Tuesday, 28 June 2016

How can we explain the Exit vote?


Explaining Brexit to a Taiwanese friend 

Dear Hsiu Ju,

My first thought, on hearing that the referendum resulted in a 52:48 vote for leaving the European Union, was a sort of stunned disbelief. How could we?  Why did Cameron chose to have a referendum now? Maybe he tricked himself into it.

It is ironic that the two campaigns did not meet each other’s arguments. There was little deployment of the emotional case for staying (apart from Gordon Brown, and John Major). There was little clarification of the elected and thus democratic nature of the two European councils and parliament, and their supremacy over the commission (except by Professor Michael Dougan). No-one pointed out that we could already operate a points based system for non-EU immigrants, but chose to let them in for several over-riding reasons (humanitarian, or selfish). There was no answer by the 'leavers' to the financial case for ‘remain’, except to repeat lies about £350 million per week. The press and broadcast media may have let us down; been biased, or feeble. But such a conclusion smacks of paranoia, and in any case only pushes the question back one stage. There are undeniable problems with the Euro, the Concilium is cliquey, the Commission is too powerful and too independent, and the fiasco in the Middle East has placed a new strain on the open borders, but these points where hardly discussed during the campaign.

So, there was an inadequate debate; just slogans. But can democracy be so easily fooled? Perhaps it would be wiser to assume that those who voted for exit had good reasons.  

A scrutiny of the results showed several clear trends. The young favoured 'Remain'; the old favoured 'Exit'. It also emerged that northerners, labourers, and the less educated do not want to be in the union, and it is easy to see why; they suffer by it. You ask me what people were thinking about when they voted ‘leave’. I have heard the following points of view, and put them in roughly the following order.
1. Some people think that too many east Europeans are coming to the UK, drawing Social Security, or taking jobs and lowering wages. (Of course, such immigration is in general welcomed by those who buy labour, but is bad for all those who sell labour, or need charity.)
2.  Some cry “Give us back our sovereignty”. I believe this attitude is partly based on a mistake. Democratically elected British representatives in the European Parliament and Council of Ministers approved most of the laws made by Europe, but did not have the guts to say so to a divided Britain. The media found it amusing to ridicule the funny rules of the 'foreigners'; and of course there are always SOME grounds to disparage any law. There may even be some European laws (or rulings), that a majority of British people object to, but we certainly do not know that, because such a question has never been put to a referendum. From my perspective, European laws are well made, and the process is wonderfully open to scrutiny. On the other hand the Union does seem destined to make some mistakes: the problems with the Euro, the Commission being too powerful and independent, the move simultaneously to widen and deepen the Union.
3. It was said that we pay £350 million a week to Europe, and many voters will have thought that was far too much. They were apparently unaware that we got most of it back, either as money or as benefit (farm subsidies, bridges built, etc.). There is a suspicion that the bureacracy of the Union wastes money, but this is largely in ignorance; the audit is thorough, and the civil service very much smaller than our own on a per caput basis. Britain is above average wealthy (in the context of Europe ), and so we contribute some money to be spent on poorer parts of Europe (as also other parts of the world on a voluntary basis). Some people probably objected to us funding donations to recipients chosen by Europe rather than by Britain. Indeed, I have occasionally wondered why it has been assumed that the traditionally poorer countries of southern Europe need to be brought up to the same standard of living as the chilly countries of northern Europe, when they enjoy such a stunningly superior climate. "Free movement of peoples" would have evened things out.
4. The trend in Europe seemed to be for continued expansion. The idea of 78 million turkish muslims joining Europe may have alarmed a number of voters.

Our parliament is sovereign in the UK, and should debate what we should do. (Proportional Representation would have made a referendum unnecessary.) There is no law that says we have to ‘obey’ a referendum. (Only 39% of voters called for exit (0.76 x 0.52)). There are solid financial grounds for remaining in Europe, and cultural and political benefits from remaining in, and improving, the Union. On the other hand there are solid objections that must be met. The absence of a specific and detailed alternative to the European Union is scary, and the task of creating one is rather daunting; but those would be poor reasons for staying.
I hope that I have been fair.
Ian West, Middleton Cheney, Banbury.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Evolving European Union (3)


Did the UK spoil the European Project?
I think the fact that the European Union is under strain, and its fabric creaking alarmingly is, at least in part, the fault of Great Britain.
A club was set up with the clearly formed, but partly hidden, objective of making cooperation pay (in monetary terms) to such an extent that the key states in Europe would voluntarily integrate their economies and war would become unthinkable.
For some reason** we (the UK) opted to stay out but, after a decade, began to envy the economic advantages of membership; and after a further decade we joined the club, in 1973. But we did so with reservations, with our fingers crossed, so-to-speak. A sizable section of the UK thought it possible to have the economic advantages without the integration. Meanwhile the core (and founding) members of the club continued with their original and by now perfectly explicit intention of integration.
Since the UK joined the European Union, there has been steady progress in two somewhat conflicting directions — widening, and deepening. I believe Britain was as keen as any country to enlarge the Union with the inclusion of the Mediterranean countries, and the countries of Eastern Europe freed from the Soviet Union following the removal of the Berlin wall in 1990. Enlargement would increase the size of the 'Single Market', and at the same time secure the democratization of these once-Soviet countries. Meanwhile the deepeners proceeded with their project by abolishing passport controls (1995) over the 26 countries of the Schengen Area, and introducing a single common currency for the 19 countries of the Euro Group (1999/1/1). The UK opted out of both those deepening steps. But even for the 2 EU countries that have opted out of the Schengen area (UK and Eire) there is no way we can exclude the entry of EU passport holders.
Now, in June 2016, we have some vociferous voices in Britain wishing that we had not opened our border so generously to mass immigration of Eastern Europeans. It is ironic, is it not? We thought we could have their labour and their markets without having to share our social services and welfare-state. (And I suppose we could, had we sufficiently anticipated.) Likewise, there are skeptics who claim there is a logical fallacy in having countries like Germany and Greece sharing a common currency; dour, mercantilist, credit-countries and sunny debtor-countries. German and French banks were happy to receive regular interest payments from Greece and Portugal, but were not prepared to shoulder their bad debts. Is it not ironic, and reprehensible, that this failure to pay was not foreseen by the lenders? I, and others, think it is perfectly possible for rich and poor countries to share a currency, with iron discipline (see Ecuador and the USA); but Martin West and other argue convincingly that it is indeed impossible to manage a currency that suits both Greece and Germany equally.
 What happens if we vote to leave? Do we lick our wounds, see how many countries choose to leave with us, then establish an alternative union more to our liking?
What happens if we stay? Do we start attending more creatively to the debates that shape the Union, rectify knows weaknesses, and learn to live with our neighbours?
I can face either possibility, but I would grieve if our exit led to the collapse of the whole European project, grieve for the immense and high-minded effort that has gone into creating a unique Union of cooperating states, over these last 65 years.
(** Perhaps a smug conceit that we had little to learn and, with our Commonwealth, little to gain,)