Debate: EU Referendum

For a ‘bare bones’ analysis of the EU referendum, click here.

Luke Godfrey: A Hopeful Case for ‘Remain’

The debate, in or out of the EU, has revolved around the question ‘what has the EU done for me?’. Whether our politics are left or right, this perspective takes a calculator and says that this complex, multi-faceted, organisation can be reduced to a few quid in the plus or the minus column.

What this calculation fails to account for, is that the EU has successfully united much of a fractured region after years of warfare. Without the EU it seems unlikely that the process of democratisation could have embedded itself across the continent: The EU acts as a standard bearer for a particular brand of progress and the rights of the individual in contrast to countries such as Russia’s brand of authoritarianism and autocracy. This is tempting for ruling classes desperate to stay in power, and the EU’s accession standards, benefits of trade and free movement, have acted as an effective counter-weight to these tendencies.

The EU criteria for entry is lengthy, and holds applicants to high standards in areas such as fulfilling the conditions of democracy, and effective machinery of state. Frank Schimmelfennig and Hanno Scholtz found this offer of political membership and ‘returning to Europe’ to have exerted a strong influence over those reforming states post WW2 and the collapse of Communism. It has been all too easy in this debate to ignore this achievement. Liberal democracy is not an inevitable trend, and assuming that this is thought to be a benefit, the EU has played a key role in it’s promotion in the region. From the 1990’s the external promotion of democracy has been an explicit aim of the EU. This is an argument for continued positive engagement with the EU, to emphasise the positive roles that the bloc has taken on.

The UK also has much to be thankful for, with the EU providing safeguards that many of our own political class have railed against. A convenient bogeyman and scapegoat, the Human Rights Act, has at its heart respect for individual autonomy and freedom. More keenly interested in tearing up the state, and the social responsibilities of its institutions, it would be foolish to think that the Brexiteers would act swiftly to reinstate a British Bill of Rights. Undeniably the EU is a bureaucratic monster; but many of these regulations and rules are produced for good reason and have produced some of the strongest protections for our health and that of our natural environment. The EU Air Quality Directive aims to avoid poor air quality as a contributing factor in thousands of deaths each year, an area where the UK government and Brexiteer Boris Johnson have consistently failed to take action.

The arguments over trade and the flow of economic benefits is well rehearsed by both sides in this debate, and much of it relies on figures plucked from the air rather than facts. The left may see the EU as having been captured by corporate interests and opaque lobbyists, whilst the right see it as burdening free enterprise with stifling regulation.

Both points can be illustrated easily, and demonstrate how the EU can act in a contradictory fashion. The TTIP is a free trade deal negotiated in secret, behind the closed doors of the European Commission, and has generated a considerable backlash because of its provisions for rights accrued to corporations that privilege them above states. Information about TTIP is readily available online after the work of many campaigning groups and individuals.

However, the EU has also acted to reduce or break up the quasi-monopolies that damage growth and stifle progress. Successive cases have been brought against Google and Microsoft et al that have forced them to change the way they do business, to enable competition and promote diversity as part of the EU’s aims of promoting competition. Other battles that have made the news, and which our governments have failed to prevent or actively opposed include the ‘neonic’ ban, on pesticides thought harmful to bees which pollinate 30 percent of our crops. The UK has consistently opposed measures such as this, preferring to run the risk of irreversible environmental degradation in the name of short-term corporate interests.

Both perspectives have some merit, but one holds the possibility of change and progress, whilst the other is a reductive approach, strip away this, and this, and we might return to something purer. Given the preponderance of wealth and power in the City, it seems unlikely that a rewriting of the rules would benefit the general populace. Our national government is no less vulnerable to corporate capture than the officials of the EU, and a lack of a written constitution in the UK means that the safeguards protecting us can be swiftly dismantled. On balance then, these are arguments for the reform of the EU, and leadership by the UK, rather than exit.

Luke Godfrey is a graduate of Aberystwyth University and a support worker with 6 years of experience volunteering and working in the charity sector.


