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This weird referendum campaign has produced some strange bedfellows. Alongside oddly mute supporters of a federal United States of Europe, or advocates of closer integration, stand plenty of pragmatists and reluctant Remainers. Among them are some of my friends, patriotic people who have simply concluded that the economic risks of Brexit are too great to countenance voting to leave.
They are not idiots, or traitors, and possibly the only thing that could change my mind this close to the vote as a moderate for Leave is if I thought Brexit would empower the nativists on the far out wing of UKIP, those who take such a dim view of their fellow citizens and are so quick to condemn rather than persuade opponents. But that is not what a Brexit vote would unleash. They are one faction in a party with one MP.
Meanwhile, on the Leave side are plenty of us who did not necessarily expect to find ourselves voting to quit the European Union, or who hoped for a long while that full departure might somehow be avoided.
When the Eurozone crisis confirmed the design flaws of the enterprise, and public concerns about immigration grew, I was one of those who hoped the UK government would use any renegotiation of our membership terms to persuade other European powers (before it is too late) of the need to rethink the entire model of the EU.
It was time to move to a genuine two-speed EU in which countries might properly control their own borders and recover sovereignty. That would allow those countries desiring more integration to do so faster if that is what their electorates want. No such fundamental redesign effort or attempt at persuasion was made by the UK government. And what resulted from the renegotiation was deeply disappointing.
It finally convinced me that the EU leadership is immune to sense. It could not even change course properly at such a historic moment, and admit that the underpinning principles such as total freedom of movement that were envisioned at the creation of a partnership of six countries in 1957 cannot possibly cope with a membership of 28 in 2016.
Worse, an organisation that would put in place as head of the EU Commission someone as ill-suited to such an important moment in the continent’s history as Jean-Claude Juncker is an organisation with a death wish. Even the people who got Juncker the job knew he was spectacularly the wrong choice. But even though David Cameron to his credit tried to block it, it was decided, and somehow it just happened, and that’s that. It means the Commission is headed by federalist fanatic, and the best that can be said is that his deputy Frans Timmermans is a good egg who wants to decrease and refocus the Commission’s efforts. Still, Juncker sits there even though he should not. In a democracy we would vote him out. But this is the EU, so forget that.
Of course, it may be perfectly understandable that the botched together EU turned out as it did, in the context of the industrialised slaughter and barbarism that was unleashed between 1914 and 1945. After such an upheaval, the inclination was to do anything possible to prevent a repeat, but those noble aspirations did not guarantee good judgement. Indeed, in attempting to fire-proof Europe against future catastrophe, the designers of the European Union built a faulty construction that fails Europe.
The architects of the EU made a series of terrible historical errors when they pushed for the model we have now, with a single currency experiment and an open border arrangement that its advocates seem incapable of realising is hopelessly utopian and impractical.
What can just about be withstood in terms of unlimited migratory flows among a small group of countries, or within a country under one flag (the US) is a recipe for social tension and anti-elite resentment here. Exacerbating the situation, the EU struggles to control and police its external border.
In the case of Britain, large numbers of voters have been telling the elites for many years that they are concerned about the speed and scale of immigration. Those voters are not only right to feel they should be allowed to express their concerns. Those concerns are right. The blameless old lady who has paid her taxes and obeyed the law is perfectly justified in feeling unease if she sees around her on her trip to the post office a country she does not recognise. And no-one asked her permission at an election for such rapid change either.
What can look tremendous from the perspective of Chelsea, or Islington, is less than tremendous for those who have been hammered already by deindustrialisation and the downsides of globalisation. Social cohesion matters and only affluent ultra-liberals would have dared be so careless with it.
Of course, leaving the EU would not deal with any of this magically, and there is the likelihood of enormous anger if voters feel after a potential Brexit that they were duped and numbers do not come down. The world is on the move thanks to improvements in transport and technology, and there is going to be a lot of migration, but at least we would post-Brexit be able to have an honest national discussion and decide in elections and in parliament what is acceptable and sensible. It may be that the country needs 5m people in the next decade (it doesn’t, and I don’t think it needs 3m either) but if you are a political party post-Brexit you’ll have to make your case and the voters and parliament will decide how it is handled.
