The EU Referendum: how I’ve decided to vote, and why
In 1975 the people of the UK voted in a referendum to decide whether the country should remain a member of the European Economic Community (EEC). The outcome was a two to one majority in favour of continuing. I’d voted to leave, so I was on the losing side. On 23rd June 2016, the people of the UK will vote in a referendum to decide on continuing membership of what is now the European Union (EU). This time I’ll vote the other way: I want Britain to remain part of the EU. In other words, I’ve changed my mind, despite my reservations about the EU.
Here I’ll explain why I’ve changed my mind. Perhaps, directly or indirectly, my reflections might help others who’re mired in confusion about the relevant issues to decide either for or against continuing EU membership.
I’ll start with my 1975 arguments and explain which of these, in my judgment, remain valid and which don’t. Then I’ll add other arguments that pertain to the current situation.
- Sovereignty. My position in 1975 was that EEC membership seriously undermined Britain’s capacity to decide and impose her own laws without interference from the rest of Europe. This remains a valid concern in 2016, but I’ve come to recognise that sovereignty is relative. No nation can make and implement decisions without reference to others. Even North Korea, viewed by much of the world as a “rogue state”, cannot act independently of others, notably China. Many of our “out” (or “Brexit”) campaigners fear that Europe is moving towards a single state with the UK as a mere province. There is indeed a movement in this direction, but there is far too much cultural, historical, social, political and religious heterogeneity among the EU’s twenty-eight member states for complete political integration ever to be feasible. Our sovereignty might be diminished but it won’t be lost.
- Democracy. In 1975 I was uncomfortable about the power of unelected Commissioners to decide EEC policy, and the relative lack of influence by democratically elected governments. I still have this worry, but there’s some evidence that the European Parliament, which comprises members elected by the public on a proportional representation basis, exerts more power over EU decision-making than was the case even a decade or so ago.
- Bureaucracy. In 1975 I was worried by two aspects of this issue. First, EEC bureaucracy imposed a lot of red tape; second, it led to absurd legislation (e.g. the height of hairdressers’ heels was regulated, apples below a certain size had to be dumped irrespective of their food value, and there was the nonsense about straight bananas). Many of these absurdities have now been abandoned, or at least most member states ignore them. Red tape continues to strangle small businesses – not large ones, which can afford dedicated administrators to deal with it – but I’m not persuaded that the bureaucracy would be less suffocating if Britain left the EU. Therefore, although bureaucracy is a serious issue, it doesn’t seem to me to provide a compelling argument for “Brexit”.
- Centralisation. My understanding of the history of science convinced me in 1975 that centralisation stifles progress and innovation: compare the huge progress in the Greek city states of the Classical period or the emerging European nation states after 1100 CE with what occurred in the centralised administrations of ancient Egypt and China – great cultures where major advances in knowledge and technology were made, but were ultimately handicapped by the relative lack of independence of individuals or small local groups. Again this worry persists, but the highly productive inter-nation collaborations in science and industry across Europe during recent decades have impressed me, so I’m less concerned about the intellectually damaging consequences of centralisation now than I was forty-one years ago.
- Weights and measures. The replacement of our traditional “imperial” system of weights and measures by the metric system infuriated me in 1975, for reasons I’ll expand upon in a separate blog. I still refuse to bow to the use of metric units in shops. I demand everything in pounds and ounces, or feet and inches. But although I believe my case against metrication remains as sound now as it was then (I will have to explain this at greater length), there’s no longer any hope of reversing it. Our young people have grown up in ignorance of imperial units and they can no longer be expected to assimilate this fundamental part of our cultural heritage. So this is no longer a valid argument for “Brexit”.
- The Commonwealth. We were able to join the EEC only by attenuating our invaluable economic links with fellow-members of the Commonwealth. In 1975, this felt to me like betrayal. Now, as in the case of weights and measures, the loss is irreversible. If we left the EU we wouldn’t re-establish our Commonwealth links in their former glory because the member states have all forged their own economic and other alliances, independently of Britain.
So although many of my 1975 concerns persist, they no longer loom quite as large as they did. However, other issues have arisen, and – although they too entail significant concerns – they have sufficed to tip the balance for me in favour of “in”.
