One of the problems with democracy, is that the average voter knows relatively little about the complex and nuanced realities of the economy and the wider world. The precarious balancing act of fiscal policy, domestic spending, diplomacy, taxation, trade and more, is like trying to blow a ball of jelly up a hill using trained ferrets with hairdryers strapped to their backs.
Fanciful concepts like closing borders, halving tax rates or disbanding government departments, can sound attractive when considered in isolation, but when understood from a wider position you realise that everything is linked and has a knock on effect. If every decision in this country went to a referendum, we would be bankrupt in a few years and before long degenerate into a failed, lawless state. Ok, so that is a slight exaggeration.
There exists a safety net. All of the main parties are relatively sensible, although they can wildly differ on a range of topics, when it comes to the basics of keeping the country running, they understand what is important, and no government has done anything really stupid (war being the obvious exception).
What politicians talk about doing (policy) in the run up to elections is only a tiny portion of what is involved in running a country, the tip of the iceberg. Manifestos are not comprehensive documents – they are a sales pitch to the electorate.
By and large it doesn’t matter that the population are ignorant about so much, they get to decide who makes the decisions, they don’t make the decisions themselves. Besides the vast majority of people have neither the time or the inclination to educate themselves on minutiae of quantitate easing, subsidies, tax incentivisation, population growth and more. Each of these issues could provide a lifetime of study, and politicians are supported by experts in every field. They don’t always get it right, but at least start from an informed position.
The British people will have their say on the biggest political decision in a generation. Should we remain in the European Union, or leave. Tragically, a large number of people seem to making their decision based upon isolated (and sometimes irrelevant) factors like how many foreigners live in their town, legislation they don’t like, or where they enjoy going on holiday. Leave or remain, the potential implications are big – good and bad – and dwarf any concerns over minor inconveniences or conveniences.
Moreover there is a glut of misinformation and propaganda on both sides. Try to wade through all this to get to the facts is difficult for someone who really cares and is willing to put in the hours to research it all. A number of people have asked my opinion and my answer so far has been “I’m not quite sure yet”. The claims made on both sides are outrageous, and would have you believing that if we leave/remain (depending on who is talking) Britain will slip into a dystopian state from which it will not recover.
I like to research before making decisions, I spent about 40 hours of talking to people, reading reviews, scientific articles and watching various videos when deciding on which barbecue to buy (a Weber Smokey Mountain if you are interested). I have spent a lot of time going through all the arguments for and against EU membership and I have come to a personal decision. I genuinely went into the process with an open mind and below are some of the conclusions I made. I am not going to say how I am going to vote, nor tell you how to do so, I just want to separate fact from fiction and unpack some of the large arguments.
Main ‘Leave’ Arguments.
EU is undemocratic
Erodes national sovereignty
We are better off alone in a modern global economy
Freedom from bureaucracy and EU regulations
It costs £350 million a week to be in the EU
Control our borders/immigration.
Main ‘Remain’ Arguments.
Economy will suffer if we leave – jobs, inflation, interest rates etc.
Pan European co-operation good for the consumer, combatting terrorism, cross border crime, fighting climate change etc.
Stronger leadership on the world stage because we are part of a hugely powerful single market.
EU – Undemocratic?
The accusation that the EU is undemocratic is an interesting one. Essentially there is truth in the statement, but the argument is wildly exaggerated and a little unfair as all democracies are a little bit undemocratic.
Lets face it. Nobody knows how the governance of the EU works. Well at least I didn’t. It is quite a complicated system which has to straddle 28 sovereign member states. There are 7 institutions, the European Parliament, the European Council, The Council of the European Union, The European Commission, The court of Justice of The European Union, The European Central Bank and The Court of Auditors.
Membership of these institutions is broadly by one of three methods. Direct representation (they are elected to their position), deferred representation (an existing domestic politician represents their country) and appointment.
If it all sounds rather boring thats because it is. An important point here is that any law has to go through the Parliament and the Council. These two very powerful parts of the EU power structure are made up of elected representatives, so the EU is very much democratic. In the UK the head of the Bank of England and the MPC (who set interest rates), the head of the NHS, the head of Defra, Judges, hereditary peers and many more are not elected they are appointed. By and large it is a good system, as far as I can see the EU is no less democratic than the UK, and if it is there isn’t much in it.
Does the EU erode national sovereignty?
