On 23rd June 2016 Britain will vote on whether to leave the European Union. After what has been a torturously long and thoroughly disappointing campaign from both sides, the polls put Leave and Remain neck and neck. What could have been an edifying few months of dialogue, spanning the gamut of the political spectrum, with people arguing in a considered and passionate way about Britain and its connection to Europe, quickly descended into farce — and eventually into tragedy. The devastating murder of Jo Cox MP was the inevitable outcome of such a poisonous and hyped up debate. A special person was wrenched away by a man consumed with hate, bathed in ignorance and misguided nationalism, empowered by the vitriolic arguments of Brexit.
The fear-mongering, extreme rhetoric, and disingenuous and hyperbolic use of statistics has created such a malaise with the electorate that the vast majority of people I have spoken with — who are young and old, conservative and liberal, political and non-political, religious and not, living in cities, towns and villages — don’t know who to trust. As a nation we have grown tired of the establishment’s ways. When so much is said and done in aid of the wealthy, of corporations, of big money interests, of retaining power, it becomes a struggle to separate fact from fiction, truth from lie.
The basics are this:
- The European Union was born out of a desire for peace and unity after the horrific events of World War Two.
- Set up by France and Germany, a deal between six European nations was finally signed in 1950 in order to combine their coal and steel resources.
- There are now 28 countries in the EU.
- Britain joined in 1973.
- The EU is made up of the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council and the Court of Justice.
- The EU has developed an internal single market through a standardised system of laws that apply in all member states.
- Within the Schengen Area, of which Britain is not a part, passport controls have been abolished.
- The EU policies aim to ensure the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital, while enacting legislation in justice and home affairs, and maintaining common policies on trade, agriculture, fisheries, and regional development.
- Britain’s contributed £8.5 billion to the EU in 2015, which is 12.57% of the EU budget.
- Britain is the third largest contributor behind Germany and France, who contribute 21.36% and 15.72%, respectfully.
- Roughly 40% of EU money is spent on agriculture, down from 70% in 1985.
- In 2016 the EU budget will be €144bn (£114bn). To compare, public spending in Britain is expected to be £742bn in 2015-16.
- According to the International Monetary Fund, the EU is the largest economy in the world with a nominal GDP of €18.5bn (£14.6bn).
For more on the EU budget go here.
Away from the raw facts and figures, necessity demands a person look beyond the information spread by the dubious campaigns for In and Out; to individuals whose opinions are not beholden to establishment interests. One such person I respect is former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who argues Britain should stay in the EU and be instrumental in reforming it. He’s been behind the curtain of the EU, seen the machine at work, and had his own country treated badly by it. Yet he still advocates for the EU and has hope it can be better.
From my previous writings on this site, my anti-establishment stance should be clear. With the EU being as establishment as it gets, I sympathise with certain arguments from the Leave campaign. Dennis Skinner MP, for example, holds a strong leftist view for getting out; a position he’s been consistent on for years. Harvard Professor Richard Tuck has written a thorough piece titled The Left Case for Brexit that deconstructs, among other things, Varoufakis remain argument. I may not have been convinced by it, but I was enlightened.
It’s clear the EU does need substantial reform. It’s bureaucracy seems to be out of control, and its accountability dubious at best. And yet the notion that we will get our country back by parting from the EU is nonsensical. We will simply be trading one establishment for another; one that could be far more dangerous and destructive for Britain. I see the Conservatives as a greater threat to Britain than the European Union. The evidence for this is clear: the failure of austerity; the continued cuts to and privatisation of public services; the tax breaks for the rich; the attacks on the most vulnerable in society; and the rhetoric of division and hate that has been cultivated for over a decade. It is not the EU that is preventing Britain from being “great”, it is the Tories who are running down the country for their own ends. We voted them into power twice, let’s not unshackle them altogether; I don’t think the vulnerable people of our society can take much more. I’m not alone in thinking this, Nick Cohen has written an op-ed making similar (and finer) points on this topic.
Another person whose opinion I respect is Owen Jones. As a Eurosceptic who has given serious thought to leaving the EU, I find his reasoning credible. TTIP, workers’ rights and climate change are just some of the areas where detaching from the EU could be devastating. Working towards a safer and better Britain requires co-operation with other countries. These are international issues, beyond borders. For Britain to go it alone not only reduces its influence in the world, but degrades the standard of living for its people.
For other high-profile voices, The Guardian published a useful article speaking with European authors and thinkers about their view on the referendum from an outsider’s perspective. And continuing in a multi-voiced vein, here’s the views from some Blind Spot contributors outlining why they are voting Remain:
In addition to listening to the reasoning of individuals, one can take a macro look at Brexit by listing the groups and organisations that are on each side. Calvin Morris did something very smart on Facebook and did simply that. What is clear when comparing the two sides is support for Remain dominates across a range of industries and national and international interests. By comparison the Leave camp’s support seems barren.
