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We debate one of Britain’s toughest political decisions: whether or not to stay in the European Union


In 100 days, we’ll make the ‘decision of a generation’. And it’s women who will swing the Brexit vote. Stylist debates whether we should stay or go

June Sarpong

The EU referendum campaign is only a few weeks old, yet seems to have been going on forever. The sight of rows of grey men in grey suits (particularly on the ‘Leave’ side), fighting battles about sovereignty and foreign direct investment, is not a pretty one. It’s also in danger of leaving female voters with the distinct impression that while Europe impacts on Westminster village, it’s of little relevance to those outside it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This referendum will have profound consequences on people the length and breadth of Britain. It’s about your job, your rights… your life; it’s about the kind of country we want to live in.

As women, many of the employment rights we enjoy are the product of European, not British, law. For example, it’s EU law that prohibits discrimination in the workplace on grounds of gender, age, ethnic or racial origin, religion or belief, disability or sexual orientation.

It’s thanks to EU membership that we’re entitled to 14 weeks’ paid maternity leave – and to protection against being sacked for being pregnant. We’re allowed up to a year off after having a baby – and the right to maternity leave has been extended to self-employed women, too.

That’s why I’m campaigning for Britain to stay in Europe; because I know we’re stronger, safer and better off in – and I worry about the consequences leaving would have on us all.

Having lived in America for eight years, where maternity leave is considered ‘sick leave’ (and paternity leave no more than a concept), there’s no doubt my British friends with children are far more fortunate than my American ones. One friend in New York (who’s luckier than most) works for the City of New York and, when she takes maternity leave later this year, will receive six weeks’ paid maternity. Six weeks! Worse, in the US, this is a luxury – one that is currently only enjoyed by New Yorkers. That’s got to be a consideration. As working women within the EU, we can have total confidence that our rights and conditions are being safeguarded – including our rights to paid holiday, having a safe workplace, protection if the company we work for goes bust. The idea of leaving these entitlements to the tender mercies of Farage and friends should be a big worry for all of us.

Being in Europe means more job opportunities here in Britain – it’s that simple. The EU is the biggest single market on earth, having broken down barriers (tariffs, taxes, import duty etc) to make it easier for member countries to trade and invest in each other. The numbers speak for themselves: countless studies have found that at least three million jobs are linked to our trade with Europe, so if Britain pulls out, there’s no telling what it would do to our already tough jobs market.

And it isn’t just jobs. Being in Europe keeps prices low, not just due to the absence of tariffs on food and other commodities but because competition between companies created by the single market means you have more providers to choose from to get the best deal.

In fact, if tariffs on imported goods were introduced, the Centre for Economic and Business Research has estimated that prices could rise by a whopping £11billion a year – that’s £176 per Briton.

Don’t forget that, if Britain left the EU but wanted to retain access to the single market, we would still have to abide by EU rules – but would entirely lose our say over what they were.

A lot of angry debate surrounds the ‘free movement of people’ around Europe, but what is rarely mentioned is that we all benefit from this right. Anyone who has studied in Berlin, spent a week in Spain or a weekend in Prague has enjoyed the benefits of being part of the EU. Air fares are more competitive, mobile phone charges cheaper; we enjoy the right to free healthcare in Europe – and if we want to work in the EU, we won’t be discriminated against.

On 23 June, all this – and more – will be at stake. I believe pro-Europeans have the best arguments, but these alone will not win the referendum. We need passion, involvement and support up and down the country.

The debate is dominated by men, but the outcome will be decided by women. So don’t sit on the sidelines, stand up and get involved; use your voice to stay in.

Helen Rumbelow

Do you love a meeting? A really, really long meeting? One where you walk in and a lot of blokes in suits are sitting there, and  you go, “Who are these people? I’ve never seen any of them before in my life!” And it turns out those blokes earn their place at the table by stifling creativity, change and progress. You do like those meetings?  Well, great. In that case, please vote to “stay” in Europe. You obviously have strong bladder control and an appetite for  bureaucratic inertia. If not, please consider that the European Union is a half-century long meeting. In fact it’s the most “meeting-y” meeting in the entire world.

I don’t really want to be in the “Brexit” camp. I know you don’t either. I mean, look at them! Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, George Galloway. It’s like a gallery of every ruddy-faced goggly-eyed extremist you wouldn’t want to share a lift with, let alone a political position. However many billions the European Union costs the UK, perhaps, you may think, it’s worth it just to stop looking at these portly gentlemen wiping the foam from their chin. Research suggests women are more Eurosceptic than men, but less likely to support Brexit. I hear you sister.

