Are we too polite to leave the EU?

08/06/2016 § 7 Comments

I consider myself a European citizen. I’m married to a German, I’ve lived in France, I have visited 19 of the 28 EU countries and have good friends in many of them. I love French style, German engineering, Italian passion, Finnish coolness, Polish hospitality and all the diversity of this collection of people that I share so much with. So why am I contemplating voting in favour of the UK leaving the EU later this month?

Logic and reason tells me that of course we have to stay. I’m not sold on the simplistic notion that if we leave we can have the best of both worlds – free to do our own thing and yet still able to closely collaborate. The UK has always been a trading nation and we can’t disrupt our relationship with our main trading partners without consequences. Nor am I at all attracted by the idea of a British government led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. And I do wonder how a vote to leave may be taken by our European friends. The English are known for being polite – leaving the EU would not be a polite thing to do.

Yet we shouldn’t make such decisions based on a misguided sense of what is polite, to compensate perhaps for the likes of Nigel Farage. We can love our friends and still leave the institution that binds us together. Screenshot 2016-06-08 10.27.51Nor should we rely only on pure logic and reason. The heart has its reasons too. I refuse to fall into the trap of dismissing all those who vote for leaving as ignorant or selfish. There’s something deeper going on.

When I look inside my heart, I find I am troubled about the direction in which we are all headed, as peoples of Europe. What do we actually want from life? Is it all about improving our material existence, perpetually? Is there nothing more we can aspire to? We’ve already achieved remarkable material wealth. What we are bad at is distributing it fairly. We are also almost oblivious to the impact of what we do on the world around us, for all the worthy initiatives that keep being launched. The temperature of the planet has been soaring these last few months and we react as if we have all the time in the world to deal with it. Our priorities are all wrong. Radical times need radical action – if now is not the time, when is?

The institutions that hold our society together – the EU, the courts, parliament and media, the large corporations, the universities and so on – have all played a vital role in creating our civilisation. But they’re reaching their design limits and the consequence is our civilisation is behaving in a very uncivil manner. To blame these institutions for our current predicament is unfair and unproductive. That doesn’t mean we need to actively support their continued hegemony.

In the short term, I think leaving will cause a considerable amount of uncertainty and even chaos. Our GDP might, I mean almost certainly will, fall. This may be the least of it. We may end up with a right-wing government that, unconstrained by the moderating influence of the EU, dispenses with “inconvenient” environmental or social laws in order to pursue its own neo-liberal goals of economic growth for the rich and breadcrumbs for the poor. I may not love the undemocratic EU system but I think the British system has become, if anything, even more undemocratic (witness the clumsy way in which the whole referendum debate is handled, with two sides setting themselves against each other). I fear the short term consequences of Brexit.

However, whenever in life there is a movement towards an extreme, eventually there is a push back. I’m quietly hopeful that, once enough of us have seen the dire consequences of our excessive focus on economic growth, we will change our behaviour and start prioritising other things – compassion, collaboration, peace. This will need a completely different type of institution – ones that are far more adaptable, participatory, distributed and sensitive to their environment. Such institutions are unlikely to be born calmly and reasonably out of conversations in Brussels or Strasbourg. They are far more likely to arise in the fire of chaos and disorder.

Having said all this, I’m not convinced that it really matters which way the vote goes on 23 June. Chaos and disorder is coming anyway. Climate change is not going away in a hurry. Neither is the health care crisis, the education crisis, the rising inequality, the migration problem, the Euro crisis… Our institutions have shown they are not up to meeting these challenges and sooner or later there will be a crash. I doubt very much the EU will survive, and new institutions will emerge from the rubble.

It is easy to write about chaos and disorder while sitting in my comfortable home in a national park, surrounded by trees and open forest. Even though I haven’t experienced real economic hardship in my lifetime, unlike our parents in the second world war, I know that economic turmoil can cause real hardship and suffering, and that could affect me and my family. Yet the forest reminds me that change is a constant in life. The 150 year old tree next door is dying and has to come down, before it crashes and causes real harm. Perhaps the same is true of the EU. Maybe it’s time to call the tree surgeons in?

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§ 7 Responses to Are we too polite to leave the EU?

  • Finn Jackson says:

    I am surprised to read you taking such a defeatist approach, Patrick.
    Yes, “chaos and disorder is coming”, but that is precisely why we need the EU.

    The only thing that can build the “new institutions that will emerge from the rubble” as you describe is cooperation.
    The best form that cooperation exists in today is the EU.
    It is imperfect but it is the best we have today. (And frankly it is not so imperfect. For example, Brexiteers complain about the ‘undemocratic’ civil servants in the EU, but there are only 50k of them and we have over 350k in our ‘unelected’ Treasury, Home Office, and so on.)

    Without the EU, under the pressures you predict, each nation will respond with a “what’s best for me, no matter what the effect on you” approach. It will be a race to the bottom, and the depth of that bottom will be very low.
    Alternatively, with the EU, as the pressures you rightly predict increase, so any imperfections will be brushed aside or become irrelevant as the organisation is forced to focus instead on addressing issues that really matter.
    It is the only organisation we have that can do this.
    It is our only source of an ever more needed centre of stability.

