Monday, May 23, 2016

The EU Referendum: Should I [vote] stay or should I go?

Dave, George, Nigel, Boris, Beaky, Mick and Titch. Ok I made up the last 3 for the sake of the joke. I wonder who you believe and which way you will vote? I'm going to vote to stay in the EU and play a positive part in shaping it into a fairer and more effective community of nations. However, it's not an easy question to settle, despite the simplistic slogans that abound on both sides.

We're being bombarded with exaggerated statistics and threats about migrants, threats to jobs, the cost of staying in, the cost of leaving. There's plenty of rhetoric about wanting our country back, some xenophobia and sadly not a little racism. Little short of civil war seems to be raging in the Conservative Party, and the referendum result will define the careers of a lot of Conservative politicians (and possibly others).

You can get some sanity. The BBC and Channel 4 news both have useful fact-checker sections that analyse the claims, and give a rather more balanced take on what might really happen. For example, the £18.8 billion we are supposed to be paying the EU turns out to be nearer £6bn when you take into account rebate, support for farming etc., and support for non-governmental organisations. You can see the Channel 4 analysis here.

The level of emotion the issue raises, particularly from those who advocate Brexit, is fascinating. I'm intrigued as to why it evokes such passion and even anger. It seems to touch a raw nationalist nerve. Of course, if the UK does remain, it could always consider leaving in the future; if we leave, it's almost certainly a final decision. That makes this vote one of the most important ones for decades.

The polls are rather inconclusive. There seems to be a narrow majority in favour of staying in the EU, but a lot of people are still saying they don't know. To muddy the waters further, younger voters are much more likely to vote to remain in the EU, but are less likely to vote at all.  Many younger people may not even be registered to vote, since changes were made in the way registration takes place. If you don't get a poll card soon, go to You could change history!

Woven through the whole debate so far, is the internal conflict in the Conservative Party. There are, of course, Eurosceptics in other parties, but this issue has plagued the Tories for years. From my uninformed viewpoint, the vote looks like an attempt by the Prime Minister to deal with his party's Brexit advocates once and for all, and to secure the leadership succession for someone from his own perspective. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is clearly using his new-found zeal for the Brexit case to make his pitch to be a future leader, should the vote go his way.

The hippy in me rather likes the idea of everyone working together, and removing the things that separate us. That will already distance me from those who wave the flag more passionately than I do (unless it's football, when I share the despair of England fans everywhere). 'Britain needs to be free to make its own decisions', say the Brexit team. For them it would free from our shackles, and we would regain control of our national life and not be "ruled by Brussels".

It sounds rousing, but is it true? It invokes an idea of sovereignty that doesn't actually tally with reality. The UK is signed up to many international treaties, including the EU ones. Membership of the UN and NATO are obvious and large commitments, but there are many more. Treaties can either be honoured or ignored - that is our sovereign right as a nation. However, decisions on complying with a treaty or not can change the course of history. Who, in 1839, when signing the Treaty of London could have foreseen it would be the reason Britain would declare war on Germany in 1914? Treaties hold a nation accountable to other nations for their actions, and can have enormous consequences. So we are never completely independent, and in or out of the EU, the UK will still have to take into account all kinds of treaties and trade agreements and abide by their conditions.

Before the UK was in the EU, the Suez crisis showed that Britain was far from fully independent, even though it still had considerable military capability. The United States forced British and French withdrawal by using its economic power. Was the UK really that independent before it entered the EEC, and how realistic are the hopes of those who want us to leave now? Would we end up depending more heavily on other large economies, having to comply with their policies and wishes? Membership of the EU means the UK has a say in decisions and votes in its committees, councils and parliament. Leaving could leave us powerless to influence larger nations, economies or even corporations.

And why shouldn't our government participate in a community where we are mutually accountable? European nations which were once been dictatorships, are now stable democracies within the union. The notion of international law is often perceived in Britain as a way of civilising parts of the world that have suffered under dictatorships, and a way of bringing tyrants to account. But it works two ways, and there may come a time when that accountability protects our freedoms too.

