Like many people in the UK, I will vote in tomorrow in the EU referendum (the turnout itself will be most interesting to see). The vote has given occasion for us to examine the many issues around this question, and in doing so I’ve learned things and challenged some of my own previous thinking. My main conclusion is that we should not be having this referendum, a) because it has opened up the possibility of political, economic and social isolation for the UK, something which I think particularly the younger generations will live to regret; and b) because it isn’t going to address the very serious problems with the EU raised by both Leavers and Remainers. Although I disagree with the conclusion, one pretty good articulation of the structural problems of Europe as seen by thoughtful Brexiters was published by Alan Sked, Professor of International History at the LSE in November 2015.
There is a big problem with the EU, but it isn’t mainly with the UK’s relationship with it, rather it’s with the internal functioning of the EU itself, and its consequences for all member states, not just the UK. These are problems we should be talking about with the other 27 nations, rather than voting on running away. In fact, this referendum is an illustration of almost comically bad timing. It was conceived a few years ago as Tory policy, mainly as a way to appease the strong Euro-sceptic faction of the Tory party itself. At that time, the waves of Syrian and other refugees engulfing European countries had yet to materialise; Daesh was only dimly in view; Greece had yet to be crushed by the troika, and in Europe we thought that the so-called hard right parties represented only true extremists. Today everything is different. We’re having a referendum on leaving in the middle of the greatest existential crisis in the history of the European Union: Greece is an economic basket-case; we’re awash with refugees from Syria; we’ve been hit with a new wave of hideous in-country terrorist atrocities; Turkey is sliding towards a theocratic state under the rule of a new Sultan, and right-wing political parties are gaining the votes of millions of ‘normal’ people. Suffice to say that those running the EU have not acquitted themselves at all well in the face of any of this. For a certain kind of person, leaving this mess can’t come fast enough. Unfortunately, the UK isn’t like Spain and Portugal in Jose Saramago’s The Stone Raft. ‘Leaving’ means staying right here.
I’d better say where I am coming from on all this, since this is one issue where one’s background really does matter. I am one of those non-EU immigrants to the UK, originally from Australia. We’re the ones who have to jump through 50 hoops and can be thrown out with minimal notice these days. I lived here for around 2 years in 1992-1994, and then permanently since 2005. As a Commonwealth citizen I get to vote as if I were a native; I pay tax and National Insurance and am happy to do so (less happy about how it is spent). Although I live in London, my mental picture of where I live is ‘Europe’ not some particular part of the UK. I came here not just for reasons of practical access to working colleagues and friends, but also because in some sense I believe in the (or ‘a’) European project and because I know that good ideas, interesting art comes from the dialectical engagement of different cultures and individuals with different backgrounds. I travel a lot for work and have been to nearly every EU member state multiple times (the only exceptions from memory are Poland, Romania, and Latvia); I speak reasonable French and could easily live there; I could easily imagine living in one of the other countries.
Many kinds of lives in the UK and Europe
I admit I am an example of that species of restless traveller, who naturally gravitates to places where cultures meet and revels in being an outsider. So I am not representative of the majority of English or British, but I may be something like many of the 2 million British currently living and working abroad at any time, many of them in Europe. This kind of life is only one kind, and is no more legitimate than that of the Dorset farmer or schoolteacher in Hull who travel only occasionally and are not specifically energised by exterior culture. I suspect most people in Europe fit the latter description, and the restless travellers like me would not have it any other way. Nothing is more interesting to me than having a conversation with a rural wine-maker in Slovakia (possibly via hand-signals), a Bulgarian engineer who eats from her own vegetable garden, or the people who maintain the 200 year old clock mechanism in the Chelmsford cathedral. I’ve chatted with hipster Norwegian cafe owners, smiled silently at Czech hotel owners who don’t seem to know that communism has ended, argued with French flower sellers who can’t agree to sell 6 out of a full dozen roses, fled at speed from Corsican port officials and had grilled sardines and beer with Portuguese fishermen. I’ve also met and in some cases worked with another category of person: people here who came from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Brazil, Russia, Kazakhstan, and many other places.
