Phil Wilson, MP for Sedgefield, went head to head with Northern Powerhouse Minister James Wharton in a debate about whether it is better for the North East and the rest of the UK to remain or leave the European Union.
The debate, organised by the North East Economic Forum, came less than a month before the electorate will go to the polls.
Phil Wilson delivered a passionate speech of why the North East are better off in the EU.
Not only has the EU contributed to continuing peace in Europe, but as net beneficiaries of EU funding, the North East has gained a lot from the UK’s EU membership.
It has played an important role in attracting companies like Nissan and Hitachi to the region, bringing with them jobs, investment and growth. The Nissan plant alone employs 6000 people, with a further 36000 in their supply chain.
Mr Wilson acknowledged it is highly unlikely that these businesses would close overnight, but said it was inevitable that leaving the EU would impact future investment by companies already in the North East and companies looking to move here. A view which is supported by comments Nissan, Hitachi and other companies across the North East and the UK as a whole, who have said they will reconsider future investments should voters opt to leave the EU.
Whilst Mr Wharton repeatedly told those in attendance that it was their decision to make, he continuously failed to offer an alternative to our current EU membership. Like many campaigning to leave, Mr Wharton rejected the very realistic notion that the EU would place tariffs on the UK should voters opt to leave, unless the UK agreed to abide by EU rules and to contribute to the EU budget, as we do now.
Mr Wilson challenged Mr Wharton, the Northern Powerhouse Minister, asking him to address the implications of Brexit on the North East. Mr Wilson demanded Mr Wharton explain how EU funding to the North East, which will equate to nearly £1bn by 2020 should Brexit occur. Mr Wilson highlighted the continuous Tory cuts to public services and our councils, with Durham County Council set to loose £380m by 2020. Mr Wilson is rightly sceptical about whether a Tory government who is financially strangling councils, especially those in the North, would really invest the equivalent sum on money which we get from the EU in our region.
You don’t have to look far for evidence that the Tory government consistently favours constituencies outside of the North East. Of the funding government made available to councils suffering from government cuts, only one North East council received funding (Northumberland) and the majority of the councils were held by Tories.
On the question of where the money to make up for lost funding would come from, Mr Wharton gave no response.
Overall, the passionate case for remaining in the EU was put forward by Mr Wilson who urged those in attendance to stay in the EU where the North East can continue to grow and prosper.