Image credit © Laschon Maximillian | Dreamstime.com - European Union Green Map Over Blue Photo
The following is the first article I wrote about Brexit prior to the vote. It and the articles written after the vote inspired me to write Brexit in Context, which was published in January 2017.
On 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom (UK) will hold its first referendum since 1975 on whether to remain in the European Union (EU). It is an unusual referendum in that the main person arguing for a vote to remain is David Cameron, the Prime Minister who was responsible for giving people the opportunity to vote in such a referendum. Indeed, two prominent members of his political party, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, stated that they have decided to campaign for a vote to leave with heavy hearts because they cannot pass up what may be the only chance to vote on the topic in their lifetimes. The media reporting on the political debate is primarily focused on the stayers and leavers in the Conservative cabinet to such an extent that the impression is given that no left-wing person wants the UK to leave the EU. That impression is wrong and as someone left of centre politically I also do not want to pass up my first every opportunity to vote for the UK to leave the EU. The arguments presented for leavers in the media are largely those of right of centre concerns about stemming immigration and returning sovereignty to a once Great Britain. There is much less space given to left wing opinions to leave. The Guardian's Suzanne Moore presents one such case with a focus on how the EU treated the democratically elected left-wing government in Greece. The following are my reasons for why I (like Moore) count myself undecided, but tending towards voting to leave.
A League of Nations
The League of Nations was the much maligned predecessor to the United Nations that failed to stop the rise of dictatorships in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the period between the World Wars. The complaint is nonsensical as the United Nations has been completely powerless to prevent dictatorships from surviving for a long time in Spain (1939-1975) or a new dictatorship arising on its watch in Greece (1967-1974). So the name League of Nations is not too negative a one to use for the EU. It is much more appropriate than United Nations as the EU are anything but united. The EU is a league of 28 nations in one very specific sense: it functions like a sports league with leading nations always at the top (Germany, France, UK) and everyone else hoping for mid-table mediocrity, while the likes of Greece and Portugal struggle to avoid relegation out of the league. The true nature of this unequal league of nations was evident when the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble sought to push aside the democratically elected left-wing Syrzia government in Greece and asset strip the Greek economy. Although that was not the final outcome of the debate to prevent a Grexit (Greece leaving the Eurozone) it showed that the EU is not a group of united nations, but a competing league of nations, where the powerful dictate the terms to the weak.
The most important aspect in which the EU functions as a league of nations is that it bears no comparison to Winston Churchill's desire to see mainland nations create a United States of Europe. The United States of America is a unitary system that allows a certain independence to its states, but went to war with those southern states that sought to secede (the ending of slavery only became an issue when the Unionist Army began losing to the Confederate Army). The EU is, on the other hand, a league of independent nations that cede some independence for the common good of the whole. The problem is that each country tends to view the common good differently depending on what best serves their country. For example the French government is keen to rein in the power of the City of London, because they want their own financial services industry to catch up with the UK version. That is not an issue of the past, but formed part of the contentious debates between the UK and the rest of the EU in early 2016. Preserving the power of the City of London is not usually high on a left-wing agenda, but it dominates the English economy in a similar way to the dominance of oil in a future independent Scotland. So recent evidence of national interest being brought to bear by other EU countries is a good reason for left-wing voters to consider taking this opportunity to leave the EU before French or other governments move against the golden goose that powers the English economy. Unlike oil, a financial capital can be moved and the English financial goose can be more readily cooked that the oily Scottish one.
From Grexit to Brexit
The media coining of Grexit for a Greek exit from the Euro has given rise to the new neologism Brexit for Britain (and Northern Ireland) leaving the EU. Grexit and Brexit are, however, completely different beasts. The Greek government was told that the Eurozone had an entry door, but no exit door as Greece did not want to leave the EU. Brexit on the other hand is about a UK outside the Eurozone leaving the EU, which does have an exit door in the shape of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. For those on the left of the political spectrum it is the hard line taken to the possibility of Grexit that makes the possibility of Brexit inviting.
The Scottish Question
When the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave a speech in defence of remaining within the EU, she noted that even if her Scottish National Party achieved its dream of an independent Scotland it would want to be independence within the EU. As Scotland would be one of the EU's smaller nations (population 5 million) it is questionable how much independence an independent Scotland would have within an EU where only the most powerful nations are allowed to enjoy independence. Scotland has a centuries long history of looking to mainland Europe (principally the Auld Alliance with France) to ensure its independence from England, but it is doubtful if a Franco-German dominated EU would have Scottish independence as a key priority. It is for that reason that Sturgeon's speech included an acknowledgement that the EU had mishandled the Greek crisis. Sturgeon is sure that Scotland remains the most pro-EU country in the UK, but the independence mood that she has inspired may run counter to her wishes to remain in the EU.
Not a United Ireland
The Republic of Ireland has benefited tremendously from financial support from the EU in building up its economy and the EU is often seen as way of Ireland throwing off lingering dependence on its former colonial rulers in London. For that reason northern nationalists are relatively enthusiastic about the EU, while northern unionists, especially the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), are pushing for a departure from the EU. Indeed, the DUP is the only party in government within the UK to advocate leaving as an official policy. There is a religious element to the DUP's stance as a UK outside the EU would be a return to rule by a predominantly Protestant UK rather than the majority Catholic nature of the EU.