- Immigration. A fundamental principle of the EU is the free movement of people (and trade, etc.) across all borders within Europe. Because Britain is wealthier than many European states, we have had a large net influx of people into the country since the Lisbon Treaty was signed. This has left many of our native unskilled workers unemployed and put great strain on our infrastructure in some areas. However, most of the immigrants have benefited us economically and socially. “Brexit” campaigners assert that only by leaving the EU can we bring immigration under control and relieve the pressure on our services. This is wishful thinking. In order to continue trading with the rest of Europe, we’ll have to accept continuing free movement of people. Immigration does entail problems as well as advantages, but leaving the EU won’t make as much difference to it as “Brexit” campaigners claim.
- 2. Cost. “Brexit” campaigners tell us that membership of the EU costs us more than 300 million pounds per week. This figure takes no account of the money paid back to us from the EU, for example in subsidies for farmers without which many UK farmers would be out of business. We do pay more into the EU than we receive in return, but the net efflux is much less than the “Brexit” campaigners claim.
- 3. Values. As I remarked in a recent blog, the values of liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law, respect for human dignity and respect for human rights (including the rights of minorities) are enshrined in the Constitution. If Britain left the EU, many around the world might perceive us as repudiating those values, particularly since our present government has expressed reservations about existing Human Rights legislation. By retaining our membership we continue to demonstrate our respect for them.
- 4. Environmental protection. Britain has laws to protect Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but in practice these laws lack teeth and a determined (and sufficiently wealthy and powerful) developer can evade or circumvent them. European environmental legislation is much stronger and gives far better protection to those parts of our country that we wish to conserve because of their ecological or aesthetic value.
- 5. Economic control. Although in 1975 our economy was in a poor condition, with very high inflation, British industries and services were owned within and by Britain. During the 1980s, the ideologically-inspired policy of privatisation led to a sale of most of our national assets, so many of our industries and services are now owned by people and organisations outside Britain, and in some cases outside Europe. One recent consequence of this has been the near-closure of Britain’s steel industry, prevented at the last moment by belated and grudging government intervention. As a member of the EU we are protected against the most serious impacts of foreign ownership. Outside the EU we would have no such protection. (A new government education policy, intended to take our schools out of local government control and put them in the hands of private organisations, will – by the same mechanism – in time lead to foreign control of our education system. Once again, EU membership could protect us against the worst aspects of this disaster-in-waiting.)
- 6. Prospects for trade. “Brexit” campaigners repeatedly remind us that Britain has the world’s fifth largest economy so we’re more than capable of managing outside the EU. They don’t acknowledge that one important contributor to our economic strength is our EU membership. Isolated from the rest of Europe, the UK would represent a tiny market for most big trading nations (including the USA, India and China) so there would be little interest in establishing trade deals with us. In contrast, the EU is a big market and attracts major trade deals from which all member states, including Britain, benefit.
- 7. The consequence of tariffs. If we leave the EU then other European countries will erect tariff barriers against us. Suppose you manage a manufacturing business in the UK – say a profitable car manufacturing company. After “Brexit”, the government of Slovakia (for example) could say to you: “We know our new tariff barriers are hurting your profits, but if you moved your company to our country, out of Britain, we’d give you financial help to establish yourself here and you could then trade again with the rest of Europe without tariffs… And of course the taxes you’d pay us would benefit us”. This is an imagined scenario, but it’s more likely to prove reality than fantasy.
- 8. Decision-making. An argument against the EU (which to date hasn’t been emphasised by “Brexit”) is the difficulty of getting twenty-eight countries to agree about important policies. The EU’s chaotic response to the so-called “migration crisis” of the past year or so exemplifies this problem. Before that crisis arose, Pope Francis had already upbraided the EU for its loss of decisiveness and moral leadership. However, Britain isn’t going to ameliorate the problem by quitting. “Brexit” might make us a voice in the wilderness rather than one tongue crying in the Tower of Babel, but I can’t see how that would constitute an improvement.
Other people will be influenced by issues I haven’t raised and will ignore some of the ones I have, and when they weigh up the pros and cons they might find the balance tilted in favour of “out” rather than “in”. That’s as it should be; the point of democracy is that every individual eligible to vote can make a considered decision based on reasoned arguments.
Unfortunately, neither side in the EU Referendum debate has set out the issues as I’ve attempted to do here. Everyone is campaigning negatively, focussing on the damaging consequences of remaining/leaving, trying to persuade us to vote their way not by deploying balanced rational arguments but by inspiring fear of the alternative. That’s how it shouldn’t be; but alas, representative democracies always seem to operate in this adversarial manner.
My next blog will be about the weights and measures argument – which I know will have little influence on most people but it’s important to me!