At the start of this referendum campaign, I wasn’t really sure what I thought about the EU. Like a lot of people, I think, I found the topic interminably dull: too complicated to lend itself neatly to the kind of black and white, left versus right clashes that make politics entertaining; only interesting to a slightly deranged, swivel-eyed fringe of the Conservative Party who like to rant and rave about sovereignty and Magna Carta.
I suppose I was instinctively pro-European in a sort of vague cultural way, but well aware that the EU as a political project had (and has) lots of faults: the wasteful bureaucracy, a single currency that looks increasingly like a calamitous error, the fact that it pays Nigel Farage a salary. In contrast to the 9-member trading bloc that the British people overwhelmingly voted to stay part of in 1975, today’s 28-member Union does indeed seem to have over-reached itself – absorbing new members, tackling new policy areas – with the result that it is cumbersome and ineffectual.
And yet. As Referendum Day has got closer, my early lukewarmness has given way to an increasingly urgent sense that it is vitally important we stay in the EU. On the off-chance that anyone out there is still sitting on the fence or wavering a bit, let me explain why I’ve come to this conclusion.
First, there’s the reality of the world we live in. A world in which money, ideas and people move across national borders with an ease totally unprecedented in human history. Brexit will change none of this. It’s like trying to stem the tide of a mighty river with a single log. You may not like modernity, globalisation and their consequences: job losses (due to outsourcing more than immigration, though yes, also due to the latter in some cases), cultural fragmentation, growing inequality within rich countries, the ability of Islamist madmen in the Middle East to indoctrinate disaffected British teenagers via the internet. Indeed, judging by the surprise popularity of Brexit and the even more surprising popularity of Donald Trump’s bigoted, head-in-sand, anti-globalisation ravings across the pond, lots of you really truly don’t like globalisation. But opting out of these things isn’t what’s on the table on Thursday. The notion that we can “take back control” by cutting ourselves off from the EU is an illusion. We will continue to be beset by transnational issues – migration, terrorism, climate change, our economic interdependence upon other countries, including, of course, the 27 remaining EU member states – but we will no longer be part of what, for all its faults, is one of the most important institutions for coordinating transnational policy. Europe’s problems will still be our problems; we’ll just be powerless to do anything about them.
In this context, the Brexiteers’ sovereignty argument strikes me as being of limited relevance. Compared to the way, for example, some multinational businesses ride roughshod over British democratic “sovereignty” – avoiding taxes, refusing to cooperate with security services, making economic decisions that are disastrous in terms of their social consequences for people in Britain (but of course we live in an age of global free markets so why should Tata give a toss about job losses in the British steel industry?) – the threat posed by Brussels is piddling. Apple refuses to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone for the FBI; Twitter and Facebook resist cooperating with governments to track down people using their platforms for nefarious purposes; Tata ignores government pleas to show mercy towards the British steel industry; HSBC holds Westminster to ransom by threatening to relocate its headquarters; the future of the British nuclear industry remains precarious because EDF has Downing Street by the short and curlies… If you’re genuinely interested in power and where it resides, this is the show you should be watching, not the pathetic sideshow that is Westminster versus Brussel.
Indeed, were it not for Brussels, British workers would be considerably worse off. Westminster is (and would be even more so post-Brexit) less willing to impose costs on multinationals, by making them offer reasonable benefits and security to employees. This is partly due to ideological predilection, partly the fear that companies will up sticks and move elsewhere. One can reasonably assume that without the carrot of being part of a market of 500 million people, post-Brexit Britain would need to resort to reducing labour costs (by cutting compulsory holiday allowances, pension contributions, sick leave etc) in order to maintain its “competitiveness” and attract global businesses.
Then there’s the immigrants. I appreciate that too much immigration too fast can have negative consequences for communities and for low-paid workers who experience a downward pressure on wages. I really do. But I also think the debate over immigration is very distorted in a way that reflects badly on us as a country. Let me offer a statistic (and, a rarity in this debate, I believe it’s a reliable one) about the overall economic contribution of EU immigrants: a study quoted in The Economist in 2014 shows that, between 1995 and 2011 European migrants to Britain made a net positive contribution of more than £4 billion to the exchequer. Over the same period, native Britons made a negative contribution of £591 billion. When looked at from the standpoint of the British economy, the problem isn’t the burden caused by those evil hordes of immigrants: it’s the feckless, sponging natives! Indeed, lots of economists argue that without significantly higher levels of immigration, Britain will be bankrupt within a few decades – unable to go on paying the pensions of its ageing population. I know that this is of limited consolation to anyone who’s lost their job to an immigrant or missed out on a council house while some immigrant family got theirs, but again, the notion that leaving the EU will simply make these problems disappear is absurd.
