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Cambridge leaders meet to discuss challenges of Brexit

By Ben Comber

Britain votes to leave the European Union
Britain votes to leave the European Union

A panel of experts shed some light on the issues that Cambridge will face as Britain exits the European Union.

MP for Cambridge Daniel Zeichner
MP for Cambridge Daniel Zeichner

On July 23 Britain voted to leave the European Union, while residents in Cambridge largely voted to remain a member.

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner chaired the meeting, and while he was keen to pass the majority of questions to panelists he did step in to make it clear that he will be voting to remain when MPs vote in parliament.

The panel was made up of experts from politics, academia, business, and the NHS.

Mr Zeichner also announced his intention to hold a series of further meetings to discuss other issues that will begin in September.

The panel

Politics: Dr Simon Usherwood, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey.

Academia: Professor Chris Abell, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, University of Cambridge.

Business: Claire Ruskin, Chief Executive Officer of Cambridge Network.

NHS: Dr Mike More, Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, Cambridge University Hospitals Trust.

Speaking first, Dr Simon Usherwood said that there needs to be clear goals moving forward, and platforms for more similar debate to avoid reproduction of the decisions made so far. Speaking as the expert on politics, he said that Article 50 will not be an equal negotiation as it is designed to protect the interests of remaining EU member states. He said that it will likely be triggered next year, and one of two options will likely be the model moving forward; either a ‘simple option’ that would see the UK keep paying money, keep receiving the benefits of being an EU member but withdrawing from the decision making process, or an alternative model that would see the UK remove all its benefits and add benefits that it wants over time. Both, Simon said, were transitional options that will be considered further down the line.

Representing Cambridge University, Prof Chris Abell made it clear that freedom of movement for EU citizens is essential to the university, which benefits from being able to attract academics from across the globe. He said that research commands collaboration, and 60 per cent of UK co-authored papers are written with EU partnerships, and stated dissatisfaction at the lack of clarity regarding the citizenship of current university academics. Funding is also a concern, and Prof Abell said it is the issue where the impact of Brexit looms largest for the university. He said that Cambridge University receives the most funding from the European Research Council of all UK universities. He also said that the UK receives the most ERC funding of EU members, but of all EU countries is only the 11th highest spender on academic research, spending less than 1% of GDP. Prof Abell made it clear however that Cambridge University was resilient, and has not changed any plans it had going forward before the brexit vote.

Claire Ruskin said that the UK is still the best place to do business, and that businesses weighing up the picture are still choosing to invest here. She said that retail and agriculture are benefitting from increased business as a result of the weaker pound, and that things were superficially quite rosy, although Cambridge footfall has already reduced, especially sales of high-ticket items. Moving forward she urged for a vision to be set out using good, not just popular, thinking, and that Cambridge should push for confirmation of the City Deal, but could also help with the wider issues facing the UK. In terms of employment, she reported some non-UK staff leaving current jobs in the UK already, and the some EU nationals are rejecting UK job offers.

Dr Mike More’s comments echoed those of Professor Abell, urging clarity of citizenship status for current EU nationals who are residents in the UK. He said that Addenbrooke’s employs employes a huge array of nationals - 12 per cent being from the EU and 16% from other nations. He said that the health sector is suffering from the weak pound as international prices for medicines reflect the exchange rate to the dollar, and that healthcare will be affected. He said that EU citizens in the UK use the NHS less than the average UK resident, perhaps due to most being younger job-seekers. He proposed a hypothetical situation that could see older expats having to return to the UK for healthcare, putting a greater strain on the UK than EU citizens in the UK are putting on it now.

Many in the audience voiced their concerns to the panel, among them Cambridge County Councillor John Hipkin who spoke on behalf of the further Cambridgeshire region, reminding the hall that a high percentage of Fenland residents voted to leave the EU.

This was echoed by other audience members, and particular concerns were brought up about the £35,000 figure which has been put forward as the earnings necessary for EU residents to keep UK residency post Brexit.

Dr More also said that this was a concern, referring to the Addenbrooke’s nurses who do not exceed that income.

One audience member spoke out about the need for perceived increases in racism being addressed, a concern that Mr Zeichner did not initially respond to.

And to the disappointment of many, following a recent social media campaign, Mr Zeichner put the possibility of Cambridge becoming independent of the UK and keeping EU membership to bed.

Many questions went unanswered, those with concerns and queries having now to wait until the continuation of the Cambridge dialogue in Mr Zeichner’s September events.


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