The EU Referendum
On 23rd June this year, British voters will decide whether the UK is to remain part of the European Union (EU) or to sever our formal link with Brussels. The “in-out referendum”, in which each voter will answer what on the face of it seems the simplest of questions, has been long promised. It’s to the Prime Minister’s credit that he’s kept the promise, having “negotiated a deal” with our European partners. In truth it wasn’t much of a deal; the concessions that have come Britain’s way are few and slight; but at least there was a show of negotiation.
So how should we vote? Unsurprisingly, some are passionately committed to remaining within the European fold and some are just as passionately committed to getting out of it.
The former group argues that the EU has maintained peace in Europe for several decades (the Balkan conflict of the ’90s happened before those countries were EU members), we rely heavily on tariff-free trading and a large percentage of our exports go to Europe, we are stronger economically, politically and militarily thanks to cooperation with our partners, European arrest warrants help to ensure the capture of fugitive criminals, free movement of people across borders gives our citizens access to employment all over the continent, scientific and technological cooperation is fostered… And withdrawal would entail the loss of all these benefits, hurt us economically, make us more vulnerable to attack from hostile nations, and leave us floundering in a mass of trade and other renegotiations with countries all around the world.
The latter group argues that peace has been maintained by NATO rather than the EU, we’d still continue to trade with Europe as we do today, and since we’re the fifth biggest economy in the world there’s little to fear in that regard. Most importantly, Britain would regain her sovereignty by withdrawing, restoring all law-making powers to our own elected parliament, and small businesses would be freed of the European red tape that currently strangles them. (Big businesses benefit from EU regulations because they can pay administrators to deal with the red tape.) We’d free our agricultural and fishing industries from the blight of EU rules, and above all we’d stop the free movement of people so there’d be an end to the mass immigration into Britain from Eastern Europe. EU membership costs us much more than we recover, and the EU is an undemocratic bureaucracy and is going to fall to pieces anyway because it can’t handle the migration crisis, can’t effectively agree about any shared policy, faces another crisis of the common currency (the euro) and is mostly run by unelected commissioners.
Each of these points pro and contra is hotly contested by proponents of the other side. The Prime Minister is pro-EU, but not all his cabinet colleagues agree with him. He has – democratically – allowed every MP to decide independently what position to take and to promote that viewpoint publicly, thereby inter alia suspending the rule that the cabinet must speak with one voice.
No matter how we might praise Mr Cameron for his fairness in this regard, his decision has had two untoward consequences.
First, it’s exposed divisions within the party of government (the Conservatives), so now other aspects of policy are being picked over in public, weakening the government’s capacity to implement its programme and in particular weakening the Prime Minister’s position. Two or three other leading Conservatives are transparently manoeuvring to replace him. This is not healthy, and will certainly not be healthy if the British people decide on 23rd June to leave the EU, because then we’ll have no one but our own government to care for our interests and our needs.
Second, it’s ensured that the pro and contra arguments are developed adversarially, as they are during debates in the House of Commons or during pre-election debates. This is unhelpful, because a substantial percentage of the electorate doesn’t know how to vote because the arguments on each side haven’t been set out dispassionately, honestly, or in sufficient detail – and now, since adversarial tactics are inevitable during the next two months, they’re not going to be.
So what’s going to help each of us to decide how to vote, apart from gut feeling? Well, as things stand, the “out” campaigners seem more vigorous and more positive than their “in” opponents. Those who want us to stay in the EU are too inclined to emphasise the drawbacks and dangers of withdrawing, a strategy that the “out” group has pilloried as “project fear”. (This is quite a neat bit of rhetoric. It’s implicitly asking the voter “Do you have the courage to help restore Britain’s independence and sovereignty, or are you a coward who’s afraid to vote for change?”) The “out” side also has charismatic campaigners such as the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, whose energy and habitual buffoonery make him widely popular (he’s actually a very intelligent and well-informed man, but much more right wing than is often recognised). A year ago we’d have said the outcome of the referendum was a foregone conclusion: there’d be a two-to-one majority in favour of retaining EU membership. This is no longer the case. The “out” campaign is gaining ground.
The migrant crisis has strengthened their position. If we remain part of the EU, we’re going to have to take our fair share of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the long run. If we “regain independence” we’ll have no such obligation – provided we don’t consider moral obligations, and governments don’t seem very good at honouring those.
Well, the issues are many and complicated, and I’m not going to offer a “solution” here and now (I know which way I’ll vote, but it’s a secret ballot.) One point I might offer concerns the alleged impending demise of the EU: it’s creaking under the political and economic strain and is on the verge of cracking and falling apart. This might or might not be the case – I alluded to the matter in my previous blog – but if it is, why bother leaving? However much we doubt the value of continued membership, there’s no point in severing our connection with an organisation that’s about to disintegrate and ipso facto cast us adrift anyway!