Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Thoughts on the Referendum


These are tough times to be a supporter of the European Union. For decades the EU and its predecessors were rightly held up as a guardian of peace and prosperity of Europe. Then came the global financial crisis, and the Euro currency, the totemic symbol of European integration, became a "machine from hell" (in the words of one German official), ripping apart the fabric of Europe that the EU had previously done so much to stitch together.

The Eurozone crisis remains unresolved to this day, stuck between the very reasonable desire of creditor countries not to risk their own finances in bailing out the debtor countries, and the very reasonable desire of debtor countries not to have their people ground into the dust by the lunatic austerity regimes imposed by the creditors. Why then should we stay in an institution that has pursued such a reckless experiment?

For starters, obviously, we are not in the Eurozone and its tribulations will affect us no more or less if we vote to leave. As a result the economic argument is conclusively in favour of Remain. No reasonable observer can argue that we will not suffer a serious hit to our economy as a result of leaving, particularly if we forgo the "Norway option" and lose our access to the European single market.

There are other solid, pragmatic reasons for voting Remain if you are of a left-wing persuasion, as my esteemed friend Squid points out. Curious to test my own views against the Leave side's supposedly killer arguments, I watched Brexit - The Movie with gradually increasing astonishment at how overtly right-wing its agenda is. It certainly gave me a fascinating insight into the world of UKIP, from the ultra-Thatcherite spin on Britain's history in the 20th century to the genuinely jaw-dropping whinge about EU steel tariffs in the immediate wake of the Port Talbot debacle. This from a film which professes to inspire "as many people as possible" to vote Leave.

It would be wrong to characterise Leaving as a purely right-wing obsession, however, as is obvious from the last time we had a referendum on this issue. In 1975 the debate was the precise mirror image of the one we have today, with the Labour party split down the middle while the Conservatives were solidly for staying in. The case for leaving, advanced most notably by Tony Benn, centred around lack of democratic accountability of the EEC. In Benn's view it was wrong for parliament to give the power to write laws to Europe regardless of whether Europe is benign or not, because we cannot get rid of the people who make European laws. Better a bad parliament than a good king.

It is a shame Benn is not still around to lend some dignity to the contemptible Leave campaign. His critique is far more robust than anything advanced this time round, and all Remain supporters ought to consider his arguments carefully, particularly his fear of Britain becoming an island province in an anti-democratic European empire. We live in a hugely over-centralised country with a far too dominant role played by London, and I can understand completely why Scotland in particular is so keen on the EU as a counterweight to Westminster. But nothing is achieved if an even more remote and out-of-touch capital is established in Brussels.

I do not however think his argument is grounds to leave now, and in some ways it holds less force now than it did back then. As the largest EU country not in the Euro, Britain is now the standard-bearer for a looser community of nations than the one envisaged by the union's founding fathers. I think there is something more innovative and even noble about Britain's stubbornly different vision for the EU, one where the states of Europe work closely together where it makes sense but are at the same time free to pursue their own national destinies to the greatest feasible extent; a polycentric continent that can nevertheless hold its own beside the giant countries of the world. By staying inside the EU, we have the opportunity to shape its future to that template, if we're willing to take a lead. And there are many signs that the EU as a whole, chastened by the Euro experience, is heading tentatively in this direction. Besides, if Britain's position become unsustainable somewhere down the line, there will be nothing to stop us leaving then. It is madness to take the economic hit now when there is absolutely no pressing reason to do so, purely to settle an internal Tory row.

Oh, but what about immigration? As if we could possibly forget. Again, these are tough times to be a supporter of the EU. The evidence may show that immigrants contribute more to the UK economy than they take out, but plenty of people feel otherwise and the Leave campaign has been shamelessly stoking their fears. It's no use pointing out that it was the UK that pressed for enlargement to eastern Europe after the end of the cold war (and bringing the ex-communist countries into the fold was one of the EU's greatest triumphs), or that the EU has perfectly sensible transitional controls on migration for new entrants which the UK chose not to use in 2004. Or that pressure on schools and hospitals has nothing to do with immigration and everything to do with our own excessive self-imposed austerity. None of that matters. It's all Europe's fault.

This is a sad state of affairs. I have personally benefited from the chance to live and work in another EU country, just as my European colleagues have benefited from coming to work here. That, for me, is the European Dream. Clearly it is not a vote winner in the current political climate - indeed, it's a vote loser - but I will be voting Remain to keep that dream alive, in the hope that there will come a time when everybody believes in it.