Tory MP issues a warning to party colleagues of the dangers of Hard Brexit, as he launches a new initiative to build bridges with Europe
We have heard many calls for what is called a Hard Brexit from our membership of the EU since the EU referendum last June. When pressed on what this means, many eurosceptics seem to relish the idea of tumbling out of our obligations with little regard for the consequences.
Already, in my role as Chair of the Education Select Committee, it is clear the consequences of leaving the EU will have a major impact on our universities. The complexity of unravelling EU relationships and funding in just the higher education sector alone should give pause for thought. That is why I welcome the Government’s recognition that whilst Britain is leaving the EU, it must not turn its back on Europe itself.
In late September 2016, the Education Committee launched an inquiry into the impact of Brexit on higher education – with the clear aim to seek to inform the public and influence the Brexit negotiations.
For this inquiry we ranged out from Westminster and held meetings in Oxford and Newcastle, hearing from university leaders, academics, students and others, as we examined what the Government’s priorities should be for the sector going into the negotiations with the EU.
There are many fears that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will have a negative impact on higher education. Concerns range from being able to attract the brightest students from across Europe to making sure UK universities maintain their places among the world’s best. We also heard the ramifications for Britons who want to work and study at higher education institutions in the EU.
It’s not just about hard numbers or financial viability though. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, told the Committee that it was naive to think that the sort of rhetoric being used by politicians on immigration does not make its way around the world and have an impact on how we are viewed abroad. She warned that three-quarters of EU academics are thinking of quitting the UK as a result of the referendum, while Professor Michael Arthur, provost of University College London, revealed that applications from EU students across the sector were down more than 7%.
Dr Peter Simpson, director of the N8 Research Partnership of universities across the north of England, said that the loss of research funding would be worse felt outside of London. His group receives around £126 million from EU sources and he said they cannot expect their work to carry on regardless.
The Committee’s findings are expected to be published shortly after the triggering of Article 50 and we want them to influence the negotiations so we don’t face the Hard Brexit which could be so damaging to the working relationships universities have built up across the last four decades in Europe.
As the UK disengages from the EU I believe we must also engage with the next generation of opinion formers, policy makers and academics in remodelling and renewing the Europe in which they will live and work.
The question therefore arises – of how academics, politicians and policy makers can engage with like-minded colleagues from across the UK, Europe and beyond? In Germany, there are eleven organisations for the promotion of young talents (Begabtenförderwerke), institutes affiliated to the major parties and funded by the taxpayer, which ensure that the politics of the Federal Republic are widely understood amongst current and future leaders in other democratic nations. There has never been an equivalent initiative here, nor is there any immediate prospect of one.
To fill this vacuum I have founded Modern Europe. This is a new kind of organisation, specifically tailored to promote the UK’s influence and international relationships, and to ensure that policy makers and politicians have opportunities to learn from their peers in the many other democratic nations.
The organisation is not party political and it will operate resolutely and clearly in the public interest and in the political mainstream, promoting international dialogue. It is very much modelled upon the work carried out by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) and others in Germany.
We run a specific academic and student outreach programme to enable those studying international relations and politics to participate in an exchange of ideas about the challenges facing Europe in the decade ahead. The first seminar in our student programme will be held jointly with the KAS in London, bringing together German students studying in the UK with UK students.
Modern Europe understands we are leaving the EU, but recognises an important reality: ‘We cannot turn our backs on Europe – we are part of Europe.’ Another generation will want to forge their own relationships with our friends and therefore no bridges should be burnt.
Neil Carmichael is Conservative MP for Stroud and chair of the Education Select Committee since 2015. He is also chair of the Conservative Group for Europe and founder of Modern Europe. For more information, visit www.moderneurope.co.uk