So here it starts again – there’s a new ‘question’ on the table, one deemed important enough to warrant a national referendum.
On Thursday 23 June, every British citizen (as well as Irish and Commonwealth nationals residing in the UK) will have the right to answer the question ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ by ticking either 'Remain a member of the European Union', or 'Leave the European Union'.
Politicians (both the more successful, overt ones – and the even less honest ones, who pose as ‘journalists’) fall over themselves to ‘prove’ to voters what an important decision this is and what catastrophes lurk just around the corner, should they make the wrong choice.
David Cameron said that this will be a ‘once-in-a-generation’ choice. That’s probably the only item on which ‘Remain’ and the ‘Leave’ activists agree. Well, whenever politicians from both sides of an argument agree on something, smart money should get very, very wary.
Is this really such a crucial issue?
‘Remain’ campaigners will tell you that the UK stands to lose millions of fat jobs and tens of billions of pounds if it dares leave the warm bosom of the European Union.
Ask a ‘Leave’ activist and s/he’ll draw a picture of Britain
as the Post-EU Utopia: de-regulated, non-bureaucratic – and therefore
wealthier; a proud nation in charge of its laws and borders, free once more to
pursue her best-in-the-world way of life.
|Playing us for fools...|
So who’s right? Well, actually, neither. They both very convincingly tell you tall stories. And they mostly know it. The truth is that, in actual, objective, tangible terms – it makes little difference whether Britain stays in or leaves the European Union.
The first argument both sides of the remain/leave conundrum roll out is the economy. True, the European Union is UK’s main trade partner. If trade with the EU suddenly became more difficult or more expensive, that would negatively affect the British economy. Only problem is – such a scenario is extremely unlikely. The fact is that the UK imports more stuff from the EU than it exports: in 2015, British exports into the rest of the EU totalled £133 billion; imports reached £218 billion. In other words, Germans, French Italians and Spaniards are at least as interested in free trade with the UK, as the latter is in free trade with Europe. It’s a win-win situation. True, EU bureaucrats can be amazingly clumsy, but they’re not completely bonkers; European politicians are a thoroughly uninspiring lot – but even they are highly unlikely to shoot themselves in the foot, by choosing the lose-lose option. I’m sure they’d like to poke David Cameron in the eye with a blunt stick; but the stick has two ends and they’re both rather sharp. So whatever its results, post-referendum Britain will enjoy free trade with the EU. In the ‘Leave’ scenario, the situation might be slightly better or slightly worse than the current one, depending on the two sides’ negotiation prowess; but only slightly. I’m not the only one stating the obvious here; according to the think-tank Open Europe
“[the] realistic range is between a 0.8% permanent loss to GDP in 2030 and a 0.6% permanent gain in GDP in 2030”
|Wrong pitch, buddy!|
The ‘trade’ argument, therefore, fails on both sides – as do all the sub-arguments stemming from it (jobs, investments, the supremacy of the City as Europe’s financial hub, etc. etc.)
And how about the ‘we’ll be in charge of our own laws’ bit? Will a post-Brexit Britain enjoy complete legislative independence? Well, yeah… approximately. To start with, the existing EU legislation has already been incorporated into UK’s laws. Undoing that will necessitate many years of legislative work – assuming that the Parliaments of the time will want to undo it. And even if it’s undone, will the pure-bred British replacement laws be that different? Unlikely: Iceland, Norway and Switzerland are not EU members; yet differences between Norwegian and (say) German law are not significantly wider than those between German and (say) Dutch law. On great matters of principle, UK is unlikely to ever be completely independent again – no, not because of the EU, but because she is a signatory of a long list of international treaties (mostly concocted under UN, not EU patronage), with which UK’s government is obliged (in theory at least) to comply. Contrary to popular belief, it is these international treaties, not EU legislation, that have the greatest bearing on – for instance – UK’s obligations towards refugees/migrants/asylum seekers.
