Historical amnesia and the vestiges of imperialism are the main arguments for the Brexit from the EU, but would a split induce more financial, and diplomatic, hardship?
On June 23, the British will vote in a referendum to decide whether they will stay in the European Union or opt out of it. The “Brexit” is one of the biggest threats to the way the world is currently organised. It also neatly fits into the current egotistical craziness that seems to ripple across the globe like a Mexican wave.
Let me explain.
The idea of a coalition of European countries seriously took hold after WWII. The continent had been destroyed by two world wars in quick succession, as well as internal conflicts like the Spanish Civil War. Many European nations were also embroiled in fights over overseas territories, with anti-colonialism spreading fast. The Cold War was brewing and the big powers, the US and the USSR, used the end of WWII to divide the continent in two. For their reconstruction, the countries in the West of Europe were dependent on the US, while the countries in the East looked to the USSR to do the same for them.
Europe had never been without a war on its territory for more than a few years, and after the millions of deaths of WWII (and the economic and social devastation it wrought), it was clear that something needed to happen. In 1946, Winston Churchill took the initiative, by giving a speech in which he talked about his ideas to come up with a “United States of Europe.” Talks ensued and in 1949 the Treaty of London bound together ten nations in the Council of Europe, whose guiding principle was to “achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress.” Soon, six of those countries went even further and formed the European Coal and Steel Community – broadened to the European Economic Community in 1957. Of course, economic cooperation was important, but the main idea was that if countries were economically interdependent, they would think twice before waging war against each other. Why attack another nation if that would mean that they would be unable to buy your products, right? Also, the Europeans understood that in this new world, they were no longer the biggest fish in the pond. There was no more Britain ruling the waves, and the Spanish, Dutch, Belgians and Portuguese were now small fry compared to the US, USSR and, increasingly, China. Banding together would give Europe at least a voice in this rapidly changing (and with nuclear bombs, very dangerous) environment.
Over time, the European countries opted for more and closer ties. After some initial reluctance by the French, the UK joined the EEC in 1973, and in 1993, the Maastricht Treaty established the European Union, with its own court, parliament and commission and voting rights for the inhabitants of the countries. It was agreed that although there were many differences between the nations, there were also many shared values and aims (like preventing war), so the motto became “Unity in Diversity.” In 1995, shaken by the Bosnian War, the Europeans went one step further, by signing the Schengen Agreement, which was the start of a borderless Europe. Not all European countries conformed: Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland remained outside of the EU. And, the UK and Ireland, although inside the EU, also opted out of Schengen.
Schengen was the first indication that the British wanted, as commentators called it, “Europe à la carte.” Not so much a marriage, but an arrangement that would provide food and sex but not the necessity to do the washing up or the cleaning. Following all the clichés of an island nation, Britain decided to keep its border controls, and its own justice and home affairs legislation (deciding not to sign the Fundamental Charter of Human Rights), and when the euro came in 2002, not adopt the common currency either. Conveniently forgetting that it had been Churchill who initiated this whole project, the country pulled up its drawbridge and used the North Sea as a moat to protect itself from the rest of the continent. Conceived national interest and isolationism proved stronger than historical awareness. Ironically, Britain was able to forget because the European experiment had actually worked: apart from the Bosnian War, there had been no conflicts on European soil since WWII, for the first time ever.
The current “Brexit” crisis started as an internal issue in the British Conservative Party. Like Conservative and Liberal parties everywhere (including Australia and the US), its members struggle with their own principles. They are in favour of free movement of people, but only if those people are bankers, architects, doctors and cheap and reliable labourers – not if they include refugees and economic migrants. They also want freedom of trade – but only if it makes them richer; not if they have to share the wealth with less fortunate countries. In short, sharing, solidarity, compassion and a social contract are out, and super-capitalism, hyper-individualism and self-interest are in.
And that is not what Europe is about.
