The European Question: Southampton Decides


As referendum fever holds the nation in anticipation for June 23rd, PublicPolicy@Southampton held, what can only be described, as a very informed and heated debate about the European question. With a packed audience of students, academics and local residents in The Cube, Dr. Alan Whitehead MP, Labour MP for Southampton Test and James Edwards, representing Students for Europe shared the ‘Remain’ platform. The Right Honourable Desmond Swayne TD VR MP, Conservative MP for New Forest West and Matthew Cowley, Leader of Southampton Students for Britain aligned to push the ‘Leave’ argument. The debate was hosted by Southampton alumnus, Jason Cowley, current editor of The New Statesman.

The debate started very wide with the question of “What are your main reasons for remaining/leaving the EU?” While such a broad question would provoke broad answers from each side, it established the leanings of the audience, which was eerily split down the centre – rather representative of current national polls. The first round of applause was awarded to Matthew Cowley as he put the “fact that the EU is inherently undemocratic”, with Desmond Swayne MP saying that Britain could “have our liberty and prosperity with the ability to govern ourselves”. Dr. Alan Whitehead MP retorted that the “EU protects those who live in it,” deregulates our economy and pulls resources together. Other questions concerning trade, migration security, and economic policy were asked, with, frankly, the pre-rehearsed, official party line being applied to those questions. There was no ground shattering revelation in the debate – which was expected.

What was interesting however, was the realisation that, from the reaction of the audience and indeed the questions themselves, unlike the previous two referendums the UK has held over its membership of the former EEA, it is not just about economics this time. In fact, economic statistics were only mentioned once in the entire debate, with Dr. Alan Whitehead MP quoting the recent IMF position that the UK could lose between 1.5% to 9.5%, as a percentage, of GDP if the UK leaves the EU. While this was treated (as most figures are) with an (un)audible scepticism, the debate centred mostly on different attitudes towards globalisation, the ambitions of Britain, and the role the EU has in being an organisation to collectively solve problems, rather than individual European policies.

The ‘Leave’ side continually stressed their love of Europeans, European culture and friendship; however, they put forward that these attitudes were not on the condition of continued EU membership in a political union. In many ways, the euro-sceptics of the debate embraced a more utopian ideology than their pro-EU colleagues. Matthew Cowley commented that “Britain could lead the way of global participation” in solving the issues of today’s world like climate change and breaking down trade barriers; a power which is upheld by the “inward looking union that is fast becoming the United States of Europe”. They stressed that they would continue to work together in “areas of mutual interest,” the same relationship that Britain shares with the U.S.A., and were not of a “little Britain” mind-set. The pro-EU candidates pulled their support by stating that is would be ironic to embrace a utopian ideology while, at the same time, choosing to opt-out of an international coalition of nations. Dr. Alan Whitehead retorted that “The idea that it would all be great if we left the EU is rubbish,” and valued the practical application of internationalism and cooperation. James Edwards ended his campaign by declaring “Je suis Européen!” in a passionate plea for all to consider the friendship we currently have with the peoples of all European nations, which was met with the grandest applause of the night.

While the debate was kept lively and interesting with an elderly woman objecting to the “gentlemen not answering my question,” – much to the amusement and agreement of the audience – it clearly showcased that everyone appreciates the significance of the referendum on all our lives and the future of the United Kingdom. For most, it will be the most difficult political decision they will have to make in their lives. For some, it represents the chance to repatriate sovereignty of the UK and liberalise Britain’s marketplace. While for others, it is about maintaining the advances we have made in economic and political cooperation and embracing the European ideal. The question is: Which side shall Britain agree with on June 23rd?

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Article by Zak Rakrouki and any republication must be approved by this individual or the Editors of this blog.

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