salary is £22k, £77k doesn’t buy you anything now.

It might be an unpopular thought, but I want house prices to come down so my children can buy a 3 bed semi with a 5% deposit for 3.5 times their salary. And house prices will only come down if there is less competition and more houses built. I’m afraid you can’t achieve that by staying in the EU with an unlimited amount of potential people able to live and work here.

Me: You’re right that an imbalance in supply and demand for housing can result in higher housing costs. But the housing market in the UK is much more complicated than this. I would argue that the UK government has the means to do a great deal to relieve the pressure but chooses not to. Builders are building houses for the wealthy rather than affordable housing, because that brings in more profit. People without children do not have access to social housing and are forced into the private rental market because social housing is not being encouraged eg by legislation that forces local authorities to sell off land and council houses. There are even suggestions that migrants reduce house prices on a local basis. The UK is not building as many houses as it was in the immediate postwar years even, so it has a huge shortage to overcome on a historical basis. And you also need to look at the effect of financial services on demand for housing. How sustainable were the 80s, 90s and early noughties in allowing 3.5 times salary loans?  Not very I would suggest, especially as the economy changes inexorably towards the uncertainty of a gig economy. I agree with you that housing is a problem and I will concede that immigration must add to demand, but I don’t think that there are enough levels on the ladder and I would look to adding rungs on the ladder before allocating 100% of the blame for housing expenses on immigration. And since the EU is (partly) about learning from each other, then how about taking a look at how things are done in Germany or Denmark for ideas on affordable housing? I don’t have the answers for this one but I do think it is wrong to ascribe so much blame to immigration for housing shortages.

Joe Average: Also, on an economic front, there are too many people telling us that our economy will fall dramatically as we’ll have to negotiate new trade agreements with all the current EU countries. And let’s not forget Obama telling us all that we’ll be at the back of the queue with a trade deal with the USA.

Me: I’m not sure why this is a bad thing. You started this piece by saying that you had done some reading. Presumably you were reading sources you trusted. What is wrong with individuals with either an interest or expertise, or both, voicing their honest opinions? You said yourself that people are talking to you about it. Do they have to be British? The ones that voice an opinion? Why? The EU is supposed to be a collaborative project so of course our partners will have an opinion. Imagine if a teenage child announced they were leaving home and the parents simply said “Whatever you want dear” I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to leave but I am saying that it would be odd if our partners did not have a view.

Joe Average: Firstly, we’re a bigger importer than exporter, it’s always been that way. We buy more than we sell so therefore our buying power is more important than our selling power. For sure, some UK goods might be less attractive if import taxes are imposed on them from the EU if we leave but our customer is the world.

We have some of the most prestigious brands in the world. In no particular order, the one’s which come to mind are JCB, Rolls Royce, Burberry, Hotpoint, HSBC, Barclays, Tesco etc etc. I think we can confidently go global. Why do we want the EU to negotiate on our behalf?

Me: Bulk discounts, saving time? That’s the global trend? Obama said the UK would go to the back of the queue? Imagine if 197 countries suddenly decided that they wanted to negotiate with the other 196 countries separately.

Joe Average: And now for immigration. I have no idea why we’re all afraid to even bring up the subject but it does have a big impact and affects us all personally, socially and economically.

Over the past 12 years, since our immigration started to boom, I’ve met a lot of people who have moved to the UK to live and work. In general, I find the people I’ve met to be honest, hard working people with families who intend to make the most of the opportunity of living and working in the UK.

Our service industry is better for it, with many EU migrants choosing to work in many different sectors from coffee shops, to supermarkets. We’ve benefitted from many skills including the main building trades. Many trained nurses and doctors have joined our NHS. No doubt many more have arrived who have filled a skills gap we just don’t have and we, as a society have and are benefitting.

But there’s a problem that comes with this.

As a UK citizen, my personal belief is that the UK is the most attractive country in the EU. If you create a law that says that any citizen can freely choose where in the EU they can live and work, many will naturally choose to move to what they believe will give them the best opportunity to better themselves. Nothing wrong with that, it’s completely normal behaviour.

But if that country does not invest in infrastructure and services at the same rate of population growth two things happen. Things go up in price e.g. houses. And services become overstretched e.g. Doctors, schools, hospitals, roads etc.

Me: Yes infrastructure should keep up and the immigrants are providing the tax funds to do so by working. So take a look at the funding model. Take a look at enforced privatisation and PFI deals. If that is not working then find another model. Infrastructure should rise and fall with the population quite naturally if the legislative framework allows it. You are right that the UK is an attractive immigrant destination but Germany was the country with the highest immigration in 2013 (before the current refugee influx). Maybe we should be looking at how they handle it and see what we can learn from them?

Joe Average: The other thing I have an issue with is the type of immigration we have. I am absolutely convinced that we need immigration to thrive and prosper. Not just to ensure we have the right skills but also to make our society richer.

OK, so I can have my car hand washed for £3 just about anywhere now but how many unskilled people do we really need? I don’t think we need any. We have around 2 million of them sitting at home most days looking for a job. The broader problem is that we have created a society that believes not working is a choice and if they can’t be an instant celebrity, they refuse to work for minimum wage. We could solve that problem if we really wanted to.

Me: The UK has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU at 4.9% -5.4% which economists would say is about as low as you can go. Certainly that explains why the UK has immigration. If an employer has an immediate need for labour then they won’t want to wait while UK employees are trained up. And perhaps we are back to the housing market if we ask why Britons aren’t prepared to travel anywhere to get any type of job.

Joe Average: I also see communities within communities. There are streets I walk down now that I used to walk down 12 years ago where I only ever hear foreign languages being spoken and European shops selling European goods to European people. That doesn’t feel like an integrated society and I don’t really like it.

