Reality, not romance: why we must vote remain

A letter to an older generation.

Thomas de Waal
21 June 2016

Seven Sisters, the South Coast, Wikimedia. 

Dear Friends,

More than 40 years ago Britain joined the European Economic Community. Since then, sometimes for ill, but mainly for good, we have been part of this European project.

When the idea of an in-out EU referendum came up, I thought it was obvious that Britain would vote to stay in. British people aren’t romantics, I thought. The benefits of European Union membership clearly outweigh the minuses. They know that a vote to leave the EU is a leap in the dark.

But it seems it isn’t so simple and I fear that Britain is in danger of making a historic mistake. Talking to people, especially outside London, I find to my surprise that all sorts of people, including ones I respect, are considering voting Out. So I am writing this letter to make my case for Britain to stay inside the EU, trying to use a minimum of figures and not claiming to know more than I do. I am writing it particularly for some of my parents’ generation I’ve talked to, who seem to be leaning towards an Out vote. I apologize if this is a long letter – but it is an important topic that one or two pages cannot do justice to!

There is so much at stake here. This is about Britain’s position in a globalized world, about our place in the world economy. This is a once-in-a-generation issue, whose impact anyone under 40 will experience for the rest of their lives. Older folks—talk to your grandchildren!

Britain's place in the world

Let me start with the global and diplomatic issues that I deal with in my job as a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

I have worked in Moscow and Washington, I work closely with the Carnegie office in Brussels, I travel the world. From this perspective, I see how, despite Britain’s decline from great-power status, it is still in a very advantageous position globally. This is because we punch above our weight by being a member of several international clubs. We have a strong political relationship with the United States and the Commonwealth countries. We keep our permanent seat on the UN Security Council. We are a leading member of NATO. But most importantly, we are a leading member of the EU, in the Single Market but outside the Eurozone. 

Britain’s friends, such as the United States and Canada, are gently telling us that if we said goodbye to the EU we would be moving faster down a slope to global irrelevance. As Barack Obama said, “The European Union doesn’t moderate British influence – it magnifies it. A strong Europe is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership.”

Britain’s ill-wishers, on the other hand, want us Out. I am thinking here primarily of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose ambitions in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe are frustrated by an EU sanctions regime that is much tougher than he expected. Putin would be thrilled at Brexit as it would hand him a weaker EU and weaker Britain, that might enable him to get sanctions lifted and boost his supporters in Europe on the far-left and on the far-right (such as Nigel Farage and George Galloway in Britain).

In the last few years, if we have made an impact in global diplomacy, it has been done as a member of the EU club. I’ve mentioned Ukraine already. Another example is the deal to bring in Iran from the cold, negotiated by the United States and the EU, with Britain in a lead supporting role. Then there is the climate change deal negotiated in Paris last year, which is only as strong as it is because the EU spoke with a single voice.

This also works on a very day-to-day level internationally. The foreign office has scaled down quite radically in recent years and more than half of the UK embassies around the world are now two-diplomat-only missions. So a lot of consular and diplomatic business is done in coordination with other EU embassies. (I know this from personal experience because I once sat in on the weekly meeting of EU ambassadors in Armenia). All kinds of issues, big or small, from talking to the president about Syria, to getting the injured tourist home on the next flight, are done with and through EU colleagues

Ah yes, I now hear you say, but we will “take back control.” Here is where I really hear the difference between the generations. I think the younger generation understands that we live in a globalized inter-dependent world in which the nation-state is slowly losing its powers. The revolts of Donald Trump or Marine le Pen to reassert full nation-state control and close the borders look to me like a last King-Canute-like battle against the tide of global change.

The big issues of the world, from climate change to migration to the war in Syria are all global ones and must be tackled collectively – as in the Three Musketeers it’s a case of “all for one and one for all.” Every time we sign an international treaty we “lose control”— there are just more of them nowadays. As signatories of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, we are committed to a very serious international obligation, to go to war to defend fellow NATO-members from Iceland to Turkey — but I do not hear calls for us to “leave NATO to reclaim our sovereignty.” Retreating into your own castle isn’t an option. If you want to see a model of a country that has absolute sovereignty and full control of all its affairs in the modern world, then take a look at North Korea.

Let me be more precise about Britain and the EU: power in the world is now exercised by nation-states working together. That includes us in Europe. You may have the impression that the most powerful body in the EU is the European Commission in Brussels. Not so. For many years — and more so over time — the key decisions on those issues, like migration or climate change, are made by the leaders of EU member states when they meet at the European Council. It’s in that room that the old-fashioned power politics of Churchill, de Gaulle and Adenauer lives on in modern form. Leaving that room is a very bad idea. 

Which European economic model? 

