What I tell my friends when they ask about Brexit
As we draw closer to what promises to be a momentous vote for both the future of the UK and Europe – the British referendum on the country’s membership in the European Union – I have observed a peculiar phenomenon. My friends, profoundly concerned about the likelihood of Britain leaving the EU, have gone into a state of mind ranging from a self-inflicted semi-trepidation to downright hysteria.
I must confess: as it happens, most of my friends and Facebook acquaintances are no fence-sitters on the issue of Brexit. They want the UK to stay in the EU and they fear the worst: that Britain will pull up its draw bridge and return to its 19th century ‘splendid isolation’ policy. Their worries stem from the same epiphany that serves as a cause for exaltation for the Leave campaign: the opinion polls.
A sceptic by nature, I take these polls with a pinch of salt. Pollsters do not always get it right (if at all). But my sentiments about the validity of the opinion polls do little to simmer down the fear. And so I try other tactics; I use reason. I tell my friends two things:
First, do not despair. If you are fed up with the withering remarks, disdainful snorts, misinformation and downright lies, there are only so many days left in the campaign until people cast their votes and decide.
Second, I recite the list of reasons why I believe Britain will ultimately make the decision to remain in the EU:
The British electorate are a nation of small-c conservatives. The country, being suspicious of lofty or unclear visions, wants to keep hold of what it has got. At least when it comes to major systemic and political changes.
As a point in case, let us take the thwarted electoral reform pioneered by the Liberal Democrats or the failed Scottish referendum on independence. When push comes to shove, the British people refuse to buy a pig in a poke.
In other words, as the leave campaign has offered no coherent vision for what the Britain of post-Brexit would look like, I find it reasonable to believe that people will consider Brexit with some level of doubt even if they are not particularly fond of the EU as such.
But that is not where the argument stops. Having failed to offer genuine vision, the leave campaign has zoomed in on practicalities instead. Except that while sketching out the UK’s immigration policy or future EU-UK trade relations, it has been difficult to catch up with the ever-changing list of possibilities put forth by ‘Brexiters’.
At first, they argued, Britain’s relations with the EU would be modelled on Norway – a country that has to obey by most of the EU rules but has no say over them while it is being asked to make financial contributions to the EU budget.
As this did not wash with people’s expectations, the leave campaign turned to Switzerland – a country that has no access to the Single Market in services. Surely, a model that would be undesirable for the UK whose economy largely depends on services.
Then there was Canada. But Canada’s deal would be even worse than that of Switzerland because not only does Canada lack full access to the Single Market, some of its goods are even subject to taxes and quotas which would disadvantage UK manufacturers and food producers.
Running out of options and grasping at straws, the last ditch-effort to win the argument was to use the example of Albania – an idea discouraged in an article even by Albania’s PM himself.
But let us give the Leave campaign the benefit of the doubt. Let us assume that their arguments stack up. Even if those in favour of Brexit were to win the war of arguments, they would still be missing one element necessary to bring about the radical change: ideals.
Revolutions are not won on the back of practicalities and details. They are won on values and principles.
One may argue that the Leave campaign is heaving with ideals and principles. Think of the sovereignty that the UK will, arguably, re-gain should it leave the EU. Or the unthinkable opportunities for Britain if no longer constrained by the shackles of interdependence. Those are the values worth fighting for, they say.
There are, of course, a number of problems with this reasoning. First, the argument is based on the lazy idea that Britain – soon to become the biggest economy in the EU – exercises little to no leverage when it comes to deciding in the EU. Not only has this been factually disproven it pushes the absurdity to the umpteenth level.
It is inconceivable that a dominant country such as Britain is allegedly being outvoted in a rather homogenous bloc of 28 similar or smaller countries while at the same time the country is not shy of having the ambition to negotiate favourable deals with players on the world stage such as the US, China, Russia or India – countries that are far more dominant than any one EU Member State.
The UK cannot have it both ways; either it is a pushover and it is incapable of making its voice heard in the EU, something that will be only all too well amplified in the world where the principle of (European) brotherhood is no longer applied; or it has not only the ambition but capabilities to achieve the impossible: to stand up to global players and secure beneficial deals. In which case using these capabilities to persuade the economically and culturally more similar Germans, Dutch or Poles to dance to their EU tune should be a walk through a rose garden. If so, then leaving the EU makes no sense.
Furthermore, the idea of sovereignty where Britain is the sole guardian of its future is not only outlived by at least half a century but it is grossly unrealistic even if the UK were to leave the EU.
I believe that in this day and age, not independence, but interdependence is key to success. It is naïve to believe that issues of global impact can be solved at the national level. The air pollution particles will not patiently wait at the border to have their passports checked. They will not respect the migration policy, nor will they stick to the country of origin principle. By abandoning other European countries, the UK is by today’s decision undermining its own ability to deal with tomorrow’s challenges.
But don’t take my word for it. As early as 1963, President J.F. Kennedy recognised the ineluctability of interdependence and made the case for closer cooperation between blocs of states – in particular the US and united Europe.
Interdependence cuts deep into the British tradition. Not only historically, but also currently. The EU is not the only one, nor the first organisation under which the UK has agreed to pool its sovereignty with other countries. Think of NATO, the UN, the WTO and many others.
Contrary to the interdependence argument and from the narrative used, sovereignty has become a matter of being black and white. Either you have it or you do not. If the quest to reclaim sovereignty were to be given any credibility, it would have to be incorporated into a broader movement demanding a withdrawal from all the organisations above.
To take this argument to its extreme, for the Leave campaign to be consistent with their own claims, it would have to, among other things, demand removal of the unelected US soldiers stationed on the British soil – an act of violence against the country’s sovereignty unrivalled by any seal of a stamp of a Eurocrat.
My suspicion is that this debate is not about the UK’s sovereignty. In fact, and to borrow Gordon Brown’s words, I would argue that Brexiters are less concerned about sovereignty and more obsessed about the EU.
And maybe this is precisely the point. The Leave campaign, having been discredited on their facts and reasoning, pursues its goals on the back of irrational emotions. The alternative would be to build their arguments on rational and reasoned values but to do so they would have to have a clear vision first of what it is that they are trying to achieve – other than leaving the EU.
I am not going to hold my breath, my friends. This is anyone’s game and the UK, despite all of the above, may end up leaving the EU. But if that happens, and due to the absence of clear vision, it will be a decision that promises one certainty only: that everything beyond that point will be uncertain.