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University EU debate helps the West decide

The debate panel (from left): Graham Stringer MP; Daniel Hannan MEP, Dr Phil Syrpis (chair); Dr Molly Scott Cato MEP; Will Hutton. Bhagesh Sachania Photography

Audience members in favour of remaining in the EU raise their hands. Bhagesh Sachania Photography

Press release issued: 3 May 2016

An audience at the University of Bristol was treated to a spirited debate on the pros and cons of remaining in the European Union by a quartet of political big-hitters on Friday.

The sold-out debate, held at the University’s Wills Memorial Building, saw economist Will Hutton and Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato making the case for the UK remaining in the EU, while Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan and Labour MP Graham Stringer argued the UK would be better off standing alone.

Opening the evening, chair Dr Phil Syrpis, from the University’s Law School, said: “Those of us who teach and research the EU often have difficulties getting students, and members of the public, to engage with what is a complex, and to many, an arcane subject.

“But with the referendum on the UK’s membership drawing closer, questions about identity, sovereignty, security and democracy have come to the fore. They look set to frame the political debate for the next couple of months (and beyond), and to have a profound effect on the future of the UK and indeed the EU, from all sorts of perspectives.”

Before the inviting the four panellists to begin making their cases, Dr Syrpis asked the audience for a show of hands for and against the UK leaving the EU, with roughly 80 per cent in favour of remaining, with 10 per cent for leaving and 10 per cent undecided.

Mr Hannan, a longstanding critic of the EU, opened the debate. He said: “I’m inviting you to make me redundant, but I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t convinced there will be plenty of openings for newly-unemployed MEPs in the economic revival that will follow independence. EU membership is obsolete – it dates from an era when regional blocs looked like the future, but that world has been left redundant by technology. It’s easier to do business with a company in New Zealand or India than it is one in France. We can do better if we raise our eyes to more distant horizons and rediscover our global vocation.”

He was followed by Mr Hutton, a vocal advocate for the ‘remain’ camp. Explaining why he felt the UK was better off in the EU, he said: “I want to be a builder, an innovator, and part of a European community. I want to be part of building an economic and political architecture for Europeans to live together in prosperity in the decades ahead. Europeans hold so much in common – cut us and we bleed the same values. I am English, I am British, and I am European.”

Prominent Eurosceptic Labour MP Graham Stringer argued: “In essence, the EU fails the test of being democratic. You should be able to say to the rascals who set your laws, who set your taxes, ‘we don’t like that, you’re finished’. We’re trading that right, in a democracy, over to European bureaucrats where we cannot do that.”

Dr Scott Cato, MEP for the South West of England, said: “Today, many of the arguments about the EU hinge on sovereignty. But the EU is about pooling our sovereignty, not losing it. By working together, we can solve many of the urgent problems facing us – tax avoidance, climate change, terrorism and many others. All these problems cross borders, and need shared solutions based on co-operation.”

The panel debated questions including the future of the UK’s global standing if it left the EU; the economic consequences of leaving or remaining; how a Brexit could affect young people in the UK; the impact on migration and mobility; the prospect of a special relationship between the UK and EU; and their greatest fears if their respective side loses on June 23.

Mr Stringer argued severing ties with the EU would broaden the UK’s ability to trade freely around the world. Mr Hutton, however, warned of dire economic consequences for the UK, and Bristol in particular, if the vote is to leave. He said: “If leave win, it’ll be an opportunity lost. Bristol has become an innovation hotspot, with start-ups near Temple Meads and spin-out companies from the University. These small companies need the EU to become the big companies of tomorrow.”

On the question of a special relationship, Dr Scott Cato asked why the UK should think it would get one, with Mr Hannan argued it was highly unlikely other countries would hurt themselves economically just to damage the UK.

After taking questions from the audience, the panel summed up their cases. Mr Stringer said: “It is a decision that’s more important than a general election.”

Dr Scott Cato said: “Please go and vote, because you have to exercise your democratic right. We need to get stuck in, become a positive partner in Europe and make it work for us.”

Mr Hannan said: “I want decisions to be taken as closely as possible to the people they affect, and that means not in Brussels.”

Mr Hutton said: “We are a sovereign country, and we volunteer to be in the European Union because we want to be part of this great, noble project, which is actually making and has made us richer, and will continue to make us richer. Above all – above all – please vote. It is the most important decision this generation is going to make.”

A second show of hands at the end of the debate saw ‘remainers’ still at around 80 per cent, while the proportion of undecideds in the room had increased to around 15 per cent.

The sold-out event was supported by the University of Bristol Alumni Association and PolicyBristol, and those who missed out on a ticket were able to follow the debate on Twitter using the hashtag #TheWestDecides.

The full debate is available to listen to again on the University of Bristol Soundcloud.

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