Nevertheless, seeing that only the “greed is good” arguments seem to sway these people, let’s try and convince them that staying in the European Union is good for their bottom line, too. First the economy. Left wing sources like the IMF, rating agency S&P (Standard and Poor’s), Rolls Royce and the G20 Finance Ministers have all publicly come out against a Brexit. Not only because it would pose a risk to the world economy, but because they think it would harm the British economy as well. There are a number of reasons for this. Rolls-Royce, for instance, wrote a letter to its employees explaining that a Brexit could seriously hurt its company. Free trade is important to international business, it explained. Seeing that the company imports most of its car parts from Europe, tariff barriers would mean higher costs, which would result in higher prices for their vehicles, lower sales and more unemployment. This argument is not only valid in the car industry. 45 percent of what the UK produces is exported to the EU, while only 10 percent comes the other way. This led yet another proto-Communist source, the Economist, to label a Brexit an “act of self-harm.” In response to the looming referendum, Standard and Poor’s said it represented “a risk to growth prospects” and cut its outlook for Britain, which makes it more expensive for the country to borrow money, even before the decision is made. The G20 went even further, stating that a Brexit would pose “one of the biggest economic dangers this year.” Traders on the Nasdaq were also against Britain leaving the EU. According to their own poll, 62 percent of them favoured Britain remaining inside the fold, on purely economic and financial reasons.
There was another important reason brought up by outsiders looking in: security. Last week, the Director of Europol, the law enforcement agency of the EU, warned that a Brexit would mean that Britain would no longer be a member of the Europol organisation. As a consequence, the country would be “unable to access the same European policing cooperation,” which would be detrimental, especially in the areas of counterterror and cybercrime. Then there were the 13 former chiefs of the UK’s armed forces, who pleaded with their countrymen to vote against leaving the EU, because this would make dealing with “Middle Eastern instability and Russian aggression” much more difficult and, therefore, endanger the country. Special Forces veteran Jonathan Shaw, who served in Kosovo and Iraq and was Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff, also put his two cents in, by writing that it was simply “too dangerous to quit the EU.” New threats like global terrorism need an “inter-governmental response,” he said, and a Brexit would jeopardise this.
So what about the main argument that is used in favour of Britain leaving the EU? One of self-government. And connected to that, Britain’s right to say no to migrants.
This is a curious one. First of all, Britain already blocks access to migrants, because it is not part of the Schengen Agreement and has therefore maintained the right to police its borders. Secondly, the only “problem” with the EU is that it gives European migrants freedom to migrate from one European country to another. But these European migrants only make up half of the migrants knocking on Britain’s door, so getting out of the EU would only “solve” half the problem. Britain has always been free to choose what it wants to do with the non-European migrants, like any other European country, so leaving the EU will not change anything in that regard. What will change is the position of the 1.4 million Brits working or studying in the EU. They can do that now without problems, and are often eligible for grants and tax breaks. A Brexit might mean that they will have to come home, because Britain will no longer be a part of a borderless community.
But at least, Britain will regain its self-government, right? No more dancing to the tune of Brussels, or having to pay for bureaucrats’ lunches in The Hague or Strasbourg? Well…sort-of. If the British vote to leave the EU, they will have to start negotiating for a new deal with their ex-partners. They will want to retain full access to the EU’s single market because otherwise their economy would suffer. But the other EU countries will not be so willing to sign agreements that will favour the Brits. In order to prevent contagion, the EU will need to be harsh, and that will undoubtedly mean that in return for access to the market, the EU will demand free movement of people and a nice, high contribution to the EU budget: exactly the two things that are now pushing the British towards a Brexit. Also, being outside the EU will mean that the Brits will have no say in how the EU is organised, how it negotiates with the US, China, Russia and other countries, or how it responds to problems or crises. So sovereignty and self-government have a price, and I wonder if the British are willing to accept that.
According to the polls, Britain is seriously divided about a Brexit. Various polls give various numbers, but a few things seem clear. Support for staying inside the EU comes mainly from metropolitan areas, Scotland, university cities and younger people. Eurosceptics are found in England (the more to the South, the more Eurosceptic) and amongst the lower educated. On top of that, one in five Brits have not decided yet, or are swaying from one position to the other.
Maybe I can remind them of the reason for the European experiment. Before there was a solitary Europe, there was war. War meant millions of refugees, many more than there are now. Some of those refugees were yours. It also meant economic and social devastation, in Europe and in Britain. All of this was solved not by isolationism, but by solidarity. European nations signed a social contract not out of altruism, but because it provided them with the stability that was needed to build up the wealth they have now. Sustaining that pact and extending it to others, like the migrants that have fled to Europe, is also not a matter of philanthropy, but of hardheaded self-interest. Desperate people get angry quickly, which is dangerous. If somebody has nothing to lose, they will take if you don’t give it to them voluntarily. It also undermines the moral compact we’ve got in the world, those “ideals and principles” the Council of Europe talked about all those years ago. Britain, like all other European nations, has profited from those bonds. Blowing up the Union now, it has to give something back. It is not just selfish, it is amoral – and it will be remembered whenever Britain needs help in the future.