One of the most common beliefs is that the EU is imposing its law upon the United Kingdom, reducing the latter to a shadow of its former self: whereas once it was a Great Imperial Power, now it is merely a snivelling wreck, like all other nations. Leaving aside the also-unsavoury belief that a return to imperial Britain would be in any way a good thing (after enjoying, briefly, numerous members of the world’s former-largest colonial power hand-wringing about having to follow some trade legislation) it seems worth examining the notion that the EU is a threat to Britain as a sovereign state.
The notion isn’t well-supported. I would start by asking those concerned about British agency which areas they believe are most important for a sovereign state to control. I’d answer that health, social security/welfare, and criminal law are pretty important, with trade policy rather less so. Others may disagree; my rationale is that those factors that do not typically involve other nations should remain, primarily, the business of that nation, while international trade – necessarily involving as it does other nations – cannot by its nature be a matter upon which one nation can hold absolute sovereignty.
As it happens, most of the factors that do not involve other nations are those that the UK has full control over. FullFact, a useful independent site, acknowledges as much: the EU has least influence in the UK’s policy as regards ” welfare and social security, education, criminal law, family law and the NHS“. It has most influence over agricultural policy, external trade, and the environment. Of course opinions will differ, but the EU dictating Britain’s environmental policy, as long as that policy is decided by those who are knowledgeable, is not of particular concern to me. In fact, I would argue that international agricultural and environmental policy – intricately connected as the two seem to be – is an extremely good idea, given that food production and climate change are global, not national, issues.
In fact, I am disposed to believe that the areas of UK law the EU generally drives are those areas where supranational policy is desirable – a good thing. In fact, I am disposed to believe that the subsuming of one nation’s interests to a common good is to be encouraged where ensuring global sustainability is concerned, and that a loss of sovereignty may actually be desirable in this instance.
There are two wider points at stake here. The first is that sovereignty is never an absolute; it is always relative. The moment one eschews isolationism and attempts to interact with other people or nations, compromise – a word which essentially denotes a willing loss of sovereignty by two or more parties for the mutual benefit of both – is necessary. The second is that sovereignty, like democracy, is never an absolute good, to be defended at all costs; its value shifts depending on the specifics of the situation involved.
So the belief that the EU is unilaterally dictating British law is incorrect for a number of reasons, and for others it is wrong to believe that sovereignty would be increased by Brexit.
The first is that we voted on EU membership. This should have come with a knowledge of what it entails – namely, that adherence to aspects of EU law is a necessary compromise made in exchange for access to the world’s largest single market. For a people to make a democratic decision – thus exercising, as synecdoches of their nation, their sovereignty – then moan about the consequent loss of sovereignty is perverse.
I acknowledge that four decades have passed since the last opportunity to vote, as a nation, about whether we want to continue with this compromise, and for that reason I believe the referendum is a good thing – it allows the current generation to decide whether the compromise and concomitant loss of sovereignty is desirable. However, once this is over, there can be no justification for complaining about EU threats to UK agency.
The second is that leaving will not necessarily give the UK a more positive set of circumstances through which it can exert its agency. Two of the frequently-cited exemplar countries by Brexiters (Switzerland and Iceland) might be argued to have more sovereignty. However, for access to the common market, they are obligated to adhere to large proportions of EU law, including the free movement of people. Switzerland pays into the EU budget. Iceland participates in EU agencies and programmes, but is unable to vote, while also funding numerous EU projects and objectives.
In fact, for both nations, sovereignty has not been meaningfully increased – for Iceland it might well be argued to have decreased – by choosing to remain outside the EU. To my understanding, Iceland’s dispute primarily concerns fisheries and whale hunting, and to all intents and purposes their bilateral agreement is in most respect identical to those adhered to by EU member states.
4. Britain will never be obliged to take the Euro. This should not be a concern.
5. Economic issues.
One of the main reasons why I was briefly compelled by the Leave campaign was the idea that Britain was economically worse-off as a consequence of EU membership. Arguments to support this included the idea that Britain’s trade balance with the EU is, to quote Hannan ‘in deficit and falling while the trade balance with the rest of the world is in surplus and growing’.
It is certainly true that Britain’s trade balance with Europe is falling – from 60% of exports in 2000 to 47% of exports in 2015. Certainly, the obvious conclusion is that Europe is becoming a less-important export market for UK corporations.
However, upon reflection, it seems poor reasoning to argue that this is a good argument for leaving. That 47% still constitutes almost half of our export market, and it seems irresponsible and unnecessary to make trade with half of said market more difficult.
I also note that over half of UK imports (c. 54%) come from the European Union. Again, it seems a poor decision to jeopardise a trade relationship with a market that provides such a large proportion of UK imports, unless there are compelling reasons to alter that relationship.
Britain will not pay for future EU bailouts, while the cost of EU membership per head amounts to about £2.63 per week – or about £10 per month. It is no substantial cost, and even this does not take into account the substantial economic benefits we derive from EU membership, or the £1.4 billion contribution the EU makes to our private sector. This paper suggests that per-capita incomes across the EU would have been 12% lower without the common market. For the UK, it is conjectured that per-capita incomes would have been 25% lower had the UK not joined the EU in 1973.