Whatever Europe is, and whatever it can be, it has to work for all these categories of people. Some people love their town; others are attached to their country, and others feel a more diffuse connection with the whole thing. Regardless of the kind of ‘life’ you may lead, what I think really works about Europe today are its people and its social relations. It really is marvellous to be able to go to Berlin, Dubrovnik or Porto for a meeting with colleagues, do some work, and spend time together enjoying the city, having a drink together and find out the latest thoughts everyone has on topics both profound and inane: what do we think of the last Polish election result? Could Murray beat Djokovic this year? Is Orban as bad as everyone makes out? Is Trump gay? Do any of us take Juncker seriously? What can be done about Greece? Will Sarko come back? And what the hell is going on with Erdogan?
For those Europeans who don’t travel so much, the value of all this cross-fertilisation may not be obvious, and it may even be doubtful in reality. But my feeling is that there is very great value in the mixing, even if only a minority are active participants: it helps (however inefficiently) to create conditions of overall security and stability across Europe, and it generates progress. I happen to work on health systems and health data standardisation; others work to align legal systems, human rights and labour relations; others are engaged in cross-border education systems like Erasmus and the hundreds of university and science networks of excellence; many thousands work on EC-funded projects, some of which bootstrap needed innovations into place in poorer European countries. It also brings help to people, towns and regions in the UK. Cornwall is just one example.
All of this happens because at some level, the EU is a community of human trust and we know we can work together. Many of the outcomes will positively affect those Europeans who relate more strongly to their own locality. It also happens because of the formal agreements struck in the European treaties that underpin the EU; the same treaties that enable free trade and free movement of labour across the union. For that other kind of person living in Europe – the non-EU immigrant – these pan-European networks and legislation are essential to life.
What is wrong with Europe?
One might think from the above that Europe is some kind of panacea. Nothing could be further from the truth. My 20 years’ of travels around Europe have convinced me that Europe functions despite its institutions (there are seven main ones by the way) and indeed some of its legislation. Many of its laws are good, for example many of the labour laws; at its base, the human rights legislation is vital (although sometimes abused), and the general idea of standardised regulation is a good one, even though it goes off the rails when we get to ‘abnormally curved bananas’ and the chocolate wars. However, I think its institutions have become sick and have lost their way. They have become anti-democratic and ideological, and as the Leave camp love to point out, many aspects of our lives are run by unelected officials. Here’s a short list of what doesn’t work in the EU.
Although having a single physical currency when travelling around Europe is great, at a macro-economic level, the Eurozone has been a terrible mistake. The main reason is that wildly different kinds of economies were convinced into the same currency. This wikipedia page shows the currency differences of countries across Europe (in the table, you can sort on countries with Euro exchange rate of 1 to see just Eurozone countries). Some net average Eurozone salaries: Germany – €2225; France – €2157; Spain – €1734; Greece – €1069; Portugal – €1001; Slovakia – €708; Lithuania – €585; Kosovo – €360. Many of these countries have vastly different levels of infrastructure and were in greatly different financial situations when converting to the Euro.
This is just the start. One effect of the Eurozone is that there is now one reserve bank – the ECB – imposing one interest rate on banks across the Eurozone, regardless of each country’s internal dynamic – growth, recession or other. As described in this 2013 paper on Eurozone design failures, the rich north lent to the poorer but originally booming south, plus Ireland, where inflation rates and employment costs subsequently rose. When 2008 came around and northern lenders’ confidence evaporated, the weaker Eurozone economies had a liquidity crisis, since they could not issue debt in their own currencies, and cash fled back to the north. Result: massive austerity in the south + Ireland, blighting millions of lives across these countries. Greece was only the most extreme of these cases. The Atlantic had a similar view in 2013.
It’s hard to see how to fix the Eurozone properly, but it’s one problem the UK doesn’t directly suffer from, and leaving doesn’t change anything on this score for the UK.
THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
Where to start? Noone can name their MEP. The turnout at Euro elections in 2014 was abysmal (42% av across Europe; 35% in the UK). MEPs are detached from the mainstream of politics in their home countries. No-one but dedicated political scientists follow or understand what goes on in the European parliament. And in any case, the legislation is largely decided prior to reaching the European (see ‘Democracy Deficit’ below).
My recipe for change: abolish the European parliament as a separately elected assembly; re-constitute it as a delegate assembly comprised of member nation MPs; abolish all secret decision-making processes. This is essentially Jack Straw’s proposed approach in 2012.
A UK exit won’t solve this problem, but it will prevent the UK being involved in a solution.
