By Andreas Staab
“Are you a Eurosceptic?” is a question that is frequently asked by my students and clients. Of course, it all depends on your definition of Eurosceptic. It is in the nature of my job—whether as a teacher or as a consultant—to highlight the shortcomings, challenges and pitfalls of the European integration project, just like an American scholar or journalist might highlight certain inadequacies in the political system of the US. But does that turn those people into a “DC sceptics?” From this perspective, practically every citizen in Europe could be classified as a Eurosceptic. If your understanding of Euroscepticism, however, involves the belief that the interests of your country are best served by leaving the EU, then not everyone might subscribe to such a definition.
This is the choice facing the British electorate on June 23. What type of a Eurosceptic are you? The one who thinks that sovereignty is a zero-sum game and the more Brussels is organizing and controlling our lives, the less we are in control of our own destiny? The one who believes that European integration and the institutions and policies that it has created over the last 75 years have failed and that being a member in the EU no longer serves the national interest? Or the one who feels that despite the many shortcomings of the EU, 21st-century challenges can only be met through multilateral cooperation? The one who thinks that European integration does not imply a loss of sovereignty but the sharing of it with your neighbours? The one who believes that relinquishing a degree of national autonomy might still serve the national interest best?
Ever since Prime Minister David Cameron announced the date of the referendum, there have been feverish discussions in parliament, in the media, and among voters. The government, with the exception of a handful of cabinet members, is arguing in favor of staying. However, the ruling Conservative Party is very much split on the issue ever since the European Union moved onto a higher level of political integration with the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. An outcome is very hard to predict, given the large number of undecided voters.
It seems odd that the concessions which Cameron secured from his European partners in the run-up to the campaign are almost immaterial. Some changes to welfare claims of EU migrants, an assurance that countries who opted out of the continent’s single currency—the Euro—will not be discriminated against, and a commitment towards a more competitive European single market have not made a significant impact on voters’ perception. What is at stake is more an overall assessment of the country’s relationship towards Europe. And here the battlelines are in the process of being drawn. The “remain” camp stresses economics: the fact that the UK can influence the regulation of Europe’s single market and can freely trade with its 500 million consumers. Leaving this market would result in job losses and a massive fall in prosperity levels. Every now and then the pro-camp also highlights security concerns from Islamic State terrorism to migration waves from the Middle East and Africa, which can only properly be addressed through a pan-European approach. In short, the EU might not be perfect, but it is certainly preferential to the uncertainties of a Brexit—Britian leaving the EU.
No wonder the “leave” campaign is mocking its counterpart by referring to it as “Project Fear.” Not at all, comes the response. Staying in the EU is more about “Project Fact.” And indeed, the Brexiters so far have failed to paint a concrete picture of what an independent UK would look like. Some would prefer the “Norwegian” option; being a part of the EU’s single market without being a member of the EU. While such an approach might free a country from the political subordination to Brussels, meeting single market regulations that are only set by EU members would result not in an increase, but most certainly a loss of economic sovereignty. Hence, the “Canada” option has frequently been mentioned: being outside and negotiating trade deals with the EU on an ad-hoc basis, as a quasi, free trader guided by the rulebook of the World Trade Organization. Unfortunately, while trading inside the EU’s Single Market comes tariff free, the same does not apply to free traders and other WTO members where, depending on the type of product or service and the volume of trade, tariffs and customs duties apply. Not a problem, say the Brexiters: These increased costs will be more than compensated by the fact that the UK would now be free to negotiate its own trade deals and does not have to collaborate with EU countries on reaching agreements with the likes of China, India, and other emerging economies. As a result, new trade deals will be more in line with the UK’s economic strengths and independent from the trade agenda of the likes of France and Germany. There is, however, a significant level of doubt whether such a calculation would result in a net gain. After all, the EU is a powerhouse when it comes to world trade and thus has a significant negotiation leverage—something that the UK will struggle or even fail to achieve when going it alone.
