Leave the EU? Sorry, not convinced

It’s still over three months until the referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU or not, but there’s already plenty of lively discussion online about it. What I find interesting is how much comment sections seem to be dominated by pro-leavers, despite the fact that (a) most opinion polls are showing either a lead for remain or a very close result, and (b) no-one, least of all the leave supporters, seems to have a clue what life would realistically be like if we left. I think that’s what prompted me to write this, in order to do a small bit towards redressing the balance.

Of course, the EU isn’t perfect – nothing so big and complex ever could be – but I find it alarming how many people seem desperate to get out when there is so much uncertainty about what would happen, and when most of the arguments for leaving are so paper thin. I’m going to respond here to most of the reasons I see put forward for leaving the EU.

UK and continental power sockets existing happily side-by-side, just like their respective countries within the EU. (Stop laughing at the back!)

UK and continental power sockets existing happily side-by-side, just like their respective countries within the EU. (Stop laughing at the back!)

“The EU is undemocratic”

I find it pretty ironic that people who complain incessantly about the EU being undemocratic want to return all of its powers to Westminster instead. That would be the same Westminster that, last year, elected a majority government that only 24% of the electorate actually voted for, and which left the Green Party and UKIP with only one MP each despite them getting 5 million votes between them (and don’t even get me started on the unelected second chamber). At least the European parliament is elected using a proper modern proportional system that avoids this kind of grossly unrepresentative result.

“But it’s not just the parliament, there’s a huge unelected bureaucracy alongside it!” I hear you cry. Um, doesn’t every parliament have that? I don’t remember the last time we voted on the make-up of the entire UK civil service, for example, and it’s a good thing too – imagine the chaos if we got rid of everyone who knows about the practicalities of running the country every time there was an election.

Ultimately, if the Eurosceptics are feeling that the European parliament doesn’t represent them, maybe they should try voting for MEPs who will actually engage as best they can and try to make the system work, rather than ones who are just going to moan from the sidelines like sulking children *cough*UKIP*cough*.

This doesn't really have anything to do with the article, except that it's in the EU, and it's nice.

This doesn’t really have anything to do with the article, except that it’s in the EU, and it’s nice, and I wanted something to break up the huge wall of text a bit.

“We need to regain our sovereignty”

A lot of Eurosceptics are adamant that we need every last bit of our sovereignty to be brought back from Brussels to the UK parliament. But they’re also usually adamant that they want to trade with other countries and not withdraw into isolationism, and there’s a contradiction there. The world doesn’t work that way. These trade agreements that the “Leave” side claims to want so much are all going to impose some sort of conditions on both sides. We’re not going to be free to do absolutely everything we want unless we cut ourselves off North Korea-style, and the Leavers are always quick to point out that that’s not what they want.

Once you accept that sovereignty isn’t an absolute thing anymore (maybe it never was), and that interacting with other countries is inevitably going to involve some compromises, it becomes easier to judge an arrangement such as the EU on its merits, rather than just throwing a tantrum about it stopping you doing what you want. The conditions imposed by international trade deals and treaties wouldn’t necessarily be any less onerous outside the EU – in fact, they could easily become a lot more complicated and demanding, since we’d probably have to negotiate a multitude of separate deals with various countries instead of just being party to a single EU deal.

“The EU is a failing institution”

I see a lot of “Leave” voters claiming that the EU is a “failing” institution and we need to get out so as not to be dragged down with it. I’m curious as to what definition of “failure” they’re using here – by almost any reasonable measure, the EU member states are very successful countries – prosperous, safe, healthy, well educated. If you rank the countries of the world in order of economic prosperity, life expectancy, literacy, equality, incidence of violent crime, or practically any other important factor, the top twenty is dominated by EU countries. If that’s their idea of “failure”, I’d love to see what success looks like!

Of course, some would probably claim that this is nothing to do with the EU and that all of those successful countries would be even more successful without it. There’s no way to ever know for sure since we don’t have a second Europe that’s identical except for EU membership to compare with, but what we do know is that the EU certainly hasn’t prevented all these countries from becoming successful, and has very likely helped at least in some ways.

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“We’ll still get access to the single market/visa-free travel/etc. if we leave”

Most Brexit supporters seem adamant that even after we leave the EU, we’ll easily be able to negotiate a deal that gives us all the “good stuff” (like access to the single market, and ability to go on holiday to France without needing a visa) but without any of the “bad” (having to accept immigrants, all those pesky human rights and environmental regulations). I’m at a loss as to why they think it’s going to be so easy. The principle of free movement, for example, is pretty central to the EU. No country gets full access to the single market without also allowing free movement, as well as having to comply with a lot of the EU regulations, and I see no reason why they would make an exception for Britain.

