Britain and the E.U.: a loveless marriage

Why do people settle?

So many people end up in relationships which rock along without passion, or jobs which pay the bills but are at best a way to kill time.

Of course there are lots of reasons: the need for money, family obligations, children or just an unawareness or inability to believe that things could be different.  But I reckon the biggest reasons we settle are inertia and loss aversion: we prefer not to do today what can be done tomorrow, and choose the devils we know to those we can imagine.

Inertia and loss aversion are pretty much the only reasons Britain has been given for staying in the E.U.  David Cameron, desperately trying to keep Britain in (and keep his job) has repeatedly told us all that’s wrong with the E.U.  “But we must reform the E.U. from within – the British aren’t quitters!”  Hardly a positive case.  And Jeremy Corbyn, for his part, has opposed the E.U. for his entire career until, like David Cameron, it became apparent that he would have to choose between his job and his principles.  One almost feels sympathy watching his pathetic attempts to support “Remain” – it’s nearly as painful as watching Johnny Depp and Amanda Heard lecturing us on the virtues of Australia’s customs policy.

But no one seems to be excited about the prospect of staying in the E.U. – about an endless procession of conflicts over financial regulation, bail-outs, immigration, security, migration, human rights, agricultural policy, fishing, energy, the environment, sovereignty, the role of lobbyists, Brussel’s budget, tax-free MEP salaries, a European army, bananas, kettles and the egos of Merkel, Hollande and Juncker.

I thought the E.U. was meant to reduce conflict between European nations?  But Europe today is more fractious than it has been for decades, possibly since the end of World War II, with much of the continent’s anger directed towards a Brussels bureaucracy that has singularly failed to foster conditions leading to economic growth, or to adequately respond to concerns over immigration and migration.

Much of this is not the E.U.’s fault, or at least not unique to it: many of the same issues are, for example, fuelling anger and frustration in the U.S., as expressed through Trump and Sanders.  But what is unique to the E.U., and uniquely troubling, is that unlike in the U.S., where there is a democratic means of releasing frustration and setting a new course, most of the power in the E.U., and most of its decision-making process, is concentrated in an unelected and virtually unaccountable executive: (in case you don’t believe me, see this article about ‘trilogues’: secret, unofficial meetings where legislation is agreed between the Parliament, Council and Commission.)

That might be okay if the E.U. were an independent international institution like the IMF, or a loose confederacy of countries, like NATO or the Commonwealth.  But as the E.U. asserts more and more power over the actions of its member states, its institutional flaws become increasingly obvious and even offensive to democracy and the rule of law (in a recent case, the European Court of Justice even went so far as to insert itself into the legislative process of Parliament – something that the UK Supreme Court rebuffed in no uncertain terms (HS2 Action Alliance Limited [2014] UKSC 3)).

Again, this is not entirely the E.U.’s fault, but stems from an inherent contradiction.  The E.U. is caught between two visions: a network of states participating in a customs and labour union, and a federal United States of Europe.  Britain wants the former; most of the other members of the E.U. (or at least their leaders) want the latter, and it’s this tension that has caused Britain’s increasing marginalisation in Council votes, the dissatisfaction of the British people, and the frustration (sometimes only barely disguised) of other European leaders with British demands.

What we have right now is an unsatisfactory halfway house: voters believe, because their politicians tell them so, that the member states are still sovereign, but when they complain about issues like immigration are told by those same politicians “sorry, our hands are tied”.  This situation has suited politicians well – they’ve been able to foist unpopular policies like open immigration on their electorates without having to be directly accountable.  But it has stored up resentment and frustration for a later date, and that date may be fast approaching (UKIP is positively benign compared with the anti-E.U. parties in many other E.U. countries, some of which, as in Austria and France, may even gain power).

For the sake of the E.U., Britain needs to decide if it’s going to be on the federal bus.  If not, Britain will continue to feel marginalised and bullied in a relationship it doesn’t like but can’t summon the courage or the energy to leave, and the E.U. will continue to suffer from Britain’s veto over ever closer union.

The question is, then: does Britain settle?  Are the costs of leaving simply too high?  Will Britain be able to function on its own?

In the general run of things, I’m quite a risk-averse person: I like to plan and strategise and I hate being unable to see the road ahead.  But despite that I have a very low tolerance for settling: if something isn’t right, I won’t rest until I’ve found a solution, even if that means a significant life change.  There have been a number of times when I’ve decided to take a risk rather than settle, and although it’s scary (the scariest time was probably moving to south London when I’d just quit my job, we were expecting a baby in 3 months, and I hadn’t yet received a training contract offer!) in each case I didn’t want to betray myself by following the obvious path, and in each case I’m incredibly glad I didn’t.

