Previously I wrote about my emotional orientation to the EU as the foundation of my upcoming IN vote in the referendum. Now I want to turn to think about the practicalities.
I confess, I am not always convinced of the facts will win out approach because they frequently seem not to in the face of impassioned rhetoric from an opposing view, and I don’t expect to convince anyone who is firmly OUT. But, having tried to show that my emotional argument is fairly sensible and not the consequence of damaged left-wing metropolitan psyche developed on a London commute while tweeting at my meeja friends, I do want to put down some of the reasons why I don’t think my pro-European sentiment is a sign of residence in overly optimistic cloud-cuckoo land.
To start with the deeply pragmatic: given that no one can 100% accurately predict what will happen if Brexit happens, I prefer the known unknowns of staying in the EU and trying to make it a better functioning (NOTE: not necessarily closer) Union from inside than the unknown unknowns of finding ourselves alone in the North Sea between a ticked off European landmass and a North American continent who would rather do business with europe qua Europe.
Here I find myself hanging out with Alex Massie (unusual for me, on anything but cricket) who is arguing that staying in Europe should be the classical Tory approach. In this piece he wrote the following, which I rather liked:
To every complex human dilemma there is, as the great Henry Mencken put it, a simple solution that is ‘clear, simple and wrong.’
The European Union is not perfect, for sure. Nor is it what it was when Britain first elected to join. But some of its imperfections generally and its imperfections specifically for Britain are consequences of time, place, and history, not because the European Union is some malevolent being out to get us. As I said yesterday, we helped make it. Yes, it has helped make us and our problems too, but so have the economics of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; the consequences of a few hundred years of European and (US) American imperial and colonial activities; the consequences of a western industrial and technological revolution based on fossil fuels and minerals that need to be extracted from deep in the ground; and of our ongoing refusal to pay food producers to produce the food we want to eat in a way that is healthy for us or the planet.
To sum up, not all Britain’s problems are the result of the last twenty years of European governance and bureaucracy. The European Union has sought to deal with many of these problems as best it can. Has it been imperfect, occasionally mistaken, and sometimes detrimental to say the least? Yes. Do I think an independent British government would have done any better? Not really, no.
Do I think that the EU or the British government will do better in future, though? That is the question. Or is it? Only if you view it as either/or, I think – and I don’t. You see, I don’t believe we have had our sovereignty stolen from us by the EU, as I read and hear the Brexit campaign telling me. I think that when we chose to enter Europe we chose to give up some of it in return for participation in a system and community we thought would be good for us, and hopefully for other people too. We’re about to decide whether we want to keep doing it, though I have never been convinced of the need for a referendum for it: negotiation of the powers we are willing to cede by an elected government is legal and good enough to for me, and something I think about when I vote – though I have been generally underwhelmed by governments have participated in and told the electorate about that process.
To return to Massie’s Mencken quote, it might be easy to blame Europe for our problems and the challenges we face, but withdrawing from Europe will not allow us to withdraw from our problems. The Brexit solution is simple, but I think wrong.
On leaving the EU we will not find ourselves in some magical alternative universe when Europe is not an influential presence, where we don’t have to engage with the fact that, even with the past years of fishing regulations that have sought to increase stocks, we have dramatically and unsustainably over-fished. We will still need to engage with the problems of civil and international wars in areas of the world we messed around with for our own benefit 100 years ago, and the refugees and others who want to come to a country that has benefitted from the events of history. We will still have to navigate global finance and commerce as we try to regulate international companies who would prioritise private profit over supporting the public infrastructures of the countries in which they make money – and who have been encouraged to do so by a narrative and system that says private profit and wealth is the ultimate good.
There are things, I think, that can be governed better at local levels, others at national levels, and others at international levels. All of these things, I think, are things that we can engage with best through the EU and the united voice and influence that it offers. The world is a complicated place, and I am fine with the idea that working in it to make it a better one will be complicated.
Here are some things I’ve been thinking about leading up to the referendum, and the reasons why I want to stay in Europe.
(Due disclaimer, I am not an expert, just a moderately educated and fairly interested citizen)
Trade and economics – never ever my strongest suit, I admit, but important. And from what I understand it will be much more complicated to trade with Europe from without, especially if we abolish all the common EU regulations that the Brexit campaign is so cross about. Yes, the common agricultural policy is messy, so is the fisheries policy, but both will be a mess in Britain in or out. We need to rethink – or perhaps relearn – what it looks like to feed ourselves well and sustainably (especially those of us in cities), but it’s something that’s going to need to be done in the context of a global market and environmental changes affecting that market without regard to national boundaries. And since I’m already veering in, and I have a general distrust of any current British government to move towards a sensible solution on this, the mess is not enough to shift me to out.
Giles Fraser may well be happy to be at the back of the queue for TTIP – and in many ways I agree with him on this – but when the Brexit campaign are selling economic stability on the basis of being able to make independent trade deals with the US then I care to listen when the US is saying ‘uh not so fast…’ I may not be Little Miss All Growth is Good, but I like a functional economy, thanks, and the Brexit gang have not yet come up with a barter system. I also suspect that we would be better able to influence TTIP from within Europe – though we may need Labour to pull up their oppositional socks too for that to happen.
Immigration and travel – I am predisposed to fancy the idea of living in mainland Europe, I admit; I love the ease of movement around the continent, and I like the fact that EU membership makes that a possibility. In the near future, I would imagine that not all current British expects in the EU would be able to stay there and so would be returning home to look for jobs and make use of the NHS. We might lose some European migrants (though I am not convinced that is a good thing) but the numbers might well cancel out. If you are inclined to worry about migrants taking advantage of the system, I suggest looking at improving the system, particularly contracts and living wages, not trying to get rid of the immigrants. Oh, and leaving the EU will do nothing to stem the number of refugees seeking asylum in Britain.
International relations and development – These for me, are the areas where Britain gains the most from being in Europe, because navigating increasingly tense and messy international situations is something that is best done in the company of others. Financial regulation, international law and human rights, environmental issues and sustainability, peace and war. None of these pay attention to the lines on maps, and none of them involve just two parties: us and someone else. As Britain, British organisation and individuals, we stand a much better chance of making positive and successful contribution to global problems if we can access funding, collaborate with peers, and campaign for changes in regulations across Europe (and for money and people coming into Europe). International diplomacy with, oh, say, Russia is also going to be more effective as a done as a part of the European Union, as will peace negotiations across the Middle East and North Africa.
Academia and the arts – I am not an expert in the ins and outs of these two areas. I know that European academics and artists benefit hugely from EU immigration rules and that most of them, especially those early in their career who are most likely to need to move around for work, do not make the £35,000 a year the government’s proposed immigration reform. I think that both the UK arts scene and academia benefit from European exposure in both directions, and as I understand it the arts in particular are a net positive, economically for the UK. I appreciated this piece by Sam West on some of the ins and outs for the arts a good deal. Outside the EU we would lose access to a good deal of funding that helps our academic industry thrive. Throwing that away does not seem to be logically consistent with a desire and current need to help our universities keep research pace with Europe and the US and to appeal to overseas students who bring in fees.