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What Brexit could mean for families, by Deborah Talbot

It was that debate with Michael Gove on the EU referendum, the one where he talked about his family’s fish merchant business in Aberdeen being destroyed by EU quotas, which made me blink twice. Was I seeing the enduring power of childhood pain, or a politician’s backstory, forgotten but repackaged for the EU referendum by a leading advocate of Brexit? There was something deeply troubling about it, like accidentally walking in on someone alternatively sobbing and scheming in the loo.

I have a similar backstory, given my family hailed from St Ives in Cornwall - that once impoverished fishing village turned tourist and wealthy second-home mecca. Unlike Gove, the only thing my family owned was a small house bought through the ill-gotten gains of gold prospecting in America. But you get the picture.

Being a flighty metro-intellectual, shorn from my roots, I’ve taken a different view of the industry, namely that we need to plan around fish stocks. That does…sigh…imply a series of burdens and benefits. But I’m not immune to nostalgia. I still feel the St Ives sand around my feet, the taste of traditional Cornish pasties with the grisly meat, the smell of the catch, and wonder whether we need to feel solid ground under our feet. But that ground was also littered with poverty and religious intolerance.

These are the two sides of the EU referendum debate. One is preoccupied by loss and unwanted change. The other, with what we have gained - affluence, cosmopolitan values, and restless development. We probably all carry a little of both of these, which might be why most people seem to be completely confused about the debate.

Because the EU referendum seems to be more about our feelings about society, place and identity, than fact, and as such people draw wildly different conclusions from broadly similar stories. It’s pretty dangerous because vested interests can make swift use of our emotions.

These are the thoughts that floated through my mind when I started reflecting on how the outcome of the referendum might affect families. Practically every EU policy affects families, from the economy to human and employment rights, and everything seems entangled with how we perceive the world.

But I'll take a stab at it. So here are some of the arguments for and against Brexit, from someone who is trying not to spin on their heels.

Let’s start with the economy. The Remainers argue that there will be a run on the pound and unstable markets. Import duties would be imposed on our exports to the EU. Meaning, that the things we buy and sell would become more expensive, and unemployment could rise. Trade deals would need to be renegotiated, which could take years, adding to the instability.

Of course, recession might happen anyway, whether we are inside or outside the EU, and Brexiteers argue that at least we can control our destiny in an uncertain world. Time to reclaim those allotments to feed your families, just like in the war, and at least you’ll get to hang out with your kids (I’m joking).

Or these doom-laden scenarios may not happen at all.

Brexiteers argue that stopping the debated millions going to the EU will leave more for the NHS and other public services. But Remainers argue none of the leading figures are pro-NHS, and a falling GDP will leave proportionately less for public spending.

Education is within the absolute control of national governments, though the EU helps with pedagogy and runs the Erasmus programme. Arguably, current education policy is so unpopular that parents may start begging for EU intervention.

What about social legislation – maternity leave, parental leave, flexible working, anti-discrimination law, controls over working hours, and so on? Remainers say if we leave we won’t have these benefits because all employment law and social rights have been influenced by and bound up with EU directives, either directly or through precedent and rulings.

Brexiteers argue that the UK will be free to make its own legislation if it left, making this country a true democracy. They do see social legislation though as red tape and want to get rid of it, and successive UK governments have resisted EU-derived protections for employees. Will that be true for all governments? We don’t know. (And, of course, social legislation won’t matter if we are all working those allotments).

Family law is one area facing uncertainties with a Brexit scenario. Cross-border divorces, custody and maintenance disputes, and dealing with instances of child abduction, are all influenced and guided by EU regulation and policing.

Migrant families may also be in a rocky situation. Successive EU treaties have ensured the right of free movement of people in the EU, and migrants that have already been here for five years can claim UK citizenship. Those rights would fall with a Brexit scenario, although given that they are enshrined in UK law they would have to be repealed, which would lead to plenty of debate.

Brexiteers claim that stemming migration from the EU would protect communities and services. It is, in fact, one of their favourite arguments. Remainers argue that migration has brought more benefits than problems, and point to the high number of British people who have migrated to other parts of the EU. Well, they make that case occasionally but seem nervous about piercing the anti-immigration bubble.

Finally, Remainers sometimes reach for the apocalyptic scenario, pointing to the likelihood of war and conflict in Europe if the EU fell apart. War is obviously not good for families.

All of these issues bring a host of uncertainties for any family, and at the end of the day, it will be a judgment call. No doubt our children’s futures will be very much on our minds as we go into the ballot box on June 23. If there is one thing the EU referendum debate has done, though, it has been to awaken childhood memories and allowed us to think about who we are. That’s all great, so long as we don’t get lost in childish fantasy. Because whether we vote to remain or leave, we will never have the perfect society of our imagination, unless we work very, very hard for it.


:: Deborah Talbot is a writer and researcher living in Walthamstow, East London.  


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