A simple explanation of the EU and this referendum

I don’t know about you, but whenever the subject of the EU referendum comes up in polite conversation, people say they genuinely don’t know enough about the whole issue to make a decision.

Of course they may just be being polite and may be ducking a difficult conversation but members of my family have also asked me about it, including my teenage daughter. I explained it to her in the very simple way below and my unpolitical wife who happened to be listening in said she learned more from that father-daughter chat than anything on the television.

So here’s my slightly “Janet and John” effort at describing what the EU is and why it matters. For those already knowledgeable about the EU, this will be necessarily simple and it will keep out some detail just to maintain the narrative.

Let’s start this by going to an imaginary place…..

Imagine there are four islands in an ocean somewhere. They are not cartoon-like islands with a single palm tree in the middle and a man looking out to sea. No, they are big islands, like Great Britain or Ireland.

They are about 30 miles apart by sea and they have all sorts of different characteristics — one is mostly wet and mountainous, another is quite flat and fertile, another is very warm and dry. You get the picture. Let’s call them the blue island, green island, red island and yellow island.

For hundreds of years, even thousands of years, each island nation developed in their own mostly-separate ways — different languages, customs and culture emerged in each. And because they were different and the populations were not very educated, each island was suspicious of outsiders from other islands who didn’t share their view of life….and of course each island thought their way was best. This occasionally blew up into a conflict between two of the islands, and eventually into one huge war among all four of them during the last century.

It is worth noting that up to the time of “The Huge War” , some of the islands had seen the emergence of democracy where the adult islanders voted on who should be their leaders.

A second parallel development up to the war was the increasing education of all islanders and the emergence of a very modern economy on each island — with modern money, cars, shops, banks, companies, radios and other technology — all the usual stuff.

It was the apparent breakdown of democracy on the yellow island after a period of great poverty (and the election of a “strong man”, Mr Adolf Yellow) that led to The Huge War. And after The Huge War, when lots of people on all four islands were killed, the leaders of the four decided it would be better if they worked together and in a way that made war impossible in future.

They therefore created a new body called the “Island Union” or “IU” for short, which set up a headquarters on the blue island. This represented the beginnings of a single “supranational” government for all four island nations because, the theory went, if all four islands were the same country with the same government then they would never go to war with each other again.

It’s true to say that the IU would not reach that end goal of a single country for a long time — indeed progress towards that goal would be built step-by-step over decades such that the economies and politics of each island nation would be steadily brought together in a process of “ever closer union”.

The IU started that process by focusing on trade in order to improve the economies of all four islands. For example, ships carrying saleable goods between the islands were no longer required to pay a tax to any island’s customs officer at the port of arrival (this arrangement was dubbed a “customs union”). Ships arriving from far away across the ocean still had to pay such taxes when they arrived. The IU would also increasingly make sure that goods across all IU islands met certain standards so that consumers wouldn’t be sold sub-standard goods, and that dodgy products from one island wouldn’t undercut decent quality goods made on another island.

A Yellow island port with containers full of goods arriving from the other islands

More and more island ships were soon carrying more and more goods between the four islands and the knock-on effect was to bring the islands closer together, as all islanders increasingly became introduced to the others’ cuisine, learned their languages and enjoyed goods they hadn’t seen before. A certain “connectedness” therefore grew between the islands which fostered understanding. This paved the way for “island free movement” — an agreement made by the IU islands to allow people to freely move between each of them and to treat all the islands as essentially their own country. That made it easier for people from say the poorer green island to migrate to the richer red island.

So the impulse to create the IU was a noble one, built on the horrors of war, and its initial method of focusing on trade and exchange was also a canny move. Because (setting aside the IU’s push for “ever closer union”), trade tends to bring people together while politics can divide them.

But this whole approach came with some political issues that the four members of the IU had to accept as part of their IU membership. Those issues were that:

1. The IU would sometimes have to overrule an island’s wishes “for the greater good of the IU”. And that would mean overruling the democratically-elected government of one of the islands. For example, the blue island might normally have objected to the red island exporting cheaper widgets across to them that competed with the blue island’s own widget industry. But the IU presided over competition rules and prevented the blue island from turning back red island widgets “because they didn’t like them” or “because it’ll put our own widget makers out of work”.

