Universities have a crucial role in the EU debate

The most recent members’ meeting of Universities UK focused on the importance of European Union membership to the support and operation of British universities. Vice-chancellors were clear that the loss to the UK’s higher education sector in Britain would be considerable if Britain withdrew from the EU and that relevant arguments need to be reinforced with all political parties.

The UK’s continued membership of the European Union is a central element in the debates leading up to the UK General Election on 7 May 2015. However, few people – including university leaders, politicians, bankers, industrialists and civil servants – fully understand the complex benefits and costs of EU membership, or the implications of withdrawal.

The question of a public referendum on the issue has caused much political disagreement, largely because of concerns over the quality of information available and allied debate. There is a very real danger of uninformed decision-making and outcomes that will seriously jeopardise the UK’s position in both world education and global political influence.

Five clear benefits from continued EU membership were identified by Universities UK members:
  • • EU membership is key to the global success of British universities and their contribution to the UK economy and society;
  • • EU partnerships enhance the impact and competitiveness of the UK’s world-leading research;
  • • Free movement of students and staff within the EU benefits the UK economy and universities;
  • • The EU enables life-changing research, discoveries and inventions;
  • • EU membership creates British jobs.

It is essential for university leaders to continue to illustrate these benefits to politicians and opinion formers. At the same time, universities need to develop a better understanding about the full range of implications of complete exit or any change of relationship. As Laura Sandys MP, Chair of The European Movement UK, commented: “Universities must dispel the current myths trumpeted by some parties.”

Universities should further be helping people to understand the full financial and operational costs, as well as the loss of influence that would result from a UK exit from the EU. Better information is also required on other options that might be considered – in particular:
  • • Adopting the Swiss or Norwegian models;
  • • Joining the European Economic Area, or EEA;
  • • Joining the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, with Canada, Mexico and the United States;
  • • Creating a new free trade area with other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India and South Africa;
  • • Opting out of any organisation and relying on membership of the World Trade Organization, or WTO, and its most favoured nation treatment to ensure access to global markets – including the EU.
A recent seminar by the Senior European Experts group, which is hosted by Regent’s University London, considered these alternatives to continued UK membership. In any referendum it would be essential that those campaigning for Britain’s departure from the EU set out options for alternative trading and other arrangements they would favour. This is the only way that any debate and vote can be meaningful.

Image abroad

Opponents of UK membership have mostly focused on the economic, trade and budgetary issues relating to the UK and EU, without examining other aspects of Britain’s membership. These include projecting the UK’s image and influence in the world, and the benefits the UK gains from EU policies in areas including justice and home affairs, the environment, development, agriculture and fisheries, and the growing role of the EU in foreign policy.

The benchmark against which trading alternatives to EU membership have to be judged is the UK’s current privileged access to the Single Market, which currently generates economic benefit close to £3,300 (US$5,000) per household annually. The UK has unrestrained access for its goods and many services in this market, and participates in rule-making for the Single Market through its representation on the Council of Ministers and in the European Parliament.

There are no guarantees of privileged access to the EU’s Single Market if the UK left the EU. The other 27 member states purchase half the UK’s exports, but the UK only buys about 10% of the exports from the rest of the EU. This disproportion does not place the UK in a strong negotiating position with the EU.

Cost of mobility

Additionally, access to the Single Market has only been granted to others on the basis that they pay high fees and accept the EU’s ‘free movement of persons’ rules. It is inconceivable that the EU would adopt a different approach for the UK, given the number of EU citizens already working here and the number of UK citizens resident in other EU countries.

There are more than 130 EU multilateral treaties to which the UK is a party. Each would need renegotiation by the UK with the third country concerned. Exit conditions and treaty renegotiation could take at least five years, creating a period of major uncertainty with no clear outcomes.

Since the EU is the largest single market in the world and one of the most powerful economic bodies, it is unlikely that the UK could gain such favourable agreements in isolation. The UK has long been used to being a leader in global politics and education. It is difficult to believe that anyone with significant influence and responsibility in society would wish to retreat from such an enviable position.

Professor Aldwyn Cooper is vice-chancellor of Regent’s University London, UK.