The EU debate in the UK: Exit by default

by George Hatjoullis

The true motivation for most that wish to leave the EU is concern about free movement of people. This is a complex and emotive issue and not one that ‘facts’ (whatever they are) can easily influence. There is a wide disparity between fear and reality, as a previous blog has demonstrated ( Immigration and Brexit: fear and reality ), and this persists. It will continue to persist. The problem in part stems back to Tony Blair who decided not to take the option of restricting movement from new member states for 7 years. This seemed unwise at the time but he did many unwise things. It also reflects the appalling consequences of the mismanaged eurozone crisis and that drove people across the EU to look for work. The UK, not being a euro member, fared much better and created jobs and sucked in labour from around the EU. This is not always going to be the situation.

The idea of a single market is free movement not permanent migration. At some point UK citizens may feel it necessary to move across the EU to look for work. Some do already and others find it convenient to retire elsewhere. It is much more of a two-way flow than people seem to grasp. It is also dynamic and likely to ebb and flow over the decades. The problem is that those most concerned tend to be those that are the least mobile either by inclination or ability. The two-way aspect cuts no ice with this group. They fear foreign people coming in and taking their jobs and housing and changing the character of their district. They demand some privilege over these newcomers and EU rules limit the privilege that can be offered. From their narrow perspective leaving makes good sense. The blog mentioned above demonstrates that the group actually affected is much smaller than the group that fears being affected. The Remain campaign has failed to adequately address this fear and herein lies one major risk of exit. It is also hard to see how it can be directly addressed because it is about fear, an emotion that needs more than a stream facts to allay.

Readers of my early blogs (and anyone that knows me) will be aware that I am contemptuous of the eurozone as currently construed. It was poorly designed from the start and the patches made during the crisis have converted into a German currency union. It will need dramatic reform but this may not come about. It may continue in this Germanic form for a long time. The UK is not a party to this and need never be. The only risk is that the needs of the eurozone dominate the EU and push the EU into a Germanic form. The Banking Union already exhibits many such characteristics though I am confident that necessity will bring changes much sooner than for the euro. The UK has negotiated some protections against the hegemony of the eurozone which are very important. Cameron was not given enough credit and these protections have not been explained to the public. The Remain campaign has failed here as well.

Apart from the free movement of people, the main Leave argument has been about sovereignty, conflated with democracy. The EU is not undemocratic but it does remove sovereignty. All international treaties and supranational organisations impact on sovereignty. Whether it is worth giving up sovereignty rather depends on what you receive in exchange. It also depends on how real sovereignty is in the first place. The idea that if the UK leaves the EU it will become more sovereign is not quite as self evident as it seems. The UK exists in a connected world and unless it wishes to become isolated like North Korea or Albania, it must always compromise on sovereignty in some way. Events in the EU will always impact the UK and if it is not in the EU the influence of the USA becomes more potent. It is bound by the UN charter and the NATO Alliance. Sovereign? I don’t think so.

The strongest argument for being in the EU is the opportunity to influence the direction. The EU is not without faults and the UK can make very valuable contributions to improvement, most notably in the area of security. It is not more or less secure if it leaves because security is one area in which sovereignty has not been much affected. If the UK can help the EU improve security, and it can, it will improve the UK’s security at the same time. This is another area in which the Remain campaign seem to be failing to communicate, let alone persuade.

There is a serious risk that the UK votes to leave the EU by default. Glib arguments and about putting the ‘Great’ back into Britain and being swamped by foreigners may win out over more substantial issues, by default. The UK would probably still not leave ( A Brexit scenario when exit is not so easy ) but the political crisis that would ensue would be very damaging. The hopes for a Remain vote rest on two truths. First, people are always inclined to vote for the status quo and we are already in. Second, many sense that exit is a leap in the dark and fear the unknown consequences more than the potential problems with immigrants. This will go to the wire unless the Remain campaign get their act together soon.