As the referendum on British membership to the European Union draws ever closer, UEA students appear to be leaning towards the Remain camp.
Yet, there has been increasing apathy on a national scale amongst young people towards the debate. At UEA, only 300 people out of 15,000 potential students answered a mock EU Referendum Poll: less than 2% of the student population. The Observer has reported only 47% of 18 – 24 year olds will definitely vote on June 23. A recent debate in Norwich, chaired by Jon Snow, attempted to address this. However, many students felt that they had been entirely ignored, and in some cases patronised, throughout the debate.
Connor Robbins, Natural Science third year, said, “ I care about the result, but everyone is kind of set in their side already and discussion hasn’t really been productive when there are so many contrary statistics and predictions being peddled by both sides. I haven’t been ignored, but my opinion hasn’t been asked either.”
UEA’s Student Union hosted a series of debates on the upcoming referendum. Concrete News attended one of these events in May. Andrew Lansley, Natalie Bennett, Chris Bryant MP, and UEA’s own Vice Chancellor, David Richardson represented the Remain camp. On the Leave side of the debate were Stuart Agnew, Richard Bacon MP, and Paul Chambers. It was chaired by Campaigns and Democracy Officer Chris Jarvis.
Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party, said “I feel like young people’s voices have been entirely missing from this debate, we’ve allowed it to be reduced to a series of soundbites about bombs and bananas when actually we’re talking about peace on mainland Europe, the future of clean energy jobs, our ability to tackle climate change, major issues that will affect this generation more than any other. The best way for young people to make politicians listen to them is to make sure you go out and vote.”
Bennett questioned the quality of the debate, particularly that coming from the current Conservative government. She said, “In the mainstream media is a pretty dreadful quality of debate, [with] a Tory leadership contest masquerading as a referendum debate.”
Andrew Lansley, a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, told students to use their vote above all else, as the issue of EU membership matters more to the next generation than to his.
UEA’s Vice Chancellor David Richardson talked about why he felt staying in the EU was important to higher education institutions, speaking of EU research networks for climate change and other academic areas. Regarding environmental research, one of UEA’s internationally acclaimed endeavours, he said working internationally was crucial because “greenhouse gases do not respect country borders.”
Richardson also praised the Erasmus scheme, arguing without EU membership the university would benefit less from international student exchanges. Other speakers stressed that there are countries partaking in the Erasmus scheme who are not EU members, and that membership is not necessary for European academic partnerships. Agnew argued that there were 33 countries participating in Erasmus, and 28 in the EU.
Democratic concerns were also debated at the event. Bennett, a strong advocate for reform in the UK political system, argued that whilst the EU may have undemocratic elements, “Westminster is a very long way from being perfect,” the British public hasn’t given up on parliamentary democracy, and argued for reforms instead.
Concrete asked Richard Bacon MP about reforms to the British parliamentary system, to which he said “Don’t forget we had referendum on changing the voting system and it was defeated. We have a reasonable amount of consent for the UK government; perfection isn’t the issue consent is.”
As many students pointed out using the debates’s hashtag #EUrefUEA, the debate featured an all-white panel with only one female speaker. On the issue of a lack of diversity in the general debate, Bennett said, “That’s one of the things I really worry about in terms of the impact on turnout and the impact on young people in particular. I would say there is a real responsibility on the Union, on the university to get different voices into this debate, thatís going to help people feel like “this is my debate”, which it is, it is their future which is intimately involved and affected by this, but they need to hear from different voices.”
At the televised Channel 4 News debate held at Norwich Castle which many UEA students participated in, Jon Snow advised UEA students to ask questions regarding peace and climate change. He said, “the broadcasting companies and media generally are under instructions to give a balanced account of both sides and that can skew the debate, and that is problem. In the old days before social media, politicians had to go around and meet people and actually try to persuade them I don’t see that happening.”
While Labour and other left-leaning parties officially support continued membership, left-wing arguments for Leave were presented at UEA’s debate. At one debate, John Rees from the Stop the War Coalition, said the EU had neoliberal and undemocratic features “wired into it” and that “there are good left wing reasons for getting out of the EU.”
Regarding this, Bennett said “We have a neoliberal EU because we’ve had thirty, forty years of neoliberal politics in Europe, those are the people who have been elected. What we need to do is change the politics, and then we change the EU. Rupert Murdoch wants us to leave because he feels like he doesn’t have any influence in Europe, and I think that’s a pretty good argument for remaining.”
Concrete asked Bacon how young people can trust politicians with so many differing statistics purported by each camp. He recommended students look at the latest HM Treasury’s document outlining the 2015 EU budget, and said voters “have to decide whether [they] are happy to see the money going on Portuguese or Greek motorways or Bulgarian farmers or whether [they’d] prefer it to go to scientific research in UK laboratories or housing in the UK or better rural broadband in Norfolk.”
With the deadline to register to vote already gone, all that remains to be seen is whether UEA has done enough to enthuse student voters about the debate.