The Exit Factor: Voting on Britain in Europe

I arrived in Britain this week to find that everyone had gone completely mad. I’d been following the ‘Brexit’ debate loosely from abroad, but up close it seemed even more distasteful: a rancorous, confusing mess of ill-tempered arguments about Turks, Albanians and Winston Churchill. David Cameron, who used to oppose British membership of the EU, now says that leaving would trigger an apocalypse. Jeremy Corbyn, who once voted to leave, now campaigns to remain. Boris Johnson, born to an MEP father of Turkish descent, compares the EU to a Nazi superstate about to be overrun by immigrants. The media, predictably, are having a field day, collecting celebrity endorsements like little boys swapping football cards. Stephen Hawking, Simon Cowell and Matt Damon are apparently for staying in Europe; Bryan Adams, Keith Chegwin and one ofcondoms.png the singers from Buck’s Fizz want to go. Richard Branson says a vote to leave would be disastrous, explaining that “although I’ve been living in the British Virgin Islands for some time now, I have never stopped caring passionately about the UK”. The cricketer Ian Botham says, bafflingly, that he wants to leave the EU so his grandchildren have “freedom to move around as they want”. The Daily Star, meanwhile, reports that Brussels bureaucrats want to ban electric kettles and toasters. “Day-to-day devices we rely on like mobile phones could also face the chop”, the paper says, thanks to new rules which “will be rolled out just weeks after we vote in the referendum”. Tonight, in the precious final hours before voting begins, Rick Astley will appear in a Channel 4 debate, explaining why he thinks Britain should never give the EU up. It’s little surprise that many voters are despairing rather than inspired.

Compared to some Brits, I tend to think of myself as pretty European – I’ve lived outside Britain for about six years; make a partial living writing about European politics and culture; and probably spent more days in France, Belgium or Germany last year than I did in the UK. A couple of years ago, I even married a European: one of those exotic creatures who persists in speaking a strange language, drinking tea without milk, and driving on the wrong side of the road. Yet despite all this, I find it easy to be convinced by some of the Leave campaign’s arguments. In recent years, the EU has failed spectacularly to deal with the greatest challenges of our age, including the Syrian refugee crisis and the collapse of the Greek economy. More worryingly, there seems to be a serious problem with the democratic basis underpinning the EU –  with the eurocracy quietly shuffling towards “ever closer union”, despite the fact that a substantial minority (or even a majority) of people have made it clear that they want anything but. A casual disregard for public opinion has fuelled the rise of populists and extremists across the continent, and of autocrats on the union’s periphery.

Far too much has been written about the referendum already. But as a follow-up to an earlier post (written when David Cameron was negotiating his reform deal with the EU), three quick points which I haven’t seen made much elsewhere:

  1. The British don’t think they’re European, but others disagree.

I’ve spent much of the last year working in former British colonies in Africa, and also spent a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about the impact which the British and their empire had on the wider world. In doing so, I’ve often been struck by the fact that to many Brits, “Europe” is somewhere else – a place different from the one they live in, to be visited occasionally by crossing the Channel. “Europeans” are not (in the British imagination) Welsh sheep farmers or Home Counties housewives, but people from elsewhere – bicycling Swedes, suntanned Italians, hardworking Poles or rustic French farmers. However, to people in other countries, Britain is unquestionably part of the continent, both geographically and politically. If a Brit goes to Amsterdam they might think they are “going to Europe”, but if a Dutch person visits London they would never think they were “leaving Europe.” And a Ugandan flying to Britain would laugh at the idea that they were visiting anywhere other than Europe.

AD-EU-front-1Perhaps as a result of this disparity, Brits tend to think that Britain plays a marginal role in European affairs. The British government is (people think) a minority voice in Brussels, unable to get its own way and liable to be outvoted by the Croatians or French or Portuguese. In reality, however, Britain has played an outsized role in Europe’s security and prosperity for centuries, and remains one of the continent’s leading economic, diplomatic and military powers – it’s worth noting that the British economy is about three times the size of the Netherlands’, and five times the size of Belgium’s; British military spending is about the same as that of France and Spain combined. In Brussels, the Brits have generally got their own way – winning rebates and exemptions, and retaining a seat at the top table despite being outside both the Schengen visa-free zone and the Eurozone. The Dutch and Germans, in particular, see the British as valuable allies in their ongoing fight against the high-spending southern states and the workshy French: the Dutch politician Frits Bolkestein recently said that the Netherlands and Britain “are maritime people” who “think differently” from the “continental” powers, while the AD newspaper thanked the Brits for helping the Dutch maintain “some common sense on this turbulent continent”. In Germany, meanwhile, Der Spiegel says people have “always looked cross the channel with some degree of envy” and “only with the British can we make the EU better and lead it into a new future”. Decades after the end of empire, the EU helps Britain retain an influence disproportionate to its size; ours is one of the few countries capable of changing the direction of the whole continent on issues like benefits for migrants or military intervention in Libya. If Britain leaves, it will not only lose influence, but be forced to stand by and watch the rest of the union swing in the opposite direction – more protectionist, more dovish, more profligate. As one Dutch newspaper said last week, “an EU without the UK would be like tea without milk. Bitter.”

2) Internationalism is the key to prosperity.

In the past year or so, I’ve spent most of my time in one of two countries. Firstly, the Netherlands: a tiny, swampy country with few natural resources, which adopted a policy of openness to the world, free trade and internationalism, and managed to become one of the richest countries the world has ever seen. And secondly, Malawi –  a tiny, swampy country with few natural resources, which adopted a policy of protectionism and isolationism; failed to negotiate a transit deal with neighbouring Mozambique; deterred foreign investment; imposed expensive and unpredictable border rules; and managed to become one of the poorest countries the world has ever seen. In Britain this week, there has been endless debate about exactly how serious the economic downturn following a Brexit would be, but the overarching lesson seems pretty clear: countries which prosper do so not by raising drawbridges, but by eliminating tariffs, easing customs controls, promoting cross-border investment, and enabling the free movement of goods and people – in other words, by doing exactly what the EU aims to do. Building an autarkic siege economy won’t make British industry thrive, and won’t bring back the glory days of Boris Johnson’s childhood.

3) Symbolism matters.

These days, political manipulation has become so pervasive that there’s a natural tendency to disdain anything which reeks of messaging or political theatre. The world needs more “substance”, we hear, and less “spin”. But the opposite is also sometimes true. Symbols matter; soft power matters; grand gestures and simple images can change the world. The election of a black man, or a woman, as U.S. President has greater meaning than the election of yet another ageing white man. A handshake between an Israeli and a Palestinian leader has greater impact than years of behind-the-scenes negotiations. The election of a Muslim bus driver’s son as Mayor helps promote ‘London values’ in a way that the election of a millionaire old Etonian never can. And, in the same way, a vote to remain in Europe provides a short-hand telegraph to the rest of the world about the kind of country which Britain is, and wants to be – guided by cooperation rather than conflict, internationalism rather than nationalism, and tolerance rather than jingoistic bigotry. I spent part of last week travelling around the north of Uganda. The people I met in the villages there probably won’t notice if Britain negotiates a new trade deal with Denmark, but they will notice if the British people announce to the world that their country is less welcoming and less connected than before, with a foreign policy which can be summarised by the poster shown below. In the 1970s, when the last EU referendum was looming, the Financial Times warned that Britain risked becoming a “tight little island” closed off from the rest of the world. We shouldn’t broadcast to the world that that’s what we’re becoming again.

For these reasons, along with many others, I will be voting to remain.




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