James A. Chisem: A Reluctant Case for ‘Something Else’

Let me begin with a controversial statement; Karl Marx was wrong and Reinhold Niebuhr was right.

History isn’t governed by the material conditions which divide men and women at birth, nor by the ideas and social structures which arise from those conditions, as Marx would have you believe. All three play their part on the great stage, of course, but the problem with Marx’s conception of history is that it implies purpose, agency, and direction where there are none.

Niebuhr knew better. In his influential study of the United States’ role in the world, The Irony of American History, the Mid-Western theologian convincingly argued that history is the realm of three impish triplets, namely pathos, tragedy, and the eponymous irony.

Pathos refers to a situation “constituted of essentially meaningless cross-purposes in life, of capricious confusions of fortune and painful frustrations”, which “elicits pity, but neither deserves admiration or warrants contrition.” For a situation or historical moment to be considered pathetic, it must be the fault of nobody and be evident to those caught up in it. As Niebuhr states, “suffering caused by purely natural evil is the clearest instance of the purely pathetic.”

Tragedy, meanwhile, refers to a situation where a person or a nation makes a conscious “choice of evil for the sake of good.” This, according to Niebuhr, “elicits admiration as well as pity because it combines nobility with guilt.” Much like pathos, those who are entrapped by the tragic element of history are fully aware of their predicament, but they are forced to make a moral judgement call, to choose from a panoply of evils. Niebuhr claimed that the “necessity of using the threat of atomic destruction as an instrument of the preservation of peace” is a classic example of historical tragedy.

Irony—last but certainly not least—refers to a situation in which the “apparently fortuitous incongruities in life…are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous.” This is a slightly more difficult concept to grasp, but what Niebuhr is alluding to is a situation where a person or a nation takes a certain action or adopts a certain stance with the aim of achieving one outcome, but in doing so makes the opposite outcome more likely. Unlike pathos and tragedy, irony is defined by ignorance, with the participants being unaware of the irony of their situation. Niebuhr identifies dozens of instances of historical irony, but to my mind, the Anglo-German naval race of the late 19th and early 20th centuries fits the bill perfectly.


Interesting enough, you might be forgiven for thinking, but what’s any of this got to do with the EU referendum?

Well, although it probably doesn’t seem obvious in the present haze, I’d be so bold as to suggest that the answer to that query is ‘everything’. You see, Britain’s membership of the European Union, and the question of whether it should endure, appears to encompass pathos, tragedy, and irony in equal measure.

It’s pathetic because the rules of engagement and disengagement were set down years ago by men with distinctly post-war concerns, and because today’s global marketplace is essentially a force of nature, an insurmountable obstacle which thwarts Man’s intellect and willpower at every turn.

It’s tragic because both sides of the debate are forced to operate on complex and ambiguous ethical terrain, choosing between legitimate-but-volatile national sovereignty and illegitimate-but-predictable transnational bureaucracy, between an often illiberal democracy and a reassuringly liberal technocracy, between the economies of scale offered by free trade and the creative destruction free trade visits upon traditional industries and their communities.

It’s ironic because the EU and its predecessors, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and the Common Market (EEC), were conceived with one overarching purpose in mind—to contain West Germany’s, and later, Germany’s, political and economic influence—and yet, collective efforts in that direction seem to have had the opposite effect. Whether Britain decides to leave or stay isn’t that important in the long run; like all other European nations, our future is a function of the German Question, and as such, will be determined by Berlin, not Brussels.

The truth, unfortunately, is that the electorate is faced with a choice between two evils, and it’s by no means clear which is the lesser of the two. The EU’s relationship with and to capital, labour, and justice is contingent on the topic at hand, while other geopolitical and structural factors, such as the rise of China and India, are likely to shape the British economy in far more profound ways than EU membership. If the architects of the Eurozone are guilty of ignoring Virgil’s advice to “beware of Greeks bearing gifts”, then I’d suggest that the Oracle of Thanet South and the Oracle of Notting Hill, with their proclamations of certainty, are both guilty of overlooking the Socratic Paradox, “I know that I know nothing.”

