EU referendum campaign kicks off in the East

Deborah McGurran
Political editor, East of England

Image caption,
David Cameron visited University Campus Suffolk to make the case for remaining in the EU

With the date now set for the EU referendum, the remain campaign hasn't wasted time outlining its case to people in the East of England.

In the course of a few days there have been high profile interventions from the Prime Minister, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, a universities minister and a representative from the European Commission. In special visits to the region they outlined in detail why they believed we were better off in than out.

The Prime Minister spent almost an hour addressing students at University Campus, Suffolk.

He admitted that we pay far more to Brussels from the East than we get back in grants, but he believed being a member of the EU was worth it.

"In return we get money for British universities," he said.

"Cambridge for instance gets 17% of its research grant from the EU. We get money back for our farmers and for regional aid and infrastructure projects.

"For every pound paid in taxes one penny goes to the EU. I would argue that given we get the trade and the cooperation, this is worth the membership fee."

David Cameron used a local example to illustrate one of the uncertainties of leaving: "Vivaro vans in Luton are a great product," he said.

"We know at the moment they are exported all over Europe with no tariffs, no quotas, no taxes. Can you guarantee that those goods will be able to go to Europe without paying a tariff?"

Investment in science

The importance of the EU to Cambridge was reinforced when Universities Minister Jo Johnson visited Cambridge and brought with him the European commissioner responsible for research, science and innovation, Carlos Moedas.

"We want to ensure we sustain the momentum behind the Cambridge phenomenon and our national status as a global science superpower," Mr Johnson told his audience at Cambridge University, adding that the UK was one of the largest beneficiaries of EU science programmes.

"To thrive in the information economy we need to be open to the world, we need to be innovative and we need to be building academic partnerships with our close neighbours, not turning our backs on them," he said.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, in his first visit to the region since taking over the leadership, visited Bedford. He spoke about the local economy benefiting from being a member of "one of the biggest markets on this planet".

In such a diverse town, he focussed on the benefits of EU migration and claimed that if anyone's migrants were a drain on local services it was Brits who live abroad.

"The simple fact is that there are two million EU citizens in the UK and around two million UK citizens living in the EU," he said.

"For what it's worth, the majority of these people who are here from the European Union are working and paying tax and those who are British and living overseas tend not to be economically active, so Britain is clearly a net gainer from that situation.

"The reality is, if you are a European migrant to this country you are several times more likely to be not claiming benefit than if you're a British person - so rather than putting a strain on services, they provide the government with the funds to be able to create more of them."

Leave campaign

The leave campaign has dismissed all these claims as scaremongering.

They believe that if we left the EU, European countries would not want to impose trade barriers or tariffs on our goods because they sell more to us than we sell to them and they would fear similar trade restrictions. They also believe that our expertise in science and research would still be sought after if we were outside the EU.

When it comes to migration, the leave campaign accepts that EU nationals can be good for the economy, but it worries about the pressures which uncontrolled immigration is putting on places like Peterborough and Wisbech.

It says if we leave the EU we will be able to control how many people come here to live and work - something which we can't do at the moment due to the EU's policy of allowing free movement of workers.

The leave campaign in the East is expected to make its case more forcibly over the next week or so but the opening salvos have made it clear what the main issues will be for the region in this referendum.