As an aside, one of the fascinating and unusual aspects of the Brexit debate is how opinion hasn’t been divided solely upon liberal and conservative lines. While far from a non-partisan issue, it has transcended political parties; making opposition forces struggle to argue their case standing alongside (sometimes literally) people who they would normally be fighting against. While this could be argued to be a progressive political development, one of co-operation, of working with the opposition towards something grander, the repulsive debate has put the kibosh on that ideal. The politics of the negative still dominates – within parties and between them.
Focusing particularly on Labour, right from the start the referendum has been bad news for the party. They had to argue for staying in the EU knowing full well that no political capital could be made for months while they “support” Cameron and company. For all the talk of the Tories tearing themselves apart over Brexit, they will win either way, be it with Cameron or Boris leading the party forward. The Conservatives will move on from the result, reformed and ready for the next election; united when it matters most. They do it time and time again. For Labour, the divisions within the party will go on, and the media will continue to make them look more of a shambles than their counterparts.
If Britain votes to leave, some (both inside and outside of Labour) will place the blame at Jeremy Corbyn’s feet. Admittedly he has always been a Eurosceptic and is still only 7 out of 10 on the EU. However, the result will not be his fault. That lies across the Table of the House with Cameron and his government. Lest we forget that we are in this tenuous position because of their desperate need to appease potential UKIP voters at the last election. The Conservatives offered up the referendum to retain power. They weren’t required to do this. They shouldn’t have done it for such a complicated and monumental decision. Yet so great was Cameron’s hubris that he didn’t expect such a close run race. He expected to win and win handsomely.
For years the Tories cultivated a culture of fear and suspicion; of the outsider coming for your job; and the unknown scrounger living off the state. Brexit is the consequence of such thinking, and the architects are the Conservatives.
Increasingly the referendum on the EU has become a referendum on immigration. It’s become about who is British and how those who are not are viewed and treated. An anti-immigration sentiment has been fostered in recent years with a callous disregard for refugees and a willing ignorance towards the essential contribution of those who come to Britain make. Yes, there are pressures caused by immigration. To schools, housing, public services, NHS, and more. It is the government, though, who should do more to support communities who might feel the strain. These complications lie not with the EU, rather government policy. It was the Tories who scrapped an immigration relief fund when they came into power; a fund designed to support areas affected by large numbers of arrivals from overseas.
While the decision to stay in or leave the EU is larger than immigration alone, ideologically the stakes couldn’t be higher. Leaving the EU could set Britain down the darkest of paths. Even if all the portentous predictions turn out to be false, and Britain doesn’t suffer economically in the long-term, people’s appetite for change will not be satiated. For they – following an idealised and nostalgic view of Britain that can’t exist, and maybe never did – will look around and wonder why Britain is still not great, and why it still hasn’t transformed for the better. Even if immigration was slowed (which doesn’t look likely), invariably the attention will move away from those entering Britain to those who already moved here. Tragically and inevitably an idea will infect the culture: For Britain to be great again it will need to purge the outsiders from its shores.
This is not a new story. History bears it out. Over and over. Racism, xenophobia and bigotry are percolating right now, waiting for an opportunity to spread in haste. This is why it’s so crucial to vote Remain. A Leave vote empowers people with deplorable views, who will take a victory as vindication for their thoughts and actions. The nuance of many good intentioned leave voters will be lost in a sea of dangerous patriotism and rising exceptionalism.
It’s only in the last few days that I have come to terms with the enormity of the decision the people of Britain will face. It’s been described as a once in a lifetime decision, but really it’s a decision that will take a lifetime to understand. For all the good economic arguments for staying in the EU, for me personally, it comes down to ideology and philosophy. I don’t want to live in a country that regards itself as superior. Or a nation that is isolationist; who looks inward, and views outsiders with suspicion. I want to belong to something more majestic; to be connected to cultures different to mine, who work together for the betterment of many nations, not just their own. I want to gaze outward and see others with empathetic eyes; with humility and curiosity; and to offer safe haven to those in need. I can choose to do that. We can choose to do that. Britain can choose to do that.
Whatever the result on 23rd June, the end of the story this is not. Without continuing to pressure our government and the EU, change will not come to the extent that anyone wants, whether we vote In or Out. To casually sit back in jubilation after victory, or slump in sadness after defeat, would be a colossal mistake. The battle for the soul of Britain has been, is being and will always need to be fought.