I voted to leave the European Union in 2016. But if you would have told me that just two years before I would have rolled over laughing at you. Until really quite recently I was a staunch defender of the EU- in fact, if you asked me in 2014, I would have told you that we should head full steam into a United States of Europe. So what changed?
The reason I am posting this article now is that, over the past few years, it seems like the debate about Brexit has gone nowhere. This weekend one hundred thousand people marched in London to demand a vote on the final Brexit deal. There is a serious discussion to be had about the public voting on such a crucial issue. But there should be little doubt in our minds that many of the people marching on Saturday had every intention of scuppering Brexit completely, by any means necessary. Having a final vote gives the hardcore remain camp a golden opportunity to do just that.
When people discuss leaving the EU they get bogged down in minor details and end up making ridiculous predictions about the future. If I listen to a row about the EU on the radio, it often feels like a competition to figure out who possesses the most accurate crystal ball. The reason I and many others like me voted Brexit is the sordid state of the European Union. More fundamentally, many people on both sides do not have a good understanding of what the EU is or how it works. For some Remainers, the EU is the pillar that holds up our economy, without it the whole framework of Britain beings to fall apart. This is a hopelessly misguided view. Yet, on the other hand, many Breixteers assume that life outside the EU will be a blessed, voyage to a prosperous garden of Eden. This is also wrong.
When Britain voted in 2016, it passed its verdict on the European Union. I believe that the reason why so many people voted to remain part of the EU is that they had an incorrect perception of what the EU is. Here I will detail why my view on the EU changed. In my pro-EU days, my positive perception of that amalgam of institutions was based on three crucial axioms that turned out not to be true:
- The EU would help Europe deal with a crisis.
- The EU keeps Britain prosperous
- The EU is fair
These were the assumptions that kept me supporting the EU. But in the years leading up to the referendum, one by one these perceptions were revealed as nothing more than empty myths.
The first and probably most significant reason for my support of the EU was the perception that is would help small European countries deal with a crisis. Indeed, if you look at the placards and banners that were being gleefully thrust into the air this weekend you will see lots of references to ‘brotherhood’ and ‘togetherness’. There is a palpable sense amongst Remainers that the EU helps bring humanity together. Having spent my formative years watching Newsnight and reading copies of The Economist I assumed that the EU was great because it allowed otherwise small nations to club together and punch above their weight. But then the refugees came…
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not in favour of stopping desperate people from seeking a new life in a stable and prosperous country. In fact, on paper, if you have a mass influx of refugees the EU is exactly the sort of organisation you would hope could address that issue. The EU should have acted as a bastion of hospitality that stood firm and addressed this challenge as brothers arm in arm with a shared love of humankind. So it was a big shock for me when this didn’t happen. Part of the logic of the EU is that it allows small European countries to club together to deal with big challenges but the EU crumbled under the pressure of this crisis. Far from being able to address the issue effectively, we saw some truly horrific scenes emerging from the frontiers of this supposedly ‘civilised’ institution.
Instead of showing a spirit of togetherness we saw children washing up dead on the shores of EU countries. We saw families charging through border towns with angry police platoons chasing them like cattle. We saw EU leaders close their borders rather than accommodate starving families. Hardly the progressive bastion of international love that many in the Remain camp associate with the EU. Furthermore, the handling of the refugee crisis has had devastating long-term consequences for Europe. By mismanaging the large-scale migration so spectacularly the EU has contributed to the rise of extremist far-right movements in almost every single EU member state. Three years on from the migrant crisis, the EU is no closer to solving this problem; just ask anybody in Sicily, Malta or Calais. In my view, the people that assume that the EU is a defender of Human Rights and an organisation that brings the world together are just wrong. Rather than acting in unison, the small countries of the EU were left on their own to deal with this enormous challenge. I understand their opinion because I used to hold it myself. But our opinions must change when new evidence proves us flat out wrong.
The next myth that I held sacred about the EU was that it keeps Britain a prosperous country. I used to adhere to the platitudes that ‘without the EU Britain will not survive.’ The Remain argument is on it’s best footing here. It is undeniable that Britain does a lot of business with the EU and Brexit will incur some serious economic challenges for the UK, that much is undeniable. Since the Brexit vote, several big companies have signalled that they wish to move their businesses overseas to countries within the single market. I believe in free trade. Obviously losing access to the single market will be bad for Britain. But does Brexit spell doom for the British economy? The answer must be an unequivocal no.
40% of Britain’s external trade is with the EU, this is an impressive figure. Enough to convince me that Britain was much better off in the EU. But there are other important things to consider. Firstly, only around 6% or British businesses export anything (never mind the proportion that export to the EU). Furthermore, although, exports are important, they are not the linchpin of the British economy as some Remainers suggest. We are a much greater importing country than an exporting one, the value of our business to the EU is plain for all to see. Not being part of the single market is not ideal, but not fatal for Britain. It is a delusion to assume that the Germans, Dutch, French et al really don’t care about whether we are part of their trading block or not. But like many other Remainers, I fell for the argument that without the benevolent hand of Brussels our entire economy would grind to a halt.
