With the forthcoming referendum looming over us, the question of membership of the European Union is a major topic in the United Kingdom. (It is of less interest to those of our members, and others, living elsewhere — so apologies to them.)
In deciding how to vote, UK citizens will consider the factors of interest and relevance to them. For those concerned with population and sustainability, what are the arguments?
Population Matters has a vision of a future with decent living standards for all, a healthy and biodiverse environment, and a stable and sustainable population size. This universal aspiration is held regardless of the form of government, and of whether political power is concentrated at local, regional, national or supranational level.
More practically, we believe that one of the most important things anyone can do for a sustainable future is to have a smaller family. That is, and should be, a decision for individuals. However, that is not to say that those in government can do nothing. Consequently, it is relevant to examine how EU membership or otherwise would affect progress in the United Kingdom towards the policy positions that Population Matters advocates.
We believe that governments should promote smaller families. The UK government does not do so; in fact, the UK has an above-average family size by European standards. However, the EU does not promote smaller families either. State subsidies for families are a matter for national governments rather than the EU, and vary both between governments and over time.
Women’s empowerment and reproductive health, which we support, are endorsed by both the UK government and the EU. While the UK has higher rates of unintended pregnancy, the rates are coming down, and it is difficult to argue that EU membership has an impact on them. Internationally, the UK is a leader in promoting women’s empowerment and improved reproductive health in the global south; again, EU membership has little effect on that.
This takes us, inevitably, to migration. The free movement of labour agreement within the EU has not led to a balanced movement of labour. The combination of economic crises in southern European states, the successive accession of Eastern European states with low wage rates, and significant migration from Africa and the Middle East, has led to large and persistent net migration to the UK from the rest of the EU. The latest figures are available from the Office for National Statistics and Migrationwatch.
One could argue that this migration within the EU may be a temporary phenomenon, that there is a great deal of migration to the UK from outside the EU and that the true culprit is the willingness of UK governments and businesses to focus on the perceived short-term benefit to them from trained, highly-motivated and low-cost migrant workers, rather than the longer-term costs to society of ever-more people. Improving greatly the routes to employability and workforce participation of existing UK citizens has seemed to be a challenge beyond successive UK governments. It remains the case that there seems little reason to expect the level of migration from continental Europe to fall significantly in the short term. For sustainability reasons, Population Matters endorses limiting net migration (immigration less emigration) to countries which are already consuming at unsustainable levels. This includes the UK and indeed almost all members of the EU.
However, the decision on EU membership is not simply about migration, migration to the UK is not solely a matter of EU membership, and questions about population and sustainability cannot be reduced only to migration. Consequently, UK citizens will have a number of factors to consider when deciding how to vote.