FREE MOVEMENT OF LABOUR (AND UK IMMIGRATION)
The immigration ‘problem’ experienced by the UK in recent years is the poster child of the Brexit camp. The 50% of UK immigration that comes from within the EU is largely the result of economic imbalances within the Eurozone. In my view, the UK referendum debate has been largely useless on this topic. Remainers keep reminding us that ‘immigration is good and the NHS would collapse without it’; Leavers keep saying ‘it impacts too heavily on services in town X, Y and Z, and lowers wages.’ According to the Oxford-based Migration Observatory, most of these things are true, but only only mildly so.
It’s clear that immigration within the EU will change over time, with the changing global economy and the evolution of the member state economies. There is nothing to say that one day the UK won’t need more immigrants, and won’t be able to attract them. So we should not try to solve today’s so-called problem with a solution as permanent as exiting the EU. Instead, we should stay in and look for practical solutions to some of the structural problems associated with EU immigration, e.g.:
- during e.g. the first 5 years of any immigrant living in another EU country, his/her health system and benefit costs are remitted back to the country of origin;
- wages could not be undercut in countries like the UK by the arrival of immigrants from poorer EU countries by enforcing minimum wage legislation rather than demonising and forcing out immigrants or leaving the EU.
REFUGEES AND EXTERNAL BORDERS
I won’t try to provide any kind of analysis of this problem, but it is certainly clear that ‘Europe’ as a supra-national entity was woefully inadequately prepared for the many hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other refugees from the Syria/Iraq warzone in the last 2 years. This was compounded by Angela Merkel’s open invitation to everyone to come to Europe, possibly indicating early insanity. There is no doubt that we have to have a long term solution to refugees, and that we also have to have a short-term solution that doesn’t just leave Greece and Italy trying to deal with all those landing on their shores or drowning at sea.
European institutions are clearly going to have to up their game, and it is likely that they will, since many of the countries crossed by itinerant waves of refugees (Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria etc) have had to act unilaterally, by putting up fences and policing transport routes. The hair’s breadth loss (0.7%) for Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party of Austria in the 2016 Austrian presidential election is evidence of the backlash in a country that only 12 months earlier was welcoming refugees with open arms. Last year, the 2015 Polish parliamentary and presidential elections were won by the Law and Justice party (PiS), partly on a platform that included limiting refugee intake. PiS is a member in the European parliament of the European Conservatives and Reformists, a group against a federal European superstate (wikipedia). The pendulum has swung in the same direction in most other countries in Europe in the last 5 years, with so-called ‘extreme right’ parties picking up millions of new voters and in the process, starting to moderate their positions. In my view, this is just democracy at work.
A UK vote to leave won’t help any of this – the UK can’t seriously formulate a response to Syria or Libya on its own.
THE DEMOCRACY DEFICIT
Probably the worst problem in the EU is the serious democracy deficit in its institutions. An unhealthy combination of lobbyists (10,000 registered in Brussels), ‘trilogues’ (secret meetings) and the weakness of the European Parliament mean that our representation is greatly watered down by the time Euro-legislation is created. Now, this isn’t always bad, since most such legislation is reasonable. But on the other hand, agreements like TTIP are being made in secret. Trilogues are described by Transparency International as follows:
following the Lisbon treaty and the introduction of ‘ordinary legislative procedure’ for the bulk of EU law a new convention has developed to speed up the legislative process. The ‘trilogue’ process for getting agreement between the European Commission, Parliament and Council on legislation is a series of informal working meetings of the three institutions … the meetings are a major transparency black-hole where large concessions are won and lost with very little oversight and without public disclosure. In the vast majority of cases, Parliament’s plenary vote serves only to rubber stamp the deals secured by a handful of negotiators from each institution, sidelining 99% of MEPs in the process.
The history of how member states were made to conform to the European treaties (Rome, Maastricht, Nice, Lisbon) gave rise to the joke: Q: How does democracy work in the EU? A: each country votes repeatedly until it gets the right result! The ‘right result’ of course has historically been what Germany wanted. Alan Sked provides a humorous short history of these treaties.
The new organisation DiEM25.org led by Yanis Varoufakis takes aim specifically at the EU democracy deficit in its manifesto. However, its position is that the UK should stay in, and that a Brexit will do nothing to help address these very serious issues.