I am talking about world politics, but for most ordinary citizens it is all about the economy

For sure, the aspect of EU membership that makes most impact by far on our lives is the EU’s single market. For 40 years successive governments, Conservative and Labour, have passed laws and worked out arrangements that mean that we are part of that market. All those changes since 1974 have hugely changed our economy for the better. As you know around half our trade is now with the EU, plus we use the EU as a base to trade with others. This is a very good place to be: with the same regulations as the other 27 countries and also part of the biggest and most open free trade zone in the world.

My impression is that no one is being fully honest about how painful it would be to exit that system and re-negotiate a new deal with it. 

I really advise reading the government White Paper on exit. It’s a practical summary of what happens if we have to withdraw. There is a two-year deadline for the politicians and civil servants to negotiate the terms of exit, but it would probably take much longer. (When Greenland, which is not a full state, being part of Denmark, left the old EEC in 1985 it took three years to negotiate the terms). The White Paper says, “It could lead to up to a decade or more of uncertainty.”  

Where would we be in this “decade or more of uncertainty”? Not so much In or Out, as stranded in a limbo of in-between. Forced to negotiate new trade arrangements with the rest of the world. Barack Obama has said that, if we leave the EU, the US would conclude the TTIP Free Trade deal with the European Union and we would be at the “back of the queue,” waiting our turn to do a similar deal with the U.S. much further down the line. And as Oxford professor Ngaire Woods explains more clearly than I ever could: Being in the EU, the most powerful trading bloc in the world enables us to negotiate strong trading deals with other countries, cutting loose means we are in a much weaker bargaining position. Countries say ‘How big is your market? And that is the deal we’ll do with you.”

All that is before we even begin on negotiating the biggest free trade deal of all, that of the UK with the other 27 states of the European Union. The Leave campaign says that it would be in the interests of the EU to renegotiate a strong free trade agreement with Britain. Yes, it would—in theory.  But the mechanics of it would be very complex and each EU country would be in a position to put forward its parochial interests on how this deal is struck. As the Economist explains:

The other 27 EU countries would decide (by majority vote, without British participation) what offer to make. There would almost certainly be parallel negotiations on a new trade deal, which would need unanimous approval by all 27 countries and their national parliaments. The European Parliament would have to endorse both deals. If no agreement is struck within two years, the timetable can be extended, but only by unanimity—if that is not done, Britain would have to leave with no deal at all.

Have I given you a headache yet? Yes, that means the parliaments of Bulgaria and Slovenia would need to ratify our new economic arrangements with the EU, before we can start again.

Where would we end up? No one in the Brexit camp seems to have a proper answer to this important question — and I would go so far as to say no one should vote Out unless they can name the European economic model they want us to have instead. The Centre for Economic Reform has gone through seven different options of the UK’s renegotiated post-Brexit relationship with the EU (the models of Norway, Switzerland, Turkey etc.) It concludes that none of them look very good. There is no “soft landing,”  to use the Financial Times’ phrase. The least bad model might be that of Norway, but that is not very inspiring. Not being an EU member, Norway has none of the political benefits of membership, having no say in the rules which it obeys, but so as to get access to the single market, it still pays massive annual dues to the EU and abides by most of the EU’s rules, including free movement of labour (meaning free migration of EU citizens).

It is this prospect — of sailing away from the EU with no certainty about what bits of the economic relationship we keep and which we don’t — which sends all the economic experts and institutions into a panic about Brexit. The Governor of the Bank of England, the CBI, the International Monetary Fund, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Centre for Economic Performance of the London School of Economics—they have all crunched the numbers and say that the economy will suffer.

At first glance, it looks like the biggest casualty of Brexit would be the City of London. This might cause some schadenfreude. The City’s status is built on “passporting rights” that give any companies based in Britain full access to the EU and its markets. Poor London bankers! I hear you say with a laugh. The poor millionaires and their share portfolios! But ten percent of the whole economy is dependent on financial services and if the City suffers there will be ripple effects. And it is not just an elite issue. The last study I mentioned, the one by the LSE, calculates that the poorest ten percent of households would see their incomes fall by “5.7% to 12.5% in the long run.” There is also a strong argument that the countryside will suffer even more than London, as a post-Brexit UK government is unlikely to find the three billion pounds a year in subsidies that farmers currently receive from the EU.  

Of course we don’t know the full answers. George Osborne is being ridiculous when he names precise figures of how much income people will lose and how much house prices will fall. The member states of the EU might be magnanimous and make it their first order of business to try to renegotiate full British access to EU markets. Then again they might not. They are human beings and politicians, with their own electorates to answer to. The only thing we do know is that when we leave the EU table, we lose the right to debate or to vote.

This is where we come to the immigration question and the fact that, as a key part of the EU’s “free movement of labour” we have up to two million EU citizens who have come here—around half of our foreign-born population in recent years. I think I need to pin my colours to the mast here and state my view that immigration has been a great thing for Britain in the last generation, transforming it from a monotone insular country into a dynamic international one.

