Unsure about which way to vote in the EU referendum? Well, who can blame you given that debate on the subject has descended into an unedifying slanging match.
It’s hard to feel enthused about voting to remain because the EU is not a particularly lovable organisation – and it’s going through a particularly bad patch right now with the euro and migration crises, which highlight the fact that it is far from perfect. So your heart may be telling you we should leave, buoyed up by stirring speeches about how the UK is a proud nation which can stand on its own two feet etc etc (click here to play some appropriately patriotic backing music, should you feel the need).
But at the same time, your head may be saying, hang on a minute, can it really be the case that leaving the EU is going to make everything better all of a sudden? Doesn’t that sound just a little bit too good to be true? Then you think to yourself, we British have always been a pragmatic bunch; so even if we find ourselves holding our noses a bit when it comes to the EU, maybe we should stay in - if that’s what’s best for the country. The trouble is, with all the claims and counterclaims flying around, it can be hard to decide what is “best for the country”.
STEP 1: If you find yourself in that position, try working your way through the issues listed below; decide which ones favour leave or remain, then rank them in order of importance:
One of the arguments often made in favour of Brexit is that the laws affecting the UK should be 100% “made in the UK”. There is a certain logic to that, if you take a rather purist view of sovereignty. The more pragmatic view is that the UK is only a medium-sized power and the only way we can deal with countries like the US, China and Russia on anything approaching equal terms is by cooperating with other countries through institutions like the EU - which necessarily involves pooling our sovereignty. For example, in trade negotiations with the US, the EU has significantly more bargaining power than the UK could ever have on its own – because the EU has a market of over 500 million people (quite a lot bigger than the US in terms of population). Quite a few other countries around the world take a similar approach on regional cooperation e.g. members of ASEAN in Asia or Mercosur in South America. So the sovereignty issue is not black and white – and it is very much tied up with other issues like the economy (see below).
Brexit supporters argue we would be better off out because the EU is holding back our economy with red tape. As you will have seen on the news, most economists think that the economic benefits of membership, particularly access to the Single Market, far outweigh any disadvantages, including the £8.5 billion net membership fee and the costs of EU regulation. In response, Brexit supporters say we shouldn’t listen to experts. If you take the same view about experts, then you will need to form your own judgment on this. There is plenty of information out there on the internet – and I have blogged about trade and red tape here and here (I do not think you need to be an economist to understand the logic behind the arguments not these issues). Two good neutral sources are Full Fact and this report from the Treasury Select Committee.
Brexit supporters argue that EU rules on free movement mean that we do not have full control over immigration from within the EU. They are right about that – so if this is an important issue for you, it may be a factor in favour of leaving. But is it really the biggest problem facing the country right now? Bear in mind that 78% of migrants from the EU are in work, paying taxes and contributing to society – and the fact that unemployment is low suggests that those migrants are not taking jobs away from British citizens (indeed, many of them work in areas where we don’t seem to have enough qualified people, like the NHS and care homes). Of course, if the economy were to take a dive after Brexit (as predicted by many economists), then the UK would become a much less attractive destination and immigration might well fall – but if that happened, we’d all be poorer.
The EU does not have a leading role in “hard power” security (that is primarily NATO’s job) – so this issue may not be top of your list (although the EU is widely credited with having played an important role in reconciling countries after World War 2 - see this post). As for its role now, a NATO official was recently quoted in The Economist as saying that they now work more closely with the EU because they have realised that they do not have all the right “tools” to respond to Russian actions in Ukraine and the Middle East. The problem is that no one wants to go war with Russia unless they absolutely have to, so a key part of the response has to be economic rather than military – in the form of EU sanctions, which the UK pushed for very strongly. Those sanctions are more effective because they involve all EU countries acting together (rather than the UK acting alone).
Some suggest that the EU’s open internal borders (the Schengen area) make us more exposed to potential terrorists coming in from the Middle East – but the UK is not part of the Schengen area and we still have border checks for people coming from the EU (so it’s hard to see how leaving the EU would make us safer, because then we wouldn't have any influence at all over how other EU countries police their borders).
