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Brexit Through The Gift Shop

June 21st, 2016 by Zac

brexit_skateboarding_eu_referendum

With an eye on clinching that (whimsically imaginary) Pulitzer Prize for skate journalism, we set about writing on the EU Referendum with impartial balance. We hit up friends in the industry, hoping for both pro and anti-Europe positions, but probably shouldn’t have been surprised when, being both skateboarders (tending towards internationalism) and businessmen (concerned with buying stuff and selling stuff), they overwhelmingly came down on the side of ‘stay in the EU for the love of God’.

This created a quandary. Should we, hungry for all the prawn-cocktail and cocaine dinners our journalistic prowess would surely bring, find a Brexiter at random to contrast with our friends at Keen Dist, or should we make a clear argument for voting one way or another? Pissing away future work for News International and a soul-sick early grave, we opted for an honest attempt to influence wavering voters. Because, quite frankly, being stuck on an island under the sole direction of gazillionaire Old Etonian xenophobes is too awful to imagine.

Thinking about something as small as skateboarding or, even worse, writing about it, can feel like the ultimate exercise in spoilt disengagement: sweating the small stuff whilst the wider world goes to hell. But knowing a lot about something little, and caring about it deeply – even something as ridiculous as grown men making four wheeled planks balance on two wheels – provides a microcosm within which we understand the consequences of those big, nebulous issues. I know shit all about the minutiae of European treaties, but do know something of the skate brands and individuals they affect, having spent twenty years soaking up otherwise pointless information from magazines and, latterly, social media feeds. That’s why skateboarding matters every bit as much as the stuff proper adults care about. If TV pundits claim to know all the ramifications of Brexit, they’re bluffing.

Some arguments for voting ‘leave’ on June 23rd are good, logical and are not incompatible with compassion and internationalism. Putting aside the Brexit campaign’s ugly stereotyping and opportunistic manipulation of communities decimated by the forces of global capital (blaming EU migrants for low pay and the loss of good jobs is like blaming oil-covered sea birds for the Gulf of Mexico disaster), the EU and its decision-making apparatus, the European Parliament, Commission and Central Bank, are deeply flawed and have acted as brutal agents of neo-liberalism. This is particularly the case with Greece, whose popularly elected left-wing Government (ordained on a pro-EU but anti-austerity mandate) have been forced into a succession of impossible situations. The EU have demanded brutal cuts, which prevent Greece recovering from recession, which in turn prevent it from paying its debts, requiring yet more cuts, and so on.

There is also the libertarian argument, with which many skaters sympathise. If national governments are bad enough, taxing our hard won wealth and demanding we live as service-dependent weaklings, pan-national government is even worse. But there are also good responses to these arguments. The EU may be flawed, but it’s easier to change, and to support our friends in Greece (and Spain), by staying in. Secondly, leaving may rid us of one layer of unwanted government, but we’re still stuck – and even more exposed to the whims of – the UK Government we currently have (quite apart from the fact that the libertarians tend to believe they are strong enough to independently protect themselves and their families – one bad slam and we’re suddenly very weak and very thankful for the health service our taxes pay for and the workers’ rights our EU membership protects, such as paid sickness absence and protection from arbitrary redundancy).

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This leads us to one of the most offensive claims made by the Brexit campaign: that the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU that could instead be spent on the NHS. Quite apart from the fact that this figure has been proven false (it’s not only a significant over-estimate, but it also excludes the funding the UK gets back), think for one moment who is leading the ‘Leave’ campaign. Press moguls, right-wing Tories and UKIP, all of whom have advocated accelerated privatisation of the health service and the end of free healthcare at the point of use. The likes of Nigel Farage support an American-style insurance systems that actual Americans have fought hard to reform (only partially achieved with Obama Care). NHS spokespeople have argued that Brexit would cause a terminal staffing crisis. This is because real terms pay cuts and reduced funding for trainee nurses alongside Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s war with junior doctors have caused an unprecedented exodus of UK-trained health professionals. Without being able to recruit from across the EU, the NHS could not currently function. In the last few years, almost every skateboarder I know, myself included, has been put back together by the NHS.

Trade is both the biggest, most frequently cited argument for the UK to remain in the Union, and the argument that makes us most likely to switch off in drooling boredom. We shouldn’t: the EU is the UK’s most important trading partner by some way. Of course it is – taken together, the EU is the world’s biggest economy (it exceeded the size of the USA in 2003). The independent Office for National Statistics estimate that more than 40% of UK exports of goods and services go to the EU and for more than 50% of imports come from the EU.

No wonder the Americans are so keen for Britain to stay in. Owner of Keen, Mike Halls (who distributes the likes of Quasi, Polar, Welcome and Hopps amongst others) told us: “We’re seen as a gateway into Europe for a lot of US brands, whether that’s direct selling to stores or simply working with EU distributors. If we leave the EU who knows if we’ll work out a new trade agreement, and if so what time frame? If we don’t, I know ourselves as a business will have a dramatic change on the export side definitely and one or two of the brands we work with will almost certainly skip us out of that ‘gateway’.”

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Brexiters have tried to underplay the impact on trade or argue that, because the UK runs a ‘trade deficit’ (the value of EU imports exceeds the value of exports), leaving the Union would “hurt them more than it hurts us” – as if noses cut off to spite faces is something worth celebrating. In a free trade area, which is what the EU fundamentally is, we get those skateboard decks and fresh Magenta t-shirts cheaper than we would from elsewhere (where distributors have to pay trade tariffs – either increasing the mark-up they have to pass to shops and then to customers, or reducing the profit margins that keep them in business).

