Feb. 28, 2016

Vote to Remain, Britain

When recommending what path Britain should take, I admit to being torn. I find my heart in agreement with the pro-Brexit calls for greater sovereignty for British institutions instead of European bureaucracies. But at the same time I am skeptical of whether leaving the European Union is really a risk that Britain should take. Ultimately, I have to go with my head and recommend that Britain should remain in the EU.

 What kind of nation would Britain be if the British people ultimately decide to vote to exit the EU? The pro-Brexit campaign is largely made up of two schools of thought. The British Justice Minister Michael Gove, a Conservative who is possibly the most capable reformer in the current British government, exemplifies one school. Gove and his allies argue that British sovereignty is being unacceptably trampled on by undemocratic European institutions that rarely take into account the views of British citizens. They argue that Britain is certainly strong enough to stand on its own outside of the EU and position itself as a great trading nation. This view is generally pro-free market, and believes that Britain is held back by more statist continental European nations (looking at you, France.) Advocates like Gove argue that Britain should be free to conduct its own free trade deals with nations like China, India and the United States instead of having to go along with 27 other European nations and their choices. If Britain exits the EU, a deal should be negotiated where Britain should be able to take advantage of the EU Single Market, which does benefit Britain as well as other European states.

 The other pro-Brexit school of thought overlaps to some extent with the one described above, but generally has a different emphasis. This school of thought, as exemplified by Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party (UKIP,) put a much greater focus on immigration. According to Farage and his allies, Britain has been swamped with immigrants who take advantage of the British welfare state, draining money away from resources that should be devoted to British citizens. A London-based elite in thrall to the idea of multiculturalism and political correctness are happy to be bossed around by European bureaucrats and fail to stand up for the British people. Popular tabloids like The Sun or the Daily Mail are full of (often factually dubious) stories of lazy Eastern European immigrants lounging on welfare paid for by hard-working British taxpayers. This school of thought is also much more prevalent in England than in the other parts of the UK (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland,) and goes along with the greater emphasis on English nationalism in recent years. There is also a small far-left element in Britain that supports Brexit because of fears that the EU is some sort of great capitalist conspiracy trying to crush workers. However, this view is largely confined to marginal fringes of the British left and has little resonance. Thus, both pro-Brexit views are generally on the right side of the British political spectrum.

 I personally find the first school of though to be much more persuasive than the second. Britain as a global nation that truly has its own sovereignty is a much more attractive vision than of a Britain as a xenophobic fortress keeping out the bloody foreigners from destroying good old England. Contrary to Farage and his allies, immigrants to Britain are generally hard working and productive and aren’t a drain on British public services. The xenophobia often comes from the least diverse parts of England, where locals have very little interaction with immigrants. It is also, as I said, a largely English phenomenon. Scotland and Wales are generally quite left leaning and hostile to these arguments (highly sectarian Northern Ireland is largely its own case due to its complex history.) Farage and his sort can’t help but remind me of Donald Trump with his anti-Mexican rants.

 Besides, Britain is able to control its borders effectively. Britain is one of two EU nations (the other being Ireland) that is exempt from the Schengen Agreement instituting a borderless Europe. The decision to take in a large number of Eastern European immigrants was actually made solely by the elected British government, not by Brussels bureaucrats (indeed, other European nations such as France and Germany chose to close off their countries to immigration from the new EU members from the East.) British sovereignty over its legal system has also hardly been destroyed, despite institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights being set up. Britain is also a member of the International Criminal Court and the United Nations, neither of which causes any real controversy despite taking away some sovereignty from the British state.

 Economically, euroskeptics argue that the Euro has been a complete debacle, especially for nations such as Greece that have collapsed economically. I completely agree. But, from a British perspective, so what? Britain is one of two EU nations that is exempt from adopting the Euro (along with Denmark.) Britain does get to take part in the EU Single Market at the same time, which benefits British trade. It also has helped in making London one of the financial capitals of the world, benefiting the British economy greatly. British business is generally strongly in favor of remaining in the EU. Indeed, being a EU member has hardly damaged Britain in recent years economically. Britain has outperformed the Eurozone both before and after the worldwide economic crisis of 2008-2009.

 Britain is also still able to maintain a robust foreign policy. Britain is one of the strongest members of NATO and one of the only EU members with a strong military that can be effectively deployed (France being the other nation, along with Poland to a much smaller extent.) Britain has strong economic, political and cultural links with the United States, and is the strongest and most significant ally of America in Europe. From an American perspective a Brexit would make Britain a much less valuable ally. Britain also has the ability to forge stronger economic links with rising powers such as China and India, and generally has more to offer these nations as a member of a large economic group (the EU.) The only nation that would really celebrate a Brexit would be Russia, where Vladimir Putin’s regime would love to split the EU to benefit an increasingly aggressive Russia.

 Some of the free-market Brexit campaigners point to the wealthy nations of Norway and Switzerland as economic models for Britain to follow. Both nations are not EU members but still get to take advantage of EU trade with the European Single Market as members of the European Economic Area. However, both countries are still required to adopt EU regulations (and also the Schengen Agreement.) Unlike Britain, they have no say in how these regulations are developed and implemented. While free-market Brexit supporters often complain of excessive EU regulation (a legitimate complaint,) it is certainly better to be a part of the EU influencing and hopefully stopping these regulations than being outside of the EU and being forced to adopt the regulations in order to keep your trade agreements. As the conservative Norwegian politician Nikolai Astrup has warned his British friends “If you want to run Europe, you must be in Europe. If you want to be run by Europe, feel free to join Norway in the European Economic Area.” British voters would be wise to follow this advice from Mr. Astrup.

 While my heart is with some of the calls for greater British sovereignty and for a free-market Britain establishing itself as a global trading powerhouse, my head must accept the argument in favor of EU membership. Britain is able to take advantage of the economic benefits of the EU while generally staying away from the greater political integration of European nations that Britain has never been really comfortable joining. British membership in the EU does benefit the EU as a whole, as Britain remains as a powerful free-market voice within Europe. European nations such as Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark understand this and are strongly in favor of Britain remaining in the EU. Eastern European nations such as Poland see Britain as a powerful ally against a hostile Russia and would certainly not benefit from a Brexit. Within Britain, a Brexit would almost certainly lead to Scotland holding a second referendum on Scottish independence, after the 2014 referendum narrowly failed. Pro-Europe Scotland would probably vote for independence if Britain decides to stand outside of the EU, leading to a breakup of the United Kingdom. A Brexit could also damage the ever-fragile peace process in Northern Ireland, as the Irish government has warned. Overall, British voters should vote to remain in the European Union.