The debate about the EU referendum here has hotted up considerably over the last week. Last night, I watched a debate on BBC News 24, attended by over six thousand people. Each side had three speakers to plead their case, and to answer questions from the audience. In amongst all the mud-slinging, the counter allegations and accusations, real facts were few and far between. But there can be no real facts, simply because nobody really knows what will happen if this country votes to leave the EU. They can only presume, surmise, or scare-monger. The speakers wanting us to leave also quoted huge sums of money that would be saved, and how borders will be secured, as well as jobs suddenly becoming available for the millions of unemployed here. But they are also making presumptions that cannot be backed up with facts.
The young people were unduly preoccupied with freedom of travel, and the right to work abroad. But of those speaking, I doubt any genuinely had a deep desire to start their careers in France, Germany, or Greece. I cannot realistically see some young people from Lancashire going to work on the land in Slovenia, or a group of friends from London heading over to the Czech Republic, to work on a building site in Prague. Would a graduate from one of our red-brick universities want to travel to Lithuania to work in a Starbuck’s in Vilnius? I think not. Freedom to work and travel is not about enjoying a gap year in Tuscany, or picking grapes in the Loire Valley before starting at college. No more than it is about a stag weekend in Bucharest, or a hen party trip to Dublin.
The Europeans who come here to work mostly do the least popular jobs, for the lowest pay. Even though they might be well-educated in their own country, speak a foreign language well, and have an academic background, you will find them washing old people in care homes, picking crops for a pittance, or waiting at tables in a themed restaurant. They do it because they have to, not necessarily because they want to. How many young British people can be found in the other twenty-seven countries, doing menial jobs? I don’t have the answer, but will make an educated guess that it is close to zero. They might work in Banking or Insurance in Zurich, or Geneva. They could be posted to one of their company’s foreign branches on a training programme, or to be a trainer themselves. But they are unlikely to be serving the coffee during the morning break, I assure you.
There are some young Britons who go to places like Ibiza, or the Greek islands. They work in bars, in discos, sell ice creams, tickets, time-shares, and hire out everything from scooters to pedalos. But they are not economic migrants. They are sun-seekers, paying for long holidays with whatever jobs they can find. The truth is that British people, young or old, have rarely sought work in foreign countries since the end of the days of Empire, adventure, and fortunes to be made. They do not usually bother to learn a foreign language either, trusting that someone nearby will speak English. The smattering of German or French that they are taught at school is almost never developed past ordering a meal, or buying a train ticket. Freedom to work and travel? I really don’t know what they are on about.
There was a lot of talk about racism being the only motivation for those wanting to vote ‘Leave.’ This is an easy stone to throw, given that the Far Right groups obviously want us to quit the EU. But if 45% of the British public are currently in favour of leaving, does that mean they are all racists? Of course not. Many of the pro-leave speakers were black or Asian, so that scuppered that argument too.
The issue of the referendum has divided this country like nothing else I can recall in my sixty-four years. That has to be a good thing, whatever the outcome. Apathy no longer rules. Most people have an opinion, and a fiercely-held and argued one at that. Whether we vote to leave the EU tomorrow, which I still think is highly unlikely, or stay in for what is likely to be forever, we have all won. Because we argued, we debated, we got off of our bums and voted, and something finally meant enough for us to do it.