The short answer is yes, but the important answer is how much and what difference does it make? Being part of the EU means we are subject to EU law, remember that we are involved in making the law via the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers and in some cases we have a veto on the EU Council. It is important to point out that the EU has no say on the big issues like welfare, health, taxation, national budgets, defence, education etc. The EU takes some sovereignty but not much.
Is this important? To me no. Looking at all the EU laws I think most of them are pretty good and sensible, without the EU I reckon the UK Parliament would have passed equivalent laws anyway.
Better off alone?
To a degree this is unprovable because it is a hypothetical scenario – we will only truly know if it happens. However the arguments in favour fail to convince me. As part of the EU we have access to the single market – and it represents about 50% of our trade. As part of a 500 million strong union we have significant leverage when negotiating trade agreements. If you go to the table with a domestic market 90% smaller that is undeniably a weaker position. The leave campaign talk in possibilities, nothing concrete has been offered. In my opinion this point is not demonstrably true.
Freedom from bureaucracy and regulation.
If we leave the EU we will of course not have to comply with EU regulations. Well a little bit. If we still want to sell cars or pork pies or whatever into the EU, we will still have to meet EU standards for those products, except now we have sacrificed any involvement in drafting these standards. Moreover many of these regulations are British law already. The majority of EU regulation would exist in another form anyway if we weren’t part of the EU.
£350 million a week
This figure is false because it doesn’t take into account how much of that money is spent by the EU in Europe and also the rebate we get (essentially a discount negotiated by Thatcher). The real figure is £136 million a week which is still a lot of money. However seen in the broader sense of Britain’s overall budget, it is pretty small, about 0.4 percent. The right question isn’t how much something costs, but what you get for that money. For instance the NHS costs 2 billion a week, and I hope, dear reader, you don’t want to get rid of that.
There is a pretty wide consensus that we ‘get back more than we put in’ in terms of trade and jobs. Unfettered access to the single market, it’s about force and the external trade deals around the world is widely seen to be worth far more than the cost of membership. Moreover it encourages inward investment to the UK. The CBI have the best roundup of the economic benefits I could find, you can read it here.
Control our borders/immigration.
‘Controlling our borders’ is a classic straw man argument, we already do control our borders, thats why we have passport control. The immigration one is a little clearer cut. If we left the EU, then people from other member states could no longer come and work in the EU without a visa, that is definitely true. However, whether you like immigration or not, it has an unquestionable benefit to the economy and it is highly, highly unlikely that the present – or any future – government will want to stem the flow of immigration to this country by any reasonable amount. We will probably end trading immigrants from EU countries for immigrants from non EU countries.
Will the economy suffer if we leave?
Losing access to the Single Market, it is very likely would have an impact on trade, investment and jobs. Inflation and interest rates would go up and the housing market would stall or fall. For many people however a dip in house prices would be worth leaving the EU for! The Remain campaign suggest each household would lose 4k by 2030. That is ridiculously specific and there is no way to quantify such a claim. It is my conclusion that the economy would suffer if we left, but not seriously.
A co-operative continent.
The EU has delivered much cheaper things for the consumer – like roaming charges and flights. Things that couldn’t be achieved without the EU. The achievements tend to be modest, and there is no ‘crowning glory’ that EU co-operation can claim in terms of consumer benefits. When it comes to security there are better results, joint efforts between separate national security services is widely hailed as being effective at fighting cross border crime, and terrorism. I am sceptical of how much that is down to the EU – i.e. would MI5 not be able to work with the MAD or the CNI if we weren’t in the EU? I can’t seem to find out though, and Daniel Craig won’t respond to my emails.
Stronger International leadership for Britain as part of the EU?
This is a difficult one, most international ‘stuff’ for Britain due to the EU seems more ‘backroom’ not in the shady sense, but a boring one. There is the odd exception, but the key international moments for Britain over the last few decades haven’t really been much to do with the EU.
I am sure I have missed out some of the arguments and no doubt someone who still lives with their mum despite being a grown adult will take time off from playing World of Warcraft to point it out to me. Thanks in advance. The arguments I have covered are the ones that I think are most important and/or falsified to some degree.
I think this boils down to Sovereignty versus Clout. When we pool our sovereignty with the other member states of the EU we are richer and more powerful, but leaving would hardly see the UK fade into poverty and insignificance, I have no doubt if we leave we will continue to be a major player politically and economically, but not quite with a capital ‘M’. If we sacrifice that we have full control over all our laws, although we can expect to see pretty similar laws and regulations to what the EU currently has.