That is as it is should be, and it is testament to the mind-scrambling tendencies of the EU that so many Britons should have come to think that this basic requirement of sovereignty (deciding who gets in to the country) is somehow outlandish.
I did have one serious doubt about leaving even after the failure of Cameron’s negotiation, however. The full-blown blood-curdling Brexiteer schtick that comes from some parts of the Leave coalition leaves me cold. In particular, I recoil from the “I’m not European, I’m British” school of thinking, because I am Scottish, British and European, and deeply wary of those who cannot accept that although Britain is distinctive it is European and entwined with the history and affairs of the continent of which is it a part.
If you really, truly are someone who thinks on either side of the argument that Britain can ever somehow leave Europe – as opposed to leaving the EU – then you are as close as it is possible to being an idiot without me calling you that. Europe is a geographical and cultural fact. We cannot leave it, and even if we could do so by discovering a means to shift tectonic plates and move continents quickly, it would be highly undesirable. Pan-European culture and civilisation from the Mycenaean period to the modern day is one of the wonders of human existence.
Is it repudiated entirely by the record of the slave trade and periodic outbreaks of conflict, pogrom and holocaust? Of course not. Over the course of more than 3000 years, European civilisation spawned representative government, waves of artistic innovation, the revolutionary printing press, industrialisation, financial development and epic improvements in living standards that were then super-charged on the other side of the Atlantic from the late 19th century onwards. That is not to dismiss the history of the Chinese people or others. It is simply to recognise what Europe is and why it matters.
Europe then is home, but that is not the same thing as wanting the UK to stay in the European Union. But what of the risks – and there are risks, as there usually are in human endeavour – of Brexit?
Trade will not stop and the UK has enough experience of reinventing itself as a nation to make one sceptical of the more extreme warnings. The vast regulatory scheme that is the Single Market is hardly perfect either.
On the City, I do have genuine concerns about the impact, and that does not centre so much on the idea of banks having a passport that can enable them to operate elsewhere in the EU. What really matters is the right to clear and settle in euros freely, which the European Central Bank allows London (for now) to do even though it is not in the euro.
This is important because underpinning the global economy is a giant debt and hedging machine – for pushing out, insuring and recyling gargantuan amounts of sovereign and corporate debt, and trading in financial instruments. Can London be outside the EU but still a global hub for that trading?
There my view is unfashionable among those who care about the City. The challenge is as much for the rest of Europe as it is for London. The City is Europe’s financial centre. It is Europe’s own capital market. Does the EU want to blow it up, harming its own interests and that of its companies, or find a way of working with the City to mutual advantage? If common sense is applied, and a post-Brexit Chancellor is sensible, a deal should be possible but I accept that some turmoil and upheaval is likely either way. There is clearly risk.
On the security and intelligence front, the warnings about Brexit are simply daft. The key intelligence-sharing relationship in the world is the “Five Eyes” agreement involving the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. And the two countries in Europe that cooperate most closely are the UK and France, with Italy having upped its game too against the Islamo-fascist threat.
None of this would change post-Brexit, and those saying we must share more intelligence across the EU are talking rot. Intelligence is not an extension of the town-twinning programme to make us feel nice. Countries share with countries whose agencies they trust not to share or leak to third parties. For all the EU’s aspirations in this field, it is not a leader and its role is not decisive or anything like it.
Ultimately, having wrestled with doubts for years and not claiming to have all the answers, this comes right back to what first worried me about the EC/EU in the early 1990s. The 23rd of June is about the basic question of self-government.
At the very least, if Britain votes to leave the EU, it will renew our democracy. In that regard, I’m unconventional in an EU context. I think it makes sense for us to have our own country and to make our own laws. That simple notion is standard in all manner of countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China and India. What is good enough for them should be good enough for the UK.
That does not mean that Brexit is the answer to all of the UK’s problems, and no-one should pretend that it is. But there is a chance – a chance – that as well as restoring British democracy it will encourage our fellow-Europeans to realise that it must surely possible to come up with a better set of arrangements for encouraging trade, peaceful co-existence and co-operation in Europe than the dismal old EU. Britain and the rest of Europe must be able to do better.