2. The IU cannot become too accountable to its member islands or their populations for a similar reason to the above — the democratic politics in member islands, which ebb and flow, may try to slow down or even reverse the IU’s “noble process” of ever closer union. And the IU was set up to guard against that. “There can be no democratic choice against the IU treaties” one IU official famously said. Other people working in the IU organisation would often point out, slightly sniffily, that it was a democracy that first elected Mr Adolf Yellow who went on to cause The Huge War and therefore that populism (i.e. democracy) is dangerous. Such people sometimes sported little badges saying “The IU— my country”.

3. For the two reasons above, the IU needed a structure that was partly unelected and not directly accountable to the islands’ peoples. That part was called “the IU Commission”, and was made up of people from member islands who were appointed (not elected) by a special meeting of island governments called the “Islands Council”.

In other words, for the IU to work and to grow itself into a fully working government of all the islands, democracy and the will of the people at island level had to be constrained. There would be things that an elected island government would want to do and would have the support of their people to do, but over time more and more of these things would be prevented by the IU so that soon every island government found that its daily business was very constrained by the IU.

This brings us to another point. To have the authority to stop islands and island people from doing what they want (and electing any old Tom, Dick or Harriet who might actually want to change things), the IU needed its own body of “IU law” that had the power to overrule island law. And any system of law in any country in the world needs an ultimate group of judges who interpret that law and have the final say on what is right. The IU therefore created something called the “IU Court of Justice” or the ICJ. It was ultimately the independent ICJ who could strike down laws in one island or another as being incompatible with IU law.

The IU Court of Justice

The general rule of politics anywhere on Earth is that a government and its institutions will draw more and more power to themselves i.e. its power will grow and grow, especially without full accountability to the people it supposedly serves. And institutions like the ICJ which are made up of judges who believe in the IU’s goal will do things that help advance the IU into new areas where it can stop any one of the islands from doing what they like. In short, the ICJ would become more and more interfering as well as being an active promoter of the IU’s interests over those of the member islands.

The IU also set up an “IU parliament”. Each island elected a number of people to be MIPs — members of the IU parliament. For many years this was just a “talking shop” with no power, but it had been put in place as the forerunner to a real parliament with real power. The parliament of a new country.

But some people who were becoming nervous of the IU’s direction towards a single state (so-called “IU-sceptics”) noted that a democracy was not just about voting rituals; instead there had to be a deep cultural affiliation — the “demos” in “democracy” — between the people and their governing institutions. As long as the islanders felt allegiance to their island first — seeing themselves primarily as Blueish or Yellowish or whatever — then the IU could have no real democratic legitimacy.

The IU Parliament

Together these IU institutions therefore moved on from their focus on trade and decided to do some “nice things”. For example, they gave all islanders better rights at work — better maternity pay, minimum annual paid leave and such like. The IU also used the money paid in by the member islands to clean up their beaches and build some nice new roads in poorer areas. And they did so in ways that prevented any future democratically-elected island government from reversing these “nice things”.

In the battle between having a full independent democracy or having “nice things”, it seemed that many islanders were happy to take the “nice things”. Probably because nice things are nice.

Let’s now move this on a bit.

The red island had always been lukewarm about the IU.

This was because it had a long history of democracy that unlike other islands did not collapse during the 20th century around the time of The Huge War. Indeed many red islanders refused to see democracy as something that should be limited at all because the red island, as a fully functioning democracy, was the island that led the rescue of the other three islands from Adolf Yellow’s warmongering fascism. To them, island democracy was something to be very proud of and needed nurturing, not neutering. But the IU was necessarily a mechanism for neutering island democracy, which the IU carried out blatantly on multiple occasions especially when islanders voted against IU proposals in referendums — the IU just ignored them and told them to vote again.

The red island flag

The red islanders attitude towards democracy might of course beg the question of why they ever joined the IU in the first place. One explanation is that the IU was sold to red islanders as a purely trading relationship. Another idea was that they knew what the IU was all about but kidded themselves into thinking the red island could make it about trade only.

The other thing about the red island was that during its history, it had been very successful at spreading its ideas and language across the oceans and around the world. Red islanders had an adventurous spirit and would therefore often stand on the red island’s northern shore and stare longingly at the distant horizon. During these private moments, red islanders would feel a tinge of frustration that the IU seemed so inward-looking.

There were of course red islanders who saw the IU positively; as a way of reaching out to others in a spirit of friendship — in other words the IU’s original noble intention. But the IU-sceptics on the red island increasingly grew in stature. And they did so when the IU took some major new steps towards its ultimate objective: to create a new country made up of multiple islands.

