EU referendum and young people in the UK

Ok so the obvious topic for this blog post is evidently the upcoming EU referendum or ‘Brexit’ as it is commonly referred to. Honestly, this gave me slight goose bumps because I thought ‘how the hell am I going to pretend that I know what I’m talking about and give you a fair and balanced view on the In and Out campaigns and what they might mean for the environment?’ Then, after a couple of cups of coffee and some deep reflection I came to the conclusion that that’s okay… because this kind of ignorance and semi-understanding is actually fairly normal for the majority of the young people living in the UK with the right to vote and that’s pretty interesting in itself. So this blog post will kind of follow my journey to ‘political awareness’ and will outline what I have come to understand along the way.

Following some panicked research; I actually found some interesting facts about the EU, which I thought fairly pertinent to consider when weighing up In and Out. I was really intrigued to find that if you are any age under 60 you are actually in the same position as me. No, you may not have over £50,000 debts in student loans and no you may not have had to live with your parents until the ripe old age of 30 but YES, this is the first time you too have had to make a decision about whether you want to be in or out of the European Union. This is because the last referendum was held in 1975, meaning you would have to be at least 59 to have faced the decision before. So, for most young people its actually pretty unlikely that even their parents would have had to face the decision before. Having said that, it was a very different time with very different political and economic values compared to now.

Another fact I was interested to find out was why the European Union was formed in the first place. I’ve come to understand that it was in a bid to stop the atrocities of WW2 happening again, which was based on the perspective that countries that trade together and maintain good relationships are less likely to go to war with one another. In that sense, sure, the European Union has done its job there. But it all seems the same kind of argument to me… leave campaigners promise prosperity if we are to stay and so do in campaigners. Both parties claim certain truths but really it’s very difficult indeed to know who to believe and what to do.

Also, even if you were able to vote in the first referendum, immigration (seemingly one of the main topics of debate for Brexit) was not a cause for consideration previously. This is because full EU ‘free movement’ did not kick in until after the 1992 Maastricht Treaty was signed. At that stage in history the idea that people would even want to come to a depressed, economically stagnant Britain would have seemed fanciful at best in 1975 and the threat of emigration was more of a concern. Also, it’s worth noting that since 1975 the EEC has grown from 9 to 28 members.

So where do we stand on an environmental/sustainability basis? The overall gist from popular opinion seems to be that staying in the EU is better for protecting the environment and working towards higher self-sufficiency and sustainability.  This is perhaps because, through its EU membership, the UK government has been required to put in place a host of policies with strict targets that can be legally enforced, and to provide regular publicly available reports upon its performance in relation to those targets. It is considered that if we are to exit the EU, this progress may be lost in the absence of external pressure and auditing from EU actors. These benefits have included tackling harmful chemicals that damage the ozone layer, to cracking down on the black market ivory trade, to the reform of the common fisheries policy. These have all undoubtedly made significant beneficial impacts upon the environment. Moreover, it has been speculated that a Brexit vote could put the UK’s Climate Change Act, which sets out carbon budgets, in danger. Furthermore, it has also been reported that biodiversity and animal habitats have also reaped positive benefits due to our involvement in the EU and it is thought that the agricultural industry may be ruined if Britain is to exit the EU. These points seem to make up the majority of the arguments coming from environmentalists as to why participation within the EU is beneficial for sustainability, however they are not conclusive and there are many more arguments out there if you are willing to dig deep enough.

So that’s pretty much all I have learned thus far on my quest for political understanding but this does pose a much bigger question for me… How are young people supposed to know all this?! I’ll have to be honest, if I didn’t need to write this blog post I’m really not sure how motivated I would have been to go seeking answers and I think that counts for a large number of other young people as well. Amongst exams, driving lessons, working, socialising, panicking about our future… I do believe we have quite a bit on our plate (as many adults do too!) so surely we should be provided in at least a basic understanding of unbiased politics somewhere along the line in our education. I’m not saying that we need to hold a degree in Politics before we have the right to vote, but just a base of knowledge that we can use to critically consider the arguments that are out there. This way I think we could challenge and build our own political opinions, which would overall contribute to a more democratic and just social climate which I believe is of imperative importance, whether we remain in or choose to exit the European Union.

Rachel Carruthers

SEEd Newsletter Editor