I can only vote on principles. I don’t know enough about economics, but I don’t think this should be about the future returns of UK Plc. I’m anyway not worried. There’s every chance the UK would get a great deal after leaving. We don’t know what it will be, because we haven’t started negotiating. David Davis has likened it to a game of chess. You know you’ll win because you have a strong setup – the world’s 5th largest economy, Europe’s biggest export market, etc – but you can’t tell exactly how, because you’re waiting for the other players to move. As for fears that other countries would spite the UK, he parodied Groucho Marx: “I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that threatened to ruin me if I left.”
So why leave the club? Many organisations across the world facilitate trade, encourage freer movement and increase cultural cooperation. Nobody is arguing against the necessity and great benefit of these things, precisely because – as the Remain camp says – ‘no man is an island’. But the EU is entirely unique for resembling a state by legislating over its members. No other common market has instituted a Parliament, to which its countries send a second layer of nationally elected officials to stand under the banners of cross-border parties. None other has an appointed commission that creates laws that all members must obey. Nowhere else do supra-national courts take precedence over national ones. That’s the only reason we’re having this vote.
Elections don’t bring about democracy. For democracy you need a demos. This is a common people, who lend legitimacy to their lawmakers by feeling represented by them, and give meaning to a sense of ‘we’. Without the demos of democracy you’re left only with the cratos, the (unaccountable) power.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we all know why there’s no European demos, and it’s a good thing too. Our identities as Europeans are not political; they’re cultural and historical, romantic and nostalgic. Every Remainer has more or less admitted as much, best typified, with typical beauty, by A. A. Gill in The Times, making the case to stay:
If you ask me for my nationality, the truth is I feel more European than anything else. I am part of this culture, this European civilisation…The music of Europe, from its scales and its instruments to its rhythms and religion, is my music. The Renaissance, the rococo, the Romantics, the impressionists…were all European movements and none of them belongs to a single nation.
I couldn’t agree more. None of them belongs to a single nation, and certainly none of them belongs to the government of Brussels. He is in fact echoing a key line from Margaret Thatcher’s defining Bruges Speech of 1988: “Europe is not the creation of the Treaty of Rome. Nor is the European idea the property of any group or institution.”
This is how most people feel about Europe: an instinctive sense of belonging that has nothing to do with politics or bureaucracy. I don’t know of anyone whose Europeanism takes the form of a feverish allegiance to the European People’s Party, the European United Nordic Green Left, or any of the other parties that debate the Commission’s legislation (but are not allowed to propose any themselves).
Would we want this to be otherwise? Would it make us “stronger, safer, and better off” if in 30-50 years time we’re seeing a ‘pan-European labour party’ – uniting the working classes of, say, Britain, Poland, and Greece – facing off a ‘Global People’s Party’, perhaps representing the privileged international elites of the richer western countries? Is the monotonous politicization of Europe what we really want? There’s a danger of voting in favour of a vague idea, of a diverse but unified ‘Europe’, to which the institution of the EU could easily become inimical.
Politics is a messy and unpleasant business. It is a means to an end, where we organize the things that must be done in order to get on with life, and enjoy the art and music that A. A. Gill speaks of. It should be dealt with as locally and as close to the electorate as possible, where interests and allegiances are least complicated.
I’ve resented the nationalistic tone that’s overshadowed the Leave campaign. I have no great urge to ‘get my country back’ and am suspicious of those who do. But I do think the daily grind of political decision-making should take place within one’s own borders, not centralized in Brussels.
Fishermen in Britain don’t have the same interests as fisherman across the rest of Europe. So when Britain is outvoted in Europe on matters that relate to them, that’s not democracy. There’s a reason for the phrase ‘tyranny of the majority’. The fishermen are not represented by the casting vote of Europe’s leaders, they’re represented by their Prime Minister. The same analogy applies to every country in Europe. The more power is taken away from national governments and passed on to Brussels, the more unaccountable it becomes, and this matters. The Second World War was after all fought over democracy.
So I choose to see it as a choice about whether Europe’s institutions should be more or less political in nature. Everyone feels confused if it is made personal instead. If you have Spanish or Swedish friends you might also have Norwegian and Canadian ones. Current circumstances privilege working rights for the former at the expense of the latter. Is one supposed to pick? Of course not, it would be intolerable to vote with this in mind. Besides, if working rights were determined by the UK government, rather than Brussels, we’d have the power to vote to keep things as flexible as they currently are. But I’d also like a policy that made it as easy for Australians, Indians and Americans to work here as it is for my French or Italian friends. So long as we stay in the EU, that’s not possible.
What about Reform?
The EU is not Europe. It is just one vision of how Europe can organize itself in a cooperative and prosperous manner. It is the European people, under the auspice of the European project, through many different variations of treaty and manner of collaboration, who have achieved wonderful things for which we should all be enormously grateful. Peace has been kept in Europe and former Soviet bloc countries have been turned into liberal democracies. But the European project isn’t a single homogenous entity, and the project will continue whether the UK leaves or stays.
On the other hand, the EU is nevertheless the continent’s de facto government, onto which we inevitably project all of our ideas about what Europe is and should be. So I understand the call to stay in and change it from the inside. It’s just very unlikely to happen. Jean-Claude Junker said just yesterday that David Cameron had secured the “maximum” Brussels could give.
In theory (and only in theory), leaving should be perfectly uncontroversial, merely the expression of a preference for economic cooperation over political integration. By leaving, Britain would simply will this option into existence. If other countries choose to follow, they can, if they wish to stay, they will. That is democracy. The opposite attitude, the determination to move forward at all costs with further political integration, conjures Bertolt Brecht’s poem The Solution to mind: “Would it not be easier/In that case for the government/To dissolve the people/And elect another?”
I think Europe would work better, be happier and wealthier if it discontinued its political project. For that to happen you need some big changes. Big changes almost always take you out of your comfort zone, involve risks and a step into the unknown. Often, those things are also what it takes to grow and to improve. That’s why I’m voting to leave.