Yes, we could probably maintain access to the market and visa-free travel if we entered into an arrangement similar to Norway’s. But it’s not clear to me why that would be to anyone’s advantage; we’d still be stuck with most of the elements of the EU that the Eurosceptics hate, but without a presence in the European Parliament we would have much less influence over them.

“The EU costs us too much money”

Several points here: firstly, the amount of money we pay to the EU is very small relative to the UK’s expenditure as a whole, so even if we were able to claw it all back it wouldn’t make a huge difference to anything. Secondly, that money doesn’t just disappear – we get a lot of it back in farm subsidies, funding for science and technology projects, development funding for disadvantaged areas and so on. And thirdly, it would be pretty pointless leaving the EU in order to avoid paying this money if in doing so we cause the economy to shrink by much more than that amount (which seems quite a plausible outcome).

Finally, be wary of the outlandish claims for how much we would save by leaving that are being put about by the various Eurosceptic groups. I saw one claim (I think it was by the Taxpayers’ Alliance) of an impressive number of billions of pounds that we could save by leaving the EU. But when I actually read the details, it became clear that the money Britain pays directly to the EU was a relatively small component of the total – they’d also included the cost to UK business of complying with all the EU regulations on workers’ rights, environmental protection, and so on. So we wouldn’t just have to leave the EU in order to save that money – we’d also have to massively weaken our employment and environmental protections. Good for the people who are rich enough to own tabloid newspapers or fund the Taxpayers’ Alliance, no doubt, but not so good for the rest of us

This actually wasn't part of the EU when I took the photo 3 years ago. But it is now.

This actually wasn’t part of the EU when I took the photo 3 years ago. But it is now.

“We need to control our own borders”

Border controls seem pretty fundamental to the argument for leaving, but as always there is a lot of misinformation in this area. Most obviously, we already have full control over immigration from non-EU countries, but successive UK governments have done relatively little to curb it – there’s plenty of lively debate about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s hardly the EU’s fault either way. It’s true that the EU does require us to freely allow immigration from other EU countries (and in turn they allow Britons to move elsewhere in Europe, which a lot of people do take advantage of), but it’s far from certain that this would change in the event of a “Leave” vote. If we want to continue to have access to the single market, as most Eurosceptics claim they do, it’s likely we’ll need to continue to allow freedom of movement as well.

There’s also been speculation about whether the UK would need to introduce border controls on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if we were to leave the EU, and about whether this could cause the tensions there to flare up again. I’ve seen some Brexiters claim that this is just scaremongering and of course we wouldn’t introduce border controls with Ireland, but surely they can’t have it both ways… if controlling our own borders is so fundamentally important that we have to withdraw from the EU over it, it makes no sense to be so relaxed about having an uncontrolled land border with a country that’s still in the EU.

Regarding the current refugee situation, it’s possible that leaving the EU would actually make it more difficult to “send back” refugees. (Personally I find the idea of sending away people who have fled from a war zone abhorrent, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment and talk about the practicalities). At present there are agreements in place that refugees must seek asylum in the first EU country they come to, so if refugees arrive in Britain having clearly come through France (for example), they can be sent back to France relatively easily. But if Britain cut itself off and closed its borders, those arrangements would no longer apply – the French would be fully entitled to say “Sod off, they’re your problem now”.

“We want rid of the European human rights laws”

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether it’s sensible for people to be clamouring to have their own human rights protections removed, the much-maligned European Convention on Human Rights is actually nothing to do with the EU – it pre-dates the EU by several decades, and leaving the EU would not take us out of the ECHR.

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“The EU is bloated and financially irresponsible”

I’ve worked on EU-funded projects, as well as on projects funded by various other means, and this has not been my experience at all. It’s fashionable to bash the EU as being wasteful with tax payers’ hard-earned money, but I’ve actually found the EU funding bodies to be the among the most rigourous about making sure their money is being spent properly (at least on the science and technology side, I don’t have any direct experience of the rest). On our EU projects we have to keep the funders updated regularly with detailed information about our work, as well as attending regular face-to-face reviews where we present our progress to them and answer questions. The reviewers have the power to immediately halt projects that aren’t delivering what they promised. By contrast, none of the UK or Scottish funding bodies or commercial companies that I’ve worked with have applied this level of oversight.

