The case for EU membership goes beyond mere economics

Freedom of movement has opened a world of opportunity for today's young people

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Can we please stop pretending the in-out EU debate is about economics? Both sides are prone to conjuring sheaves of statistics that prove the other is intent on tipping us all into black ruin, but taking these arguments about GDP trends and trade agreements at face value makes as much sense as treating Moby Dick like a sober audit of the 19th-century whale oil industry. They are banal stand-ins for the real arguments about abstract ideals.

For many Brits, the EU remains an abstract concept. It means taking holidays in Europe is a bit easier, which hardly seems worth the cost we keep hearing about. This is a pity, because the European project is revolutionising the way people across the continent live, including us. There is an unprecedented intermingling of peoples and cultures going on right now. We should be intoxicated by this, not drawing the curtains and tutting over our purses.

Five years ago, I moved from the UK to Poland. I'm one of more than 700,000 UK citizens who now live elsewhere in the EU. Millions of other Europeans have done the same thing, not just going from East to West, and this has only been possible because of the freedoms of movement and exchange that the EU has made possible.

With the minimum of fuss, I can now come and live in a city that, when I was a teenager, was as impossibly distant as Mordor. I am immersed in a culture with an historical perspective that is completely different from the one I grew up in, and surrounded by friends and colleagues from all across Europe who are having the same experience. This is the melting pot of the 21st century. This is the hothouse of cultural interchange that made the United States great, but it's happening right here, right now in stuffy old Europe.

Politicians would have us regard these shifts as 'economic migration', but human beings cannot be reduced to mere economic agents – that's a fantasy that even economists gave up on decades ago. We relocate for all kinds of irrational reasons: because we want see something of the world, because of a story we read when we were 18, for fun.

Polish migration has become the shorthand for intra-European relocation, but it is not the only story. There is a growing French colony in London, Southern Europeans are flocking to Poland, Swedes are settling in Spain. The cliché is that these millions of, mostly, young people are looking for jobs, but just take a second to think about that. Did you act solely in the interests of your economic future when you were in your 20s? Did you take that gap year because you thought it would enhance your career chances? Like hell.

No, young people are the same everywhere – they want new experiences in far away places that aren't like home. Sure, they're going to get a job when they arrive, they don't have much choice, but assuming money is the only reason that people move across a continent is like assuming we only take beach holidays because we enjoy flying Ryanair.

Many of the generation starting on their adult lives now will have flings with exotic foreigners, spend time living abroad, have kids who will speak two languages - thanks in part to the EU project. Why on earth would we want to give that up for the sake of a few theoretical pennies on the pound?