6th June 2016 – 17 days before the Referendum

Okay, I’ve been asked by a few people (well, two) for my views on the EU Referendum, so here’s my EUR 0.02. This is pretty long as it’s an important subject, so today it’s Part 1. Also, if you don’t have the time, energy or inclination to read all of it, the headline is this: The UK, Europe, and the world, in the short, medium and long term, will be better, in moral, political and economic terms, if the UK stays in the EU. At the same time, the UK’s problems are largely UK ones, and leaving the EU will not solve them, and in some cases will make them worse. Please, Please vote STAY.

Firstly, it’s fair to say that I have a personal stake in this. I live and work in an EU Member State (Belgium) and I want to stay here. I have worked for both the European Commission (on relations with the Eastern neighbours of the EU) and as a negotiator for the UK in the UK Representation to the EU. My wife works for an EU institution as well, and it’s fair to say that I’m instinctively pro-EU. Some of you however will be instinctively anti-EU, and this is of course fine, but the point of this is to show that even if you are instinctively anti-EU, you should still vote for the UK to remain a member of it.

Secondly, I’m going to ignore the economic case for leaving the EU. I think this has been shown beyond doubt to be specious. Today, Sterling dropped 1.5 cents against the US dollar just because The Telegraph reported that a clear majority of its readers would vote to leave. The Leave campaign’s £350 million a week has been shown to be a misrepresentation, and the Leave campaign has failed to produce a single learned academic or financial institute institution that believes it will result in an improvement in the economy of the UK. Even if the mythical trade deal with the EU happened (it won’t, we’ll get to that), the UK would have damaged the economy of its main export consumer by leaving.

I’m also not going to address Immigration. Firstly, It’s an essay in itself. Secondly, it is absolutely clear that immigration to the UK in general, and particularly by EU citizens, has been a huge benefit to the UK. Under the Vienna convention people legally resident in the UK would have a right to remain as they have legal ‘acquired rights’. If the UK dramatically reduced immigration though, there would be a shortage of a) people willing to do jobs others don’t want, often at minimum wage, and b) a shortage of highly qualified people to address the UK’s skills gap. The UK government has control over non EU immigration and has failed to reduce it substantially despite its election pledges. Any trade deal with the EU would probably include free movement of people, so immigration from the EU would be unlikely to fall. In short, immigration is not massively affected by this. DO NOT BE TAKEN IN by the Leave campaign’s focus on immigration. They are attempting to play on what they perceive as a fundamental, little-Englander xenophobia in the population. They are treating you as easily led idiots. You are not, so do not let them treat you as such! Prove them wrong!

Part 1 addresses why the best arguments to Leave are flawed, then I’ll look at the positive reasons to Remain in Part 2 in a few days.

Leave 1. Couldn’t we spend the money on something else?

The direct cost of EU membership to the UK government is 0.38% of total government spending. Could this money be spent on something else like increasing pensions, or funding for the NHS and schools? Well, yes, of course it could in principle, but it a) won’t be available, and b) is unlikely to be spent on the things you want it to be spent on. On a), being a member of the single market (we might not be, I’ll come to that) is the best hope for a trade deal with the UK, and that would require that we pay most of this back into the EU budget as Norway does. On b), even if the UK did stop paying its subs to the EU, the UK government would then need to replace all or some of the funding for the things that the EU currently funds in the UK. This includes agriculture subsidies to British farmers, funding for infrastructure, particularly in the more remote parts of the UK, to name a couple. The extension of the Tyne and Wear Metro, for example, was part funded by the EU. Replacing this funding will leave very little for the other stuff.

But what about what’s left? Do you trust the current UK government to spend the money on the things that matter to you? If this means the NHS, workers’ rights, pensions, or education, they haven’t yet, so why would they now? On top of this, think about the figure 0.38%. In government spending terms, it is very little, and most of it won’t be available, so how much difference is this really going to make?

Leave 2. But at least it would be British politicians choosing…

The best argument for the Leave Campaign is, in my view, sovereignty. It is reasonable for a population of a country to want to elect its own politicians to rule itself, without outside interference. Our own democratic government must have the final say, and we must have the final say on our government.