So it is only by carefully shielding my eyes against the Brexit supporters that I have made my decision. I know the bad – “vaguely racist golf club bore” – branding of the Brexit group, compared to the glamorous “innies”. But I see it totally differently. Since when did ever closer union to a distant and undemocratic government in Brussels become quite so fashionable?

Yes, we pay into the European Union roughly £23million a day more than we get back. But does being part of an expensive club help us in a million little ways, as the innies argue? Maybe. As the House of Commons Library stated, “There is no definitive study” on the costs or benefits of withdrawal. It’s a known unknown, and while my hunch is that it’s not worth £23million a day, that in fact the money could buy quite a few midwives and school places, my feelings run deeper than that.

Are you pro-immigration? I am, but we can’t open our jobs to the most interesting and useful people in India, China, Brazil, Canada, wherever, when we have our door wedged unfairly open to all comers from Europe. Are you in favour of helping African countries and other poor nations through trade? I am. But the European Union is a protectionist closed shop that makes it harder, not easier, for free exchange with countries that most want trade, not aid. I want young female entrepreneurs to be able to turn their faces to the world, not get hidebound by EU red tape. Are you pro-democratic? I am, but governance by Brussels just doesn’t feel that way. I have no idea who these people are. I suspect they may be a bit corrupt, but – unlike British politicians – I have no way of telling. I don’t necessarily trust our MPs, but I trust them more.

Remember the campaign to get a woman, other than the Queen, featured on British bank notes? Women protested, and things changed. That’s how our democracy works: they want your vote, after all. Brussels, by contrast, wouldn’t much listen amid the 500 million other voices. We currently have a tax on tampons, as they are classed as a “luxury” product. But the British government is powerless to change this. Ending this situation would, in fact, take a proposal from the European Commission, and an agreement from all 28 member states.

Whenever I go to countries and think, “Wow, they do a mighty fine job running this place” – I notice it’s always the small, nimble places that guard their independence as far as they can. Look at the top slots in the world Democracy Index: from Norway to New Zealand, they are confident in their freedom. No surprise there is a big overlap between the Democracy Index and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Better Life index. We just don’t do well in behemoths.

I know why the European Union was thought to be a good idea in the first place. It was better to have the pointless and expensive meeting than to have a pointless and expensive war. That much is true, and in that sense at least, it has succeeded. But now it feels dated. Isn’t there a more optimistic vision of the future? We don’t need to get stuck in the meeting any more, we can, instead, get things done.

Would it become more expensive to fly to the EU?
New air service agreements might have to be negotiated and any increase in airline costs could be passed on to the consumer, meaning fares may rise for some destinations. However, Joel Brandon-Bravo, UK managing director for Travelzoo, says, “We would expect prices to remain competitive as top destinations such as Spain, France and Italy depend heavily on the tourism spend of British travellers.”

Will I still be able to work in Europe or will I need a visa?
No country has ever left the EU before so it’s very difficult to know exactly what would be agreed in the exit negotiations. However, Professor Anand Menon, director of independent research group The UK In A Changing Europe, says, “It is in no country’s interests to stop people working abroad. I suspect they would come up with a deal to allow Britons to continue to do so without visas.”

Will I have to pay more for my favourite French cheese and Italian wine?
Dr Swati Dhingra from the London School of Economics believes that, “Brexit could make French cheese more expensive for Brits, and British tea more expensive for continentals.” But pro-Brexit campaigners argue that costs could go down if the UK leaves the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which subsidises farmers.

Will we all have to get new passports? And what about my pet?
HM Passport Office is refusing to speculate on the future of UK passports, however, the massive cost of reissuing them to all British citizens would be a considerable deterrent. Professor Menon says, “I’d imagine that, if the UK left, they’d bring in new passports but you’d change when you renewed normally.” As for pet passports, campaigners hope Brexit would result in a strict system that would end the rise in puppy trafficking.

My partner is European, will he/she be allowed to continue living in the UK?  
Those who have already been granted the right to remain in the UK needn’t worry as this legally cannot be revoked, however, if Brexit happens there would be no automatic right for EU nationals to work or study here. Damian Chalmers, Professor of European Union Law at LSE, believes that while spouses should be granted leave to remain, those who are not legally married or are in a civil partnership could have issues: “EU citizens in the UK, for example, would need to acquire the right to remain here through other channels such as work visas.”

Would my mobile phone roaming charges go up?
Thanks to a vote by MEPs, mobile roaming fees in the EU are due to disappear from June 2017. “Driving down costs and making it easier to travel is what being in the EU is all about,” said Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder at the time. This legislation could be jeopardised by Brexit but a hike in fees is unlikely as no phone operator would want to be the one to increase costs.

What do you think? Share your thoughts on the 'Brexit' in the comment section, below. 

Photography: istock



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