The European Union referendum debate—if you can call the circus of the last couple of months that—has not brought out the best in Britain. A vote to Leave the union, or one to Remain, might variously destroy the UK economy, lead to an influx of criminals, or cause World War III. Threats and warnings abound, but almost nobody seems to have actually spoken up for the merits of the EU. And yet, clunky and complex though it may be after decades of real-world political compromises, the history of the union has been one of peace and prosperity for Britain, despite some minor inconveniences for British interests here and there. Ideologically, the desire for greater control is perfectly understandable, but the reality is that by leaving we would just leap backwards, starting a whole new round of messy, complex negotiations from scratch.
Is it really worth it, just to stick two fingers up at our neighbours?
Let’s first examine the economic arguments, which seem to be dominating the headlines—often in the form of idiotic hyperbole from politicians. In the long run, not paying into the EU budget would certainly save the UK some money, but in the grand scheme of things, not a lot: contributions to the EU budget constitute a mere 0.6% of the government spending funded by UK taxpayers. You may well spend more on your mobile phone bill, per month, than you personally contribute to the EU each year. Meanwhile, pretty much all credible sources suggest that the short-term effect of a vote to Leave would be an economic downturn, and possibly an extension to the current period of austerity, during the relatively uncertain transition period while we work out how we would interact with post-Brexit Europe. It is reasonable to expect that the EU would be pretty cheesed off with us for leaving, so it is likely that the target of nearly half of our exports would decide to impose tariffs or other trade barriers, making our exports less competitive and potentially harming the income of our companies. But in truth, we can’t be at all sure how this will shake out. No country has previously left the EU, except Greenland.
Next, the sovereignty issue. As well as being expensive, we are told, the EU undermines our ability for self-determination. We are forced to play by its rules. That is true, but with some caveats. Firstly, as an EU member, we have a say in those rules. Yes, we are just one voice amongst many, but I believe that there is much more that we have in common with Continental Europe than we differ on. Remember Je suis Charlie?
In any case, should every issue really be left to individual governments to work out? How valuable are environmental laws if the country upwind or upstream of you is not working to similar standards? Are 28 separate data protection laws preferable to a single international framework? The EU really has covered useful ground in these areas, but it does too little to blow its own trumpet.
The EU is frequently lambasted for being undemocratic, but that’s a little rich from a country with as unrepresentative a voting system as first-past-the-post. Does my vote count in Europe? Maybe not for much. But it didn’t in the last UK general election either, since I live in a very safe seat.
And what of immigration? The free movement of people is one of the most controversial pillars of the EU project for the UK, because it is a relatively small country and presumably because it is relatively well off. The former leads to a sense of a lack of space, of services and of jobs, while the latter is seen as driving economic migration. The trend towards greater immigration as the EU expands is undeniable, even as non-EU immigration is tending to decline. There is some evidence that greater immigration squeezes wages at the low end, but it is only one of many challenges in this area, most of which are well within the responsibilities of the UK government. Low earners are particularly vulnerable to technological developments, particularly automation; the government should be helping people adjust and broaden their skills. The same applies to housing, health and schools. Working immigrants pay UK taxes, and the government has the chance to put that money into new or expanded public services.
Sprawling across multiple locations, having many obscure layers and being prone to lobbying are hardly unique to the EU — the same can be said of pretty much all national governments. The EU is certainly guilty of protectionism, and a good deal of its funds go into agricultural subsidies, but life might be trickier outside that particular fence than within it. Once again, we can’t influence the structure of those subsidies without being part of the union.
Very few people on the Remain side would argue that the EU is perfect, or that there is no need to reform any part of its functioning. But, conversely, even organisations ardently in favour of Leaving implicitly admit that there are many benefits of membership, since they are keen to reassure people that their personal benefits — free healthcare when travelling, the freedom to choose where to settle for work or retirement, and so on — will not be lost wholesale in the case of Brexit. All that can be parleyed back into existence, they say; but why fight so hard to get back to where we are?
Finally, it is short-sighted to assume that any wider consequences of Brexit are somebody else’s problem. This is all speculation, of course, but there are real risks that should be considered. First, the threat to the EU itself. One doesn’t have to look far to find hardline Eurosceptics outside Britain: France and Austria have produced very visible examples recently. Apart from the hardliners, there are many people across the union who welcome Britain’s influence, as it is in many ways aligned with theirs, and quite apart from showing the way out, Brexit would leave a less appealing EU behind for them. The UK leaving would surely encourage those elsewhere who have their doubts, possibly leading to a much more wide-ranging collapse. No doubt some Brexiteers wouldn’t be too sorry to see the end of the EU as a whole, but let’s remember again that it is the product of decades of intergovernmental negotiation. Do we really want to start again?
Closer to home is the very likely prospect of another Scottish independence referendum, since Scots are typically more pro-Remain the rest of us. This time, it might well succeed, leaving a truncated UK to attempt to reestablish itself while Scotland tries to talk its way back into Europe.
Of course we won’t see Armageddon if we Leave, but we may still get more than we bargain for.
It doesn’t seem to be anyone’s responsibility to communicate the EU’s purpose and functioning to us plebs — and if it is, then they’re doing a terrible job. Brussels and Strasbourg feel distant, arrogant and aloof, and it’s easy to see why the union arouses so much scorn from so many people. But it does a job that needs doing, and it will do it better if we keep joining in.