But even if you don’t share my enthusiasm for the diversity that the EU free movement rules bring, the economic argument for them is strong. Almost all Europeans coming here do so to work and they bring a net economic benefit to the country, whether they be bankers or fruit-pickers. (And as David Cameron will have told you incessantly, he has obtained extra guarantees from Brussels that make it harder for EU citizens to get benefits here.) The Polish plumbers and Spanish midwives are getting work here because there is a demand for the skills they bring.

Surely the problem here is that this Conservative government has made promises to keep levels of immigration down to please its core supporters — and failed to keep them. And of course it is a two-way street – free movement of labour also allows two million British people to work across the EU. That’s something I’d like my children — and your children and grandchildren! — to be able to enjoy too. For myself, I don’t see a country overwhelmed by hordes of Europeans — I only see that in the Daily Mail. (The Daily Mail is also trying to frighten you with the pictures of poor souls fleeing the Middle East on boats, but let me remind you that they are a completely different issue, they are landing on the shores of Greece and Italy and only a tiny fraction of them will end up here).

Remain is the more British vote

Within the European Union, the UK still has ultimate control of the important things: our government, our budget, our foreign and defence policy, our education and health systems. 

But would there still be a UK after Brexit? I very much doubt it. Scotland is likely to vote Remain. So, if England leads the rest of the UK into Leave, Alex Salmond has said that the Scots may demand a second referendum so as to leave the UK and seek to become an independent state within the EU. Moreover, the foundation of the Northern Ireland peace process is that there is an EU border between the north and south across which people can share citizenship. That will be under threat if the North leaves the EU. Sinn Fein say if that there is Brexit, they want a referendum on union with the Republic — something which could unleash conflict again. I worked in the scary unhappy place that was Belfast in 1992 and would not wish a return to that era on anyone. (I’m not sure what the impact would be on Wales if there are these shocks in Scotland and Northern Ireland but I don’t think it would be a good one).

All this makes me struggle to understand why so many people are even considering the risky proposition of Leave. Besides blaming the media (I am a former journalist), maybe the truth is I did get it wrong and many British people are indeed romantics. And I do concede, it does seem rather glorious for a moment to make a dash for the exit – but then again Charge of the Light Brigade was also a glorious dash.

Again, I have to ask, a dash towards what? I haven’t yet heard anyone in the Out campaign give a clear answer about what a post-Brexit UK would look like. They all say something different. There is the Nothing-Much-Changes-But-It’s Somehow-Better Brexit of Boris Johnson, the Let’s-Keep-All-Foreigners-Out Brexit of Nigel Farage and the Socialist-Utopia Brexit of George Galloway. Out is a blank canvas on which they want to paint their dreams.

Do I sound like one of those Remain scaremongers? Let me end on a more positive note.

The EU project can be frustrating. It can be dull and bureaucratic. It is going through a bad patch, in the aftermath of the Euro crisis — a lesson that a single currency was a bad idea and that the British vision of a broader, looser EU has proved to be the right one. Brussels needs reform — and Britain can help lead that reform.

But the EU is still the most successful trans-national project in history. It was devised in the aftermath of the Second World War to bring peace to Europe — which it did. Then after the collapse of Communism it brought countries of Central Europe, like Poland and the Czech Republic back into the democratic European fold successfully. It still does the right thing most of the time. Many of the European standards we have adopted and which we complain about have actually made life better and we might have never have done them by ourselves — such as maternity leave, clean air or wildlife protection. The EU has taken the lead in the world on the biggest issue for the next generation — the fight against climate change — and I very much doubt we would have done so much on our own.

Peace for three generations. The ability to travel, work and trade freely across Europe. That we easily hire a French nanny or a Polish carer. The way British friends of ours live in Paris or Berlin or Prague as easily as they would in London. This is a success story that we take for granted and will surely only miss when it goes. Maybe the problem is that the many benefits of EU membership are almost invisible and that our politicians, who are always trying to be seen to get a better deal out of Brussels, have never bothered to make the European case in public.

Maybe I have a family bias, coming from a family with very European roots, who came to England as refugees in 1939. But I also see that it is better all round when Britain is closely involved in Europe and worse for both us and the rest of Europe when we stay apart.

Remember Neville Chamberlain saying that Czechoslovakia was a “faraway country of which we know nothing”? The big British thinkers have always rejected that world-view and wanted to do more in Europe, not less. I am not a Conservative but let me end by quoting Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson, invoking his grandfather (and Chamberlain’s nemesis) on how Britain is at its best when it is not isolationist and it works together with Europe

The last thing on earth Churchill would have been would have been an isolationist – to want to stand apart from Europe right now at a difficult time. There is something awfully un-British, in my view, about wanting to leave. I think we stay. I think 'Non' he would not think it is a good thing to leave. 'Oui', I think he would have wanted to stay.

There are a lot of global problems to tackle and let’s solve them by getting stuck in and working with the EU, not just cut ourselves off.

So please vote Remain on June 23. It may not be the romantic option but it is the only real one.

With all best wishes


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