There is no doubt that being a part of the European Union has helped Britain to move forward as a country in more ways than one.
EU-wide agreements such as the common market and intelligence information sharing undoubtedly benefit Britain on a number of fronts, including its economic strength, as well as its security and world influence. Concerns have been raised however, about the level to which the EU has taken control of a number of issues from country’s own governments, leading to increasing concern about federalisation, and a growing worry that the bloc is rapidly transforming into something far from that which the UK population initially voted to join in 1973.
Perhaps, somewhat crucially, the balance of the contributions that states make and what they get from it has shifted since the days of the EU being simply an economic community. More and more states have joined the EU and membership has swelled to the current 28 states, with a growing likelihood that Turkey will become number 29. Agreements such as the Common Agricultural policy have been accused of opening up a gap between richer and poorer countries, merely increasing the profit margins for large multinational corporations headquartered in Europe’s richer countries while leading to waste and overproduction of food that leads to a large amount being thrown away unnecessarily and serving little benefit to many of those in the bloc’s developing nations.
The cost of the EU, while undoubtedly beneficial, is also an issue to many. In 2015 Britain contributed £13 million to the Brussels, while in return the EU only spent £4.5 million of its own funds within the UK. Although Britain is entitled to a £5 billion rebate on its financial contributions and has therefore paid a lot less than the £18 billion for which it would otherwise be liable, such a discrepancy between the money given to the EU and the return investment does raise questions about whether Britain is fully reaping the rewards of all the investment it has made, as well as whether the money could be better spent within UK borders.
It is, however, important to consider that although not directly linked, it is very difficult to calculate the scale of economic benefits that the EU has brought to the UK and the knock-on impact that losing this investment would have, which could potentially lead to a much larger loss of economic investment than initially thought, if Britain votes to leave. Such arguments surrounding the financial relationship between the UK and the bloc are made much more difficult by the Union’s seeming lack of financial accountability – controversies surrounding the accuracy of its accounts and the large amount of time taken for the auditors to declare them accurate is hardly the level of financial conduct one would expect from a democratic institution.
This lack of transparency extends further, into the European Parliament itself – criticisms have been raised surrounding the system of expenses in place for MEPs, with requests for public access to documents on the general allowance given to MEPs and the way it is spent being repeatedly denied by the European Parliament. International watchdog Transparency International described the law-making chamber as ‘putting obstacles‘ in the way of journalists and members of the public who wanted to investigate how it spent taxpayer’s money.
Regardless of the EU’s foibles, its benefits to the UK, both in economic and statistical terms and as a part of the wider European community, are essential to maintain the country’s economic standing and quality of life. However, with increasing questions surrounding the accountability and transparency of its institutions, improvements in public perception will have to be made to convince many within the UK to vote to stay in the upcoming referendum.