British expats gathered in Dubai’s Capital Club last night for a heated debate on the looming referendum to decide the country’s future in Europe.
The discussion, which took place exactly a month before the country votes to remain in or leave the European Union on June 23, showed even those who were thousands of miles from home had strong opinions on an issue that has dominated UK headlines for months.
On the vote remain side, Gulf News editor at large Francis Matthew opened proceedings with reference to the country’s longstanding relations with Europe.
“The very words Anglo Saxon and Norman, which sum up our national identity, come from Europe,” he said. “The heart of our identity is European to start with, to try to deny that is short-sighted.”
He also referred to the contentious issue of immigration, saying EU migrants were contributing significantly more in tax revenues than they were being paid in benefits. “People settling in Europe are taking less and giving more,” he said.
In response, Vote Leave UAE Branch chairman Michael Champion said it was a cruel irony that the country was voting “for freedom from some of those people we fought so hard to save” during past wars.
He referenced European institutions like the Court of Justice and Parliament, superseding the decisions of those in Britain and the country’s inability to form its own trade agreements as part of the bloc.
“I’d like you to think about what the EU will be like in 10 or 20 years time, because we will only have one shot in our life times,” he said. The first thing on the table, we would definitely lose some of our sovereignty and democracy.”
Countering on the remain side, Gulf Recruitment Group managing director Toby Simpson argued that EU migration was necessary to maintain the country’s prosperity.
“The politicians in the UK don’t say it because it goes down incredibly badly with the working class voter, but Britain needs a consistent low paid workforce at its disposal to keep inflation down and remain competitive.”
Simpson referenced the good things EU legislation had accomplished, including the prevention of harmful chemicals in cosmetics and trade descriptions and said the country would need more “politicians and bureaucrats” to fill this role if it left the union.
Finally, Vote Leave UAE Branch vice chairman Robert Tasker said military alliance NATO had kept peace on the continent for 60 years not the European Union.
He argued that the bloc’s mooted plans for a EU army would take away one of Britain’s last areas of independence. “One element of defence independence we have is we’re not in an EU army.”
On the topic of immigration, he also said said vote leave was in favour of Britain controlling its borders but was not anti immigration.
“At the moment we don’t have any control,” he said. “As has been reported, 123,000 people from the EU are coming to the UK every year.
“An independent Britain outside of the EU is far more flexible when it comes to trade, commerce, entrepreneurialism and security.”
In the questions that followed, audience members asked the panel what they saw as the biggest hurdle during the country transition if it votes to leave the EU.
On the remain side, Simpson said the country would have two year negotiation period during which it would try to seek new trade rights but would be at a disadvantage. “The UK exports nearly 50 per cent of goods to the EU, the UK under 10 per cent.”
He also said the British pound would drop significantly in value, and there would be turbulence in the financial markets “What I will continue to say mid term is its a massive problem for us. But keep asking them what is the utopian future you can promise us,” he said.
Tasker countered that the country would have more than two years to negotiate and the country was “not going to be blackmailed”.
“The markets will adjust themselves. You talk about the utopia, if you don’t mind me saying in slightly mocking way. We have an independent Britain on the horizon and should be optimistic.”
Both sides also expressed some disappointment with the debate back home.
On the vote leave side, Champion criticised the remain campaign’s cooperation with the government and higher spending power as a result.
“When you hear allies say its probably better to remain, allies are not going to come out and vote against what the British government tells people to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, Matthew criticised how vicious both sides had become in their arguments. “It’s not really a debate at all, but two sides of very convinced people throwing facts,” he said.
Both sides then expressed their final points to close the debate.
On the exit side, Tasker said” It is perfectly natural for a country to want to govern itself, that’s what I want for the UK. For me above everything, democracy and independence isn’t just a word it really does mean something.”
On the remain side Simpson argued: “I love Europe, but even if you don’t ask what we get out of this [vote leave] other than more politicians and more Quangos. The argument is verging not whether we gain or lose in mid term but we’re going to lose and by how much.”
Audience members were asked to vote for Brexit or Bremain before and after the session, revealing the majority were in favour of remaining in the union.
This broadly reflected the latest poll of polls by the Financial Times on May 19 revealing a 47 per cent majority for the stay campaign, compared to 40 per cent for the leave campaign.