The first major step was to abolish the currencies of the islands and replace them with a single one — “the IURO”. Now most people are probably not bothered about which currency they use, as long as they get paid in it and as long as they can buy stuff in the shops with it. However the red island was so opposed to this idea that they refused to adopt the new currency and instead kept their own currency. And they were opposed because, in a nutshell, “he who controls the currency controls the government”. The control of a currency is arguably the most potent practical manifestation of an island’s independence — what makes it an independent island nation. Take that away and you take away your island’s independence. And the IU-sceptics made this very clear at the time, along with their predictions that the IURO would end in tears for those that adopted it. All of these arguments caused the red island government to back away from the IURO.

The second major step was the creation of the “Schnorken Zone” [just so you don’t get lost, this is the “Schengen zone” in reality]. Although “Island free movement” already existed, that agreement still assumed passport checks at island ports. The Schnorken Zone went further and said there should be no passport checks. Islanders would be free to hop on and off ships between the islands like getting on and off a bus between one town and another on a single island. This was a way of moving the islands further towards one single seamless entity — a country by any other name. Once again, the red island refused to join in, so the zone only covered three of the islands — the blue, yellow and green who seemed to increasingly merge together in a bluey-yellowy identity.

There were also emerging moves or talk towards having an IU “foreign office”, an IU defence union and an IU army, none of which were liked by the red island, to the point that the red island’s pro-IU deputy prime minister Mr Nicholas Cleggworth flatly denied these things were even being mooted and called IU-sceptic talk of an IU army “a dangerous fantasy”.

The red island was now increasingly out of step with the rest of the IU and its heart was clearly not in the IU’s objective of “ever closer union”. But as the new IURO turned into a disaster for the poor green island and was slowly draining the economic life from the blue island too, some red islanders led by those IU-sceptics, felt they had been vindicated. The IU through the IURO was now demonstrably destroying the livelihoods of millions across the IU, and was particularly crushing the hopes of young people in need of jobs. It therefore lost any moral high ground it might have once occupied.

Furthermore, the Schnorken Zone also turned sour after more than a million migrants from a war-torn land far across the ocean had started landing on the poorer green island and were using the passport-free nature of the Schnorken Zone to go wherever they wanted on the three Schnorken islands (and were smuggling themselves over to the attractive red island). This huge influx of poor migrants caused major tensions among the blue-yellow-green islands and once again the IU-sceptics on the red island felt vindicated in saying the IU’s whole process of “ever closer union” was clearly flawed, as well as being undemocratic. I should add that the red island was facing its own problems of mass immigration, not only from the far side of the ocean but also from islanders from the other three islands. It could do nothing to stop this while being part of the IU because “island free movement” has become such a fundamental part of IU membership.

A Mr Niall Farrago, who ran a new upstart party on the red island that objected to migration over and above everything else, latched on to this fact and was often heard shouting “BLAH BLAH MIGRANTS, BLAH BLAH MIGRANTS”. And his followers would chant along.

Migrants travelling to the IU islands by the boatload

Now, it is worth noting that over the previous 20 years while the IU was moving ever closer towards creating a new country called IUtopia, something else happened.

You may recall that the IU was involved in managing the islands’ product standards which were set for a wide range of products including widgets. Those IU standards which helped form what was called “the single market” were agreed around a big oak table known as “the top table” which was on the top floor of the IU’s headquarters. But what had happened 20 years ago is that a chunk of the top table was sawn off one night and sent to a distant land where a new global body used the chunk as their table to discuss and agree global standards. This global body also pledged to saw off a piece of the IU’s “top table” every year and to superglue each bit onto its own “top table”. These days, the global top table was bigger than the IU’s and was constantly growing. People called this process “globalisation” — the steady creation of a single global trading area, agreed around the global top table. The IU sent representatives to the global “top table” and the four islands were also allowed to send their own people but those island people were only allowed to say whatever the IU representatives told them to say. When a global agreement was signed covering, say, the standard size and weight of muckets, that agreement would be handed down to all countries in the world including to the IU. The IU would then adopt it as its own (by re-typing the agreement on official IU notepaper) and pass it down to each of the islands as an “IU Directive” or “IU Regulation” to be implemented. Global agreements were arrived at by consensus, not by the IU’s practice of “majority voting” which the IU demanded for any IU agreements made at its own (shrinking) top table….and which often saw the red island being outvoted.

