“This Referendum Is About The Future”: An Interview With Students for Britain

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With three days to go until voters go to the polls to decide whether Britain should stay in or leave the EU, Wessex Scene is speaking to the leaders of the student in and out campaigns at Southampton. Here, I interview Matthew Cowley, leader of Southampton Students for Britain.

With the referendum just around the corner you have been ratcheting up campaigning efforts over the past few weeks. How do you think campaigning has gone so far?

In recent weeks we’ve been moving away from University based campaigning as there is very few people left on campus. Certainly many of the people who were doing the campaigning with me have now gone home. We had some really good campaiging when we were focusing most of our efforts on the university and now that we have moved into the city itself we’re having some really positive conversations with residents – both those who are undecided and those who have already decided to vote leave.

There’s been some criticism of the 23rd June date of the referendum, particularly the effect it could have on students who may be at home or at festivals such as Glastonbury and the risk that they could not be correctly registered to vote – do you think this will affect the student turnout?

The only thing I think that the date will affect is the margin of where the votes are located. Obviously both campaigns will have some of their younger voters dispersed by the fact that the date is during the summer holidays, so each side needs to get all of their young voters and supporters out there and involved in the campaigning in their home towns as much as they have been at university.

There has been criticism that the debate on both sides,  certainly at the political level, has been overwhelmingly negative and mainly focused on statistics and scaremongering – is this something you have noticed campaigning at the grassroots level?

It depends who you talk to and the style of each individual campaigner. Some campaigners’ style is to say ‘you shouldn’t vote for the other side because’, whereas others (and I like to think I am one of the more positive campaigners), say regardless of what you think of the other side these are the reasons why you should vote leave.

In terms of the national campaigns I think that both sides have been very much guilty of saying why you shouldn’t vote for the other side, rather than saying why you should vote for and support their own campaigns. This is a damaging rhetoric in itself and I think that the grassroots campaigners on both sides don’t tend to come at each other as much. As I said, it all depends on which campaigners and which members of the public you talk to – a lot of the people you meet on the street are much more interested in why you shouldn’t vote for the other side than why your side is better.

The Student’s Union here at Southampton has of course taken a democratic stance to support remaining in the European Union. Do you think it is right for the Union to take a position on this?

It has always been my opinion that the purpose of a Student’s Union is to take political stances which it feels will benefit the majority of its students. I have no issue with SUSU having a stance on the European Union and in fact I think it would be remiss of it not to have a stance on the EU. Obviously, I am disappointed with the stance that they have chosen to take but considering the rationale and the process behind it given that it was a democratic vote at Union Council I have no issue with the stance that they have taken. I wish it was to vote leave but these things happen in student politics.

On a University-wide level, both the Vice-Chancellor of this insitution and leading figures at other Russell Group universities have said that it would be positive for Higher Education if Britain continued to remain a part of the European Union. Are universities right to intervene in the debate?

I have no issues with the conduct of the University as such but obviously I am disappointed with the stance that they have taken. I also think that some of the rationale they have given to support this stance is lacking in depth – for example statements like the risk of the the University of Southampton losing £100 millon of funding if we left the EU. This is a nonsensical argument as that funding ultimately originates from UK payments into the EU budget. All that would happen in the event of a leave vote is that would go straight from the UK budget to Southampton University, rather than going to Brussels and back again.

Is all that funding guaranteed if we leave? The statistic given is that the University of Southampton is the UK’s 8th largest recipient of EU funding.

The fact is that the UK is a net contributor to the EU. The debate is not the same as it would be in countries such as Hungary or the Czech Republic – all that would happen is the UK funding available for universities would be increased by the same amount as we currently contribute to the EU budget. If we weren’t a net contributor, the University would by all means be right to use these figures, but as it is all that would happen is that the money would come in a more direct way, rather than through a group that we have very little control over.

On that point, supporters of remaining have also raised concerns that the UK’s role in EU wide Higher Education agreements such as the Erasmus Student Network and research schemes could be threatened in the event of a vote to leave.

Erasmus is not just for EU nations. The scheme also includes countries such as Israel and has been widely praised by EU members and non member nations. Considering Britain has seven out of the top ten universities in the EU, I think it would make very little sense for us to be refused access to the scheme even in the event of a vote to leave.

In terms of research and collaboration, its really important to remember that there was collaboration before the EU and we have collaboration further afield than Europe now. Collaboration happens regardless of whether we have a political union or not – a really important distinction that I think needs to be made. I will, however, admit that the leave campaign have failed to make this distinction. European co-operation does not rely on the EU, which is really important to remember in the context of the referendum debate.

In terms of immigration, many within the leave campaign have highlighted the threat they believe to be posed by an expanding EU. Have the statistics not been overblown?

On immigration, I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not share the view of many mainstream leave campaigners. I don’t think that immigration is a particularly bad thing for the UK, the only commment I would make is that I would like to see an immigration system in this country focusing on the people rather than where the people come from. Its fundamentally unfair to have a system where 27 countries can have their citizens come to the UK much more easily than those from other parts of the world. For me the system, whatever it is, should be fundamentally the same for everyone.

I have no issue with the EU expanding either – its true that in terms of immigration the EU is expanding but I think the main issue is the UK’s fundamental loss of democratic sovereignty. The number of votes we have no say in is growing and the countries that could be potentially added to the EU, such as Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia, have very poor democratic records.

I also want to condemn the way that the leave campaign has talked about Turkey. The issue is not that Turkey is a country of 70 million people that could join the EU, the issue is Turkey is run by a man who I believe is a Fascist. if we’re talking about a backdoor deal where the EU gives Turkey membership in exchange for repatriating refugees this is fundamentally a part of the problems with Europe as I see them.

You’ve mentioned a lack of transparency and democracy in relation to the Turkey debate, what are your thoughts on the accountability of the EU more generally?

Its important to consider two things here. The first is the existence of informal structures and the idea that ‘its not written in the rules, but’, which is something that I have heard a lot over the last two weeks. The EU has a very strong system for how it judges democratic processes in other countries, placing an emphasis on ‘formal processes’ in constitutions and suchlike. We can’t consider informal processes in relation to the EU because they change as influence ebbs and flows.

I’m a classical liberal and firmly believe that those who make and propose our legislation should be people we can see and hold to account and vote out if we don’t like what they do. In the EU, we can’t see what commissioners are doing or vote them out, so basically we can’t hold them to account. This is fundamentally not a democratic system and if we leave the EU we can bring power back to national government and draw further powers back from the national level to a local level. Local government has been seen as increasingly less important over the last few years as power has been drawn up the system. I want to see a revitalised democracy where decisions affecting Southampton are made in Southampton and decisions made in the UK are made by people who we can see and hold to account. 

Finally, can you briefly summarise why in your view it is important for students to vote to leave the EU.

This referendum is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Its about the future and what sort of country we want to grow up in. I want to be able to have a say in the legislation that affects my future and firmly know that the government that I mandate to do things has the ability to do what I have told it to, I want the businesses in our country to be able to trade with the rest of the world in the same way they can trade with Germany, France and Italy without the barriers put up between the EU and the rest of the world. The future of the world is in integration and in closer ties but the EU is not the answer to delivering closer economic and political ties – its about the world and not regressive trading blocs. The EU fundamentally does not and cannot deliver on its potential because of what it is.

Matthew Cowley is the leader of Southampton Students for Britain.

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International Editor 2015-17. Third year French & Spanish student currently spending a year studying abroad in Concepción, Chile. Interested in media and world news.

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