In a recent "Comment" article in the Church Times (3 March 2017) it was stated that the vote to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum represented "a cri de coeur from millions of people who feel Westminster no longer knows, or even cares, how it feels to walk in their shoes". It was argued that the outcome of "brexit" will be of positive the benefit of the poor.
It will not.
Such a cri de coeur, whilst genuine, has been tragically misdirected and misrepresented. The growing gulf between the rich and the poor in the UK, post the 2008 market crash, is principally an outcome of successive and continuing austerity programmes pursued by the UK Government. Austerity budgets have targeted social welfare, local authority services, NHS and education provision - to the continuing detriment of the poorest in our society.
The unconscionable hardship imposed on the poorest within out communities is not a consequence of EU membership. Indeed, through Local Enterprise Partnership areas, where businesses and local government work together to improve job opportunities and the local economy, England has been allocated roughly €10.6 billion, Wales €3 billion, Scotland €1.8 billion, and Northern Ireland €741 million. Some other money from the fund has also been allocated to projects and industries spanning the whole of the UK. This vital investment in the poorest regions of the UK will be lost if "brexit", post the triggering of Article 50, continues to push our economy towards the uncertain, but damaging destination signposted by Mrs May's Government - with the UK becoming increasingly isolated from creative mutual cooperation with European partners. To pursue the "brexit" agenda is, as the Rt Rev'd Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark correctly asserted in the House of Lord’s debate on Article 50, tilting at windmills. It leaves the real causes of devastating social inequalities within the UK, untouched and unaccountable.
In the White Paper that the Government was forced to issue, following the judgement of the Supreme Court, the authors state that Parliament has “remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU” despite it “not always feeling like that”. Thus contradicting a key message from those campaigning to leave the European Union, who argued that ending the UK’s membership to the EU would "bring back sovereignty" to Parliament and end Brussels' control over national laws. That sovereignty was never lost.
Free movement of people to live and work across the EU has not been imposed on the UK by an unaccountable EU, it has been agreed reciprocally between the EU and the UK and to mutual benefit. The fact that there has been free movement over recent years is a major factor in the buoyancy of the British economy. Ironically, it has been the high level of migrants coming into the UK over recent years, compared with other European countries, that has contributed to the strength of the economy here, in contrast with other European national economies.
If the work was not here, neither would the migrants be. Migration is not the cause of growing levels of poverty within the UK. A study by University College London found that European migrants made a net contribution of £20 billion to UK public finances between 2000 and 2011. A significant proportion of the migrant workforce (which includes members of my church community and family friends) is made up of single people who work here for a while, but then go home. They pay taxes, even though they do not receive the requisite public services in return. The British tax payer is the net beneficiary.
Paul Donovan argues in the ‘New Internationalist’ (2.3.17) that migrant labour will be increasingly needed in meeting skills shortage given the reducing ratio between the young (under 16s) and the old (over 65s). If UK citizens want to retain their present level of public services then the revenue generated by migrant workers is desperately needed.
Where there is evidence that the pay of indigenous workers has been under cut, blame cannot be attributed to the EU. Rather the migrants themselves have been exploited by unscrupulous employers – including private householders wanting work done on the cheap to their properties – undercutting the pay and terms and conditions of the local workforce. This has understandably led to some of the grievances that have helped to build an anti-migrant atmosphere. However these problems could and should have been and still can be addressed by UK Government policy, requiring a higher minimum wage, which is stringently enforced. This neglect of the felt needs of low-income communities is a dereliction of UK Government responsibility, not a fault of the EU.
It is pertinent to note that according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, in 2015 51% of migrants entering the UK came from outside the EU. "Brexit" will not change this. Within the London Borough of Harrow, where I live and work, 69.1% of the population consists of minority ethnic groups. Harrow voted Remain.
A C Grayling (‘The New European’19.2.17) argues that a Brexit Britain, struggling on its own in a world economy already tied up in many existing trade deals among the many EU-like trading blocs that have come into existence in emulation of the EU itself, could, if a "hard brexit" ensues, be forced to become a low-tax, low-regulation economy to attract inward investment. Who then would the beneficiaries be?
Not the low-income communities, who benefit from the NHS, state education, welfare, and the regulations that protect employee rights and the environment. Such provision requires sufficient tax revenues and pooled resources. It would instead benefit people who do not use the NHS because they have private medical insurance, who do not need a state education system because they educate their children privately and who will never need welfare. It would benefit the rich.
The European Union of course has its flaws. It is a complex human work in progress. But it is an imaginative and developing project, seeking the ongoing well-being of European nations. Its ability to redistribute wealth to the regions that are most in need seeks to redress economic disparity and injustice - for the good of all.
The concerns of voters expressed through the "Leave" vote on 23 June 2016, in what still remains, constitutionally, an advisory referendum, do need to be addressed - and urgently. However I cannot see any way in which leaving the EU will advance the agenda of those most economically and socially disadvantaged in our society. During the EU referendum debate people were fed the mendacious claim that their problems were attributable principally to migrants and the EU. The reality was that many of the economic and social problems affecting their communities emanated from the banking crisis of 2008 and the subsequent austerity policies of successive UK Governments.
In the Archbishop of Canterbury's 2017 Lent Book "Dethroning Mammon", Justin Welby argues that (assuming) the United Kingdom is to be outside the European Union, then it is essential that what follows is not built to a design drawn by Mammon. What is needed, he proposes, is a deep sense of the priority of the human person, whoever they are and wherever they come from. I hope and pray that may be realised, whatever the uncertainties our society will continue to face. And therein lies the task of the church.
James Mercer is the Vicar of All Saints’, Harrow Weald in the Willesden Area of the Diocese of London. He has been chair of trustees and co-founder of a ‘drop in’ cafe serving disadvantaged young people in a city centre and the founder of a Forest School working with marginalised young people in West London.