Further economic benefits are outlined here.
Generally, as alluded to in my last post, the EU seems to have salutary economic effects brought about due to free movement of people. For example, not only do immigrants provide net economic growth, the international student market also generates approximately £3.7 billion for the UK, supporting 34,000 jobs.
I believe that encouraging students to study abroad, and talented students to study at Britain’s universities, is an incredibly positive thing, turning Britain’s universities into far richer environments, and cementing the UK’s status as one of the world’s foremost research and study destinations. These are good things. The possibility that EU students would be deterred from studying here due to near-trebled fees post-Brexit is a disconcerting one for me, and a compelling reason to vote Remain. It is not that all of the 125,000 EU students the UK supports will choose to go elsewhere post-Brexit. It is that enough will, and that the UK will be perceived as a less-desirable place to study. If one values Britain’s status as a world-leader in higher education and research, this should lead one towards a Remain vote.
7. The EU and the Left.
This has been the biggest issue for me. As one who aligns themselves firmly with the Left, the EU is, and should be, a concern. TTIP is worrying not only because full details have yet to be released to the public; the leaked document (see page 20 and 21, for example) seems inimical in theory if not in practice to the agency of the state, making them more reluctant to implement necessary legislation that might be interpreted as detrimental to a given corporation.
This is part of a wider set of reservations that I believe even the most ardent supporter of the European Union should hold. The EU is necessarily and by its nature committed to liberalisation of labour markets, at the level of person as well as product. It is a key driver of the inexorable movement towards global neoliberalism. The small concessions it gives workers – the Working Hours Directive, for example – are minor, and flawed. They are distractions that pale in comparison to the extent to which the EU is facilitating, by means of imposed austerity measures and empowerment of large businesses, assaults on the state and workers alike.
I also note at this point that the EU might not be inherently undemocratic on its own terms, but it was a key driver of the process by which the will of the Greek people was subverted after a convincing vote against said austerity measures in the 2015 Referendum. Consequently, it would be entirely reasonable to see the EU as inimical to democratic procedure, even if it did not directly over-rule the will of the Greek people. That the Greek Parliament (a democratically-elected body, yes) chose to negotiate austerity terms with the various stakeholders is neither here nor there; it certainly bothers me that such an agreement was agreed on terms contrary to a population’s wishes, under immense financial and social pressure.
I suppose my perspective in brief is this: I see little reason to believe that leaving the EU will further the cause of the European left. If the left in Britain were stronger, less etiolated, I would feel differently. However, there is little doubt that the Labour Party are unlikely to be a political force for at least the next decade based on current trends, and the Conservative Party are, and have been for decades, as culpable for assaults on labour as the EU has been – in fact, more. Leaving the EU in order to allow Britain to avoid the worst excesses of neoliberal seems utterly naive.
It is not that I believe that the EU can be reformed in this regard. By its very nature, the EU is committed to the private sector and free markets (though I don’t for a moment believe that either of these things are inherently undesirable, believing rather that their presence is on the whole a salutary one). To fundamentally reform in either of these respects would be to no longer meaningfully be the EU at all.
It’s also been pointed out to me that many of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies (i.e. nationalising various state institutions) would be illegal according to EU Law – but this isn’t true. Nonetheless, even when I was under the impression that this were the case, it never seemed the most compelling argument for voting Leave. If anything, I feel like the left has generally missed something really important here – an unwillingness to properly confront the way that labour is changing, and is likely to change over the upcoming decades. Nationalising (for example) Britain’s steel plants might have a short-term positive effect on the workers that are currently there, but is really an inadequate attempt to plug an increasingly large hole.
As mentioned in the first post, there is a need for government fund the retraining of workers as British industries are threatened by global trade and the notion of a career-for-life becomes anachronistic. I believe that once this becomes apparent, facilitating global training schemes and welfare policy for workers that have been made redundant is more likely to occur successfully if international collaboration is encouraged.
Work is changing at the global level, not simply the local or national one, and I believe that, again, supranational policy could be a positive good in ensuring that adverse effects on workforces are mitigated. There haven’t been many positive cases made by Vote Remain for the EU, or for supranational power in general, but this seems to me to be one.
I’d finally and briefly note that global neoliberalism is inexorable whether we are inside our outside the EU. Though this is undoubtedly short-termism, it also seems likely that there will be substantial job loss in the effect of Brexit. Though this article from the IEA does indeed suggest that fears about job loss have been overplayed, I found one of its central premises to be weak – that 4.2 million UK jobs are connected to trade with the EU nations, not membership of a political union.
This is a weak argument because that political union directly dictates our trade relationships, and it has been made abundantly clear by numerous people and companies that Brexit would force a re-evaluation of those trade relationships, and the jobs that depend on them. E
8. Voting Leave means sharing a position with the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, and the Sun, which seems to me to be the most compelling of all to, at some point tomorrow, vote Remain.
Jack N. Moran