Sussex now has less than two weeks to make up its mind on whether to vote leave or remain in the EU referendum on June 23.
The blue ‘Stronger In’ and red ‘Vote leave take back control’ banners, t-shirts and placards have become familiar sites across the country since the start of 2016 and while both sides have spent much time and energy trying to get their points across to the electorate have any of their messages actually sunk in?
More than 2,000 people took part in our Sussex-wide online poll where we asked readers: ‘Should the UK remain a member of the European Union?’, with 56 per cent voting yes, 38 per cent voting no, and six per cent undecided.
Chichester MP Andrew Tyrie, who has not replied to repeated requests asking for his position on Europe, launched a broadside on both the leave and remain campaigns as chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, suggesting that the ‘arms race of ever more lurid claims and counter-claims’ was not only confusing the public it was ‘impoverishing political debate’.
When the committee’s report ‘The economic and financial costs and benefits of the UK’s EU membership’ was published late last month, Mr Tyrie called for an amnesty on ‘misleading, and at times bogus, claims’.
It suggested that Vote Leave’s claim that leaving the EU would give the country a £350m a week fiscal windfall to spend on hospitals and schools is ‘highly misleading’, while the remain campaign’s assertion that three million jobs are dependent on continued EU membership is also ‘misleading’ as it might give the impression that all these jobs would be lost.
Two of the most avid social media users among Sussex MPs, East Worthing and Shoreham’s Tim Loughton and Mid Sussex MP Sir Nicholas Soames have both been critical of the tone of the referendum debate.
Sir Nicholas has been praised by some as a ‘star’ of the campaign for use of his unique Twitter hashtags such as #totallytonto #getagripandgrow
upandgetreal said earlier this month: “Leaving EU would be an act of national insanity. No argument that it would weaken economy, threaten jobs and future investment #dontdoit.”
Meanwhile in his latest newsletter Mr Loughton said he had been critical of the negativity of both sides of the campaign, and tweeted: “Public simply don’t believe remain campaign’s #ProjectFear and scaremongering, we will be better off if we #VoteLeave.”
Since Prime Minister David Cameron laid out the terms of the deal he had negotiated with EU leaders and announced the date of the referendum, debates have been held across the county from Hastings to Midhurst at village halls, churches, schools and many other places, with street stands from both sides in most city and town centres each weekend.
WHICH MPS ARE BACKING WHICH SIDE?
While Mr Tyrie has not made his position public, of the 15 other Sussex MPs nine have declared for the remain campaign, five for leave, while Bexhill and Battle’s MP Huw Merriman is chairing eight debates across his constituency before coming to a decision.
Similarly Eastbourne MP Caroline Ansell only declared her position after a debate she hosted late last month.
Afterwards she said: “I have decided with some regret to say I will vote to leave on 23rd June.
“I say regret because I had first hoped to remain in a reformed European Union. The renegotiation deal says everything about today’s EU - that it is only moving in one direction: ever increasing centralisation.”
For many of his critics Mr Cameron’s deal fell short of what was expected. He negotiated changes to some of the rules regarding benefit payments for EU migrants, protection for the financial services industry, and a commitment that the UK is not part of a move to an ‘ever closer union’ with other EU member states.
On the other hand Bognor Regis and Littlehampton MP Nick Gibb, who describes himself as a eurosceptic, welcomed the Prime Minister’s deal, and argued that although it had not delivered a slimned-down, trade, focused, and modern EU, the idea that the UK could leave and negotiate a quick trade deal was ‘wrong’.
Dan Hannan, a South East MEP for the Tories and a prominent Eurosceptic, has called for the public to ‘fire him’ throughout the campaign, calling the EU ‘out of date’ in a digital age, with the safer choice for the UK being outside the EU. He said a vote to stay would be ‘like remaining on a conveyor-belt whose far end we can’t see’.
UKIP has increased its share of the vote in local and national elections in the last few years across Sussex, and many have suggested this is a sign of growing euroscepticsm in the county.
For Sandra James, UKIP group leader at West Sussex County Council, the country would be better off keeping money it currently sends to Brussels, and without Sussex’s small and medium enterprises tied up in red tape.
IMMIGRATION ‘NUMBER ONE ISSUE’
Asked what issue has resonated most from the leave campaign, Lewes MP Maria Caulfield said: “The number one concern that people are raising with me during debates and especially as we get nearer to the EU referendum is the issue of immigration.
“People are feeling the effects of the sheer growth in our population on school placements, congested roads, difficulty finding housing and accessing doctors.
“They all stress to me that they are not against immigration, far from it, they just want more control over the numbers that are permitted to come to the UK, so our infrastructure can cope.”
