Daniel Zeichner: I need students’ help to oppose the disaster that is Tory-led Brexit

Ronan Marron 22 November 2016

On 23 June, young people voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. Around three-quarters of voters aged 24 or under rejected the divisive Leave campaign; and following the vote thousands of those young people flooded the streets of Britain to march for Europe. They believed that unity is better than isolationism. They also rightly recognised it is young people who will live with the repercussions of the UK’s self-imposed exile for the longest.

Yet, despite the consensus amongst this age group, they will now be taken out of the European Union against their will. In my view, they have been betrayed – by those from older generations in many cases thinking in the short-term, and by a Government that has put petty party squabbles ahead of national interest.

Since that vote in June, the lies of the Leave campaign have unravelled, and so too has any semblance of a strategy or pretence of a plan. It is quite clear now they didn’t know what they were doing, and the Government is negotiating a Brexit sans a blueprint. There has been a worrying lack of transparency in those negotiations. For instance, the Government’s assurances to Nissan were made behind closed doors, leading to accusations of a sweetheart deal.

It is now assumed the Government is planning to negotiate Brexit deals in a piecemeal manner by sector and industry. But this is mere guesswork as we’ve all been left in the dark. An information vacuum necessarily means both a lack of public and parliamentary scrutiny. We simply can’t properly examine their plan if they won’t tell us – or if they don’t know – what that plan is. Fundamental issues, such as whether the UK will maintain access to the single market, and whether freedom of movement will be curtailed, add to a litany of fine, complex legal and political question marks hanging over negotiations. You can see Labour’s 170 questions for more detail on the vast array of areas for thought.

The answers to many of those questions will have a huge impact on those under-24s who wanted to remain part of the EU. Indeed the European Students’ Union has said the decision will have “long-term and irreversible consequences for the younger generation.” For starters, young people may lose the opportunity to work, travel, and live across Europe, robbed of relationships and careers they might have once had.

Many young people also care deeply about the environmental protections and employment rights we have secured as a result of EU membership, as well as the strengthening of human rights, all now under threat of reversal in the UK.

Then there is the impact on UK universities, which benefit from EU investment. Between 2007 and 2013 the UK received almost £5 billion from the EU in funding for research, development and innovation; and indeed Cambridge University receives around a fifth of all its research funding from Europe. It is consequently a worry that funding gaps for universities will be plugged by students – onto whom higher costs will be passed in the form of higher fees. Furthermore, if the UK cuts itself off from the vibrant research community across Europe, the quality of work and research produced in our universities is likely to be diminished. This will have a knock-on effect on students hoping to gain the best possible educational experience, enriched by the expertise of a diverse staff coming from world-class institutions.

The day before the referendum vote, a coalition of student union leaders published an open letter. In it they said leaving the European Union, which “provides 15 per cent of Britain’s university funding and a vital targeted 75 million to British colleges – would provide an obvious hock for further fee increases and marketisation.”

But they also added, “this vote is about more than money: it is about the kind of world we want to live in. We want an open, pluralist society. We value the freedom to study and work on the continent, as tens of thousands of young British people do every year. The European students who study at British universities, and the European migrants who come here to work, enrich our lives and the society we live in.” 

And that’s the crux of the matter. It’s simple: young people feel being close to Europe has improved their lives, and they believe they will be worse off without it.  They have been resolute in that, as have the people of Cambridge. So what can be done? You have my word that I’ll vote against any attempt to leave the EU when the issue comes before Parliament. But I also need your word: that you will keep making the progressive case for a post-Brexit landscape. Keep banging on about Europe, and show those across the continent that our country is still the inclusive, outward-looking place we all know it to be.