The European Question
On the 3rd March my friend Mark sent me a Facebook message:
“Morning buddy — need an assist. I trust your judgement on all things political. […] EU referendum: in or out?”
I promised him that I’d get back to him. Three months later, and with less than three weeks till polling day, this is me finally trying to deliver that answer. This is the single hardest political decision I’ve ever had to make and I’m still not confident that I’m right. However, if you sit on the fence too long you get splinters, so here goes…
At this moment in time, I think I’m going to vote to leave the EU.
Before I come to my reasoning, here’s some housekeeping. Firstly, I believe that the identities of the pro-Brexit and pro-Remain campaigners and commentators don’t really matter. There are honest, respectable, accomplished voices on both sides of the argument, just as there are scoundrels and cretins. We are not electing either side into government; rather we are setting the stage on which our elected government operates. (What I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t trust Boris with the NHS — you will be free to vote him out at an election. That really isn’t a reason to stay. Equally, getting rid of Cameron isn’t a reason to leave either.)
Secondly, if the Prime Minister had achieved his renegotiation aims as he set out in his Bloomberg speech then I would probably be voting to Remain. It was the emptiness of the renegotiation package which made me start to seriously consider this issue. I genuinely believed that Cameron would get a good deal. I was mistaken. (I still consider him to be the best available Prime Minister, though.)
Thirdly, I doubt that this course of action is in my short-term (or possibly long-term) financial interests. I hope that this is not a decision that can simply be perceived as being self-interested.
Fourthly, I have written and deleted and redrafted this many times — please excuse any meanderings and grammatical errors.
Ok, in no particular order…
Reason 1: The EU is changing
For the Euro to survive there will need to be deeper financial and, ultimately, political integration of the Euro-zone countries. If this process is to happen, Britain needs to stand aside from that and allow it to happen in the way that those countries require or desire. They do not need the UK carping from the sidelines. Indeed, as part of the renegotiation, the UK agreed not to stand in the way of any deepening Eurozone integration.
However, I do not believe that the UK should be subject to wider EU regulation that may be in the interests of those core countries but not in the interests of the non-core countries. In future, the needs of the UK will be secondary to the needs of the core-EU members and we will find ourselves outvoted consistently on matters of importance.
Just as the Leave campaign hasn’t done a particularly good job of saying what “Out” looks like, I don’t think the Remain campaign has engaged at all with valid questions of what “In” will look like over the next decade and beyond. However, if we leave the EU then we are free to elect a government to shape the country and to negotiate deals with our neighbours on mutually beneficial terms whereas if we remain then our government will have little discretion over many policy areas.
Reason 2: The EU has a basic democratic deficit
The British people cannot change the policies of the EU through the ballot box. A (disputed) percentage of laws that we are subject to are created by non-elected officials. You may regard this as acceptable compromise in that we influence laws that other nations are subject to. I feel that it is lacking in democratic legitimacy.
During the course of the campaign I’ve heard many on the left state that the EU is required to protect the people from the (Tory) government. This is a fundamentally undemocratic position. I wonder if the same people would agree if the EU were to prevent Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn from enacting his manifesto in full (which it would). However, I cannot put it any better than Tony Benn when he said “They believe that a good king is better than a bad Parliament” (please do read the whole speech, if only for a reminder of when serious thinkers became MPs, not just ex-Special Advisors).
The EU is currently considering whether to sanction the democratically-elected Polish government for some of its policies. Now, you may (as I do) consider that some of these are bad policies that deserve to be challenged. However, I find it difficult to believe that it is the responsibility of unelected officials to do the challenging. The Polish electorate are within their rights to elect a bad government (as perceived externally), just as the British people should be able to elect whomever they wish without contradiction. It should be for opposition parties and campaigners to argue against governments, not outsiders.
The lack of democratic consent can also be seen in the response to the Irish, French and Dutch referendums rejecting the “EU Constitution”. The whole deal was repackaged as the Lisbon Treaty and enacted regardless. (Gordon Brown, having faced demands for a UK referendum decided to sign the Lisbon Treaty, but only when he hoped no-one was watching!)
In the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, the current president of the European Commission, ahead of the 2005 French vote: “If it’s a Yes, we will say ‘on we go’, and if it’s a No we will say ‘we continue’”.
If this is the EU’s notion of democracy then I believe it is better to depart.
Reason 3: Fundamental rights and legal systems
The idea that the EU is responsible for our fundamental rights is bogus. The UK created and exported the notion of human rights with Magna Carta. In fact, with the European Arrest Warrant, British citizens have lost some of their fundamental rights and can be extradited and imprisoned by a foreign judge who has no need to present evidence in an open court.
Part of the issue stems from the incompatibility between the British tradition of Common Law and the European legal system that is largely based on Roman law and the Napoleonic Code. Generally (as I understand it), common law provides greater protection for the individual while Roman law empowers the state. The difference is also one of the reasons that the Civil Service has a tendency to “gold-plate” EU legislation — legal interpretation on the continent is quite different from interpretation in the UK due to the ways in which legal precedents are handled.
The judicial activism of European courts also represents a threat to British sovereignty due to their ability and willingness to interpret law as they see fit, rather than in the spirit in which it was drafted (particularly with regards to human rights legislation). It is also fundamentally undemocratic that the highest court in our land is foreign.
While there are some social protections provided for in recent EU law, many were present in UK law beforehand. For example, the “Facebook fact” that the EU is responsible for employees having paid holidays is a myth — the “Holidays with Pay” act was introduced in the UK in 1938. Also, does anyone seriously believe that the first act of Prime Minister Johnson would be to abolish holidays?
