As a follow-on to my previous EU referendum posts, here is a longer, more general post outlining my thoughts on EU membership and the EU referendum. Over recent days, the opinion polls are showing momentum for Brexit, and so this post may end up on the wrong side of history. If you haven’t seen my other posts, I am strongly supportive of staying in the EU, mostly because of the benefits of social, economic and political alliances among countries. Together, we may sometimes disagree with each other, but together we are always stronger.
There are two crucial underlying themes to the referendum debate. The first is the perceived disconnect between the “woman and man in the street” and the “ruling elites” (be they political, monied, intellectual*, or whatever in nature). I say “perceived”, because I suspect this disconnect is, ironically, also in part a construction of the over-anxious ruling classes, and that in fact many UK citizens do feel engaged with UK politics to some extent. But disillusionment with politics is also rife, I certainly accept that. [*probably not!]
The second is the failure of meaningful debate. To some extent, these two themes are related, but there still has been a woeful neglect of substantive, reasoned debate even amongst the supposed elites. This lack of debate has been to our detriment.
Much could be written about how the campaign over the UK’s EU Referendum has played itself out across the media. For instance, one could explore the reasons why leaving the EU may appeal to some (immigration, sovereignty, globalisation, the sickness of neoliberalism, a disdain for politics-as-usual, and so on). One could also consider how both remainers and leavers have played fast-and-loose with facts, figures and fantasies of fortune and glory – although I think the greater use of flat-out untruths has to lie with the Brexiteers. Please watch Dominic Cummings being closely cross-examined by Andrew Tyrie (a Tory, by the way) to get an insight into supposedly a key player in the Leave camp.
What would be harder to write about would be the way in which thoughtful, intellectually rich discourse has helped shape national opinion, both for and against staying in the EU. As with the Scottish referendum back in 2014, the level of debate has been at times churlish, childish, and often intellectually vacuous. Perhaps worst of all, ideas of “democracy” seem to be conflated with ideas of getting one’s own way, and undercurrents of nationalism – and worse – have never been that far from view.
Crucially, the remainers have failed to articulate clearly what the EU is, how it works, what it does for us, and why together we are stronger. The focus on remaining has – again ironically – all been about leaving. I suspect come 24th June, in or out, the vast majority of UK citizens will still have no idea about the nature and structure of the EU. For a clue, go here.
For the leavers part, they have similarly failed to articulate what the future would look like. They have relied upon nothing other than platitudes about more money for this or that interest group or public service, sweeping gestures on immigration (that no centrist government of any current mainstream party would actually act out), and general notions of sovereignty and the reclamation of democracy.
Outside of the “elites”, it is clear that the immigration issue has much traction, traction that data cannot seem to budge. I will touch on this again below. In terms of democracy, the failure for the remain side to adequately explain how the EU works has left the perceived “democratic deficit” safely in place. And I can sympathise with those who do perceive the deficit, at least until one explores how the EU works. When one does, one sees that there actually is plenty of democracy in the EU structure.
Briefly, there are three branches of EU government that involve directly-elected members. The so-called Council of Ministers is made up of directly elected ministers from member states (i.e. from the UK, these are our government ministers). The European Parliament is more straightforward, made up of directly elected MEPs. Finally, the European Council is made of up the elected heads of government from the member states, who meet during summits. These three democratically elected bodies together chart the path of the EU, and vote on EU legislation. The last branch of the EU – and perhaps the most vilified and least understood (including by me) – is the EU Commission, which is the European civil service, involved in drafting and administering EU legislation.
(Note: the European Court of Human Rights is entirely separate to the EU. The European Court is charged by the Council of Europe with enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights. Forty-seven states comprise the Council of Europe, and we would not be leaving the Council of Europe if we left the EU. But you know all that right? Yeah, thought so…)
So, despite the perceptions of a democratic deficit, which no doubt feedback into the lack of engagement with EU democracy, for instance through low turnout for elections to the European Parliament, the EU is far more democratic than most people think. Unwieldy, unusual in format? Well, maybe. But undemocratic? Not so much. Like many things in politics, it is what we make it.
For me, the strongest arguments for or against leaving the EU have come from (a) left-wing leavers who view the EU as a neoliberal conclave, protecting the interests of the rich elites, and (b) remainers who view the geopolitical consequences of staying or going as the crucial argument. A few lone voices have, of course, put forward more general versions of common sense, Delia Smith among them. (Come on professional politicians – outshone by a TV cook? Shame on you.) But wise words have been hard to come by.
Perhaps the most powerful response to (a) is that successive UK governments have themselves been key drivers in the spread of neoliberal policies across the EU, with the fate of tariffs on imports of cheap Chinese steel being a recent case-in-point. As such, there is no evidence that leaving the EU would free us from neo-liberal shackles; I strongly suspect that the opposite is in fact the case, and that the EU collectively has been a more powerful break on neoliberal economics than not. It certainly would not be so neoliberal if it wasn’t for us.