Nationalism has not enjoyed the same resurgence in Welsh politics as it has in Scotland and it is likely that opinions on the EU referendum will be similar to those across the border in England. There will be worries that a UK outside the EU might lead to a more English-centred parliament, especially if Scotland moves ahead with independence. Countered against that is the large number of people in the eastern counties of Wales who commute across the border each day to work in England (as I once did). It may even be that the return to strength of the Conservative Party in Wales is due in no small part to the manifesto commitment to hold an EU referendum.
One of the arguments of the remainers is that voting to leave the EU could lead to the break-up of the UK and that point is not just made by Nicola Sturgeon, but also by campaigners in England. That concern only works at the emotive level, though, as the England makes up the vast majority of the UK population. If the UK can afford to go it alone, then England can afford to go it alone. Many nationalists in the Celtic nations (as well as exiles like me) would quite England to go it alone.
Politicians who advocate voting to remain have pointed to the sort of people that those campaigning to leave would be supporting, in particular citing the UK Independence Party (UKIP) of Nigel Farage and Respect's George Galloway. I have little respect for Galloway, whether or not he possesses indefatigability, but a referendum is about each voter casting an equal vote. Most voters will not be voting on party lines, but on whether they think overall they want to remain in the EU or leave. I find myself as a supporter of Scottish independence on the opposite side to Nicola Sturgeon and on the same side as the DUP, a Protestant theocratic party I have no time for. Yet it makes no difference as I on the same side as other left of centre voters who are going to cast a vote based on the single issue of in or out. I am not worried about who I might be in or out with, especially as it is a secret ballot.
Europe is More Than the EU
The map at the head of this article shows what few other maps of Europe make clear: Switzerland is not in the EU. It is the patch of blue at the heart of Europe that is not a lake, but a country at the heart of Europe but outside the EU. That map shows the countries in the EU and no others, so that Norway is missing from Scandinavia, Switzerland is missing from the centre, and the absence of most Balkan states makes the Adriatic Sea look much bigger than in physical reality. I chose that map because it presents a visual reminder of how the EU is not synonymous with Europe. Yet much of the political discourse and media coverage on the remain side equates leavers with anti-European isolationism. If the UK disappeared from that map it is no more odd than Switzerland being added to it. A pro-European like me can desire to leave the EU because it is a league of unequal nations in an era of increasing national self-belief. The fact that Europe is more than the EU is the countervailing argument to claims that defence or cyber security or crime fighting are dependent on remaining part of the 28 country bloc. Being European and being in the EU is not the same thing.
One Speed Europe
The major concession that David Cameron wrung out of his tortuous negotiations with his EU colleagues was that the EU treaties would be altered to state that the UK was not included in any aspiration to ever closer union. Part of the process for driving that closer union is the sharing of a common currency across the EU. I was once a fervent supporter of the Euro and my falling out of love with it was not due to its financial troubles in recent years. Rather it is because the Euro is being used to enforce uniformity as the dominant process for achieving ever closer union. EU states are expected to work towards joining the Eurozone, with just two exceptions: the UK and Denmark. If the UK remains within the EU the pressure to join the Eurozone will increase, as will the pressure to move the financial services capital to a Eurozone country. With structural changes made to make the Eurozone operate more like a national economy it would seem to benefit the EU and the Eurozone to be synonymous. So the UK and Denmark are likely to be pressured to get up to speed and stop making it a two speed EU.
The issue of immigration may dominate the UKIP policy for campaigning to leave the EU, but pro-immigration policies could be enhanced by leaving the EU. Currently the UK has to be more restrictive on English-speaking parts of the world, because of the requirements to allow unlimited movement of EU citizens. The only other English-speaking part of the EU is Ireland, but there are long-standing agreements that treat Irish immigration into the UK differently to other forms of immigration. In relation to other English speaking parts of the world immigration policy is tending towards only allowing the middle class to immigrate due to income level restrictions. This makes it harder for immigration to continue from poorer parts of the world that are English speaking due to the legacy of the British (or more accurately English) Empire. UK immigration policy has been forced to become much harsher because of the open door for EU citizens. This also impacts reciprocal policies in English speaking countries to which UK citizens may wish to move.
EU membership is attractive to those groups who have little importance within UK culture, but where they are more favoured in the rest of the EU. So while agriculture may lack political power in the UK, its importance in France might help UK farmers get more agriculture friendly policy. Equally privacy campaigners in the UK are helped by the strong privacy stance of countries that once lived in fear of the secret police. Many trade union leaders have come out in favour of remaining in the EU because of the labour friendly policies emanating from there, although less so now than in the era of the Maastricht Treaty's Social Chapter. The problems arise when the broader swathe of opinion in the EU runs counter to your community interests, e.g., VAT policies on ebooks or feminine hygiene products. It would seem safer to make these decisions at the UK level where popular protest can have more influence, than at the EU level where most decisions are made by the powerful elites of each country.
My gut instinct is that the UK will vote to remain in the EU, but I will vote to leave. I can be convinced otherwise as I am in favour of the EU's ideals. The problem I have is a distinctly left wing one: I find that the EU gives power to the 1% and dilutes what little power is left to the rest of us. Best of luck in trying to convince me otherwise.