Influence in the world
The majority of foreign leaders and heads of international organisations would prefer the UK to stay in the EU. There is a significant element of self-interest in this – they want us to continue to have a seat at the EU table because they think we influence the EU in a more favourable direction. So if we leave, it is very likely that diplomatically, we will be less important to them – the US especially. This is likely to be a factor in favour of staying in – although in terms of importance, you may feel that it does not belong at the very top of your list.
Scotland and Northern Ireland
If the rest of the UK votes out but Scots vote to remain, there will be increased pressure for another referendum on Scottish independence (which is just one of a number of potential difficulties). In Northern Ireland, the main risk is that Brexit could destabilise the peace process. This is partly to do with money: the area currently receives significant levels of EU funding which may not be replaced by the UK if we leave (because the government already pays £9 billion a year to keep the province afloat). But it is also political because the peace process depends on Sinn Fein being prepared to play a role. Sinn Fein wants a united Ireland – which is not a particularly realistic aim. But with both the UK and Ireland in the EU, Sinn Fein can tell its supporters that in practice, free movement of people between the two countries means that it has gone as far as practicable towards achieving its goal. With the UK outside the EU, that free movement is wholly dependent on the UK government – which Sinn Fein supporters do not entirely trust. So for these 2 areas of the UK, Brexit potentially opens several cans of worms.
UK citizens benefit from being able to live and work anywhere in the EU. Even if you have no intention of taking advantage of working in another EU country, you might want to spend your retirement in one – many UK citizens already do. EU regulation has also brought benefits to consumers – for example, roaming charges for mobile phone usage outside your home country have come down significantly as a result of EU regulation. Similarly, EU intervention in the air travel sector has helped to increase competition on routes within the EU and bring down the cost of flights. So this may be a factor in favour of staying in – although it may not be top of your list in terms of importance.
STEP 2: Having got your list of “in” or “out” factors, consider whether the following makes any difference to whether you vote to remain or leave (these are all to do with what will or won’t happen if we leave):
The euro and migration crises
Some argue that because the euro-zone’s economic performance and its handling of the migration crisis have been very far from ideal, we must be better off out. But whether we stay or leave, both these problems will continue to affect us. After all, it’s not as if we can float off across the Atlantic, moor ourselves off the coast of the US or Canada and start trading more with them instead; most countries have a significant amount of trade with their nearest neighbours and are therefore adversely affected if those neighbours are not doing very well. Similarly, large numbers of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa will continue to come to Europe whether or not we are in the EU – and some of them may make for the UK. So for me, the argument that we should leave the EU because of the euro and migration crises is a complete red herring.
The alternatives to EU membership
All of the alternatives to EU membership have their drawbacks. If we want to maintain access to the Single Market, we will have to continue contributing to the EU budget and accept much of its regulation without having any say over it, as is the case for Switzerland and Norway. If we go for a Canada-style free trade deal, which is what Vote Leave proposes to do, that will not cover services – which account for 70% of our exports to the EU. The EU also has a strong incentive to make sure that the UK does not get a “good deal” – because it will not want to encourage others to think about leaving. This is likely to make the negotiations over exit very difficult. EU membership may not be ideal either, but at least it gives us the opportunity influence the EU in the right direction (and there is good evidence that, despite popular perceptions to the contrary, the UK is able to exercise influence).
Events, dear boy, events
“Events, dear boy, events” is what Harold Macmillan said to a journalist who asked him what he thought was most likely to blow governments off course. If we leave the EU, we will have to negotiate an exit agreement with EU, agree new trade deals with as many other countries as we possibly can and “de-Europeanise” our law. Any one of these would be a massive task, likely to absorb huge amounts of politicians’ and civil servants’ time and energy, but trying to do them all at once is extremely ambitious – some might say foolishly so. As and when the unexpected comes along, the UK is likely to be more vulnerable to being blown off course, because our government will already have its hands full dealing with the aftermath of Brexit. This is, if you like, an additional “cost” to Brexit – over and above the economic cost predicted by most economists. But maybe the cost is worth it in the long term. Only you can decide.
Finally, whichever side you choose, make sure you vote on Thursday.
Posted by Paul Samael. Posted In : Random thoughts