One of the most pervasive myths about the EU is that it is in a strong economic position. One of the great unspoken aspects of the Brexit debate is the scale of the European debt crisis. This is a sword of Damocles looming over some of the most important countries in the EU. So far, by fiscal bullying and outright manipulation, the EU has avoided total collapse due to this issue. Yet, there is no doubt that is the EU is going to avoid total financial collapse it will have to undergo a process of economic integration that will rival the introduction of the single currency in terms of its scope. A key moment in my journey to voting for Brexit rather than Remain was the realisation that voting to stay in the EU was not a vote for the status quo. It is a barely hidden secret that those in the upper echelons of the EU see their organisation as a federalist project rather than an alliance of countries. During the Brexit debate, we were constantly being told that a vote for Remain was a vote for stability. But nothing could be further from the truth. Over the next decade, the EU will probably take further strides towards being a single political unit or begin the process of dissolving. Not by design of its member states but out of sheer necessity. My brother had a copy of Yanis Varofakis’ book And The Weak Suffer What They Must. I have a bad habit of picking up a book and reading the last page. In it, the influential Greek statesman argues, very forcefully that to survive the EU must integrate much further and much fatser and I have to say that I agree with him. It didn’t mean much to me at the time but that realisation had big consequences for my referendum during the EU referendum.
The final and last reason that persuaded me to change my vote from Remain to Brexit was the realisation that the EU is not a fair institution. If you read into the anti-Brexit march on Saturday one of the things that comes across is that the EU is seen as a bastion of democracy by some in the Remain camp. Indeed, back when I used to be a cheerleader for the EU one of my implicit assumptions was that it was a profoundly democratic body that was a vehicle for spreading enlightened views across the world. But like many of my other assumption about the EU, during the years leading up to the referendum, this view was proven completely false.
Fundamentally the way the EU works is as a club. Just because you are in the unions it does not mean that you will derive any benefit from being a member. To really benefit from being an EU member means that you need to ‘play the game.’ Countries like France and Italy are excellent at gaining benefits from the EU whilst minimising their commitments. Whereas Britain, Denmark, Sweden are much less good at playing the European game. Britain has never been good at ‘playing the EU game.’ The EU is not a fair institution, while some nations benefit greatly from being an EU member, others get pushed around strong-armed into accepting policies that are not in their best interests. Another important demonstration of how the EU uses its power to bully members was the Greek bailout referendum in 2015. Led by the left-wing Syriza party Greece was asked to accept a bailout package from the EU to help with its chronic debt problem. Yet, one the stipulations of the bailout would mean that Greece would have to implement harsh austerity measures, despite the fact that the Greeks had just elected a left-wing party to do the exact opposite of that.
The solution to Greece’s debt problem should have been rather simple. Devalue currency to increase exports, reduce public spending commitments and renegotiate debt repayment arrangements. But because it was an EU member state it was virtually prohibited from doing any of these things. The EU made quite a fuss over the Greek decision to vote oxi (no) and reject the EU’s bailout deal. This issue quite an eye-opening moment for me. The apparent democratic credentials of the EU I knew and loved were being stripped away. The EU leant very heavily on the Greeks to make the ‘right’ decision. And after the whole incident was over, and the Greeks indeed voted to reject the EU’s financial demands they were essentially imposed on Greece over the course of the next few years. The Greek bailout referendum was a watershed for me and my view of the European Union.
The final straw for my love of the EU was during the buildup to the referendum. We all remember David Cameron waxing lyrical about how he could get a deal with Angela Merkel and reform the EU. At this stage, I was on a knife-edge. If David Cameron could reach an agreement with the German chancellor and come to some kind of arrangement to give Britain greater autonomy within the EU then I would quite probably have voted to remain. AT least in the EU would have proven itself open to, and capable of making necessary reforms and adjustments when the circumstances called for it. But it wasn’t to be. The Prime Minister’s requests were met with a flat and definite no from the de facto head of the European Union. This was the last straw for me, all of the events that had caused me to change my once fervently pro-EU opinion began to make sense. Despite the fact that Britain has been a net contributor to Europe and one of it’s most valuable assets we were unable to get any concessions fro Europe. The EU is a fundamentally unfair institution.
Obviously, it is dead wrong of me to state that the EU is incapable of reform. It goes through transformations and changes all the time. Yet, these changes are always towards one direction- ever closer union. One of the strangest facets of the Brexit aftermath has been the way people interpret the EU’s leverage over the UK. It is an open secret that Michel Barnier cannot give too many concessions to the Brexit team because many of the EU’s member states will then want to leave the EU. It boggles my mind that people then think the EU is negotiating from a position of strength. This truly sounds like some sort of abusive relationship; ‘If I am nice to you then all my other friends will want to leave me.’ It is pure folly to suggest that a vote to Remain was a vote for stability, quite the opposite. If our recent past is anything to go by the EU is heading into uncharted territory where the lines between the EU and it’s member states are becoming more blurred. There was never really an option to vote for the status-quo. There were only ever two choices, to live out the fantasies of Jean Claude Junker, or to go our separate ways
In this article, I have outlined that I voted to leave the EU not because I am a racist or a moron, but because I looked at the current state of EU and drew my own conclusion from there. I don’t believe Breixt will lead to a new golden age, I never did. My choice was pragmatic. Like many people who voted Brexit, I simply observed what the EU was doing and decided that wanted no part in it. I sincerely wish that many in the Remain camp would do us the courtesy of acknowledging that rather than smearing us as jingoistic reprobates. But just like the dreams of a ‘two speed Europe’ that might be too much to ask.