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Educating Europe Cooperation with the continent is crucial to Britain's intellectual life

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Exactly a week from now, on June 23rd, citizens of the United Kingdom, for better or worse, will be asked to give their answer to the question of whether the United Kingdom should “remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union”.

When the war of sound bites and statistics has subsided, or non-statistics or non-data, we will be left with the consequences of one of the most serious choices this country has been asked to make since 1975 –and possibly for many decades hereafter.

Allow me to spend some of my time saying why I think the answer to that question should be an unequivocal, unambiguous YES to remaining in the European Union. And to say why I think this matters not only to the UK, but to Europe.

The United Kingdom should remain part of the European Union because we are part of Europe. Let’s not forget that it was only through an accident of geology that we became separated from “the continent”. There was a time when our islands were part of the same continental landmass… and to the best of my knowledge we sit on the same continental shelf and we cannot be towed to sit outside New York harbour.

No matter what the proponents of Brexit would wish us to think, the United Kingdom is inextricably linked to Europe. We don’t have to go as far back as the latest glaciation to understand why the European project is one to which we should always aspire to be a part of. At the heart of this modern European project are some very simple but very powerful ideas:

– That this community of nations, bound by geography, can achieve more, and do better, by working collectively.

– That these countries can avoid war with each other, and improve their lot, by acting in concert and acting collegially.

– That its members will be enriched, not diminished, by allowing their citizens the mobility to seek opportunities.

Those are the fundamental principles underpinning the European ideal. I am the literal embodiment of what that European ideal will allow: the Welsh son of Polish refugees, now at the helm of a quintessentially British University.

I feel European to my very core. And my Britishness is as much a part of this feeling of belonging to Europe as is my Polish genetic background. The generosity of spirit of the European project has shaped me both individually and professionally. As the Vice-Chancellor of a leading research university in the United Kingdom – now I’m going to be a little more biased, the leading research university – I have had to grapple with the question of what is at stake for the UK’s higher education when we vote on whether to remain or to leave.

Our sector has done quite well out of our European engagement, especially when it comes to research-intensive universities like Cambridge. Between 2007-2013 the UK was a net receiver of EU funding for research. Under the 7th Framework Programme the UK received almost 18% of the total funding awarded to all EU countries.

To date, we have received close to €1.3bn under H2020. EU funding accounts for approximately 16% of UK universities’ research budget. The idea that this is an optional extra is fundamentally wrong. No one could argue that our sector does not bring a good return on investment from European membership. But there is a much more fundamental argument to be made in favour of our sector’s full engagement with the EU. The question is not how much funding we get from Europe, but what that funding enables.

Consider, for instance, how we have benefited from freedom of mobility within the EU – not a topic that everyone in Britain would necessary concur with: 200,000 UK students have studied and worked abroad through the Erasmus programme. Now think of the diversity that they bring back to the UK. Over 125,000 EU students are currently studying at UK universities. In addition, 15% of academic staff at UK universities hail from other EU countries.

The conclusion, to me, is clear.

Extricating ourselves from a system that allows the mobility of staff and students, losing that ability to attract the brightest minds from our nearest-neighbouring countries and from our nearest collaborators, would impoverish the United Kingdom – in every sense. So even if you want to take a parochial view, there’s a good and overriding reason for remaining.

Beyond the research income generated through European awards, what interests me most is the impact that collaborative research can have. Because collaborative research is the only way to tackle some of the great global challenges we face, whether it is the problems of ageing societies, energy sustainability, or food security – take your pick.

To give one example of the impact of collaboration: In 2011 the EU funded a large-scale research programme called ANTIGONE (which stands for Anticipating the Global Onset of New Epidemics). It involves European 14 partners, including the University of Cambridge. It wishes to understand why some viruses and bacteria spread by animals cause epidemics in humans, while others do not. It seeks to predict, prevent and prepare for future pandemics of animal origin. What could be more urgent – not just for the UK, but for the world, when we have people likely to die from infections that years ago could be easily treated? Could we have done this alone? Given the scale and the complexity of the problem, the answer is: no.

Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz
Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz

The economic case for remaining in the European Union has been made, and it is probably fair to say that that argument has been won. The battle-lines are now being drawn on two other issues that are more difficult to quantify.

One is this nebulous issue of sovereignty. Those who wish to see the United Kingdom leaving the EU are quick to conflate national sovereignty and isolationism. This stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the realities of government in today’s world. The notion that any country can be a self-contained political and economic entity, free to set its own rules, is nothing but a flight of fancy — one I have described as an Alice in Wonderland world, based on very little absolute reality. A country can only call itself sovereign if it can deliver prosperity, health and security to its citizens – going back to the ancients, let alone today’s world.

Only by pooling some of their powers are governments able to deliver that nowadays. The other very deeply divisive issue that has been brought into the debate is immigration. Again I wonder what the casual outside observer will make of the fact that a nation like ours, which has built its current economic success on the work and the entrepreneurship of many generations of immigrants, now appears more determined to dig moats and put up fences than to build bridges.

The “Leave” campaign’s panicked response to losing the economic argument has been to deliberately conflate the issue of legitimate freedom of movement within Europe with the urgent questions arising from one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of our time.

This reveals two things to me. First, it shows an absolute ignorance about (or unwillingness to acknowledge) some of the basic facts about immigration. In Europe, the free movement of people helps address serious labour market imbalances, and boosts the working-age population. Over the past 10 years, migrants have accounted for a 70% increase in the work force in Europe. Across Europe they contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits. That’s a fact – and yet that fact is being subverted as “abuse” becomes the theme of the debate. They bring skills and contribute to the human capital development of the receiving countries. Migration contributes directly to growth and innovation and to the vitality of countries. In fact, since the year 2000, immigrants have represented 14% of the increase in Europe’s highly educated labour force. That’s data from the OECD. This figure might even include some of you in this room.

The second thing that the opportunistic use of the immigration crisis reveals is an absolute failure of the imagination, of empathy, and of vision. The imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of the displaced and the uprooted. The empathy to see that they are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, spouses and friends, who have –overwhelmingly — not arrived in search of social benefits, but in search of safety.

The vision to understand that these men, women and children will be the productive, creative and innovative citizens of a future Europe. And that therefore the most urgent question should not be how we stop them, or manage their repatriation, but how we tackle the challenges of their integration. I assure you, these challenges will be considerable.

Let’s remind ourselves that this project, which has in the European Union one of its enduring manifestations, is not simply, as some would have it, a bureaucratic abstraction. To people across the continent who have survived the lasting damage of conflicts still within living memory, the EU’s existence is evidence of the triumph of peace-making through institution-building and collaboration. As next week’s referendum reveals, my generation is deeply ambivalent about the European Union and its institutions. This ambivalence is also apparent elsewhere, as extremist groups across Europe reject the underlying openness and democratic values of the European project.

Despite any misgivings about flaws in existing institutions, the essential vision remains the same: a community of nations providing opportunities for trade, for employment, for security, for collaboration, for mutual cultural enrichment and for peaceful coexistence. It will soon be in your hands to make the institutions fit the vision.

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