I say this to explain why I feel so strongly that Britain needs to take back control and vote leave on the 23rd of June.  Britain is trapped in a loveless marriage.  There will be costs to leaving, especially during the short term.  Given my job in the financial sector, those costs may hit me more than they hit others.  But over the longer term, the amount of trade with the E.U. is falling in any event, and outside the E.U. Britain will still be able to trade with Europe, just as the U.S., China and many other countries currently do (and Britain will be able to negotiate its own trade deals with other countries, like the members of the Commonwealth).  British businesses (other than those selling to the E.U.) will no longer be subject to regulation from Brussels, providing a boost to productivity.  Britain will continue to be a beacon for human rights and the rule of law, as it was for centuries before the E.U. existed.  UK employees are unlikely to support the repeal or softening of employment rights, and there will continue to be popular support for the expansion of, e.g., maternity and paternity leave and working time regulations in certain industries.  The financial sector may shrink, with Euro trading (as long as it lasts) moving to Paris or Frankfurt, but that would be no bad thing for the UK as a whole.  London will always be a global city, and with Britain’s cultural leadership and heritage it will continue to be an important setting for global finance and international law.

The E.U. has been a force for good in Europe.  But Britain and the E.U. want different things.  Like a couple who just can’t bring themselves to love each other, even for the sake of the children, the British simply aren’t interested in being a part of a federal superstate, whether or not that would produce a better outcome.  That isn’t going to change if Britain votes to stay in the E.U. in two weeks’ time, it will just make the ultimate separation that much harder, or the ultimate capitulation that much more lamentable.

We don’t know what a Britain outside the E.U. will look like, but there is every reason to be optimistic.  Don’t be someone who settles.  Vote leave.

1 Response to “Britain and the E.U.: a loveless marriage”

  1. PETER KING says:

    I promised James I would leave some detailed comments on this, so here they are.
    He and I have already agreed that the marriage analogy has its limitations, so I will not comment further on that. I will start with the questions of inertia and loss aversion. Inertia can only be criticised if it is stopping us for seeking some other way which is better. Similarly, it is surely right to avoid losses: the only question is whether the losses we avoid by staying in the EU are outweighed by the gains we would make by leaving. The case for leaving and the case for remaining both involve making judgements about these things, which are inevitably going to involve consideration of risk. That’s why the “remain” side has run a negative campaign pointing to the risks of leaving and the “leave” side has run a negative campaign pointing to the risks of remaining. In this context, it is obvious that the “remain” side has the advantage of over 40 years experience with the EU, whereas the “leave” side has nothing other than the examples of other countries which are not comparable to our own. If that is inertia then we have to live with that label.
    It follows that I don’t agree with James on the issues of trade and regulation. We have no idea how easy or otherwise it would be to negotiate satisfactory trade agreements outside the EU, and British businesses will be faced with considerable uncertainty on this for some time. We will need to create our own regulation to replace what we have had from Brussels, and my own experience suggests we can be even worse at creating unnecessary red tape than our friends across the North Sea.
    I am not a federalist, but I am a European. I am maybe one of the few people who are, as James puts it, excited about the prospect of remaining within the EU. While there are genuine EU federalists, I believe that most people within EU institutions are trying to create something which is genuinely between the two visions James sets out above: a network which is more than a free trade area, but in which national identity and sovereignty is preserved. James may say that this is an impossible dream, but is it any more impossible than the vision of a Britain which somehow manages to be both outside and within a trade area at the same time?
    On the question of conflict, we lawyers can live in quite a narrow world. Arguing about regulation in closed rooms in Brussels is not quite the same as major European nations going to war and killing millions of people. The conflicts we have to deal with today are global, and a strong EU helps us to formulate proper responses which carry real weight. An example would be the coordinated response in terms of sanctions and in other respects to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.
    I would say there is every reason to be optimistic about our future within the EU. We can and should be an influence for good and shape the EU: not necessarily exactly how we would like it, but in a way which continues to benefit British businesses and people. As with a Britain outside the EU, we don’t know what a Britain within the EU will look like in 40 years’ time: but at least we have the benefit of the previous 40+ years of experience.
    I am pretty sure James and others won’t agree with me on most of what I say above. As he and I have both said, what we vote on 23 June involves an exercise in judgement about the future and about risks, and people will disagree on such things. Many will follow their instincts or perhaps what the Sun says in its leader published this morning. I would urge those who read this to carry on reading and try to assimilate all the arguments both ways.

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