Ever since the Referendum of June 2016, the Brexit ship has been taking on water. Everybody knows the key pledge – a Brexit government would shift £350m a week, supposedly saved from membership costs, into the NHS every year, was an invention. The prospect of throwing out non-British workers so that Brits could take their jobs turned out to be too dangerous for the economy and strongly resisted by employers. And the promise that the UK would get rid of the European Court’s right to rule over the laws we had earlier agreed to “over our laws” and ban our compliance with “their” laws turned out to be a misunderstanding of our legal situation.
Now we know that Brexit, in one way or another, is a threat to everyone’s employment, living standards and welfare conditions, down to the very last consumer and even including children of divorcing parents. Now we also know that our current EU-protected high standards will be watered down if we leave, but will retain their cast-iron protective effect if we remain members.
Now we also know that we can’t expect those great deals our Commonwealth friends were going to give us – because of course our old colonies would want to come to our rescue, wouldn’t they? Not really. The reality is much harsher than the fast fading fantasies. It is not edifying to see how our deluded Ministers feel they must go begging to countless countries (12 in 3 months in Boris’s case, 20 by May, and 35 by Liam Fox, without any deal being made). ‘Thanks for the offer’, comes the reply, ‘but we’ll stick our satisfactory a arrangements with the EU. We may come to you later’. In exchange, Britain is offered the US’s delicious chlorine-washed chickens and tasty beef laced with hormones, that we are currently protected from as the EU operates more rigorous standards of safety. And in exchange, the UK is asked to offer more visas to South East Asians, defeating Brexit’s purpose of lowering immigration, and more opportunities for US companies to operate within the NHS.
Since the Referendum, the British people have not been offered any evidence of how, by leaving, they would be better off, or the country’s international prestige would be enhanced. The decision to transform a non-binding vote into a hard and fast commitment has become a veritable albatross on the backs of politicians from all sides, gobbling up the political agenda. It is only our leaders’ pride that keeps them going on and on about ‘deals’ as if it were all a matter haggling for lower prices at a French farmers’ market. If they had our welfare at heart, the Leaver ministers would admit that outside of European waters, the British boat lacks the EU’s compass, is cut off from friends and allies, and in danger of drifting into isolation. Unless of course we all had the courage to realise our mistake, get our leaders to change course and steer us all back to our former safe haven in the EU.
With nothing but uncertain prospects lying ahead, why strive to leave at all? Were any of the country’s pre-referendum woes actually caused by EU membership? Historically, we joined in order to solve our economic woes. We experienced full employment and rising prosperity during our membership of the EU, not before. This held more or less until the 2008 international financial crisis. So why leave?
Britain’s continued peace and security depend on the decisions made by the member-states in the EU. Why stay away from the conference table? Those who cry for NATO to replace the EU forget that NATO is only the costly operational arm of European defence – the EU costs less. The political and economic peace [remember “trade wars”?] is maintained via the EU. Only through the EU do 27 governments see the pointlessness of battle, swapping war-war for jaw-jaw. Continuous political coordination among European leaders reinforces peacekeeping via diplomacy. Dense interpersonal links and trade networks help make aggression against close allies feel abhorrent. So why leave?
For centuries Britons lived in a war-torn continent. Current European member states engaged in 64 wars with each other since 1700, culminating in the worst mutual massacres of all time during two world wars. Yet, uniquely in modern history, six countries including worst enemies France and Germany found the way to put an end to the incessant bloodshed: creating the European Community, now Union, in which members set up a cooperative framework in which equal partners attempt to draw together, to integrate their economies and converge over certain policies where this is of mutual benefit. European Union countries have thus avoided further wars and lived, on average, in growing prosperity for over 70 years.
• Membership of the EU has provided the environment for the UK to turn its economy around, after a long period of decline. Through the single market it has done particularly well under EU strict rules of regulated competition in manufacturing and trade. The services and banking sectors have prospered, creating a vast new employment sector. The EU’s internal market is the only one to cover the marketing of services, in which the UK is particularly strong. The EU has become the biggest player in global trading and the largest economic block in the world, overtaking the US. So why leave?
The EU’s vast single market provides an enormous level playing field for European economies, such that it equals the world’s biggest countries. Only the biggest trading blocks can hold their own, because with great populations they can find the skills to do their own research and sustain large enough markets to, put simply, buy their own products. Economic development requires extensive investment in scientific research. Only through Europe-wide collaboration of the sort the EU energetically fosters, can brain power be pulled in from across the EU and beyond. Britain is too small in world terms to prosper alone, but by joining with its geographical neighbours, it can. Britain is historically part of the continent of Europe, since before 1066.
• If the UK leaves the EU, it cannot get a better trading deal with lower tariffs than the 0% it already enjoys. So
The EU’s ever-expanding regulated single market for goods, services, and labour gives barrier-less, tariff-free access to all member states. If the UK became an outsider, especially one that wanted to keep even well-educated, hard-working European free-movers out, Britain would have to pay tariffs for goods that its historic residents cannot produce. Differing employment conditions between countries outside of the EU framework prevent fair competition over products, prevents entirely free trade, and raises further conflicts and costs.
• Employees in the UK have much to lose from becoming outsiders to the EU. So why leave?
