My indecision on the EU

25th April 2016 by Lee Robertson

The British public are going to the polls to vote in a referendum on the 23rd June this year on whether to stay as part of the European Union or not.

This is potentially the biggest vote on the future direction of the United Kingdom and its place in the world that we have ever experienced. Not since our nation voted to join what was then known as the Common Market in 1973 have we had an opportunity to look at what our membership means, how happy we are with it and if we actually want to remain.

This is perhaps the most important vote for decades and very probably more important than our next general election. We have long had a difficult relationship with Europe both in and out of the EU. Whilst geographically we are part of Europe many British citizens feel rather apart. Maybe it is the fact that we are an island race and had been for centuries been very happy to make our own way in the world, for right or wrong and only recently moved closer to our continental neighbours.

I am normally fairly secure in my political convictions. It is usually possible to sift through the manifestos and promises made by political parties to come to a reasoned conclusion on the way I want to vote.

This is definitely not the case with this referendum.

The rhetoric, false information, scare tactics, overly emotional statements and rebuttals and constant press to-ing and fro-ing is almost overwhelming.

So where do we start trying to make sense of this?

I guess a good place would be the official government stance which is to stay within the EU. It believes that we are better placed within than without. In the run up to the election they have been in negotiations with other European member states to redefine some of the rules we are subject to.

These include;

The ‘Remain’ viewpoint is led by the UK government and headed by Prime Minister David Cameron. The government has stated in a leaflet sent to every household that the EU is by far the UK’s biggest trading partner. EU countries buy 44% of what we sell abroad. Remaining in the UK would safeguard those sales, guarantees our full access to its Single Market and would safeguard UK jobs dependent on that access.

The EU Single Market has over 500 million customers and a combined economy of over five times that of the UK. This access makes it easier and cheaper for the UK to sell products and services into Europe and further afield. The government also claim that being a member of the EU makes us a more attractive destination for inward foreign investment capital.

The headline claims are that is we were to leave the following could happen;

We could face a decade of uncertainty and financial instability in stock, foreign exchange and bond markets

They go on to say of every £1 paid in tax only a little over 1p goes back to the EU and this is a very fair price for the stability, economic opportunities, job creation and security provided by membership. That being a member of the EU magnifies our ability to voice our opinions on issues we care about and that are important to British citizens such as defence, politics and climate change.

So that is the stance of the government and it all appears fairly straightforward but as ever with politics all may not be what it seems.

There is an alternative view. The ‘Brexit’ view. Much is being made that the ‘Remain’ campaign is focusing on the negative and playing down the successes of the United Kingdom. That it is all about what we will lose and not what we might gain.

The current London mayor, Boris Johnson, is probably the most identifiable figure in this campaign. Whilst proclaiming to be a proud European he has waded into the debate saying that the British government have secured next to nothing in their negotiations of any real value.

“We are seeing a slow and invisible process of legal colonisation, as the EU infiltrates just about every area of public policy.”

Boris Johnson, London Mayor

He strongly believes that the EU project is all about greater political integration and central control which can be very damaging for individual states.

He and other campaigners believe that they have the more positive stance. That as the fifth largest economy in the world with good relationships around the world, many of them historical and enduring, that we will continue to do well. The moribund European economies do appear to be stagnating whilst the UK, free of the euro currency, is moving ahead.

He is popular with many voters and may be a future Conservative Party prime minister so he will no doubt carry some decent vote with many as they go to the polls.

He, as well as many others warns loudly that the EU has become incredibly self-serving and as new countries have been accepted for membership in a hurried expansion in the areas for Qualified Majority Voting, Britain as well as other states can be overruled more and more often as we have seen over the last five years. We have had not just the Maastricht Treaty, but Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon, every one of them representing a further extending of EU authority and a centralisation of power in Brussels. He cites that the House of Commons library has estimated that anything up to half of all new UK legislation now comes from the EU. Legislation that is incredibly hard to reverse even if it does not work in the UK national interest.

We were assured by the then Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for instance that we had an opt out of the EU Charter of Fundamental Human Rights but this has not proven legally durable and has led to real anger amongst the British public over the EU over-ruling British decisions on convicted terrorists for example.

Other commentators for and against

Many of our business organisations such as the CBI have gone on record stating their support for us to remain in the EU. They use many of the same arguments put forward by the government over jobs and financial security.

Other organisations such as Natural England, the RSPB, the Natural Environment Research Council and several universities have also stated their support.

However, as some leading Brexit commentators such as have gone on to point out many of these organisations are in direct receipt of EU grants so may have something of a vested interest in remaining and therefore continuing to receive these monies.

