The University of Glasgow played host to a ‘Brexit’ Question Time event, where the debate over Britain’s continued membership of the European Union was discussed ahead of the upcoming referendum on the issue.
The panel included Alyn Smith MEP (SNP), Claire Baker MSP (Labour), Jackson Carlaw MSP (Conservative), and Jonathon Shafi, founding member of RISE-Scotland’s Left Alliance. Each answered questions from an audience of 100 young people from the University, local secondary schools, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the BBC’s Generation ’14 and ’15 projects.
The event, which was chaired by former BBC journalist John Morrison, took place in the Senate Room on Thursday, the 24th September. It was organised by Maria Fletcher, a senior lecturer in European law, and Myrto Tsakatika, a senior lecturer in politics at the University.
In his opening remarks, Jackson Carlaw MSP said: “I should say that I expect to vote, when the referendum comes, in favour of remaining within the European Union. […] My view is that we should, but I think that there are arguments which suggest that the type of the European Union that we belong to could be more perfect still than it is and the basis in which we participate in the European Union could be improved as well.
“Before we had the independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon, for example, said that she felt that the European Union was in need of reform in a whole series of significant areas. The question is how do you achieve that reform. Do you simply wish it, or do you initiate a process that actually contributes towards the achievement of some measure of reform, and that is what I believe the Prime Minister is embarked upon.”
Jonathon Shafi responded, saying: “If you look, for example, at the rates of inequality, the rates of poverty, the disparity between what is now turning into a billionaire class and the rest of us, then something’s got to give. And I think as a result of those tensions, the institutions which run our society are coming under serious scrutiny and serious question.
“Democracy is about having a real say in how your society is run. It’s about having a real say about what solutions you think should be brought forward to solve the great questions of our period and of our time. And the European Union, I think, has a growing track record of standing in opposition to the basic democratic rights of the people of the European nations.”
Alyn Smith MEP, who has been a member of the European Parliament for a decade, said: “I think Brexit is entirely based upon a delusion of British exceptionalism to the European mainstream. I think it’s an unnecessary debate that we’re going to have, and it’s going to turn really ugly really quickly. It’s more important to you as young people in Scotland because it’s your future we’re talking about.”
“Jackson said that the EU question has bedevilled UK politics. I just don’t think it has. EU membership for or against is not really a priority for the people of these islands. It’s certainly bedevilled the Tory Party, and that’s where this is actually coming from. The Tory Party and our prime minister, who I don’t think has a long-term strategy to this at all, has tried to out-UKIP UKIP at every turn, and promised a referendum at a date that has not been set, over an issue that has not been articulated, over consequences that are entirely unclear.”
He continued: “You talk about a democratic deficit – it could be a damn sight worse. If the UK wants to remain a part of the European single market that means seventy-odd per cent of EU legislation will need to be transposed into domestic UK law, and dear old Blighty can kid on that it’s independent, […] It is a delusion, and it is a delusion which I think serves us poorly.”
Last to speak was Claire Baker MSP, who said: “I believe there are clear benefits for Scotland and the UK remaining within Europe. If you look at all our progressive legislation in recent years, maternity pay, workers’ rights, paternity pay, all these type of issues, a lot of that originated within Europe by countries working together and trying to raise standards across Europe in social areas. It’s fair to say that was a concentration in Europe between 2000 until the recent economic crisis. I think there has been a shift of focus away from that kind of progressive social policy within Europe and we need to return to that.”
She added: “I would recognise that there are challenges facing Europe. The positives are that we have peace and stability within Europe. We have freedom of movement, as other people have spoken about, within Europe. There are lots of positives that come from the membership, but there are challenges.”
The audience asked ten questions, which ranged from the impact that withdrawal from the European Union would have on the Scottish university sector and businesses, to the implications for scientific research funding and the status of EU citizens already living in the UK.
The most contentious issue was whether or not EU nationals living in Britain should have the right to vote in the referendum.
Alyn Smith said: “If we could open the franchise in Scotland, we could have done it in the UK as well. […] Jackson says we shouldn’t make political issues out of it; well this is a political issue and it was brought forward by one political party, it wasn’t brought forward by anybody else, and has brought us to the edge of a really ugly discussion about 2.6 million people who are part of our communities and feel excluded from this debate.”
Jackson Carlaw insisted that: “It’s the same franchise as voted in May in the general election. […] It’s not that they’ve invented a new franchise. The franchise which will vote in the referendum is exactly the same franchise as voted in the general election in May.”
Claire Baker conceded that the franchise for upcoming referendum is the same as it was for the Westminster election in May, but said that: “I believe it should be the same as it was for the [Scottish independence] referendum.”
Jonathon Shafi criticised the decision, saying: “Of course EU nationals should have a right to vote and I think it’s despicable that this is even a talking point.”
Jackson Carlaw said repeatedly that he was not there to advocate Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, expressing his belief that the renegotiation of terms of membership would be a success. Jonathon Shafi said that there was an ongoing debate within RISE-Scotland’s Left Alliance and that an official position was yet to be determined.