We’ve had enough of experts in this referendum campaign, or so we’re told. I think we’ve had enough of politicians, personally, and referendums themselves. But that’s by the by. As an academic specialising in international politics and the fraught question of Britain’s role in the world, I claim a measure of expertise. But I’m new to it, so let’s not take things too far.
I’m voting remain for a whole host of reasons, some of which come from the head and some from the heart. But I’ll stick with three here.
First, Britain is better off in the EU than it would be outside. Most of the major issues we face as a country affect other European states just as much as us – terrorism, mass migration, climate change, tax evasion and the steady erosion of the middle class by the technology-driven transformation of the nature of skilled labour. Common problems require collective solutions, and the EU provides an important framework for co-ordinated political action as well as providing safety in numbers against the backdrop of economic challenges. Both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn have undermined the Remain campaign, in different ways. Cameron, by virtue of the fact that his government’s policy choices are the actual cause of many of the resentments driving Leave voters. Corbyn, because his antipathy to capitalism undermines his faith in the European project, leaving him unwilling to press the point. In short, most of the problems people hope to solve by leaving are not caused by the EU and won’t be fixed by ‘taking back control’. We can’t take back control, at least not from Brussels. The reason so many people feel powerless is mainly to do with changes much bigger than Britain, combined with the failure of successive governments to address them adequately.
Take immigration, for example. It’s not true that Britain’s EU membership leaves us unable to control our borders. We’re not in the Schengen area. We still have border checks, and we are under no obligation to admit people suspected of criminal activity including terrorism. For what it’s worth, it’s also not true that Turkey is about to join the EU. Even if it was, Britain has a veto on new members. But we wouldn’t need to use it – Cyprus, Greece and France would get there first. It’s true that population increases put pressure on public services. But it’s also true, firstly, that our aging population and low birth rate means we absolutely have to import workers, and will continue to need to do so until the baby boomers die off, and secondly, that EU immigrants pay more into the UK system than they cost. The problem isn’t the numbers involved, as high as they have been in recent years. The problem is that successive governments have failed to take the necessary policy decisions to ensure sufficient good quality housing is available where it is needed, that NHS services are properly funded and that new arrivals are integrated into local communities. The money is there. But governments have chosen not to spend it. Given we need immigrants to keep the economy going, and cutting off EU free movement would mean cutting ourselves off from the rest of the single market (our most important export market by a long way), I think it would be much better to spend some of the migration dividend on mitigating the negative consequences of immigration, rather than pretending that leaving the EU wouldn’t make things worse. The sight of Michael “privatise the NHS” Gove suggesting a post-leave government would spend the imaginary £350 million he dishonestly claims we currently send the EU every week on hospitals is beyond parody.
Second, though there is uncertainty either way, the uncertainty of leaving is greater and harder to mitigate than the uncertainty of remaining. It’s true that if we stay in the EU it might develop in directions we don’t like. But if we stay in the EU, we’ll have a veto over major structural reforms. We’ve just won an opt out from the principle of ‘ever closer union’, something I suspect the smaller, more Eurosceptic states like Denmark and the Netherlands might ask for when the next EU treaty comes on the agenda. We’ve also won a binding commitment that the EU will not discriminate against non-Euro countries and currencies like ours, raising the prospect that Britain could become the leader of an ‘outer ring’ of non-Euro countries within the EU – exactly the sort of semi-detached relationship the leave camp claims to want. If we leave the EU, that’s it. It has to work, and if it doesn’t (and it probably won’t – Nigel Farage accepts it’ll leave us worse off, he just doesn’t care – while Gove and Johnson’s argument that we won’t be worse off is based on the unrealistic assumption that we can stay in the single market while cutting off EU immigration) there will be no Plan B. We’ll just be screwed. If remaining starts to go wrong, however, there still is a Plan B. We can leave. No-one is suggesting we give up the right to leave. I’d never rule it out. But we don’t need to leave right now, and in fact doing so would be damaging. Let’s keep the possibility in our back pocket and get on with things for now.
Finally, and this is more a ‘heart’ than a ‘head’ argument, I just don’t think leaving the EU is a particularly British thing to do. It’s surrendering, ultimately. And that’s not British. I don’t think we should surrender our influence over Europe. I don’t think we should give up trying to make the European project work. I don’t believe the British people are sufficiently scared of the Belgians and the Slovakians to justify fleeing before their bureaucratic might. I don’t believe in giving up.
Britain is a European power. Of course we are; just look at a map. We’re not in America. We’re not in Africa. We’re not in Asia. We’re in Europe.
There is a European Union. It’s there, whether we like it or not. It’s going through a rough patch right now and it needs a lot of work. But it has helped bring peace and prosperity to Europe for decades. Right now we have a say over how the European Union operates. We’re a big player, though David Cameron hasn’t done a very good job of maximising that influence (or even medium-ising it). Of course we are, and of course we should be. We helped design the EU. We helped build it. We damn well helped pay for it. And for all its dysfunction it largely works. As far as I’m concerned, the EU belongs to all of us. It’s ours. I simply do not accept that the time has come to give that up.
So that’s it. That’s my argument. I could say more. I could throw figures about, and do some detailed research. But I’m comfortable with what I’ve argued. Britain is better off in the EU than out, though we need to manage the impact of mass migration much, much better. The risks of leaving are greater and much harder to mitigate than the risks of leaving. And surrendering is simply not the British thing to do. Especially when the alternative is staying put and continuing to annoy the French. Let’s stay at the heart of Europe, winding up the Germans, refusing to take the whole thing entirely seriously (part of winding up the Germans) and inevitably drinking too much. Europe is ours. No surrender. Keep control, and make it work.