The big news was that the US President, Barack Obama, whilst on a state visit to the UK last week weighed in on the ‘Remain’ side. He even went as far as to say that if the UK did leave that we would go ‘to the back of the queue’ on any trade treaty negotiations. It is felt that the timing of his visit to the UK, halfway through the EU referendum debate, was not by accident. The long standing international understanding that world leaders don’t visit during election campaigns wasn’t observed and that David Cameron and he had orchestrated the visit to bolster support for the in camp.

It is difficult to predict how this intervention will play with the British public. They are not keen to be told what to do, feel that when the US wants British support, particularly military support, they run around talking up the ‘Special Relationship’ but then are happy enough to talk our prospects down and talk about the back of the queue when it suits them.

I won’t go on. There is a huge amount on line about this referendum and the key individual players talking for and against.

Other EU Nations

Interesting information is coming out of some other EU nations on how things are playing out there in relation to the British vote.

Reformers in Sweden appear very worried at the prospect of us leaving. They see Britain as a key ally in trying to reform the EU. It is reported that a recent study found 89pc alignment of their and our interests as well as 88pc with the Danes and the Dutch. Of these three nations the Swedes seem to have a sizeable proportion of their population who are no longer in favour of the EU. According to a poll by TNS Sifo, the largest polling firm in Sweden that the majority of Swedes would wish to exit the EU if Britain left.

A criticism often levelled at the political and EU elites are that they are out of touch with their citizens and press on regardless despite public opinion. In a recent poll of Dutch citizens on extending membership to the Ukraine the Dutch overwhelmingly rejected the proposal which had already been ratified ahead of the poll by the Dutch government. Now we see the unsavoury spectacle of EU and Dutch politicians scrambling to try to overcome public opinion to suit their own desires.

So much for democracy?

This has happened before, the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty only to be brought back into line with a subsequent vote full of sweeteners to achieve what the EU wanted.

Unaccountable?

There is so much to work through here, so much to try to understand.

The sense of fair play of the British, believe in it or not, sees so much to dislike about the Europe. The meddling, the corruption, the fact they won’t even publish proper audited accounts in any form for their citizens to consider.

They just seem so remote and unaccountable. They are slow to act, unless it seems in their own interest, and hampered by self-interest. The EU/US trade agreement is largely being held up by Italy on account of their farmers. From fishing to farming, from borders to benefits the whole thing looks like a mess.

They are not quick to act even when they should be, one only has to think of the Balkans and more recently migration. Slow, barely effective and yet they seem to think that they are working for the greater good.

Perhaps they are but it is so often hard to discern if they are or not.

My personal indecision remains so I still don’t know the way I will vote in June. I am finding it incredibly difficult to wade through all the rhetoric. I have heard business leaders, politicians, presidents and Eurocrats all speak on the subject and still feel confused.

I worry about further integration and that the Dutch have just ceded control over a large part of their army to Germany. I struggle with the fact that EU legislation once enacted can rarely be changed or repealed. I wonder whether it would be better to leave now and ‘quit while we are ahead’ particularly if other European citizens, particularly in the more prosperous northern Nordic states are having similar doubts.

I go on to wonder whether us leaving and perhaps being joined by those same states to build a more representative, democratic European trading partnership of likeminded countries.

On the flip side, I worry about the uncertainty, the fact that if we do leave that we will have ceded any opportunity to reform the EU from within. That we could see massive market uncertainty for years to come. I worry that this uncertainty will dramatically impact on the wealth of my clients and the wider public.

Isolationism has never really been the British way and this appears very much like a step in that direction.

“The British have always stood and fought, not run and hid. Therefore we should choose to stand and fight.”

Eddie Izzard, comedian and political activist

I worry that other countries appear to be working the EU to their own benefit very well and we just don’t seem to be able to do the same. That may well be our problem not theirs but I worry about it just the same.

EU farming subsidies continue to vex me. How is it that the EU spends so heavily on health messages and anti-smoking but hands out bucket loads of subsidy to European tobacco farmers? Where does all that farm subsidy money go and how is that we can’t distribute surplus produce to needy nations?

Nor do I believe that it is the EU that has prevents war on continental Europe, a claim made time and again by EU leaders, the modern Europe of today has just moved on from that awful form of negotiation and I find it troubling that they are trying to claim credit.

As a Scot I worry that if we vote to leave that the whole future of the United Kingdom will come into jeopardy as the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru the Welsh Nationalists will probably force a vote on the issue as they have publicly stated that they wish to remain in the EU.

I worry that I have no real idea of what the EU actually costs the UK, whether the benefits really are worth paying for and how what we pay compares to other countries and the benefits they derive. Surely we need to be told to make an informed decision.

So it is still all as clear as mud to me. I still have no idea at all the way I will vote on the day.  I am unable to answer the questions of my clients on the subject due to the massive uncertainties.

As someone who usually has an opinion, I find that incredibly troubling.