Of course, some would argue that all these science and technology projects are a waste of money anyway, and we shouldn’t be spending anything on them at all. I disagree whole-heartedly. We SHOULD be taking part in visionary projects, like the Human Brain Project. They may not bring tangible results straight away, but in the long term the benefits could be immense, and it probably takes an organisation like the EU to fund projects like this. No commercial company would spend so much money on something so risky, and it would be too big for most individual countries’ research budgets as well. For me this is one of the EU’s strongest points and something I find very inspiring.

“The EU is good for the rich elite and bad for everyone else – look at TTIP, and the treatment of Greece”

There are people on the left of the political spectrum who want out of the EU, citing the imposition of austerity on Greece, the now-infamous TTIP trade deal, legislation that might make it difficult to renationalise public services, and so on. I have some sympathy with their views, certainly more than I do with the anti-immigrant, anti-human rights mob on the right, but I think they need to be realistic about what would actually happen if we voted to leave. The Tories are going to be running the UK for at least the next four years and quite possibly for a lot longer, and the Tories are on average much more fanatically pro-austerity, pro-TTIP and pro-privatisation than the EU are – handing them absolute power to do whatever they want isn’t going to help us with any of those issues. The EU may not be perfect, but right now it seems like one of the few powerful institutions that might actually help to mitigate the worst effects of capitalism.

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“We want freedom from the EU’s red tape”

I think the people who want to get away from the EU’s regulations need to be careful what they’re really voting for. They might imagine with misty eyes an elderly village shop owner, free once again to sell irregularly shaped bananas in pounds and ounces without interference from the Eurocrats, but in reality, the politicians campaigning for Brexit quite likely have different ideas about exactly which strands of red tape they’d like to cut.

At this point, the Leave supporters maintain that no UK government would ever dare to (for example) cut paid holiday entitlement or relax health and safety legislation, because they’d be annihilated at the polls for doing so, therefore we don’t need to EU to protect those things for us. I’m afraid I don’t have as much faith in our electoral system as they do. Of course the UK government¬†could protect all those rights without any help from the EU, but the more relevant question is,¬†would it? Frankly I don’t trust either the Tories or the system that elected them to do what’s right for ordinary people, so I’d rather those rights were protected at as high a level as possible and were as difficult as possible for the government to take away.

There are plenty of UK government decisions that are deeply unpopular but that we’re stuck with anyway, either because none of the parties that can realistically gain power have offered to reverse them, or because they simply lie about what their plans are, or because those particular issues aren’t the main deciding factor for most voters – the privatisation of the railways and the recent NHS reforms in England are two that come to mind. I can easily imagine the same thing happening with employment rights if we were to leave the EU – the Tories doing their “we really hate to do this, but there’s no alternative, we have to do it for the good of the economy in the long term” act as they remove the right to paid sick leave, then Labour (assuming they’ve ditched Corbyn and gone back to being New Labour by that time, which seems quite likely) not daring to reverse it in case they appear “anti-business”.

Anyway, this whole argument can just as easily be turned on its head: if no UK government would ever relax those regulations anyway, why not keep them protected at the EU level? Why would you want to remove that protection unless you’re planning to revoke those rights?

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It seems to me that a lot of Brexit supporters just hate the EU on an emotional level, and at this point are probably not going to be swayed by any kind of rational argument. It’s become a scapegoat for everything they don’t like about the modern world – immigration, human rights, environmentalism, meddling bureaucrats, and so on – and now they’re hell-bent on getting out, regardless of whether leaving would actually change any of those things, and regardless of what other damage might be done in the process.

And, as much as people claim that their views have nothing to do with xenophobia, I find it hard to see any explanation for some of the Leavers’ stances other than just not liking foreigners very much. They are fine with the fact that, for example, the people of Cornwall (or Scotland) might not get their preferred government in Westminster, because Cornwall only contains a minority of British voters (likewise Scotland). But when Britain doesn’t get everything its own way in the EU Parliament, because Britain only contains a minority of the EU’s voters, they go nuts about how undemocratic it is. Why? What is the difference between these two cases, other than the fact that in the first example everyone is British, but in the second example there are foreigners involved as well? I’m not trying to stir things up here, I just genuinely don’t understand.

2 thoughts on “Leave the EU? Sorry, not convinced

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