This seems to make sense, and it certainly did make sense in 1900. It is not so clear cut in 2016 though. Even outside the EU, the UK government would not be solely responsible for everything without any outside interference. The UK relies on being an important member of the international community and subject to international laws and treaties. It is a signatory to the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and legally subject to its provisions. The UK’s trade would be governed by WHO rules, made by its 162 members, and the UK would be just one of them. It is currently represented by the EU in the WTO, who, as the world’s largest trading block, exercise some power there. The UK’s economy is monitored by the IMF, which can sanction the UK (as it did in the 70’s). The UK is a member of NATO, and decisions on NATO operations are made jointly by its members (including almost all EU members, prospective members and Turkey).

The idea of blissful isolation is so (first half of) last century. It’s not how the 21st century, or indeed the last part of the 20th Century works. So, it wouldn’t be just the British getting back its absolute sovereignty, because absolute sovereignty doesn’t exist in the modern, interdependent world.

The sense in which the UK does maintain absolute sovereignty is that it can leave the organisations it’s a member of, and rescind the treaties it’s subject to. Parliament retains that right, as the EU referendum itself shows. The argument is about whether it should do this, not whether it could.

Leave 3. …and not unelected Eurocrats or foreigners.

There are 3 important words here, and I’ll take them in turn. Decisions in the EU are not made by unelected people. The Commission is the equivalent of the UK civil service, and the Commissioners (chosen by democratically elected governments, one each) are the rough equivalent of Permanent Secretaries or heads of departments in the UK. The Commission proposes laws, rules and actions, and implements the decisions of the Council and European Parliament. Council is made up of Ministers from EU member States, who are ministers in a democratically elected government, and the UK has the second highest voting strength in Council. Decisions also require the support (I’m simplifying some quite complex mechanisms here by the way) from the European Parliament, which is made up of democratically elected MEPs. So, while there may be some issues with democracy in the EU, the decisions are not being made by unelected people.

‘Eurocrats’ make up the European civil service, and, like UK civil servants, have roles ranging from writing minutes of meetings all the way to negotiating treaties with other countries. They are somewhat overpaid in my view, but contrary to popular belief they do pay tax. They have a single, progressive tax system of their own, because they are posted all over the EU and the world, and it would be unfair if being posted somewhere meant that you had lower or higher tax to pay. The pay also reflects the fact that most of them have to live in Brussels or Luxembourg. I love living in Brussels, but I also understand that it is not necessarily the dream of most university graduates to live in either of those cities. Moreover, every Eurocrat has to pass a series of incredibly hard exams IN THEiR SECOND LANGUAGE. This is not that they have to pass a language test, it’s that they have to do the whole exam in a second language. I’ve got degrees in politics and have lived in a mainly Francophone country for 10 years, and I would have no chance of passing these tests. Not a hope. So, the pay also reflects that the people being employed are the absolute best, and are utterly committed to their work. As an example, a colleague of mine a couple of offices down from me was doing the same job as me, but had given up a tenured professorship in economics at a prestigious university to join the Commission. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the UK a) agreed to the salary levels, and b) has been successful in keeping annual increases at a reasonable level. Finally, there are comparatively few of them. There are fewer than 40,000 European civil servants, compared to over 400,000 in the UK.

This is not to say there is no need of reform. The EU institutions can be creaking at times, and their complexity and impenetrability makes them remote from citizens. There should be serious reform, and the UK has successfully campaigned for improvements. Blaming the pay of Eurocrats is a red herring though.

Now, foreigners. They’re just not like us are they? Tricky, corrupt, self interested Mediterranean types, striking frenchman, racked with inefficiency, Germans secretly trying to take over Europe. Bollocks! There are differences in cultures of course, but the cliches of the 20th century should be left there. If you think that the British are just better at stuff than them, try to think about what that actually means. Is it genetic, because the British gene pool is one of the most mixed in the world (even before the immigration of the 20th Century)? Is it that we make stuff better, because the German automotive industry and the French train and energy industries would disagree. Is it our brilliant politicians? Gove? Laughable. But you may still think the UK is better. Well, for you, it is. Just as Belgium is best for most Belgians, and Slovenia is best for most Slovenians. It’s good that you like your country, but you can’t seriously believe that there is something fundamentally better about it that can never be replicated by foreigners due to their inferiority and your superiority. Someone in the early 20th century thought that, and he was a dick as well.