The Prime Minister knows this, which is why she has threatened EU negotiators with making Britain a low-wage, low-safety economy that plans to trade by trying to undercut advanced economies where skilled employees have come to expect good wages and safe working conditions. Britain has been such a country, but no longer. Wages and conditions have been deteriorating for several categories of workers (public sector employees, the self-employed, part-time workers, etc). Brexit would accelerate this fall in our standards of living. What’s more, Britain could never beat the new Asian manufacturing economies on low labour costs, and much less compete successfully with the advanced economies on the basis of what remains of UK high skills/high productivity sector (the high quality of products created in relation to the costs of producing them) without the contribution of the skilled labour from other EU countries, be they doctors and nurses, or City analysts and technology entrepreneurs.
• The EU has become the most socially advanced block in the world. So why leave?
The EU’s social policies and protections in the area of health and safety at work and consumer health have been a strong lever for overall social progress, pushing standards up. As the EU does not allow downgrading of laws, once agreed, a safe and fair working environment provides the framework for human wellbeing. In the 1970s Britain was ahead of most on health & safety at work and on race discrimination. Since then, Directives have been adopted to spread those higher standards to the rest of the EU, making others catch up with the UK. Sadly, we are no longer ahead on social progress, as many international indicators show.
• By remaining in the EU, we keep all existing protective laws all classes of non-discrimination, equality, protection at work, parents’ rights, the work/life balance, and a raft of consumer protections. So why leave?
Within the EU jurisdiction, rights, once approved by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, must be implemented in all member-states, and cannot be downgraded just because a couple of countries want to. Such enforcement of rights is also foreseen in the European Treaties, which are directly applicable to individual EU citizens. Yes, we can individually claim enforcement straight to the European Court of Justice. And while we are in the EU, British governments cannot overlook, for instance, the reintroduction of asbestos into manufacturing as they have signed a Directive against this in the EU Council of Ministers.
So if the UK left the EU, all inhabitants, whether consumers or employees or women or men, would cease to enjoy the solid unchallengeable long-term protections we currently have. Once outside, our social rights will be less entrenched. Any UK government will be able to try to downgrade them via a simple Act of Parliament passed with a majority of as little as one.
• The EU has mechanisms (court cases, fines etc) to enforce its agreed laws. It is currently using them to save Londoners from having to breathe excess nitrogen dioxide. So why leave?
• Only the EU has the power to bring to book the large corporations that damage state interests or the environment, precisely because it represents the will of 27 independent countries and acts as a block. So why leave?
Single countries alone mostly cannot make reluctant corporations compliant with, for instance, tax or environmental legislation. The case of Google avoiding its share of taxes is a case in point. Britain acting alone through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) felt powerless to extract from the corporate giant more than a very modest amount. By contrast, the EU took it on, forcing Google to defend its practices in court. True, Google’s practices have not yet been ruled illegal, but the issue is still under examination.
• The EU as a body is democratic in a similar way to the democracies that are its members. Its structure reflects the usual division of powers between the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary. In addition, it formally consults trades unions’ and company representatives, and even allows their agreements to become law. Regional authorities and women’s organisations also meet formally to feed back their preferences to the Commission. So why Leave?
There is an Executive (the Commission) composed of distinguished individual Commissioners nominated by member-state governments. It has an indirectly elected leader (the President) and a professional administration selected by open competition equivalent to the British civil service. There is a Legislature with of two chambers, one made up of Ministers of member-states (the Council of Ministers); the other, a directly elected European Parliament composed of MEPs from all the regions of the EU including the 11 UK regions. Once agreed, rules are enforced by a Court of Justice that is there to ensure rules are implemented effectively. There is also an independent Court of Auditors, a senior member of which is British; and a European Anti-Fraud Office, made up of specialists from many states, whose Deputy Director is British.
The essence of the EU’s existence is democratic – for it was built as a cooperative of equal sovereign states to pool some of their sovereignty and resources. It works through consensual joint decision-making. Its basic structure is designed to balance power between its supra-national institutions and the sovereign organs of the member states. In addition, most of its budget is spent on redistributing resources to the poorer regions of each of its members. As to its central objectives, jointly-agreed laws (e.g. Directives and Regulations) in the economic and social fields seek to increase economic and social wellbeing, non-discrimination in daily life, and fair competition in trade. In this respect, the EU sees itself as heading via economic and social integration towards functioning like a democratic social state of law — albeit one that reflects the member-states’ priorities at particular times. There are times when it can deviate from its founding principles, as in the treatment of refugees and migrants, currently pushed by member states’ own priorities and their anti-immigration publics.
• The EU is not a talking shop – as sometimes alleged. It’s a dynamic structure that has grown peacefully through an active process of joint decision-making from 6 to 27 nations. All – including the UK – have increased their power and control over how the whole European continent behaves and the direction it is moving towards. In addition, the EU is also key world economic block that offers the UK a prominent international role. So why leave?
The EU provides member states a forum in which to enhance their international profile and weight – by acting together. The institutions of the EU have become world players. Yet in the policy fields of international relations, the environment, and immigration, coordination of EU member states has been slow and problems have intensified because of that. The lack of coherence and joint action arising from failure to find a political consensus between member-states on major international crises shows that the world would have seen less bloodshed had European nations had act together, instead of individually, over challenging issues such as migration.
• In sum, Britain can have a strong role to play in the EU, becoming prominent in ensuring greater wellbeing for all its citizens and practicing its well-honed diplomatic skills and international expertise. Why loose prominence? Why leave?
Dr.Monica Threlfall, Senior Research Fellow, Global Policy Institute-London
M.T. @August 2017 revised version.