Which brings me to the next point – control of immigration. For many on the ‘Leave!’ side, that is the crux of the issue. Beneath the politically-correct veil, they are greatly annoyed by what they see as the ‘flooding’ of their country by migrants who know little and care even less about ‘the British way of life’. They see Brexit as a PC way to stop that flooding without – God forbid – running the risk of being labelled ‘racists’ in the process. They dream of a Britain proudly in control of its borders, keeping out all but a smallish number of ‘acceptable’ foreigners. The problem is, again, that the migration issue has little to do with UK’s membership of the EU. UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in January 1973; the Maastricht Treaty (which declared the ‘Union’ and the ‘European citizenship’) was enacted in 1993. Neither event made a difference in terms of immigration: according to census data, in 1971, UK’s ‘foreign born population’ was 3.1 million; by 1981, it had increased only marginally – to 3.2 million. In 1991, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported circa 53,000 immigrants from other EEC countries; in 1994, the number was 50,000. Contrary to popular belief, the watershed event in terms of immigration was purely British: the rise to power in 1997 of a Labour government led by Tony Blair. In 1996, ONS reported a total inflow of circa 224,000 immigrants; the annual number climbed steadily after that, reaching 513,000 in 2006; and it has more or less stabilised since then. In other words, the major issue in terms of immigration is not membership of the EU, but the policies of UK’s government.
‘Leave’ campaigners might claim that Brexit will allow them to reduce the immigration – but that claim does not withstand close scrutiny. Two thirds of migrants come from outside the EU. As for the remaining third, it is not clear that the UK economy can do without them: leaving aside the potential penury of those stereotypical Polish plumbers (a most frightening prospect!), who would replace the tens of thousands of East Europeans who work as construction workers, cooks, waiters, barmen, bell-boys and chamber-maids? Not to mention cleaners, au-pairs and a host of other low-paid, rather unpleasant jobs?
Britain’s ‘immigration flood’ is a common problem among rich countries. In relative terms, non-EU members Norway and Switzerland are more ‘flooded’ than the UK. So are USA and Canada. Australia is currently getting rid of some of the migrants landing on her shores by deporting and detaining them in neighbouring Papua New Guinea, after bribing that country to accept them. But that policy has recently been ruled illegal by PNG’s Supreme Court.
To sum it up, whether the UK stays in the EU or leaves it makes little difference in practical terms; what makes a difference is which government sits in Westminster.
So why the brouhaha? Because, just as I’ve written about the Scottish independence referendum this is not really about the economy, or about the laws, or about immigration – although of course these are issues people care about. It’s about nationalism, stupid! The only reason why there is a referendum about EU membership is that many people feel that the latter is gradually becoming a kind of super-state (which is what ‘Union’ is supposed to express), potentially superseding the British national sovereignty and clashing with the Britons’ sense of national identity. There’s nothing wrong with such views; nationalism and patriotism are quintessential human feelings. Except for a certain category of boneheaded, ideology-intoxicated self-styled ‘progressives’, for whom any expression of pride in one’s particular heritage represents ‘identity politics’ – something that those cultists have decreed ‘taboo’. It is tragic that so many people succumb to the constant harangue from the ‘priests’ of this modern-day religion; battered into politically-correct submission, we learned to hide our feelings, lest the thought inquisitors accuse us of being ‘racists’, ‘fascists’ and a host of other mortal sins.
Sure, if taken to extreme, nationalism can slip into xenophobia; but then, anything can turn negative if taken to extreme. In moderation, nationalism is good: it fuels the spirit of competition, which is the engine of human progress; it preserves the beautiful, colourful diversity of mankind and keeps it from turning into that awful, amorphous thing Marxists call ‘masses’ and I call ‘herd’.
My prediction is that the UK will rather overwhelmingly vote to stay in the European Union. And that’s not just because ‘Brexit’ is such a poorly-chosen brand – it sounds like someone belching; no, it’s mostly because the ‘Leave’ campaign is playing the wrong game, on the wrong pitch. As long as the discussion focuses on the economy, people will vote to stay. Bombarded by both sides with tendentious ‘arguments’ and untrustworthy ‘evidence’, they will naturally vote against change: ‘the devil you know’ and all that. If they really wanted to win, the ‘Leave’ campaigners should unabashedly have talked about nationalism, about British identity, about the independence of an old and proud insular nation.
‘To Brexit or not to Brexit’ is not the question. What people really want to know is how their country will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time. Will their children still be able to proudly wear a distinctive British identity – or will they become ‘the masses’? That is the question.