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Brexit confusion

I grew up as a strong believer in the European Union, in the ideology of uniting countries for mutual benefit and in some ways, I’ve always considered myself more European than British. When the EU referendum was announced, I just assumed that we should vote to stay in Europe and that most people other than a xenophobic, UKIP voting minority would do the same.

I assumed that the arguments for remaining in the EU would be clear, plentiful and backed by solid evidence while the arguments to leave the EU would be vague, unsubstantiated claims designed to incite fear. Sadly, I feel that the reality has been that both sides have lacked solid arguments, both sides have lacked credible evidence for their claims and both sides have resorted to scaremongering as their primary tactic.

No such thing as a Brexpert

It has so far been a highly negative debate that if nothing else, has highlighted a few basic things:

Firstly, that there are no experts.

Secondly, that everyone in power and the media has their own agenda behind the scenes.

What I thought was a foregone conclusion is in fact a big grey cloud of uncertainty with no right answer. For my own benefit therefore, I’ve tried to summarize the key arguments and issues that I’ve heard up to this point.

1. Democracy

Some argue that the EU has become too big, too powerful, corporatist and unaccountable. They claim that it is undemocratic (or even anti-democratic) and that powers should be brought back to the people of Britain.

I think there’s a lot of truth in this but others argue that the British government has also become too powerful, corporatist and unaccountable to the public and that the EU is one of the few things protecting us from our own government who were only elected by 24% of eligible voters. I think there is also a lot of truth in this. After all, TTIP, the most sinister and secret EU deal has been claimed by our own prime minster David Cameron to be his idea!  Right now, the the debate is doing more to highlight that our democracy is failing than to indicate whether democracy would be stronger in or out of the EU.

2. Economics

Some argue that we would be financially better off staying in the EU, but we have no way to know this. It is nothing short of fortune telling and several of the big institutions backing to remain campaign have made big mistakes in the past predicting things like the success of the Euro and the event of the 2008 financial crisis. Those saying we should leave the EU point to Norway and Switzerland, claiming that they are rich because they are not in the EU, but they don’t seem have any evidence to substantiate how our economy would really perform if we left.

Basically, it seems that nobody knows what will be better for our economy, and so I have no choice but to leave this issue to one side.

3. Red Tape

Brexiters claim that our economy has been strangled by EU regulations and that we would be better off if freed from this burden. No doubt there are some unnecessary and even detrimental EU regulations but I’m yet to see many solid examples put forward. Meanwhile, I have seen plenty of examples of EU regulation improving our lives in terms of reduced environmental impact of products, better product quality, improved air and water quality, improved safety regulations, protection for human rights and better conditions for workers. So at this stage this looks like a good reason to remain in the EU.

4. Subsidies

Britain pays billions into the EU every year in funds that then get handed out as subsidies to sectors like Agriculture, Academic Research and Urban Redevelopment. Some of these subsidies probably have a positive overall impact while others like the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are probably not so wonderful. Either way, it seems clear that if we really wanted these subsidies, it would be far cheaper for our own government to do so directly. Therefore I think this is arguably a reason to leave.

5. Immigration

I personally think that immigration is being treated like a much bigger issue than it really is, and certainly a more relevant issue than it really is. Broadly speaking, I’m pro-immigration and I like the fact that Europe is a free and open place in which to live and work. Having said that, there are arguments that the open door to Europe has prompted our own government to neglect progressive immigration policies towards non-EU citizens, which is detrimental to our country and to the non-EU citizens denied opportunities as a result.

At the same time, not even Nigel Farage is campaigning for an immigration-free Britain, but simply an equitable, controlled immigration policy. I hate to agree with Nigel Farage but this does seem fairly sensible and if we had a government that we could trust to put in place fair and humane immigration policies then I think it would be a good reason to leave. However, whether our government would actually do this is anybodies guess.

My big worry on the immigration front is regarding the fate of EU Citizens already living in the UK, including many of my close friends and colleagues. David Cameron says that he is making no promises, but I can’t believe that they would be asked to leave when they have already established lives here. I think it would cause a riot and considerable damage to the economy.  Nonetheless, his threat has worked in scaring me and so I’m still leaning towards remaining in Europe on this issue.

6. National Security

The remain campaign claim that we need to be in the EU to fight terrorism and international crime. Personally, I think this is nonsense. Aside from the fact that Brexit wouldn’t stop the UK cooperating with other countries, I don’t think the EU is at the heart of wither f these issues. Terrorism is largely fuelled by our own foreign policies and not by a lack of EU intelligence sharing, while the biggest international criminals are banks like HSBC and Goldman Sachs seem to all be saying that we should stay in the EU!  So I’m going to put this issue to one side and assume that it doesn’t make too much difference either way.

7. European Stability

I’ve always been a strong believer that the EU plays a central role in maintaining peaceful, stable national relationships across our continent and it has been argued that a key nation like Britain leaving the EU could be the beginning of the end for this marvellously idealistic project. That does worry me but it also emphasizes the reality that there is already tension in Europe and that perhaps more integration is not always better.

The way I think of this is that if you moved into a shared house with your friends and relatives, it would be fun for a while, but you’d eventually start to get on each other’s nerves.  After a while, a few dominant characters would emerge in the group, much to the frustration of the quieter, less confident members of the group. These dominant characters would start to take control of the group and eventually, you would end up arguing and falling out with each other. I feel like this is what is starting to happen in Europe, that we are becoming a little bit too close and that this is now a source of tension as much as it is a source of peace and stability. The way that Greece has been treated is a clear example that the idealism of a united and equitable Europe is already gone, and that being in the club doesn’t mean that the others have your best interests at heart.

Flipping the coin the other way therefore, some are arguing that Britain leaving the EU could be the catalyst needed for other countries to stand up for themselves and demand some much needed reform of the EU.  Such an event could make the EU stronger in the long-term, even if we were not a part of it. My gut tells me that this theory might have a little bit of truth in it, but the opposite is also very plausible so I think it is better to err on the side of caution.

8. EU Reform

This leads on nicely to the topic of EU reform. There seems to be agreement between both sides that the EU does need significant reform. The argument is whether we should walk away or stay in and try to reform it. The problem is that the UK has a terrible track record of trying to reform the EU and the only bargaining chip that we have ever had is that we might leave if we don’t get our way. However, if we vote to remain, we will have lost our only bargaining chip and so will have almost no hope of obtaining any genuine reform. Now that we have called a referendum, it seems we will be damned if we do and damned if we don’t remain in the EU.  Whatever we vote, I think this referendum will have weakened our influence within the EU for some time to come.

On the fence

Honestly, I’m slightly shocked that I this isn’t as clear cut as I assumed it would be. However, I should remind myself that not all issues are of equal importance.

For now, I will continue to sit up here on the fence and observe both sides of the debate for as long as possible, hoping that someone on either side can actually put forward a credible argument before polling day.

A final note

To add one more dimension to the confusion, I think it’s worth imagining whether things would be different if our current Conservative government was replaced at the next election by a more progressive government. Most of the benefits that we get from the EU in terms of social and environmental protection as well as positive collaboration with other countries could probably be achieved outside of the EU if we had a government that would implement progressive policies.

I suspect that there will be a lot of people voting to remain in the EU because they believe that our government would not maintain many of the progressive policies that the EU currently imposes upon us, making them more of a vote of no confidence in our own government than a vote of confidence in the EU. I think I’m personally leaning this way but with the opportunity to change our government in 3-years’ time, is this good basis on which to make a decision that could last a generation?

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