Another argument employed by the Brexit brigade is about cost. £50 million a day, they tell us, is the amount that Britain contributes to the EU (I have no idea if this is accurate, but whatever the actual number, I’m sure it’s a significant amount of money). But is it worth it? There have been lots of rival projections about the economic impact of Brexit and I’m rather inclined to agree with those who say that there are too many uncertainties involved for any of them to be particularly reliable. Probably Brexit would be bad for the British economy but not as disastrous as the Project Fear lot are predicting. Nonetheless, on the question of our contribution to the EU budget, it strikes me as odd that, if we are being so egregiously ripped off, nobody in Westminster or Whitehall has made much of an issue of it for the last 30 years. Are they all meant to have succumbed to ideological capture by Brussels? If so, I’m dubious about handing more power back to such a bunch of dupes. Surely, if we genuinely feel we’re being over-charged for membership of the club, the appropriate way to deal with that is, as Thatcher did in the 1980s, to negotiate.
Inevitably, personalities have featured heavily in the campaign. I can sympathise with those who are annoyed by the patronising way some Remainers reel off names of dignitaries who support staying – Obama, Mark Carney, Stephen Hawking – as a substitute for proper argument. (Though I have to admit that I was definitely given a boost by the news that John Le Carré is in favour of staying in.) You’re right, you shouldn’t vote to stay in just because lots of famous people said you should. However, I do think it’s worth taking a look at the personalities in the Brexit camp and asking yourself: do we really want to be ruled by this lot? “If executed with skill”, Brexit may be good for Britain in the long term, says Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph. Let’s just remind ourselves who we’ll be relying on for skilful leadership post-Brexit: first, there’s duplicitous, would-sell-his-own-mother-in-order-to-become-PM Bo Jo. Then there’s Gove, who only escapes winning the prize for most hated government minister of the last six years because he’s lucky enough to have Jeremy Hunt for a colleague. Then IDS, who I think the late historian Tony Judt had about right a decade ago, when he wrote him off as ‘terminally inept’. And of course there’s bigoted, pint-swilling Nige, who’s spent more than fifteen years riding the Brussels gravy train, all the while pissing in the caviar and all over the carpets. He may not quite warrant a position in government following a vote for Brexit, but he will certainly be a much less marginal figure in British politics and that in itself should be enough to make you think twice about voting to leave.
And then there’s the impact Brexit would have beyond our shores. I freely admit that the claim that the whole future of Western civilisation is at stake is a little overblown. But not by much. Brexit will hurt us more than it will hurt the rest of “the West” – it’s a bit like cutting your nose off to spite your face, except that we’re the nose. But it will hurt others too, and that’s not good for Britain.
Consider for a moment certain facts about the current world order. To our East, Putin’s Russia continues to behave like an unpredictable belligerent drunk, invading European countries one day, fighting proxy wars in the Middle East the next, just like the Cold War never ended. The Middle East itself is as screwed up as ever with no end in sight. Who can blame ordinary men and women who look up from their reality of bloodthirsty terrorists and dictators and see in Europe the possibility of a better life? A life so much better it’s worth risking death to get there. In the first five months of 2016, 2510 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean to start a new life in Europe. Just think, how desperate would you need to be to risk those kinds of odds?
And then perhaps our gaze turns West, to America, the land that has long been held up by British Conservatives of a certain ilk as our alternative to “Europe”. But what’s this? America has gone mad. Lots of people there would like to make Donald Trump President. Not just a few nut-jobs, but genuinely millions of “ordinary” people. Whether or not he prevails in November, do you really want to align yourself more closely with the US right now?
And of course there are threats within Europe as well. Hitler has been invoked far too much in this referendum campaign but I’m going to use his shadow one more time anyway. Surely, if the history of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century teaches us one thing, it is that we cannot stand idly by while a radical right re-emerges in Germany of all places, hoping beyond hope that it won’t affect us. Alternative für Deutschland is not the reincarnation of the Nazi Party, but it taps into enough of the same hate-filled sentiments and petty interests that all Europeans should be concerned. Likewise about Marine Le Pen in France and other political movements across the continent that channel xenophobia and resentment. To defeat these types, it is imperative that those of us who believe in an open, welcoming, liberal society stand united in fighting for those values.
