Remain is the outcome that will best ensure the prosperity of our families, our country and our legal profession.
I shall be voting Remain because I want my children to have the best possible future, the UK to prosper and our profession to thrive.
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research’s objective view is that a Brexit would cut GDP by between 2.7% and 7.8% by 2030, and sterling would depreciate to close to parity with the euro.
Trade is only part of the story. Many of the benefits of EU membership are from investments made in the UK by global businesses, such as car manufacturers, technology companies and banks, who wish to take advantage of the single European market. Many companies, such as Microsoft and Nissan, have said that membership of the EU makes the most sense for UK jobs, trade and costs.
We lawyers are rightly sceptical about undue reliance on experts. But when we are about to take a decision of momentous importance for our country, our families and our businesses, can we simply dismiss as a conspiracy of the establishment, the fact that the serious dangers of a Brexit have been highlighted by bodies as diverse as the leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Green parties; the CBI; the TUC; the governments of most major countries; former US treasury and defence secretaries (Republican and Democrat); the IMF; the OECD; most leading economists; the Bank of England; the governments of our major allies; the heads of nearly all our universities; and our most respected scientists?
Even Andrew Lilico, one of the few economists to support Brexit, has said: ‘We should expect some lost GDP growth in the first few years. Leaving will be likely to lead to some structural changes in our economy, and some investment predicated upon EU membership will go bad.’
Lawyers understand that negotiations turn on the reality of bargaining power, not vague statements of hope. It is easy to see through the fatuous suggestion that, post-Brexit, in an atmosphere of acrimony, the EU would do a deal that gives the UK all that it wants for trade without any downside. Less than 8% of EU exports come to the UK while 44% of UK exports go to the EU.
If we include countries party to existing and planned EU trade deals, our EU membership covers 82% of UK exports. Where does the bargaining power lie in that relationship? And what damage to business will the long-term uncertainty cause?
What does this mean for law firms? We are dependent on the willingness of clients to pay for our services (or the state to pay in the case of legal aid). Reduced national wealth and declining investment means less demand. Oxford Economics, in an independent analysis for the Law Society, concluded that, because legal services are so dependent on demand from other sectors, legal services would be disproportionately disadvantaged if the UK left the EU. The annual output loss for the sector by 2030 could be up to £1.7bn, the equivalent of the UK revenue of the UK’s four biggest law firms.
In the short-term, there may be opportunities for some. A Brexit will lead to a regulatory bonanza as new structures and requirements are established. Others, such as insolvency practitioners, may do well. But these lawyers will be as doctors in a time of plague, presiding over decline. Many lawyers will not even see a short-term benefit, business transactions will certainly turn down, and residential and commercial property markets will slow down.
One of the great myths is that EU membership adds to regulatory burdens. There are EU measures which, like some UK regulations, are disproportionate. But overall EU rules reduce the burden on businesses, replacing 28 sets of national regulatory requirements with just one. In our profession, an English qualification enables solicitors to set up business and practise anywhere in the EU.
A Brexit would not relieve businesses trading with Europe (and those in their supply chain) of the need to comply with EU regulations; it would just deny the UK the opportunity to help shape the rules, and a seat in the European Court to contribute to their interpretation. This matters: the UK voice has been important in ensuring a more economically liberal, less burdensome regime.
Strong, confident sovereign nations enter into international agreements to protect their interests. It is the weak and fearful who pretend the rest of the world does not exist. Just as membership of NATO protects our national security, membership of the EU supports our economic security. The UK has a good deal – we take advantage of positive aspects of the EU such as the single market and global trade agreements, while opting out of the eurozone and the Schengen passport-free area.
We retain full control over our currency and borders and are free to deny entry to, or deport, anyone who poses a security risk, whether from the EU or elsewhere.
It is true that workers from EU countries have the right to work in the UK, just as UK citizens have rights to live, work and study in other EU countries. Many business clients of law firms would be materially worse off without access to these workers, who are net contributors, paying £20bn more in taxes than they take in benefits. They come here because the economy is strong and, by working hard and contributing taxes, they make it even stronger.
Stopping EU immigration is not the answer to the social pressures in some communities. A post-Brexit Britain would be weaker and poorer. Access to public services would be constrained, not because of immigration, but because the country would not have the wealth to provide them. In such a scenario how confident can we be about the future of services such as legal aid?
As lawyers, we understand complexity, analyse risk and distinguish between rhetoric and reality. Applying these skills to the referendum debate, it is clear that Remain is the outcome that will best ensure the prosperity of our families, our country and our businesses.
Martin Coleman is global head of competition and regulation at Norton Rose Fulbright. He is writing in a personal capacity as a supporter of ‘Lawyers – In for Britain’