The Brexit campaign makes a lot of the UK's contribution to the EU, which I referred to earlier. Whatever figure you go with, the debate really starts when you try and assess whether staying in is actually worth that contribution. The EU is a key trade partner for the UK, and vice versa. EU countries won't want to lose the UK as a market, but surely we have to assume there will be some loss of privileges for leaving the club. Some point to Norway as an example of a thriving non-EU country. Norway contributes in order to have EU market access, and has to abide by EU regulations to sell products. The UK would have to negotiate a deal, and if successful, pay the fee and follow the rules, with no say as to how they are formulated.

I doubt there would be immediate economic meltdown, and some of the George Osborne's predictions about Brexit need careful scrutiny. Many think the pound is likely to sink in value, at least initially, but other effects may take time. We do know that investment in the UK by large manufacturers, like Nissan, were encouraged by the fact that the UK was within the EU single market. Cars could be exported from the UK to mainland Europe, without facing the same barriers as vehicles from Japan. Nissan, Toyota, Honda, etc. won't shut the shop immediately, but decisions about future investments would have to take into account whether or not the UK was still in the EU, or at least in a trade agreement with good access to EU markets.

Of course, not all benefits of EU membership have been about trade figures. The EU took on Microsoft about anti-competitive practices, following complaints from competitors. It resulted in huge fines and a change of practice by Microsoft. When dealing with corporations that have turnovers larger than small countries, it sometimes needs an agency the size of the EU to be effective. Mobile roaming charges are another example of where the EU is changing the market.

In the end, if you really want 'out', you'll take the economic hit, and if you really want 'in', the membership fee will seem reasonable for the benefits received.

People supporting Brexit are a diverse bunch. They range from some on the extreme right, such as Britain First and the EDL through to those on the left who follow in the footsteps of Tony Benn, who advocated leaving at the last referendum. The right play up patriotism and fear of the foreigner; the left tend to highlight the way that the EU can favour business interests over the democratic will of the people. For example, the Greek government weren't allowed to implement the policies that got them elected, due to the financial restraints imposed by the EU.

So what is the democratic accountability of the EU? Of course the answer is that it is complex. We elect MEPs, we appoint a share of officials, and our elected leaders participate in councils, conferences and negotiations. There is accountability, but it's not straightforward, and it's also not as clear as it would be in a genuine united states of Europe.

Having said that, our own elected government still passes the vast majority of legislation that affects us, and has a vote or veto on many issues. And, as I covered earlier under Independence, our nation is accountable to other nations (who we didn't elect) for all kinds of issues, from human rights to using CFCs in aerosols. And if the Greek situation concerns us, remember that the IMF would impose all kinds of economic restrictions on the UK, if crisis hit, as it did in 1976, forcing chancellor Healey to change the UK government's economic policy. Many would argue that staying in the EU makes such a crisis less likely, and as the UK is not part of the Eurozone, the European Central bank doesn't have the same power over the UK as it had over Greece.

Conclusion - stay in and play an active part.
We have to be honest and say that we can't know what the consequences of leaving will be. We can be a little more confident about what staying might involve, but even there it's uncertain. Attitudes are changing in Europe to migration, nationalism and more. However, the EU holds 28 nations with a history of conflict together in a unique community.

It is far from perfect, and many issues need to be addressed and resolved. We know that's possible - even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall can get policy changed (which is more than Nigel Farage managed in 14 years on the Fisheries Committee). I want my country to be in there, challenging and shaping it to be fair, just, and a community that not only benefits its members, but also the poorest parts of our world. Withdrawal would mean retreating into a more isolated way of understanding ourselves as a nation, take away our place at the table, and has the potential to threaten the livelihoods of us all.

Oh, and by the way, there aren't 26,911 words of EU regulations on the sale of cabbages. In fact, there aren't any.


Tracy Kohl said...

A very intelligent thought out blog Mike. I'm not sure about the sale of the 'Cabbages' 'Kohls' though. My thoughts on the matter are not so articulately put but having lived on the continent in a neutral EU country for 4 years I can only say the EU would easily wave goodbye to us without much thought. We need to stay and influence as no man is an island and the thought of leaving really scares me for many reasons some of which you have pointed out. We try and keep up with Austrian news on the matter as they hold a very balanced unbiased view

Cristi Murgu said...

Brilliant and thoughtful. My simplistic way to express my view as a European who lived here more than half of my life is, 'do we want want to live building walls or bridges?'

Linda Page said...

I agree with all of the above, but I love the musical references!