The UK Referendum
With everything that is wrong with Europe, some might wonder: why do we even bother? I’ll re-iterate my view, which is that there is a huge foundation of human goodwill and cooperation across continental Europe that replaces the barbarity of the wars and violence of the 20th century. We have a shared idea of human rights and labour law, and a free trade zone serving 500 million people. Even with the faults of the Eurozone and the democracy deficit, I can’t think why any of us would want to go back to being separate countries. It may seem unimaginable to some, but there is nothing to say that war would not occur in the future if we take that route: we only need remember the horrors of Bosnia in 1992, thought impossible at the time. On the other hand, young people in all European countries see ‘Europe’ as their normality. They think nothing of driving to another country for a hackathon or music festival or finding a life partner or a job in another country. Every young person I have met from Portugal to Croatia, and even France (somewhat infamous in previous decades for a mild form of xenophobia) speaks excellent English and by default expects to work with people from those other 27 countries. I personally observe this all the time in my own work within Europe.
What of the concerns of the Leave campaign? The three big ones are: immigration, the so-called £350m per week payment to the EU, and sovereignty.
As I’ve said above, I don’t see immigration as anything like the issue it is made out to be, and in any case, adjustments to EU law to address the current imbalance can be sought. Indeed, when David Cameron went on a tour around Europe some months ago to ‘secure a deal’ for the UK, he didn’t get much, but he did get agreement on relevant adjustments to migration. (For the record, here’s what he asked for and what he got.)
THE UK CONTRIBUTION TO THE EU
On the oft-cited £350m / week or £18bn p.a.: this figure has been shown to be inflated by a factor of nearly 2, and is one of the more dishonest claims of the Leave campaign. The real figures: we do give an amount of £13bn p.a. of which more than £4bn p.a. is then spent under UK/EU control inside the UK. So around £9bn p.a. goes to be spent elsewhere in the EU (fullfact.org). It sounds like a lot doesn’t it? Let’s put it in perspective: the annual UK government budget is £760bn (2016); the health budget is £138bn and a large hospital costs about £1bn to run each year (ukpublicspending.co.uk). So for a £9bn p.a. price tag, the UK gets to participate in:
- a free-trade zone, clearly saving many billions for business;
- a standardised regulatory environment, saving many more billions for business, and preventing the blockages that can cripple trade everywhere else in the outside world;
- thousands of professional and educational networks in academia, sciences, health and much else;
- a large free labour movement area, in the same timezone;
- influencing legislation for the whole of Europe.
We also pretty much know we are not going to go to war with any of these countries, not with guns and not even with trade sanctions. That’s worth a lot when we look back on the history of the 20th century on this continent.
The last concern, and the main one for Leavers is that of sovereignty. ‘Take back control’ they say. This video by Prof Michael Dougan, a leading EU law expert pretty much destroys most claims made by the Leave camp on this topic. What I think we have to remember here is that it is an illusion that any country can have absolute sovereignty in the modern world. It might dream of legislating unilaterally on everything that affects its citizens, but unless it’s North Korea, it simply can’t. Every normal country has to obtain compromise agreements with other countries or blocs on trade, immigration, the environment and many other matters. But the main reason is the simple reality of our world as it is today: many major events, particularly economic, are out of the hands of governments today. The 2008 recession (or ‘depression’ as Paul Krugman calls it) was not stopped by any country, and only by good luck had minimal effects in a few places like Australia.
The costs of leaving
There are many arguments about whether loss of membership in the Euro free trade zone would be compensated for by ‘deals’ done with … who? North America? South America? China? Possibly. Noone really knows. In the end I suspect these arguments can’t be proven one way or the other. What we do know are things like:
- Legal system: a major revision of all UK law, developed over the last 40 years as part of the EU, would have to be performed, and quickly. As Michael Dougan points out, there would be no practical way to do this in parliament, so it would have to be done by government. Think about what that means.
- Scotland exit: it seems as likely as not that Scotland will vote to rejoin the EU within a few years, effectively dismantling the UK.
- New agreement: It would take around at least 10 years to negotiate a comprehensive framework agreement between the UK and EU, based on surveys of such agreements around the world. We would particularly have to deal with the EU regulatory environment as an outsider rather than a signatory; this could easily turn out to be a massive own goal for British business.
Did any good come from this referendum?
In my view yes. We all had to learn something about the Europe we live in; many of us now know some of the dirty secrets that have been hiding under the rug for too long. It’s also given me pause to reflect on all the places and people and yes, freedom, I love in this Europe of ours. We need to vote ‘remain’ and then start work the following day on making the EU more democratic and more transparent. We need to work on making Europe a true beacon of civilisation.