As you may imagine, coverage of the “Brexit” debate in the US has played second fiddle to the ongoing train-wreck that is the 2016 US Presidential election; but with obvious personal interest in the outcome, I have followed the debate online and frankly have been disappointed (although not surprised) at the negativity with which it has been conducted.
Before I really begin, though, I want to point out that this entire campaign has highlighted the flawed nature of the referendum process: asking the public to vote on a particular policy may be effective when the policy is something tangible and relevant to people’s day-to-day lives (e.g. banning smoking in public, legalizing gay marriage etc…) but extremely ineffective when the policy at stake is as nuanced, complex and removed from public life as national sovereignty and foreign relations.
When the consequences of a particular policy can only be conveyed through metaphors, abstract concepts and politicians spinning models to produce whatever output favors their argument, a public referendum will be decided by anything other than the merits of the policy itself.
We elect politicians to make political decisions, and we expect them to be experts on the political process. Political treaties such as the Maastricht treaty, which governs Britain’s membership of the EU, are some of the most complicated legal documents mankind has ever created, and it is the job of politicians to understand, interpret, and make decisions in the best interests of their electorate. Instead, the buck has been passed to the public, guided by sensationalist headlines and opinion pieces (admittedly, like this one) from people who do not fully understand the intricacies of the political process.
Ahh, the EU. An institution so reviled that even those in the “remain” camp are not defending it on the benefits of membership, instead resorting to scare tactics about the consequences of leaving. These tactics are likely to work, but I wish we could structure the “remain” campaign around a message like this:
While on its surface the EU might be the most tedious political institution in the world, under its lifeless skin it reveals itself as possibly the most audacious and successful experiment in democratic governance in world history.
That’s a bold statement, but let me provide some context with 4 statements you are unlikely to hear elsewhere in this debate, and see if you disagree with me:
The EU has brought an unprecedented level of peace and co-operation to a continent scarred by war
The EU was conceived in the 1950’s at a time when the continent was still reeling from the physical and mental wounds inflicted in WWII, and the Cold War was pitting Europe in the middle of two nuclear powers: the almighty USSR fresh from it’s repression of the Hungarian Uprising and the swashbuckling US taking a breather after the Korean War . The EU successfully brought together former Allied and Axis powers for Economic co-operation at a time when colonialism was being reversed and it would have been easy for the continent to have collapsed into chaos. Undoubtedly the Marshall Plan helped to stabilize the region, but the EU paved the path to prosperity through trade and co-operation rather than fighting.
The EU has done more to boost economic growth than any comparable political institution
Known for its over-bearing bureaucracy, the EU has actually achieved more in opening up markets and encouraging international trade than the World Trade Organization or the UN have ever accomplished. By creating the single market, the EU has lowered barriers to trade not only between European countries but also made it easier for other countries to sign trade agreements with the EU as a single bloc. Additionally, the Schengen zone is appreciated by businesses, tourists and everyday citizens alike; even with the ongoing refugee crisis, the benefits of open internal borders (for every party) far outweigh the costs.
Even the EU’s bureaucracy has merits and accomplishments that we should be proud of as Europeans
Without the slow but persistent pressure exerted by EU politicians who are able to conduct work without populist pressure on a day-to-day basis. The Kyoto Protocol, the predecessor to the recent Paris Agreement, was the first treaty to address climate change and global warming on a global level and it was spearheaded by the EU. The European Convention on Human Rights, though detested in the UK, has helped provide fundamental rights to millions in the EU given its requisite nature for countries looking to enter the EU. The ECB, another institution loathed by many, has helped to stabilize the European economy in the wake of the worst recession in living memory, and Mario Draghi’s extraordinary measures have been lauded by investors.
Though it has many flaws, the EU is young and should be a work of continual iteration and innovation
The EU is 58 years old. By political institutional standards it is just a teenager, and like any teen it is still working out its identity, making mistakes from which it learns and grows. The Euro as a single currency, for instance, had grand designs but has proven inflexible in the face of differing inflationary environments across the region. However, the US Constitution, that lauded legal document in “the land of the free” (*eyeroll*) has been amended 20 times, and has committed far more egregious policy mistakes — it turned a blind eye to slavery, forgot female suffrage, and hell, they still haven’t figured out that gun ownership disaster. Rather than abandoning the EU, the UK should be pushing for bold reforms that stand to benefit all Europeans alike.
So if the EU isn’t all bad, why are so many people desperate to leave?
This is where my position as an Englishman living in the US may (I hope) offer some insight.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, people in developed countries around the world braced themselves for hard times, and focused on making ends meet day-to-day. I witnessed this in the industrial towns of the North West in the UK and I witnessed it upon my arrival in the US in 2011. But as the economy has recovered — unemployment rates have dropped back to pre-recession levels and stock markets have risen to all-time highs — people are questioning why they aren’t seeing the benefit in their own lives.
The short answer is, in a word, globalization.
I hope we can all agree that on a global level, the increase in cross-border trade has been a net positive, with global inequality shrinking and hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty across the globe. Unfortunately, for developed nations this has meant a severe squeeze on wage growth for the middle class amid global competition, while on the flip-side, globalization has accelerated the income potential for the highest quintile of earners who can take a slice of an ever-growing global economic pie.
In the US, frustration initially manifested itself in the #OccupyWallStreet movement; in the years since, that frustration has morphed into a broader anti-establishment movement that has given rise to extreme political candidates such as Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. In an economy as diverse as the US, there is no single culprit for the general anger to direct itself towards: it could be China’s fault, it could be Wall Street, Barack Obama, Mexico, Silicon Valley & the Gig Economy, OPEC & the collapse of the price of oil, too much welfare and bailouts or not enough of either.
The UK is different. The outsized role of our relationship with the EU and our dependence on Financial Services offer up two clear culprits for the middle class’ general malaise.
Bankers in the UK have acquired a reputation for greed and corruption which far surpasses what is warranted. Bankers are vilified in the US, but it isn’t even close in comparison to the resentment of the entire financial services industry in the UK.
Similarly, the UK’s membership in the EU has been singled out as 1) eroding Britain’s sovereignty, subsidizing new entrants to the EU at the expense of Britain, and (most importantly) for allowing an influx in foreigners to enter the UK through the EU’s open geographic mobility for EU citizens who then take British jobs and take advantage of British welfare.
Let me put this on a separate line, so I’m clear:
The arguments for leaving the EU are all bullshit.
I won’t dwell on why Britain has more control over its well-being by remaining in the EU or how immigrants are a huge boon to the British economy. There of plenty of other articles for that.
Instead, I’d like to highlight the motivations of the politicians in favor of Brexit. They fall neatly into one of two groups: those Eurosceptics who are nostalgic for a time when Britain was a colonial empire in complete control of its own destiny (i.e. delusional or naive to the realities of the 21st century); and those who are betting that they will gain personally if they push for Brexit and the “Leave” campaign actually wins the vote.
The final word
My distance from the Brexit debate has provided me with a clarity that I doubt I would possess if I remained in the UK. I see politicians using the referendum to maneuver themselves into positions of power in the event of the status quo being disrupted.
The EU is an organization that deserves more respect, and in my naivety I dreamed of a debate that would highlight its importance to the UK, both economically and as a broader example of good governance in the 21st Century. Instead, we have resorted to scaremongering and finger pointing.
I’m no Europhile, but I am proud of our position in the EU, and you should be too. Don’t let any politician tell you otherwise.
Note: I purposefully avoided quoting numbers and statistics. Instead, I am attempting to convey my personal opinion based on reason :)