EXCLUSIVE: Impact interviews Alan Johnson on EU Referendum

After his question and answer session on the EU Referendum today on University Park campus, Impact caught up with Alan Johnson to talk about why students should vote.

Impact: From a student perspective, obviously the University of Nottingham prides itself on being an international university – how do you believe that leaving the EU would limit the options available to our students to get a global education?

Well I think the reason why Universities UK and every university, so far as I’m aware, is campaigning vigorously to remain in the European Union is precisely because of the internationalism of higher education. It wasn’t that way in 1975, the last time there was a referendum. Indeed, in ’75, about 20% of 18-30 year olds went onto HE. Now it’s at a much healthier 43%. It’s no longer the reserve of a tiny elite. It’s become much more international with a huge increase in China and India in particular in higher education, and they need our expertise. It’s one of the services that we export to the world but we also export to Europe. That makes it very important from a business point of view for universities.

But I think there’s also the kind of emotional point about youngsters being able to, through the Erasmus programme, be educated in other countries. There’s also the fact that in an increasingly interdependent world, being part of Europe means being a more effective part of the world, and that’s a very important part of this debate.

“But the fact that we’re working with 27 other member states means sometimes […] we’re wrong on issues and they’re right”

Impact: Just to pick up on something you said in the talk. Given that the UK parliament does have its democratic flaws, do you think it’s hypocritical to complain about a loss of sovereignty to the EU?

[Laughs]. No. I wouldn’t go that far. I think this sovereignty argument is the hangup of people who just can’t get used to the modern world. I mean, of course we cede sovereignty as other countries cede it. It seems to me when I listen to Chris Grayling, for instance, to be an argument that we want to be part of something as long as we’re in charge. We want to be a part of something as long as we never lose a vote. We want to be a part of something as long as everyone does what we tell them to do. And, you know, that’s not realistic in the modern world.

Actually, on recent statistics, 90% of the time in the EU, we get our way. But the fact that we’re working with 27 other member states means sometimes – and this is a big shock for some of the exit side – we’re wrong on issues and they’re right. So I think it’s a kind of mindset – I don’t say that they don’t feel it passionately, that they don’t feel that it’s wrong to cede any sovereignty away, but as I said in there, the only country that’s never ceded sovereignty is North Korea and I don’t want to live there.

“There is no perfect institution anywhere in the world and certainly the EU isn’t perfect. But reform is a process, it’s not an event”

Impact: And are you happy with David Cameron’s renegotiations of EU membership, and if not, what would you change?

I think it’s a bit of a sideshow, you know. But we’re on the same side up until June 23rd. There were issues in there that were important – Britain’s role as a non-eurozone country. There are 9 non-eurozone countries at the moment but it’s likely to end up as just two – just us and Denmark. Now is the time to establish our position even though we’re not a eurozone country and I think that’s right to do. [There’s also] the elements of fairness around the emergency break that he negotiated.

But our agenda would’ve been different. Our agenda would have been about expanding the social dimension of Europe, closing the so-called ‘Swedish loophole’ which is used by employers to get round the ‘Agency Workers’ Directive’. And a whole host of other issues. As Jeremy Corbyn said in his Senate House speech, there is no perfect institution anywhere in the world and certainly the EU isn’t perfect. But reform is a process, it’s not an event. You don’t have one great slam-dunk set of negotiations and that’s everything sorted.

And I think David Cameron’s problem was that he was suggesting that we could do that – gunfire, okay – big confrontation. I think you’re much better off building alliances, making friends, persuading people and doing that over a period of time when you’re not just constantly threatening to leave and shouting your demands. I think once this referendum is over, maybe that will be David Cameron’s view about reform as well.

Tamsin Parnell and Ben Lewis

Image: Impact Comment

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