But philosophical scepticism and existential uncertainty are no excuse for muddled thinking. The scaffolding around the choice may well be intricate and confusing, but the choice itself is plain and simple: do you believe the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should be a member of the European Union? Yes or No? Remain or Go?


So, I hear you ask, which side are you on? I’m afraid the honest answer is that the jury’s still out. But I think, on balance, there is good reason to believe that the interests of the country and Europe as a whole would be best served by a leave vote, and I think that primarily because the European project is married to the principles of free trade and inevitably geared toward meeting the demands of the single currency and serving the interests of its adherents. And no matter what Citibank, Goldman Sachs, and Pricewaterhouse Coopers say, that can only mean bad news for the toiling masses of Albion.

Now, both sides have been rather, shall we say, exuberant in their assessment of a post-Brexit world, with Remain channelling the ghost of Hieronymus Bosch and Leave turning to North Korea’s Mansudae Art Studio for inspiration. It goes without saying that the vast majority of the figures emerging from think tanks, political parties, and even the Treasury, are pure hogwash. But some do contain a kernel of truth.

The Bank of England’s prediction that Sterling will fall against a whole host of other currencies in the aftermath of a leave vote, for instance, is likely to be proved correct. If that does happen, the British government-bond market’s reputation as a safe haven in troubled times will no doubt take a battering. We should also expect some short-to-medium term market volatility while larger institutions adjust to the new normal. This uncertainty is likely to have an impact on overall economic activity, as well, potentially leading to job losses, especially in exposed sectors such as finance and services.

And yet, the EU has done its bit—with a little help from Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping—to neuter British agriculture, fishing, coal, steel, and other traditional industries. If the UK can extricate itself from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and regain some control over trade, then, for the first time since 1993, it should be able to devise and implement something approaching an industrial policy. Admittedly, that might be too much to hope for under a Conservative government, but the wonderful thing about democracies is that governments come and go at the whim of the electorate.

And let’s face it, the prospect of job losses in the City—jobs which, let’s not forget, only exist because farmers, fisherman, coal workers, and steel workers were kind enough to bail out a corrupt and parasitic banking system—won’t cause many people in Grimsby or Redcar to shed a tear, nor should it. Our economy is tilted in favour of oligarchs and middle class professionals who can afford to continue stoking an unsustainable property bubble. Access to the single market, open borders, and EU directives on subsidies and ‘free’ markets have only accelerated this imbalance. Policies such as the CFP have even managed to destroy the fishing industry on an island literally surrounded by fish. The almost universally unpopular Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will exacerbate these trends, further hollowing out the working class and hammering the final nail in the coffin of Britain’s strategic industries.


There’s also a wider point to be made here, one that proponents of Remain have conveniently chosen to ignore—that is, the Eurozone, and by extension the European Union, is coming apart at the seams. This should come as no surprise, since the single currency (at least in its current incarnation) is based on thoroughly unsound economics. I mean, in what world should Greece (a low wage, semi-agrarian nation that relies on tourism) and Germany (a high-wage, high-tech industrial nation that relies on exports) be bound by the same currency or monetary policy? It really is madness, and the result has been a series of severe political and economic convulsions. The French and German financial sectors have been left dangerously exposed to a Greek default, which has led their respective governments, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to treat the Greek problem as one of liquidity, when in reality it’s one of solvency. Without the ability to devalue their own currency, Greece and other southern European nations have been forced into a downward spiral of internal devaluation, slashing jobs, wages, pensions, and welfare spending, while simultaneously overseeing an EU mandated programme of deregulation and privatisation. And in the meantime, northern European governments and corporations are circling above like vultures, waiting to scrape the cadavers of once great nations for any remaining spoils.

