The lead-up to the referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) has already ignited a heated debate, with harsh words and vociferous scaremongering. And that’s just the politicians.
Whether we stay in or decide to opt out of Europe, how will the decision effect engineers and the wider construction industry?
Last week, many of the country’s biggest civils firms joined other UK businesses to sign a letter that backed the campaign to keep Britain in Europe. The letter, published in The Times, highlighted prime minister David Cameron’s recent renegotiation and outlined the presumed benefits of remaining in a reformed European Union (EU). The letter stressed that business needs unrestricted access to the European market of 500M people to continue growth, investment and to create jobs.
It’s not news that the construction industry has been faced with a major skills shortage for some time. With major infrastructure projects from High Speed 2 to Crossrail 2 on the horizon, the need for skilled workers across the industry is growing exponentially. While the long-term focus must be on ensuring we are attracting young British people into the industry, the stark reality is that we are currently supplementing our workforce with people from our neighbouring European nations. How can we successfully deliver the essential infrastructure projects currently in the pipeline without freedom of movement of labour? Or, is this fear completely unfounded? There remains a lot of uncertainty over how much of an effect leaving the EU will have on our ability to recruit supplementary European labour for UK projects. It’s concerning that much of the contradictory information currently available is about as clear as a puddle on a muddy construction site.
The Government’s first official analysis into how leaving the EU could affect Britain suggests the decision would unleash a miserable decade of instability. The report concludes that “a vote to leave the EU would be the start, not the end, of a process. It could lead to up to a decade or more of uncertainty.”
Further anxiety about leaving the Union has come from global fund manager BlackRock. In a new report, the company warned that cutting ties with the EU would affect the financial industry’s contribution to the UK economy, tax revenues and trade balance. BlackRock vice chairman Philipp Hildebrand said: “Our bottom line is that a Brexit offers a lot of risk with little obvious reward.” He added: “We see an EU exit leading to lower UK growth and investment, and potentially higher unemployment and inflation. Any offsetting benefits look more amorphous and less certain, in our view.”
So while Cameron and EU-opposing London mayor Boris Johnson continue their pantomime-esque war of words, we’re left to pick through the drivel and make a decision that will have far-reaching ramifications for us, our industry and our comrades across the continent.
Despite all the doom and gloom, many remain undecided on which way to vote. By leaving the EU, it could, in fact, allow our industry to be more agile and penetrate through the restrictive rules and regulations which are often completely irrelevant to UK projects. Perhaps leaving the EU would also force industry and government to act more swiftly to ensure we can attract and train the next generation of construction professionals, instead of remaining reliant on recruiting from across the pond.
That aside I’m heading off to France for a few days on a cheap flight while I can still get one!