On June 23, 2016, the people of Britain will vote in a referendum. The question we will be asked is: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
I have already cast my vote by post, and I voted to remain, although I can see both sides of the argument. Here’s my take on what’s at stake.
Since most of my readers are American, I’d better just run over a few facts about the EU. It isn’t necessarily what outsiders think it is.
- The EU is a free trade zone that guarantees the free movement of goods and services within its member countries. It also guarantees the free movement of people, so EU citizens are free to live and work in any EU country.
- The EU has 28 member countries, of which half have joined since 2004. But Switzerland and Norway are not members.
- The EU creates laws and regulations at a European level.
- The EU has an annual budget of 145 billion Euros ($165 billion), of which the UK contributes around 12% net. France and Germany both contribute more. It spends this money on research, agricultural and fishing subsidies, direct grants to poorer regions of the EU, and administration.
Let’s examine what I see as the major areas under discussion in the referendum debate.
Trade. The EU is Britain’s biggest trading partner, and being a member of such a large free trade zone has clear benefits to Britain. However, trade to the EU is less than half of the UK’s total trade, and the EU has been remarkably ineffective at negotiating free trade deals with important trading partners such as the US, China, and India. In addition, the EU has implemented some catastrophic subsidies of certain industries – particularly the agricultural sector, so the EU single market isn’t an unqualified success. The single currency – the Euro – which has been adopted by 19 countries has also been highly controversial, and highlights the EU’s worrying tendency towards centralised regulation.
It’s possible that we could leave the EU and negotiate free trade deals with countries like the US, China and India, whilst also retaining a free trade agreement with the EU. I’m quite persuaded by this argument in fact. But it’s clear that in order to retain free trade with the EU, Britain would need to comply with all the regulations that other EU countries do – including free movement of people (more on this below.)
I do believe that Britain could thrive economically outside the EU, but only if our political leaders could deliver on the promise of negotiating free trade agreements with the US, China and India, while remaining in the EU single market. I’m not confident that our politicians could achieve this (or would even want to), and for that reason, I prefer the safer option of remaining.
Law. The EU makes European laws. It makes a lot of laws, and always seems to be manufacturing new regulations – whether on the permitted curvature of a banana, or on the number of hours that workers are allowed to work in a week. Some regulation is a good thing, paving the way to free trade, human rights and international co-operation. Other regulation risks strangling business and destroying innovation.
Many people in Britain would like to see law-making returned to the UK, instead of at a European level. It’s more democratic, they say, waving their fists at the grey-suited “Eurocrats” who continually dream up new ways of making everyone’s life more miserable.
But this argument holds no sway with me. If you want to find politicians making stupid laws, you don’t need to look at the European Parliament. British politicians are equally good at creating stupid laws. In fact, Britain is currently engaged in a massive programme of political decentralization, installing new regional parliaments, assemblies and mayors up and down the country. British political stupidity looks set to expand ten-fold in the coming years.
So leaving the EU won’t protect us from stupid laws.
Defence. The EU is reportedly determined to create its own army. With the prospects of a President Trump emerging, perhaps this is Europe’s only hope for security. And there are threats all around the world – Russia and Islamic State to name just two. Would a European army make sense in a hostile world?
In my opinion, no. I would rather we remained part of NATO. NATO defence spending is massively larger than any potential European army. In fact, since the UK is Europe’s biggest spender on defence, a British exit from the EU would effectively torpedo Europe’s aspirations to create any meaningful army.
So this is an argument for Britain to leave the EU, but it’s a relatively minor one. An EU army isn’t inevitable either way.
Immigration. Forget everything I’ve told you so far. The EU referendum isn’t really about any of those things. It’s a proxy referendum on immigration.
Every politician who supports the “Leave” campaign stresses that unless Britain leaves the EU, it will have no control over immigration from other EU countries. And that’s true. Free movement of people is a cornerstone of the single market. Free movement of goods, services and people – that’s the fundamental principle.
In my opinion, that’s a very good principle. Free movement of people isn’t a problem, but a wonderful opportunity. But I know that I’m in a minority here –three-quarters of British people want less immigration.
However, I believe that if we vote to leave but want to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU, we will have to accept free movement of people as part of that agreement, just as countries like Norway and Switzerland have done. So whether you like immigration or not, it isn’t going to go away, unless we choose to cut ourselves off from the EU entirely.
This makes the choice stark – remain in the EU and accept its benefits and its faults – or leave and become an inward-looking island nation that refuses to engage with the world as we find it. I voted for the first option.