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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Can’t we find a better way of making decisions?

17/05/2016 § Leave a comment

In the UK we will soon be having a referendum on our membership of the EU.

Personally, I am not sure which way I will vote. It’s a complex question as to whether it’s in the interest of the UK, and indeed of Europe, for the UK to stay in or leave the EU. There are economic, political, social, military, cultural and other aspects to consider. My family will be affected by it – my wife is German and doesn’t have an English passport, and my son is half German.

Screenshot 2016-05-17 14.50.50To help me make up my mind, I would love to see an informed debate on television or the Internet, so that all the issues can be teased out. But that’s not what is happening. In our democracy, the way we deal with such matters is prominent individuals take positions that they then defend and promote. They seek to belittle the arguments of their “opponents” and exaggerate their own case.

This is all so artificial. Things are not black and white. Almost certainly these people recognise that there are arguments to be made on both sides. Even the most ardent supporter of leaving the EU, if they’re honest, should be able to admit, firstly, that they can’t be sure what will happen if we leave and that secondly, there are likely to be advantages to staying. Equally, those who support staying in should be able to admit that leaving has some potential benefits. However they can’t bring themselves to do this. Instead the question of whether we leave the EU or not becomes a question of party politics. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer want to ”win” – predictably, they support remaining, because it is almost always in the interests of those in power to promote stability. Ambitious characters such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson seek to defeat them. They lob arguments and insults at each other.

Is not this a lousy way to run a country? Wouldn’t it be better if our political leaders could admit that there are arguments on both sides? How might it be if we could bring in experts with no particular axe to grind to offer different perspectives? Then we could have a proper, balanced debate and a lot of people, including me, would be clearer about what their vote means.

If you look at how traditional committees looked at such questions, they had a very different approach. Nelson Mandela tells an interesting story early on in his autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom”. The regent (the chief of the region) who brought Mandela up after his father died, would every now and then call open meetings, when there were matters of import to the community to discuss. It was, Mandela says, “democracy in its purest form”.  Everyone who wanted to speak did so, all men were free to voice their opinions and were equal in their value as citizens. Many of them would criticise the regent, who would not react. He simply sat quietly and listened.  Only at the end of the meeting, after some kind of consensus had been reached, would the regent speak, to sum up what had been said.  Mandela said: “My later notions of leadership were profoundly influenced by observing the regent and his court. … I have always endeavoured to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion.”

This requires a very different style of leadership. A leader becomes someone who helps provide the space in which a community can make sensible decisions. Our entire democratic system, which is based upon (usually) divisive party politics, would have to be changed to allow such a different way of thinking and behaving. The closest we come to this type of dialogue is the House of Lords, where the members are not subject to elections and thus are more free to take a neutral and objective position. Funnily enough, pretty much all the political parties want to change the make up of the House of Lords. If you’re in power, anything that reduces your ability to control matters is something to be feared and then attacked.

So where does this leave me, and my choice in one month’s time? To help me make my mind up, I read newspapers (equally one -sided, for the most part) and articles that people share on Facebook (a bit better). Best of all, I talk to friends, and pick up all sorts of useful insights.

Ultimately, we all have to muddle through. Will we make the “right” decision on the EU? Who knows? What I do know is that proper dialogue not only makes for better informed decision-making, it is also healing. It bring people together so that, whatever decision is made, they understand and appreciate each other more, leading to stronger relationships in the long term. Something we can only dream of in our democracy.

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