There is one difference though. People and politicians in the other 27 EU Member States often think of what would be best for Europe as a whole, and not just their own narrow short-term self interest. You should as well, and we’ll come to that in Part 2.

Leave 4. But it’s a capitalist plot by the establishment!

The previous Leave arguments were mainly from the right, but this one is a leftist issue. The TTIP debacle certainly roused suspicion that the EU was working for corporations and the establishment, and not the people. Now, scepticism about politics, politicians and political institutions is very healthy. Of course, politicians and politicos think that more politics is the answer to everything, and we know this is not always true.

There are 2 points to remember here though. Firstly, the UK is the prime driver for pro business and corporation policies in the UK, including TTIP. Many other Member States are more social-leaning, and are actually very suspicious of this rampant capitalism, as is evidenced by France’s growing scepticism about TTIP. UK governments have consistently fought against, and got exceptions from, EU rules giving workers more rights. The UK has also fought tooth and nail against EU controls on banks and financial institutions. If rampant capitalism, with laws made for multinationals and banks rather than people, is your main worry, the UK government should be your target, not the EU.

Leave 5. But we’ll get a great trade deal. They need us more than we need them!

I want to be clear on this. This. Is. A. Lie. Anyone who understands the EU or international relations generally and says this knows this is lie. They are not mistaken. They are lying and they know it. They are liars. Clear enough?

Imagine the following fictional scenario (which actually couldn’t happen, but that’s not the point). France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and Portugal all have referendums to remove the UK from the EU. They cite its lack of commitment, refusal to join the Euro, and that they refuse to take their fair share of refugees as reasons. Each referendum is won by the UK Out side. What would the UK reaction be?

Would the UK be understanding, admit its faults, and attempt to negotiate an orderly exit with preferential trade terms for the EU? Would it keep free movement of people for EU citizens in return for the mutually beneficial trade deal that the EU wants? Would it be lovely and helpful? Of course not. It would tell the EU to Fuck Off in no uncertain terms, and either refuse to negotiate or negotiate only the worst possible terms for the EU? You shit on us, we’ll shit on you mate. That’s the way it works round here Johnny!

Okay, so reverse the situation. Are they likely to look kindly upon us absolutely screwing the European project, destabilising their economy, and pissing all over the peace and stability that it’s brought? Of course not. Why would we expect democratically elected leaders of important countries (some of them bigger than the UK) to just say “of course, it will be in our economic self-interests to be nice and negotiate fairly, so we will.” We would not expect the UK to act like this, so why would we expect the rest of the EU to act like this to the UK?

The reality is, either we’ll get the same deal the rest of the world gets, which we know would be bad for the UK, or we’ll get a deal like Norway has, where we have to contribute to the EU, and abide by its rules (Norway has to implement over 75% of EU law), including allowing EU citizens to live and work there, but without any participation in the making of those rules. This would probably be presented as a take-it-or-leave-it offer. One is crap for the economy, the other would reduce UK control of its own laws, not increase them.

Leave Conclusion

These are, to varying degrees, superficially reasonable arguments, but they don’t stand up to examination. The UK is already the 5th largest economy in the world, and the idea that leaving the EU will somehow solve all of its problems and bring a massive slush fund to spend on the things you care about is not true. Any deal with the EU will be worse both in terms of the economy and in terms of repatriating powers than the current situation. The EU is not ideal, and needs reforms, but it is changing, and can be reformed. The same could be said of the UN and other institutions that we have no desire to leave. There are some democratic issues, but to call the EU undemocratic is to go way too far. A lot of what we blame the EU for was actually agreed to by our own elected politicians. The UK’s problems are largely its own, and leaving the EU will not solve them.


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