This is not to downplay the seriousness of how Europe has interacted with Greece – I personally feel that the way in which Greece has been treated (for all their own contributions to their current economic crisis) has been very damaging to the perception of democratic process across the continent. For a national referendum to be over-turned within a week due to outside forces is a parlous state of affairs, and one that may have all sorts of unwelcome consequences – including left-wing support for a successful leave campaign in the UK.
More generally, though, the UK electorate needs to realise just how much the UK has shaped the EU. Of course, what you view as positive or negative will likely be influenced by your own political stance. This terrific sketch with Patrick Stewart (which deserves to become a classic in its own right) hilariously shows how the UK has had a major impact on human rights across the EU (including, of course, before the EU as we now know it was born; see above for the ECHR). Moreover, think about how English is now the common language across Europe – and we are about to leave the EU…?
To imagine that the UK has been experiencing a one-way street of social, political and cultural “europeanisation” would be absurd (and to portray reality in that way would be deeply misleading). Instead, the truth is that we have been an active architect of how the EU has developed since we joined its forerunner in the 70s. If there are things we dislike about the current EU – including its expansion to include eastern European nations – then we need to look hard at ourselves and the decisions are own politicians have made. For instance, we strongly supported the expansion of the EU.
In terms of (b), you might wonder why we should worry about the bigger geopolitical picture, instead of perhaps all the economic arguments that have been bandied about by both sides. The answer is simple: the geopolitical consequences of how the UK interact with the EU, and indeed with the rest of the world, will determine the economic consequences of staying or going. And that goes for the impact on UK science (and my science) too.
Leaving the EU will not mean the end of trade (although there should be genuine concern over whether the global economy is strong enough to withstand an economic upheaval in Europe, even without a new credit-crunch and any ensuing financial crisis; I wouldn’t bet against it). However, I find it hard to see how leaving a long-established partnership will help us politically, socially or economically, given the huge challenges that we face on a changing planet. These challenges are increasingly global. After all, is there any challenge facing any country that has become increasingly local over recent decades?
Certainly no leaver has made any sort of cogent argument to show how it would be easier for the UK outside of the EU to deal with the global challenges of, say, the causes and consequences of resource-depletion, environmental degradation, demographic changes (including mass migration), international crime, terrorism, and changes in the distribution of global wealth.
To consider just mass migration: it is tempting to think that “closing our borders” solves the problem, but if mass migration across the globe disrupts social and economic structures across continents, then so will our own economic activities will be impacted. And if that disruption is catastrophic (maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow), then the English Channel will not save us from what might follow. It is dangerously naive to think otherwise.
All this might seem easy enough for me to argue as a university academic with a salary. The precarious classes, with zero-hours contracts or no contract at all, might not view things the same way. I do appreciate that. For all the wealth of data confirming that immigration to the UK, including EU immigration, has provided net benefits to our economy, financial insecurity understandably leads to a close-focus on day-to-day concerns over jobs, housing, access to health services, and a sense of identity. Indeed, the seriousness of the recent polls for the remain camp appears in part to be due to the failure of traditional Labour voters to support staying in the EU. Immigrants are an easy target for the disaffected.
All of this is why we actually need politicians in the first place – provided they are of a suitable calibre of course. They need to have both (a) the bigger vision that individual citizens cannot necessarily afford to have, in this case to see how our role in the world influences the day-to-day well-being of all in our society. They also need (b) the ability to make the case, on the ground, face-to-face, for that bigger vision. Modern politicians, of all political stripes, have struggled to do the latter, and it is not clear if many of them have the former.
As an outsider, it is not clear why this disconnect has happened. The “Westminster bubble” and the echo-chamber of much political discourse in the UK is no doubt in part to blame. However, and more importantly perhaps, economic policies since the 1980s have failed to adequately address the welfare of everyone (look at the data if you don’t believe me – even the IMF are looking at the data!). In other words, the political visions on offer, post-Thatcher, are divorced from the realities of too many people.
Can this disconnect lead to the UK leaving the EU? Undoubtedly, but I passionately hope not. If we leave, we will not be making the world or ourselves safer or more secure. There are serious problems we need to solve in the UK, from poverty and the inexorable growth in inequality, through to feeding ourselves on a warming planet. These are not our problems alone though. If we want to change the EU – its policies, its structures, its rules – because we think a changed EU will help solve these problems, then campaign to do that. All power to you. But leaving is something else. Leaving is believing that we can solve problems with less cooperation, less collaboration, and less openness. I think history will show that those beliefs are mistaken, but let’s hope history does not get the chance.