According to Vote Leave leaving the EU would be a careful change, with terms of a new deal negotiated before any legal process to leave, while the Balkan countries and Turkey the next to potentially join in the coming years.
On the other side Catherine Bearder, Lib Dem MEP for the South East, has pointed at the benefits of the UK being in the EU, with 100,000 EU citizens working in the health and social care system, and 1.5m people employed in companies owned by EU citizens.
Nick Perry, of the Hastings and Rye Lib Dems, added: “The Liberal Democrats have sought to make a positive case for the benefit of remaining part of a reformed European Union.
“The issues that the world faces cross borders, so we need solutions that are managed across borders too.”
EFFECT ON THE ECONOMY
Just last week the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned that a Brexit would be a ‘major negative shock to the UK economy’, and that uncertainty about the outcome of the referendum was already starting to weaken economic growth.
Henry Smith, MP for Crawley, feels that other countries such as Switzerland have traded successfully outside of Europe without being ‘hamstrung’ by the EU and are able to negotiate deals with other countries such as China, while Mr Loughton hailed Australia as a good example of a country that has trade deals with other nations.
But Nick Herbert Arundel and South Downs MP, argued that the leave campaign ‘can’t guarantee there won’t be Brexit job losses’, while Hastings and Rye MP Amber Rudd, also Secretary for Energy and Climate Change, has been touring businesses including some in Sussex to highlight the fact that many businesses rely on the country being in the EU for reasons such as international investment.
Earlier this year chief executive officer of Gatwick Airport, Stewart Wingate, said that while the EU was not perfect he did not want to be the one in 20 or 30 years explaining to the next generation why they ‘chose disengagement over engagement, isolation over connection’.
Gatwick Diamond Business (GDB) has surveyed 500 business people from its membership and beyond, with 79 per cent voting to stay in the EU, 19 per cent in favour of leaving, and two per cent undecided.
Jeremy Taylor, chief executive of GDB, said it was ‘proving difficult to identify which side of the argument is “right”’, with both sides intent on disproving the other side’s point of view, rather than presenting the benefits of their case.
However on balance he was leaning towards staying in, as businesses and the economy required a degree of stability, and leaving the EU could leave the UK in a ‘marginally weaker position on the world stage’.
Iosbel Richards, a 13-year-old who lives in Southwater, explained that although her parents are voting remain due to trade, holiday prices and funding, she has yet to make up her mind but pointed out that whatever the outcome it will affect her generation more than those who can currently vote.
However she questioned what impact a vote to leave would have on her and others’ future job prospects, and felt this was not being taken seriously enough.
She said: “I don’t fully believe that the men and women running each side’s campaign are even thinking about what’s right for Britain. There is a lot more of: ‘Am I going to have a job tomorrow?’ than am I truly doing what is best for our little country?”
Green MEP for the South East, Keith Taylor added: “The EU referendum is the most important decision of a generation, and while every vote is equal the polls show that young voters could hold the key to maintaining Britain’s membership of the European Union.
“Young people are also the ones who will live with the decision, whichever way it goes, for the longest. I want to make sure they feel engaged in the debate and empowered to make their voices heard. I’m calling on other campaigners to do the same. “
The impact of leaving the EU on language schools in both Hastings and Eastbourne, with students supporting jobs and spending money in the towns’ restaurants and attractions.
Both Eastbourne School of English chief executive Phil Hopkins and Karina Rasch, from Battle-based Senlac Tours, said that if students have to undergo a visa process some might be put off coming to England to study.
Speaking to Sussex Newspapers, Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, argued that one in 10 South East jobs depend on trade with the EU, Sussex benefits from EU funding for infrastructure projects and apprenticeships, the EU has forced the UK’s Government to provide cleaner beaches, while vulnerable habitats in Sussex are protected by EU nature laws.
Mr Farron added: “This region adapts brilliantly to a changing world. And this country adapts to thrive, innovate and lead in a global, open world.”
On Thursday June 23 polling stations will be open until 10pm, and after that counting will begin at 283 local centres across the UK.
These results will be declared before being collated at 12 regional centres, one of which is based in Southampton, with an overall result announced at Manchester Town Hall early on June 24.
According to the Electoral Commission the earliest Sussex count could be completed by 2.30am with the latest estimated for 7am.
The other Sussex MPs backing remain are: Horsham MP Jeremy Quin, Worthing West MP Sir Peter Bottomley, Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas, Hove MP Peter Kyle, and Brighton Kemptown MP Simon Kirby.
Meanwhile Wealden MP Nus Ghani is backing the leave campaign.
For more information visit either www.voteleavetakecontrol.org or www.strongerin.co.uk
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