Matthew Kingston: Don’t Fall for Brexit!
The EU debate could have been an opportunity for us to take a cool, dispassionate look at ourselves as a nation and our relationships with Europe and the rest of the world. We could have looked both forward to evaluate how we would like to develop as a nation and as part of a wider community and backwards to judge the effects, both good and bad, that our membership of the EU has had. This would have had value way beyond helping us to decide how to vote (if we could!) in the referendum.
Instead, we have been subjected to a tirade of half truths, lies and the occasional truth, by two sides that each act as if all the arguments favour their argument. The long and occasionally entertaining article by my excellent friend George Wright is an example of this. He gets carried away by his own Churchillian rhetoric and expects that we will follow him. We’ll fight them on the beaches!
As usual, the truth is not so conveniently black and white. The EU has brought us great benefits, but it also has serious problems. The question we must ask ourselves is much harder than George suggests. First, are we likely to achieve the kind of society we want inside or outside Europe? Then, the same question extended to our influence on the rest of Europe and indeed the world.
Seeking answers to these questions is not helped by statements that look as if they have been lifted straight from the Daily Express, like “We will be robbed of £20 billion pounds every single year”. First, in what sense can a contribution to the EU budget that has been negotiated and agreed by the British government be termed “robbery”? And second, as has been pointed out many times before, our net contribution, after our rebate (which never even leaves the UK) and grants by the EU to the UK, is less than half of this, around £8.5 billion last year. Just to put this in perspective, although a lot of money, this is around a mere 1.33% of the UK budget, or around 0.5% of our GDP. This compares with around 18% of our budget that goes on the NHS. This sum could easily be dwarfed by the negative effect on the UK economy: in spite of George’s assertion that the EU will bring a “supernova of unemployment, immigration and economic slumps”, the economy of the UK (as opposed to the Eurozone countries) is actually doing pretty well. Our unemployment rate, at 5%, is lower than the Unite States or Sweden, both successful states outside the EU.
Another Daily Express classic is the statement that the EU “is chiefly commanded by a man called Jean-Claude Juncker…whom nobody in Europe elected”. Mr Juncker is the current president of the European Commission, a role that is elected every 5 years by the European Parliament. Members of the European Parliament, who incidentally have the power to pass or decline all EU legislation, are themselves elected by proportional representation, a system which far more accurately reflects the electorate’s wishes than does the first past the post system used to elect our national parliament.
In fact George seems to have an odd idea of democracy. He contrasts the “inherently undemocratic cadre” of the EU with the system that “the people of this nation fought a civil war to establish…” I assume he’s referring to the civil war of the mid 17th Century. This established an effective dictatorship under Cromwell, subject to a constitution aptly named the “Humble Petition and Advice”. Real democracy developed slowly, notably from the 1832 Reform Act, without need of a civil war.
The difficulty of judging the truth of claims and counter claims can be illustrated by another of George’s assertions, that the EU Commission “passes 60% of our laws”. First, the process: it is true that the Commission drafts and proposes legislation, with a system that includes consultation with the public and national parliaments. But these proposals are then reviewed and can be amended or blocked altogether by the elected European Parliament that I referred to earlier. Of course that parliament represents the electorate of the whole of Europe rather than just the UK, so quite properly on those issues where Britain finds itself in a minority, we will be outvoted. That’s how democracies work. Then the 60% figure: this sounds extraordinary, but only because in this total every tiny EU regulation, whether it applies to the UK or not and however trivial it is, is counted as one law and therefore equal numerically to, for example, the Dangerous Drugs Act passed by the UK parliament. So the 60% figure, although there is some truth in it, means very little.
So, in this mess of half truths, how should we decide? Personally, I look mainly at two things.
First, my gut feel is that we are a small island that is better in this big world as part of a group of friends. And historically, culturally and geographically, we are closest to Europe. Personally, I like Europe. It is inconceivable now that we would go to war with Germany or France, two countries with which, in spite of our common heritage, we have been at war repeatedly not too long ago. The EU is not the only reason for this, but working together in so many areas does help. And, of course, where we work together with Europe we carry a great deal more weight with the rest of the world. This is why Boris’s dad, a keen environmentalist, supports our membership.
Second, although we should not get too hung up on individual personalities, it is worth looking at the supporters of each side. Most of those on the Brexit side (with the honourable exception of George, obviously) are not people I would want anything to do with. Apart from being a rough guide as to the possible strength of the arguments on each side, this has more immediate importance. If the vote is to leave, the likelihood is that it’s these people, led by Boris, with the likes of Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Gove at his side, will take control of our country. The people who have suggested that they want to reallocate the EU subscription to save the NHS will actually be responsible for the NHS. Would you trust the NHS or anything else to Boris and his friends? And would you trust them to maintain our current protections in employment law, human rights legislation and environmental standards without the EU to protect us? Be afraid! Be very afraid!
Polls were suggesting a significant win for the out campaign. But in the last few days there have been a number of encouraging signs. The polls have swung back in favour of remain and most notably there was an overwhelming victory for the Bremainers in George’s somewhat feisty debate against our local MP, Tobias Elwood. This gave me hope; this gave me hope that all the Brexiters will be consigned to the dustbin of history. Expect of course George, who I confidently expect will change his mind, as he has done so many times before.
The article Matthew references can found here: http://thebournemouthian.co.uk/2016/06/19/george-wright-lets-take-our-country-back/