The EU Referendum: An Interview with Rector Catherine Stihler

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”[1] This is the provisional wording of the question UK citizens will find on their ballot papers before the end of 2017. In their manifesto for the general election of May 7 2015, the Conservative Party pledged to hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union. Following a majority Conservative win, plans for the historic public vote have begun to take shape[2]. At present, it appears the result will be a tight one, with opinion polls indicating that approximately 40 per cent of the British public would vote to leave the Union[3]. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the vote will be highly publicised and heavily debated, with significant consequences that will have an impact for years to come.

Image Courtesy of Diliff © 2014, some rights reserved.

Image Courtesy of Diliff © 2014, some rights reserved.

Catherine Stihler has been a Member of European Parliament for Scotland since 1999. A member of the Labour Party, she fulfils the role of vice chair of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, as well as being a substitute on the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee[4]. During her time as an MEP, Catherine has taken part in a number of notable campaigns, and was a founding member of the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform, working towards greater transparency in European Parliament[5]. Stihler understands how the EU functions and the potential implications of this referendum and its outcome. In 2014 she became the Rector of the University of St Andrews and has agreed to an interview with the Foreign Affairs Review to share her views and insight on the referendum.

Foreign Affairs Review (FAR): In your opinion, what would be the ideal outcome of the impending EU referendum in the United Kingdom?

Catherine Stihler (CS): I want to see the UK vote to remain in the EU.

FAR: If the UK were to leave the EU, what do you believe would be our greatest gain? And what would be our greatest loss?

CS: Although I don’t believe the UK could not survive outside the EU, I strongly believe we would be worse off as a result. I therefore do not believe there to be any great gain from ending our partnership with our biggest trading partner and closest neighbours.

Our greatest loss would be our ability to have a say on the rules we would need to follow to continue to be part of the Single Market.  The Single Market is protected by EU laws in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured.

The European Union has been successful in bringing the countries of Europe together and securing 70 years of peace. The removal of barriers to trade has helped create jobs. The EU has helped improve labour standards across Europe and for British workers including the right to paid holiday and to equal treatment for part-time workers.

FAR: In your opinion, do members of the European Parliament from other member states sympathise with British concerns about the EU? How might our relationship change with these countries if we were to leave the union?

CS: The UK is not alone in believing the EU needs reform. I regularly speak to MEPs from across the EU and they join me in believing that although reform is needed, the best way to make this change is from within. The UK’s influence in the world would certainly diminish should we go it alone.

It is absurd to think Britain’s future prosperity and security will be achieved by distancing ourselves from the rest of Europe. We live in a world that is increasingly interdependent and separation will make it harder to tackle the big challenges that require international co-operation in order to make progress.

FAR: Do you personally see yourself as Scottish, British or European?

CS: I am Scottish, British and European.

FAR: Given recent disagreement and confusion within the Labour party over budget policy, do you believe Labour under Corbyn can put up an effective united front in opposition to leaving the EU?

CS: The Labour Party believes in internationalism.  We will be fighting as a party to remain within the EU but we will campaign for a social EU that strengthens workers’ rights, further promotes equality and environmental justice and which adequately represents the interests of the many and not the few across EU Member States.  Labour has a unique position to promote during the referendum campaign and that is what we will seek to do during the campaign.

FAR: What do you predict the implications would be for Scotland if the majority of Brits voted to leave the EU? Do you agree with Nicola Sturgeon that a second independence referendum would be ‘unstoppable’?[6]

CS: The economic and social consequences for Scotland – and the entirety of the UK – would be very large indeed.  Our economy would be badly hit by reductions in exports and job losses.  With over three million jobs in the UK dependent on our membership of the EU we could see job losses similar to the levels seen in the recent recession.

I am not so sure another referendum on Scottish independence would be “unstoppable”.  We know from the Scottish referendum that EU membership would be subject to tough and long negotiations.  I don’t believe being outside the UK and the EU would be good for Scotland at all.

I will be fighting for Scotland and the UK to stay inside the EU and I believe it is in the interests of the UK to do so and that most voters will agree.

FAR: What are your thoughts on the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, following its launch earlier this month?

CS: Lord Stuart Rose, the chair of Britain Stronger in Europe, hit the nail on the head when he said: “To claim that the patriotic course for Britain is to retreat, withdraw and become inward looking is to misunderstand who we are as a nation.” Put simply, I could not agree more.

We have a big challenge ahead in ensuring people understand the gravity of the decision to be made regarding our future in the EU and on the world stage. Over the coming months I will outline my own views on our continued membership of the EU and look forward to joining the debate with those from Britain Stronger in Europe and others committed to our place in the EU.

FAR: What might the implications of a vote to leave the EU be for the University of St Andrews and for the university sector in Scotland and in the UK as a whole?

CS: UK universities, especially Scottish institutions, benefit from the EU when it comes to accessing research funding.  We would be putting our university sector at a great disadvantage by leaving the EU.

Scotland, and the wider UK, has a proud history of research, ingenuity and innovation.  We should be supporting our universities to flourish not seeking to withdraw from the world and limiting their capacity to grow.

Leaving the EU would also stop Scottish and UK students from benefiting from ERASMUS+, which opens doors to individuals who wish to study, work or volunteer across the EU.  It would also deprive our universities of some of the best students from the EU who would be deterred from studying here if we opted to leave.

FAR: You have been a vocal campaigner for greater transparency within the European Parliament. If the UK votes in favour of the status quo, how would you like to see our relationship with Europe and the EU as a whole reformed?

CS: Like many people and businesses, I want to see reform in Europe.

I have fought for over 10 years to see the monthly commute to Strasbourg abolished and am a proud member of the Single Seat Campaign.

Another big issue for me is securing a recognition that the EU must continue to work for those countries which are, and will remain, outside of the Euro.

FAR: Where do you see yourself in five years time if there is a ‘Brexit’?

CS: Firstly I hope that the UK will not leave the EU. However, if the British people determine that the outcome is to leave, then my work as an MEP will come to an end and I will be looking for a new job. I do not know where that journey would lead me to but I firmly believe that when one door closes another opens.

FAR: If you could sum up your view on the impending referendum in just one tweet (140 characters) what would you say?

CS: Our strength comes from working together to solve our common problems. Britain is best placed to face its future within the EU #yes2EU