Whispers in Athens, Madrid, and Lisbon about a “two-track Eurozone” or even a return to the Drachma, Peseta, or Escudo have naturally been dismissed with a curt ‘nein’, since such a move would almost certainly spell the end of the Grand Project. That leaves only two options on the table. One, the Eurozone retains its current structures and bounces from crisis to crisis until Greece or Portugal or even Finland default on their debt. I’m no Nostradamus, but I’d imagine this would lead to the country in question withdrawing from the single currency and most probably the EU itself. For obvious reasons, then, Option One is a non-starter going forward. Option Two is to forge ahead with monetary and fiscal integration under the aegis of a powerful new body responsible for the collection and expenditure of taxes across the Eurozone. In practical terms, this will spell an end to the modern-day nation state and the rise of a Franco-German economic dictatorship. Any attempt to impose such a concord on the peoples of Europe will be met with fierce resistance, and ultimately, I believe it will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.

So if you’re worried about the value of Sterling and the fundamentals of the British economy in the event of Brexit, you’ve got every right to be. But if I were you, I’d be far more worried about the long-term viability of the Euro and the institutions behind it.


There are other things to be worried about, too, not least the EU’s utter disregard for the opinion of its own citizens. On three separate occasions in the past decade or so—The French (54.67% against) and Dutch referendums (61.54% against) on the proposed Constitution of Europe in 2005 and the Irish referendum (53.4% against) on the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008—the EU has overturned the popular will in favour of further integration. In the case of Ireland, Brussels went so far as to inform the electorate that they had given the wrong answer, telling them to try again otherwise there would be ‘consequences’. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; indeed, the charge sheet is so long I think I’d need at least another few thousand words to make a dent in it, and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not go there!

Faced with the EU’s bureaucratic and technocratic tendencies, commentators such as Yanis Varoufakis, Paul Mason, and Owen Jones have suggested that Britain’s best option is to pursue ‘reform from within’. I’m sympathetic to the intentions driving their argument, but let’s be honest, it betrays a woeful lack of understanding about how the EU actually works. How do they suppose their Socialist Brotherhood of European States will come to pass when David Cameron went to see Mrs Merkel and Mr Juncker with a list of very modest demands and got sent home, tail between his legs and empty handed? And what about the structure of the European Commission and the Council of Ministers? Where will this supposed humanist utopia spring from when authoritarian states like Hungary and Poland have a veto? Nowhere, that’s where.

I’m also not convinced by the more ‘progressive’ arguments being made by proponents of Remain. For a start, the idea that the European Union prevented the continent from devolving into a state of fratricide after the war is deeply circumspect. It played a role, no doubt, but I’d argue that it was nowhere near as important as the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the US nuclear umbrella. What’s more, the image of the EU as some kind of peaceable counter balance to Pax Americana and the Russian Bear seems to me to be straight out of the pages of an alternate history novel. European elites have imperial ambitions just like everybody else, and if the Ukrainian Civil War demonstrates anything, it’s that they’re largely incompetent when in open pursuit of those ambitions.


Whether or not we succeed in a new geopolitical context depends on a lot of interrelated factors, some beyond our control and some not. But whatever happens, we should always remain humble and approach Europe and the world with our eyes open, our minds focussed, and our hearts full of love. And when we etch a cross on the ballot paper, whether it’s next to ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’, we should do it in the knowledge that although the democratic process is a heady, wonderful thing, it’s not an excuse for partisanship, hatred, or recklessness.

So here’s my pathetic, tragic, and ironic conclusion: voting to leave the European Union won’t solve all of Britain’s ills, nor will it usher in a new Golden Age. It might even have the opposite effect. In the short-term, it will likely make our numerous political, economic, and social problems worse, triggering a recession and consigning tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people to joblessness and all that entails. But in the long run, the risks of tying ourselves to an unpopular, undemocratic currency union are just as great, if not greater.

On that note, I think it would be fitting to come full circle and end with some wise words of advice from Reinhold Niebuhr:

“God, grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

James A. Chisem is a writer and editor for Atlantic Bulletin.