Me: Communities within communities exist everywhere, otherwise there would be no such thing as identity, but closed communities are not a good thing I’ll agree. I am wondering  what opportunities there are for these communities to interact with the older more-established ones. I am wondering if the older communities are doing anything concrete to welcome the newer communities and involve them in local activities? In the spirit of ‘it takes two to tango’.

Are we talking about EU immigrants here? Have you tried the Polish goods? Or are you advocating that all the curry houses and kebab shops close down? What about Pizza Hut? Where do you draw the line? Chain store franchise OK but individually owned shop not? Perhaps you need a friendly guide to expand your food repertoire? Are you saying they don’t speak English? I am British and live in Denmark. We speak English at home and elsewhere to each other and Danish when we need to. Thus Danes hear us speaking English but we are able to speak Danish as the occasion demands. Could the same be going on in your town? Did you learn a foreign language at school I wonder? If not, you may be surprised at the new perspectives that learning a new language gives you. I found this when learning Welsh while living in Wales and realised that there was a whole side to Welsh society that I had missed by not knowing the language. Maybe now is the time to take up a new language?

Joe Average: I want immigration, but I want to attract people from all over the world who have skills we need and who can add value to the place I live and work. I want those people to choose to come here because they like the values we live by, and want to be part of it.

Me: Half of UK immigration is from the rest of the world. Do you have experience of EU immigrants not sharing UK values? That surprises me as values tend to be similar across Europe.

Joe Average: I also don’t like the laws which are imposed on us that says we have to pay all EU immigrants the same social security benefits as UK citizens when we have no control over where that money is spent. At least the 2 million people sitting at home claiming job seekers allowance are spending that money here, benefitting our own economy but I can’t get my head around how a working father from the EU can claim working families tax credits, family allowance, income support and send as much back to his family in his native country as he chooses. When the minimum wage in the UK is 10 times higher than some eastern European countries and benefits are higher, how can we allow that money to be used in another economy where the cost of living is a fraction of the UK?

Imagine being a call handler in a call centre, a pretty average job on £18k to £20k a year. Now imagine another country you could move to, to do the same job for £200k a year. It’s an opportunity not to be missed. You’d live as cheaply as possible and send every spare penny home.

There are many people who are doing just that in the UAE. But the UAE are a growing country who need and want our skills. They’ve already stated to create laws themselves to ensure emirate people are at the front of the queue for jobs and skills. And there’s no hand outs or public services, everything is private sector and when you have no work, it’s goodbye.

Me: If the immigrants don’t bring their family over then that is less pressure on the housing market, schooling, health service and other services.  I’m not sure how you can draw the line with immigrants sending family tax credits outside the UK but allowing Britons to spend money abroad while on holiday. Back to the £50 spending limit? I am wondering when this piece was originally written as it doesn’t seem to take account of the agreement Cameron negotiated to restrict benefits to start after four years work. This is not unique as Denmark has similar rules. But why the qualifying period anyway if you can get Job Seekers Allowance as an 18 year old having contributed nothing and in fact having had a very expensive education at public expense? This was the conclusion of a Danish economist at a conference that I attended recently:

If you are looking at supplying a country’s labour force then it is cheaper to import young people and support them for three years or so [with language training] until they can enter the workforce than to support them from childhood as happens with the native-born.

So I don’t think that the benefit question is as critical as some make out.

Joe Average:  I completely understand why Churchill had his vision for a “United States of Europe” after world war two. When created, the common market was brilliant and has served us well over the decades. But nothing lasts forever and things change.

I don’t remember agreeing to or voting for all the things which have been imposed on me. And I certainly don’t like what’s ahead of me either.

So on balance I’m voting to leave the EU. I accept it will have an economic impact. My house may reduce in value, some people may lose their jobs, the £ may fall in value so holidays might cost a bit more.

But if my children can buy a house and pay off a mortgage within their working life, if their children can go to a school that they choose, if I can get an appointment at the doctors or hospital treatment and not sit in hours of traffic every day then I’ll be happy with that.

Me: So would I. I think that could easily be achieved within the EU.

Joe Average:  And in the future, when the UK is back to being the greatest country in the world that attracts the most talented people from all over the world who create the industries and brands that create job opportunities for the future generations, I can look back and feel that I did the right thing.

Me: “back to being the greatest country in the world”?  Why do we have to be so competitive? Why can’t we settle for being good rather than great? And is it possible to be the greatest in every aspect? Was the UK ever the greatest country in the world? Greatest in what sense? I think the world faces a whole new set of challenges and rather than looking back, I would much prefer to see all countries, including the UK, looking forward to being the greatest country at meeting the challenge of climate change, education (like Finland), sustainable business or promoting social harmony rather than painting the map red if that is what you are referring to.

Overall it is great that someone has taken the time to think things through. The more I have dug into the referendum, the more I realise how complicated it all is. And so I end up disagreeing with much of what was said here because things aren’t that simple. The housing crisis in the UK is far from wholly due to the immigrants. Infrastructure could follow numbers if the UK legal framework allowed it. Should money flows out of the UK be divided into tourism spending and family tax credit remittances. Isn’t there something we could learn about all these topics from other countries? Why do we disdain the opinions of those that have a legitimate interest in the outcome? And finally, leaving the EU will definitely not prevent the UK from having to follow a whole lot of externally imposed standards.

I would argue that a great many of the problems articulated above could be solved with a different set of government policies but remaining within the EU. The Panama Papers have shown us where money is being siphoned off. It is austerity and privatisation policies that choke off infrastructure improvements. And dare I suggest a little more language learning in a monoglot UK so that these isolated communities can come together rather more?

 

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