In summary, I believe that the British legal tradition is the best of anywhere in the World and that remaining in the EU serves only to diminish it.
Reason 4: Business regulation
Harmonisation of regulation is sold as one of the key benefits of belonging to the single market. This policy does indeed suit large multinational corporations who operate across borders. However, companies that do not sell to the EU are still bound by the same regulations. This is an enormous administrative burden which large companies can cope with far better than small ones.
Also, the EU is heavily lobbied by these corporate interests who often seek to use EU regulation to stifle competition. For example, James Dyson said in 2014: “In our particular field we have these large German companies who dominate standard setting and energy reduction committees, and so we get old technology supported and not new technology.”
(Some of you familiar with my political views might think it odd that I’m bashing corporations. Well, I consider myself a “capitalist”, not a “corporatist”, a distinction that’s as important to me as the distinction between “democratic socialism” and “Stalinism” is to my friends on the left!)
Reason 5: The Common Agricultural Policy
The CAP is the system whereby the EU throws up an external tariff (averaging 18%) on agricultural imports while subsidising inefficient farmers within the EU. This increases global food prices, while reducing the ability of, for example, African farmers to freely trade their way out of poverty. No amount of aid is as effective as allowing people to sell their produce in a fair market. Instead, €60 billion is spent every year on wealthy European farmers who often operate inefficiently. Tony Blair gave up a portion of the British budget rebate in exchange for CAP reform which never occurred. In summary, this is a hugely expensive policy which deepens global poverty and should be abolished, regardless of whether we stay or go.
Reason 6: The Common Fisheries Policy
The CFP is partially responsible for the collapse in fish stocks in European waters as well as the devastation of the British fishing fleet and ports. Leaving the EU would allow this particular industry to thrive again, hopefully in a way that is more sustainable for fish stocks.
Reason 7: Trade
The UK is currently unable to negotiate trade deals with other non-EU nations. Trade deals must be agreed at an EU level. However, the principle of comparative advantage dictates that economies are most efficient when individuals (and countries) focus their efforts on activities in which they are most efficient. Trying to negotiate a trade deal between the EU and a non-EU country is difficult because each EU country has indigenous industries that they wish to protect. Every country in the EU is therefore handicapped by every other country during negotiations.
It has taken years of negotiation (in secret) to get close to agreeing a trade deal with the USA yet it is still likely to fail. (Incidentally, the UK is in the top ten exporters to the USA despite their being no trade deal, while the USA is the number one investor in the UK.) A deal with Canada is under threat because of protests from Germany and Belgium.
I believe that the UK would be able to agree better deals more quickly with other non-EU countries if it were to leave. I also believe that the EU would come to a good deal with the UK following a Brexit simply due to it being in their best interest. Why would they cut off their biggest export market while denying themselves quality goods offered by UK companies? (It is, of course, vital to note that it is individuals and companies that trade internationally, not governments; the best thing governments can do is to get out of the way.)
Reason 8: Social cohesion
I believe that in the event of a Remain vote, there will be a clear divide between those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. I believe that the Remainers are likely to be wealthier, more likely to have attended university, more likely to be living in big cities. For these people (and I am one) Remain could easily be perceived as a self-interested vote. The people who suffer the greatest impact from EU membership are older, poorer, less extensively educated and more likely to be from smaller towns and rural areas. I think that this divide is a fault-line in our society that it would be foolish to ignore.
For example, following a Remain vote, I think many people who voted to leave (likely to be at least 40% of the population) will transfer their votes to UKIP which could radically change the complexion of British politics, particularly as Labour will not be seen to be representative of their views. I do not believe this change in British politics will be a positive one and I think it could engender greater hostility to immigrants than has previously been seen in the UK. A similar divide has opened up in the USA where the “losers” of globalisation have propelled Donald Trump to the Republican presidential nomination.
It is not sufficient to govern to improve the “average” household income. Globalisation will produce winners and losers. How content are we that we can say to our fellow citizens “Sorry, you lose”?
Reason 9: Animal welfare
Since marrying a vegetarian, I have taken greater care regarding the welfare of farm animals. The UK standards of animal welfare are considerably higher than in most other EU nations (for example, those who produce foie gras and engage in bullfighting). However, we are unable to enforce our standards on other countries, meaning that, for example, British animals can be transported in poor conditions to low-standard abattoirs on the continent. We are also unable to prevent low-welfare animal produce from the continent from being sold in the UK.
Reason 10: Global leadership
I am proud of being British. I believe that our legal and parliamentary systems are good examples to the rest of the World. I believe that we are lucky to live in a country that has remarkably little corruption (by European, let alone global, standards). We have the World’s primary language and arguably its greatest city. We have the 5th largest economy and the 4th largest military (and are prepared to use it in defence of human rights abroad). We have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
In the next century, why wouldn’t we stand on an even footing with countries like Australia, Brazil, India, Canada, New Zealand, China, Japan, the USA, South Africa, Nigeria, etc? None of these countries is willing to subsume itself into a larger unit. Each of those countries has its own voice — why shouldn’t we?
I do not believe that our influence is greater by being part of a larger bloc of countries. I find it hard to discern that our voice is louder from being part of the EU — rather, it seems diluted by the constant compromise with countries that have different priorities.
If Britain votes to leave the EU, we will be better able to lead on a global level with greater clarity of purpose.
So, that, in a rather extensive nutshell, is my rationale for the way I expect to vote. Things may yet change, though.
There are several meaty issues that I am aware that I have ignored in this post. I intend to consider at least some of those in a subsequent post, and respond to any comments, queries, challenges and propositions that this post provokes.
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