    You say that “new institutions will emerge from the rubble.”
    This is not true.
    Institutions will not “emerge from the rubble” as if by magic. They will only form when people with vision, passion, and energy work to make them happen.
    That work can begin right now.
    It needs to begin right now.

    Before you vote for ‘making it worse so that it can get better’, go talk to a Syrian refugee. Ask them how that worked out for them.

    • Thanks Finn. I don’t see my attitude as defeatist. I am just trying to work out how I am feeling about the EU and our relationship to it. Given the number of people considering voting in favour of leaving, I don’t think I am alone in questionning whether, on balance, leaving might be the right thing to do. My wife is German – she too questions whether it is right to vote yes or no (she doesn’t get a vote of course).

      A lot of people I respect (you included) are convinced that staying in is the right thing to do. I honestly don’t know.

      • Finn Jackson says:

        Ah, my misinterpretation then Patrick. Sorry.

        To me the leave campaign has neither set out a case for why we need to leave, nor a precise vision of what their solution would be instead, nor what the steps to get there would be.
        Instead it has relied on a litany of misdirections and untruths.

        The best review of all the issues (for and against) that I have so far found is here:

        http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexitvote/2016/05/27/dear-friends-this-is-why-i-will-vote-remain-in-the-referendum/

        (If WordPress strips out the link, try googling “LSE Nicholas Barr Letter to friends: this is why I will vote Remain in the referendum” )

      • I agree that many people are going through the same process of questioning whether we should be in our out of the EU, as you describe above. I’ve gone through a similar stage, though I always come back to the point of the whether we are better working to improve the current system rather than to throw everything to chance and hope that a phoenix will emerge from the relative chaos. That seems far from guaranteed and reason indicates that it’s a big risk to take. The examples of Iraq, Syria can’t be ignored, and maybe we’re also forgetting is that what we already have have is one of the best systems in the world.

        You have outlined some of the shortcomings of being in the EU, but can we be sufficiently optimistic that a new regime based on ‘compassion, collaboration, peace’ will emerge if we leave. There are precious few examples on which to base that optimism, and these higher ideals could be much harder to reinforce in a country that might be struggling.

      • Dear Edmund, thanks for this. Personally I would always rather negotiate, hard though it may be, than throw my toys out of the pram and leave. But sometimes a dramatic signal is needed when someone is not listening.

        So perhaps my temptation to vote leave comes in large part from a huge frustration that the people who run the EU don’t listen to the people of the EU. Leaving might be the only way of sending a message to them. I was speaking to a friend and we were saying that maybe the best result is a very close vote in favour of staying. This will send a strong message without us having to quit.

        I still think that in the medium term it is only a matter of time before the EU is forced to break up because of all the pressures it faces. So maybe this vote is not as important as we are making it out to be. The main thing is our attitude – to express our love for the people of Europe, whilst not make the mistake of confusing them with the bureaucrats and politicians who make the decisions!

  • Rory says:

    Have you looked at the impact of the EU on the world beyond the EU?
    Google “impact of EU on Africa” and you’ll quickly find how the EU has used protecting it’s own industries at the cost of developing nations such as Africa from being able to exit poverty traps.

    EU farming subsidies make up around 40% of EU budgets. It’s a massive bit of the EU, that is literally killing those beyond the EU.

    The Common Agricultural Policy (est 1962, so circa 50 years) of the EU is a series of protectionist measures that distort competition beyond the EU. It is having a devastating impact on agriculture and economic growth in Africa.

    The policy keeps food prices in Britain (and the rest of the EU) high and the excess and subsidised cheap produce is being dumped on African markets.

    African farmers are unable to compete, and high EU tariff barriers on African exports are stopping the African continent from trading its way out of poverty thus leaving many African countries trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and the continent dependent on aid.

    The EU gives large sums of aid to Africa whilst simultaneously enforcing punishing and prohibitive trade practices which are stifling growth and innovation.

    “The European Union is an ongoing disaster for Africa” Sam Akai, Director of Democratic Institutions for Poverty Reduction in Africa argues that “the European Union is an ongoing disaster for Africa” and that “no other continent bloc administers a more comprehensive trade protection against Africa than the European Union”

    The EU has only one free trade agreement on the African continent which is with South Africa, and leaving the EU would allow Britain to rekindle and re-engage with independent Commonwealth countries, and strike fairer trade deals which would better reflect Britain’s role as a leading pioneer of free market enterprise. Africa needs trade not aid.

    The EU has always sought to highlight how EU export policies provide
    cheap food to developing countries’ consumers. However this ignores
    the fact that it leaves recipient countries vulnerable to external
    fluctuations in food prices. Without a sustainable domestic
    agricultural sector, developing countries often find themselves
    dependent on imports that contravene their health, nutritional,
    environmental and cultural norms, including GM crops, but without the
    option of refusing such exports (that I’d see as product dumping).

  • thanks Rory for the reminder that there is much more at stake than just the UK and the EU – that there are other countries and other communities affected by our decision.

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