Arguably the backlash Angela Merkel is facing with her own electorate is a result of our failure to pull together as Europeans during the migrant crisis. Whatever one or two loathsome columnists (ahem, Rod Liddle) may have written at the time, the refugees didn’t come because Merkel invited them, nor should we have let more of them drown in the Mediterranean in order to dissuade the next wave from embarking on the perilous journey. (I really shouldn’t have to make that point when addressing a 21st century British audience, but sadly I do). European leaders failed to stand together and share the burden fairly between them, meaning those who did the right thing are now being punished at home for doing so.
All this happened on the EU’s watch you may well say, and true enough. All I can say is that Brexit will make it even less likely that we do the right thing the next time a similar crisis comes. And don’t kid yourself about what’s on offer in Thursday’s referendum: it’s not possible to choose Brexit without also endorsing the Little England, I’m-all-right-Jack-and-bugger-the-rest-of-them priorities of Farage et al.
So pretty evidently I’m not lukewarm about Europe and this EU referendum any more. Partly what’s changed my attitude is engagement with the arguments being made on both sides. Perhaps my initial sub-conscious biases have been revealed. Certainly I’ve read more of the thoughtful pro-EU commentary in the press than anti, but that’s partly because there’s more of it. (Note, I said “thoughtful commentary”, which, apart from one or two notable exceptions in The Telegraph and The Spectator, rules out the rest of the bilge produced by the Eurosceptic propaganda machine.)
Most importantly though, I have watched almost the entire referendum campaign unfold from the other side of the English Channel. Since 11 April I’ve been on the continent and, with the exception of 5 days in Switzerland (which was very nice: I highly recommend it to anyone who really can’t stand living under EU rule), entirely in other EU countries. Of course there are huge differences in lifestyle, culture and economy between Granada, where I started, and Berlin, where I am now, but there is also a recognisably European way of life that pervades across the continent and it’s a wonderful thing. Selfishly, I feel less sanguine than I did 3 months ago about the possibility of restrictions being placed on my free movement around the EU, because I’d like to be able to live and work in some of these places as almost 1.2 million Britons already do.
Although most of us know some of those 1.2 million people, we tend to have a condescending view of their motives as a cohort. Perhaps they weren’t good enough to make it in the UK or they’re the kind of uncultured people who retire to the Costa del Sol to drink cheap wine and turn brown and leathery. The Little England mindset fails to acknowledge that, for many, Europe is a land of opportunity.
Take, as one small example, opera singers (a group that’s close to my heart: my Dad is one, my girlfriend is training to be one, lots of my friends are in the industry). According to figures on the Operabase website, almost a third of all professional opera performances each year take place in Germany. In 2014/15, Germany’s 83 publicly-funded opera companies put on a total of 7,386 performances. Number two in the rankings is the US with 1,724 performances, or less than a quarter the number in Germany, despite having a population almost four times the size. Britain comes in (a respectable?) seventh, after three other EU countries: Italy, Austria and France (bear in mind, Austria has a population of just over 8 million people and still manages to put on more performances than Britain or France, both of which have a population almost eight times larger). So it’s no surprise that lots of young British singers go to the continent to make their career. Brexit won’t fundamentally change this, but in an industry where you need every lucky break you can get, who’s to say that British singers won’t lose out more often because, when weighing up two contenders for a particular job, some continental opera houses will opt for the ease of hiring someone from within the EU.
A final thought: in Barcelona at the end of April, we stayed with a wonderful Serbo-Croat family. Danijela, who fled her native Croatia in the 1990s and came to London, looked after me and my younger brothers when we were children. Her husband Boban is a Serb, who also fled the horrific violence that engulfed the Balkans in the 1990s. At the end of a long evening, we got onto the topic of politics: Brexit, Scotland and the rise of Catalan nationalism. Our hosts said unequivocally: “believe me, if you’d seen what we’ve seen, you’d know that all nationalism is evil.” At the time, I smiled politely and thought to myself yes, but Britain is different. Now an MP is dead – a 41-year-old mother of two – murdered in cold blood by a madman shouting nationalist slogans, and I’m not so sure any more.
So, please, let wisdom be your counsel as you enter the polling booth on Thursday. If you are genuinely unmoved by these arguments, then fine, vote for Brexit. But please don’t put a cross next to leave just because you want to poke Brussels in the eye, legitimate as that desire may be. Too much is at stake.