IU-sceptics from the red island noticed all of this global stuff and realised it meant the IU was an obstacle to their island’s full independent participation at the global “top table”. Separately, the red island was also not allowed to sign any trade treaties with other countries around the world because the IU had long ago taken away the power to do that.

And given the red islanders’ moments of longing to explore the wide open seas beyond the IU, this stuff really really annoyed red islanders. They wanted to be true global citizens but the IU, while noble in its original intent, now felt like a barrier with its oppressive and “insular” outlook. The fact that three other small islands in the archipelago called Nogway, Ikeland and Zwitterland — who had never joined the IU and were deeply suspicious of it — were playing a full independent role at the new global top table just added insult to injury for some red islanders. The fearsome Nog people of Nogway and the time-obsessed Zwitters of Zwitterland were helping define global laws and standards which the red islanders had limited say on but then had to live by.

It all felt very back-to-front, especially as the pro-IU people often claimed that the IU extended the islands’ global influence — a claim that now seemed rather hollow.

Anyway, to complete the main story…

In the end the red island’s prime minister, a Mr Dave Shameron, said it was time to fundamentally reform the IU and the red island’s relationship with it. The IU, he declared, needed rolling back; its wish for a country called IUtopia involving the red island must end, and he demanded major political powers be returned to the red island in order to stop what had now become an outdated and economically damaging IU ideology. If the other three islands wanted to carry on slowly killing their democracies and forging themselves into one country, well that was up to them and Shameron would wish them well but the red island would have no part in it.

He therefore planned to negotiate a new settlement with the IU and its other island members and would put the result to a referendum of all red islanders. If he didn’t himself like the new settlement, he “ruled nothing out”, which was taken to mean that he might call for the red island to vote to leave the IU. Then in future the red island would just trade and work with the IU as good friends but not as members. MPs in Mr Shameron’s party got very excited by this prospect of a full IU renegotiation.

After his speech, Mr Shameron spent three years working out this new deal with the IU. But as time went by, it became clear that his heart wasn’t really in it and nor was the IU’s. The big things he had promised early on were quietly dropped and the final deal, when it came, was shocking because it contained almost nothing. Even pro-IU people on the red island were rather red-faced and admitted “we can’t big up this one”.

Within the Shameron deal was an apparent agreement to stop “ever closer union” that some of his MPs greeted with triumph, but it basically amounted to just removing the three words from the IU treaty with no other substance behind it. Other concessions (such that they were even worth talking about), seemed to demonstrate what IU-sceptics had claimed all along: that the IU was completely unreformed and unreformable, and that its institutions like the ICJ would just continue towards the IU’s goal unimpeded. The destination of a country called IUtopia would be unchanged. The leaders of other islands even said that nothing had changed, which rather embarrassed Mr Shameron. Within days, Mr Shameron had noticeably stopped talking about his embarrassing deal and swiftly moved on to other topics.

Shameron’s own MPs were so shocked by the poor deal that many declared the IU was now totally unreformable and that if we voted to stay in the IU after this appalling deal, the IU would “never take us seriously again” and “there would be no chance of IU reform EVER”. As a consequence, a much larger number of Mr Shameron’s MPs than anyone had ever imagined announced that they wanted to leave the IU. And even more surprisingly, so did Mr Borat Johnson, who many had long suspected of being very pro-IU. Even those who backed Mr Shameron seemed to start their arguments with “Look I know the IU is terrible but….” and then proceeded to tell their fellow red islanders how a giant tsunami would hit the island and sink it within days if they voted to Leave (this was dubbed “Project Fear”).

Some of Shameron’s friends also argued that the IU would never reach their silly IUtopia anyway — it was all a pipe dream — but that the red island needed to be in the IU anyway to help shape a different future. It sounded like a good argument until it was pointed out that this same argument had been made over many decades by pro-IU islanders right back to the very start of the IU in 1957. And yet the archipelago still had the IURO, the Schnorken zone and all the other flaws that many had warned about. In other words the argument had already been proved not to work.

The stage was thus set.

Would the red islanders decide that they wanted another 40 years of “more of the same”, heading gradually towards IUtopia, presumably without the “brake” that the red island had historically provided? And that the red islanders should shut up complaining about mass immigration, the lack of democracy, the IU’s flaws etc etc?

Or would the red island force a “crisis reform” onto the IU by leaving it, therefore remapping island relations towards a more trade-based relationship that the red island had always wanted and so stop the red island being dragged towards IUtopia once and for all?

You decide.