Given the difficulties in establishing an economic case for Brexit, it is of little surprise that political arguments relating to national sovereignty feature prominently. And here the Brexiters might have a case. After all, while new EU treaties (as well as the accession of new members) have to be agreed unanimously by all member states, the large majority of EU legislation now only requires the majority of states (55 percent that represent at least 65 percent of the total EU population) as well as a majority of EU parliamentarians. This means that countries no longer have a veto, and on occasion, have to accept what others have decided. By being part of the EU, a country has given up a great degree of national sovereignty. On the other hand, leaving the EU would also mean a loss of shared sovereignty. On occasion, you will be overruled, but in other instances, your own view, once it has the support by most of EU countries, might be superimposed on others. Furthermore, the question of national sovereignty is greatly compromised by the way the world works in the 21st century. The Empire is no longer, and the days when Britain was a global power have long faded into a distant memory. Moreover, there isn’t a single European country that could call the shots when dealing with Russia, China, or the US. Collaboratively though, the EU might still have a voice in international affairs. Any notion of a perceived increase in national sovereignty outside the EU ought to take these matters into account.
Looking at the cultural issues, there have been waves of citizens from other EU countries who have settled in Britain during the last ten years, taking advantage of one of the founding principles of the European Union: the free movement of people. The UK’s population is growing fast: from a current 65 million to a predicted 75 million by 2050, with around two-thirds of the population increase attributed to EU migration. As a small island, Britain simply cannot absorb and integrate that many people. Overcrowded schools and hospitals and a continued housing shortage are cited, as are concerns about the national cultural character, where in the words of Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, in some parts of a number of British cities, English is no longer spoken. These sentiments are not new. In fact, they go back to a debate that the UK had in the late 1960s when leading conservative politician Enoch Powell called for compulsory expatriation. These issues also find resonance in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. But as far as numbers are concerned, only one-eighth of UK residents were born abroad, which doesn’t even make the country the most multi-cultural place in Europe (that prize goes to Sweden). Mainstream politicians often ridicule this perceived xenophobia and racism, which does not foster a productive debate about a cultural sense of belonging. Lamenting the rapid pace of change, the influx of new cultural, social and political norms is not necessarily racism. It could also simply be a concern about fundamental changes to one’s way of life.
But what is the alternative? Leaving the EU, regaining control over your borders, and thus controlling migration numbers? Unfortunately for Brexiters, migrants (whether from within or outside the EU) make a hugely positive economic contribution. They have a higher employment rate and thus place less strain on public services than “natives.” They fill skills shortages and quite often do jobs that Brits are reluctant to do. In short, continued economic prosperity without migration is utopian. But what about the cultural argument then? The world has moved on, and we no longer live in the 1950s. Life is now global, diverse, and multi-faceted, and even outside the EU, Brits will continue to embrace diverse cultural norms, whether it be through travelling, work, or personal relationships. Yes, migration has to be managed—if that is at all possible—in a fashion where people will not feel threatened and crushed. But migrants are here to stay and the sooner people accept this fact, the better.
On the other hand, despite what the “remain” campaign will tell voters, little might actually change with a Brexit. Migrants will continue to come. The EU will continue to influence UK politics, as it is simply too big a neighbor to ignore. Brits will continue to engage with Europe: the great British tradition of vacationing for two weeks on the Spanish coast will not disappear and neither will the consumption of Italian wine. And after a couple of years, even trade in whatever “Canadian” or “Norwegian” form will normalize. This to me does not seem to be the issue. It is the potential attitude of a population that turns its back on European collaboration, that reverts to national reflexes through which modern-day challenges such as climate change, migration, terrorism, but also, continued prosperity ought to be addressed. In an interdependent and constantly interacting world this seems a counterintuitive approach. The outcome of this referendum is difficult to predict, but one thing is for sure: Britons (just like other peoples) have changed with the times: Europe is a now a geographical and mental space that is occupied by these islanders. It is no surprise that particularly younger generations find it difficult to understand what all the fuss is about. Yes, the EU might on occasion be dysfunctional, but so is the Westminster system of government, so is Washington, and so is any other political system. The EU does not affect people’s lives in a manner that is negative enough to embark on such a fundamental departure—a change that above all cannot be spelled out in sufficient detail.
Andreas Staab is author of The European Union Explained and managing director of EPIC—the European Policy Information Centre, a UK-based consultancy on the European Union.