It has been argued that, in the short term, a £ sterling weakened by a ‘Leave’ vote would be good for British products, because it will make the stuff we sell to our continental friends cheaper for them to buy. On the other hand it will make imports more expensive. As A Third Foot are Britain’s only skateboard manufacturer, in skateboarding we import an awful lot more than we export (most of our decks and other hardware, a large share of soft goods, and all skate shoes). Even if the £ recovers strongly and quickly, it creates a lot of uncertainty, which isn’t helpful for our industry – which of course needs to think long term (how much of next season’s range to buy in, etc.).

At a time when the skate industry is in flux, in both a good way, with the rise of the indie brands (many of them European), and a bad way, in the consolidation of the footwear under the sportswear giants, increasing the cost of trade with our biggest trading partner could be extremely damaging for home-grown distributors and skate shops. On this, Mike adds: “Look at UK stores which are currently buying some rad brands direct from Europe. Would they still order in knowing they have to be paying duties and taxes from our friends in France and Germany? Same again for European brands, us as distributors wouldn’t be able to soak up the margin and pricing would definitely have to be evaluated.”

jbgilletOf course it isn’t just goods and services that EU membership guarantees free movement, it’s the other ‘factors of production’ – particularly labour. This gets us to the most controversial part of the debate: immigration. The ‘right to free movement’ means any citizen of an EU member state can work, study or retire in any other EU state. This has costs and benefits – but is only a problem when we have vast inequality across Europe. You don’t leave Spain for Britain for the weather, you leave because Spanish youth unemployment is over twice the rate of Britain. That’s why we have experienced high levels of in-migration from other countries in the EU: British employers need more people to work for them than Spanish, Czech or Polish employers. Reduce the inequality, and you reduce the movement of people. Britain leaving the EU will not help those southern and central European countries recover from recession – and if they don’t recover, people will still arrive at Dover, Heathrow and Gatwick. The refugee crisis shows that desperate people will try to risk everything for a better future regardless of whether or not they have a legal way into that country. If we work together to ensure that there are fewer desperate people in the UK, in Europe, and in Africa and the Middle East, immigration will fall off the newspaper headlines.

As it is, skateboarding has benefited massively from free movement. How many amazing European skaters have you got to hang out with? In Nottingham over the last few years, we’ve had welcome additions to our scene from Poland, Italy, Spain, France and Germany. What would the Long Live Southbank desk have looked like without European free movement? Anyone who’s tried to spend time living and working in the US, or Australia, will know what a horrible nightmare a restricted visa-based immigration system can be. Skate lore is full of legendary characters like JB Gillet separated from their sponsors for stupid-ass visa reasons.

This leads us back to the cultural argument. Skateboarding is inherently internationalist. It celebrates travel and interaction with new scenes alongside localism. It enriches our lives through ‘worldwide connections’ in the words of our French bros at Magenta. This is not dissimilar to the original dream of European cooperation, seeded from the horror of the Second World War by idealistic British as well as continental politicians. The dream was to strengthen links and common interests to make future apocalyptic conflict impossible. Turning away from that dream requires a very cold heart, even if the current reality of the EU falls so far short. The people who reject this dream aren’t just the suit wearing, smooth-talking politicians, but scary looking white dudes who march through Athens, Stockholm, Cologne and Paris waving Swastikas.

Photo: David Lagerlöf

Photograph: David Lagerlöf

Finally, it’s worth thinking what the UK’s public realm would look like outside the EU. British politicians of all parties have been unwilling to invest public money in cities and towns outside London and the South East since the 1970s. Instead, the ‘regeneration boom’ that started in the late 1990s, gifting skateboarders across the North, Midlands, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with skateable spaces, was largely due to European funding – known as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and European Social Fund (ESF) to their mums. Britain may pay in to the EU each year, but it gets millions of Euros back through these two funds and, rather than being spent exclusively in London (where private investment is overwhelming concentrated), the funds’ rules mean it has to be spent in areas of need. The skatepark revolution in Scotland is largely funded by Europe (the Scots claim that, if we leave the EU, they’ll try again to leave the UK in order to re-join Europe).

Take my usual day’s skateboarding. I get a tram into Nottingham city centre (funded by EU money). I meet my friends to skate the blocks in the vast, open area of the regenerated Sneinton market plaza (funded by EU money). At the end of the day, we may eat good, affordable food and watch the sun go down outside Broadway arts cinema bar, which puts you face to face with the 12 stars of Europe on a plaque acknowledging the funding that paid for the place. In total, more than £100 million of EU funding has gone into the regeneration of Nottingham alone since the millennium – and like Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool or Manchester – this Northern town, hammered by the de-industrialisation of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, now looks like an optimistic place to live, work or study, rather than the barren, dilapidated ‘Shottingham’ it was in 1996 when I first moved here.

Of course, you should make your own mind up – but you should think about it carefully. It’s not hyperbole to describe the EU Referendum as likely to be the most important thing you ever vote for. And for pity’s sake, please get out and vote on Thursday the 23rd. Current polling suggests only half of people under 35 expect to vote. If this is true, it’s your future, your right to travel, work, trade and study anywhere in Europe that people at the end of their working lives will be deciding on.

Written by Chris Lawton
Illustrations tweaked by Scott Madill.

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