The case against … PAUL REDGRAVE urges voters to Remain part of the EU on Thursday 23 June.
When I moved back to Britain after living in the Caribbean for twelve years, I was out of the political loop. I couldn’t have distinguished between Conservative and Labour, let alone the Liberal Democrats or the UK Independence Party, and British politicians seemed so far away compared to the more localised politics of the Caribbean islands. Even more distant were the political organs and economic institutions of the European Union, which resembled something from the world of Kafka: ethereal, invisible, bafflingly insubstantial as if their very existence were suspect. I found myself in a much vaster political paradigm, where intranational and global institutions were intertwined. Decisions made by the leaders of one country reverberated in other countries, and policies made by international bodies like the EU had global repercussions.
Because of my own experiences I find the responsibility to vote almost overwhelming. After reading numerous articles and studies on the implications of a Brexit, I am still unclear as to what will happen if Britain leaves the EU. But then again, I don’t think anybody really knows. Not the economists working for the International Monetary Fund, nor the British politicians who support a Brexit, nor the diplomats and representatives in the European Parliament and the European Commission. Surely this uncertainty should guide our decision to stay rather than leave. Although the exact implications of a Brexit are unclear, so many things would clearly be negatively impacted, trade, healthcare, own our government.
In January 2013, David Cameron promised an in/out referendum to determine whether Britain should remain a part of the EU. We are now in June 2016 and this decision is in our hands. We can vote to remain in the EU as its third most densely populated member state, with a great deal of influence on policy making in the European Council and European Parliament, the advantages of free trade, and participation in an invaluable security network. Or, we can vote to leave the EU, unfettering ourselves from some budgetary responsibilities and bureaucratic red tape, whilst simultaneously isolating Britain from its most significant trading partners and allies in the process.
The case for Leave should not be brushed aside as xenophobic hatred and out-dated nationalistic nostalgia. It would be naïve and unfair to dismiss the diverse Leave camp in this way. We have ignored for too long how the ‘migration crisis’ has stirred up fear and animosity both in Britain and continental Europe, prompting the rise of nationalist and ultra-nationalist parties like UKIP and France’s Front National. These are people’s real worries; so many different issues have been tied to this referendum and it has come to represent more than just in or out of Europe. But is cutting ourselves off from Europe or from migrants the solution? Is Europe really the root cause of the deep problems working people have had to face? What else do we vote for when we vote Leave?
In recent years, the EU has been rocked by economic and political inadequacies, which have justifiably opened it up to criticism. Ever since its introduction in 1999, the single currency has caused high unemployment in many countries, while rates of economic growth have not followed sufficiently, placing many member states in an ‘economic straitjacket’. Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, points to the de-politicisation of the EU, describing it as a highly centralised ‘Brussels-based bureaucracy’ which often undermines democracy rather than reinforcing it.
Despite its pitfalls and weaknesses, the EU has done much to promote democratic values and freedoms, unification, cosmopolitanism and cooperation. It is vital to remember the origins of this system – it was born out of an intent to keep peace as a direct response to the unrivalled bloodshed during the first half of the 20th century. The concept of a unified Europe itself developed in the wake of the Second World War. To those that would say that we have no way of knowing what Europe would look like without an EU — intimating that it is cowardice that is holding us back from cutting ties with this institution — Gordon Brown has replied ‘in every century but this one, the nations of Europe have been vying for supremacy’. Naturally we live in a different context to that of the 100 Years war; however, it is only 71 years since many Europeans stopped bombing and decimating each other – war in Europe is still in living memory.
The integrative nature of the EU functions as an important bastion against such intercontinental conflict, aiming to federate the cultures and politics of nations whilst still allowing them to retain their individual characters and autonomy. Many Brexiters argue that such unification undermines the sovereignty of states. I am sceptical: our parliament and supreme court maintain the right to challenge EU directives should they so wish. But perhaps it does. Why do we suddenly care so much about abstract sovereignty? It is a necessary cost of being part of a global community whose aim is to ensure the cooperation of its members with one another. An international system of checks and balances, local and international, like that maintained by the EU is preferable to the dangers of a surfeit of sovereignty, when through nationalism that can so easily lead to gross corruption or war.
A Brexit would be unprecedented in the history of the EU. In fact, it was only in 2009, with the enforcement of the Treaty of Lisbon, that member states were afforded the legal right to leave. It’s rash to prophesy a future of doom and gloom for Britain outside of the EU. So many issues are being pinned to this referendum that don’t really belong to it and so much depends on what our government would do next. That said, certain forecasts can be made as to the economic and political consequences of a Brexit.
Over the years, we’ve developed a certain amount of economic dependency: now the EU receives almost 50% of Britain’s exports. At least to begin with, Britain would require access to the single market, and would perhaps negotiate a deal similar to those observed by Norway and Iceland, neither of whom are members of the EU. Both countries, as part of the European Economic Area, are still bound by EU regulations and budgetary contributions. The crucial difference between these countries and member states is their inability to have a say in determining EU policy. One Norwegian minister has suggested that ‘if you want to run Europe, you must be in Europe. If you want to be run by Europe, feel free to join Norway.’ Britain would find itself on the periphery of EU decision making, whilst still relying upon the single market – in other words, it would become a disenfranchised economic dependent.
Supporters of a Brexit argue that having left the EU Britain would have opportunities to strike new trade deals. However they underestimate the time required for talks, let alone deals. Obama’s statement that Britain would be at ‘the back of the queue’ for trade talks with the USA indicates it cannot be taken for granted that these new deals would be quick, or as favourable as some might hope.
Leaving aside international politics: EU law makes up vitally important parts of our legislation for workers’ rights, environmental protection, human rights, and much more. What will happen when we leave this open to be ravaged by a new Tory government under Boris, Gove and Nigel?
The EU is certainly no utopia. The claims by Leave campaigners that it is undemocratic and overwrought with bureaucratic red tape have some truth to them, and they point to the urgent need for reform. Yet it is also true that the EU has brought an unprecedented period of peace and stability to Europe – and this should not be forgotten. Although there is no real way of knowing the full implications of a Brexit, there are clear benefits to remaining. The claims that this is it, that a vote to Remain will leave us without a bargaining position for reform are nonsense. Vote to Remain, and then push for change.
Paul Redgrave argues for Vote Remain as part of a conflicting opinions series for SAVAGE. To view the case for Leave, click here.