You are just another 24 hours away from making a major decision about the future of your country, the United Kingdom. On the surface, you will be deciding on whether the United Kingdom will stay in the European Union. But this referendum of yours goes much further. It affects the future of the other 440 million Europeans as well. Many of them probably won’t care until the last days of the referendum campaign or may only start paying attention in the final hours – but the dimension of the choice you will make will eventually dawn on them.
Being German, I don’t have a vote in this choice of yours. That said, I do have an opinion and have been closely following your campaign well before the Prime Minister dropped the writ for this referendum. Before I will address the actual referendum on 23 June, I think it matters that you know who will actually be sticking his nose in. So, here is a little bit of background about my own thinking on this.
This is a long post, so I have divided it up into sections from A to J. Feel free to jump to the ones you want to read.
A: About my own background in writing this: Basically tells you where I stand on Europe, as well as my own special bond with the United Kingdom
B: Economy: The economic prospects and the questions that may arise from Brexit. Covers the economic fundamental and questions that arise on the issue of (free) trade
C: Foreign Affairs: The external affairs case for/against Brexit
D: Democracy and Constitutional Law: This is another part I’m interested in, especially given my real passion for these issues (nerdy, I know!)
D2: Switzerland, Norway and Iceland as potential models
F: The referendum question itself
G: The Leave campaign: There has been quite some commentary on this. Here, I’m adding my own views on the conduct of the referendum campaign by the Leave side
I: Achievements: Looking at what is at stake overall
J: The Future: What the referendum is all about
NOTE: I have somewhat rushed the posting of this post. It ended up longer than I wanted, and I’m still supplementing links to relevant evidence, so that you will see I’m not making things up!
A. What I Feel About Europe
I’m no romantic Europhile. To some extent, I differ from many Germans (especially older ones who have seen the war) on this. To me, the European Union is a means to an end – not the end itself. It is a means to achieve closer cooperation, a select pooling of resources, the targeted accomplishment of common objectives and a broadening of options in certain areas of common agreement. If someone asks me about my country, I will answer “Germany” in a heartbeat.
Unlike enthusiastic, philosophically driven adherents of the European project, I don’t believe that the nation state will be toast anytime soon. That’s a fantasy, especially as the nation state provides a constitutional, social and cultural rallying point to the individual nations within Europe. Our continent would be poorer if we suddenly merged into “Europeans”, with little sense of our regional, national and cultural identities. I’m deeply sceptical of grand, impractical dreams of a “United States of Europe”. I believe our future is as individual nation states working together on matters of continental importance, such as the environment, the enforcement of free & fair competition, protecting the continent from terrorist assaults and enabling major investment in science, technology & research.
We are not America, nor should we pretend to be. And looking at that particular nation’s current presidential campaign, we should (for all the affinity that I feel) probably be grateful that we are not the United States of America. Should there ever be a referendum for Germany to become part of a European federation, I’d vote against it – heck, I’d actively campaign against any such proposal and raise hell and high water. In short, I want Berlin to decide for Germany – not Brussels.
My politics (and that won’t be a shocker) are decidedly centre-right: I’m very liberal (more so than many members of my own party, the Christian Democrats) on social issues (pro-abortion, pro-equal marriage, pro-weed legalization), but pretty tough on taxes, defence, foreign affairs and, yes, Germany’s relations with the European Union. In the UK, I’d probably have voted Conservative because of the party’s affinity for the free market and individual initiative – even though I resent some of the more extreme noises coming from Eurosceptics. I was pleased when David Cameron won the election, even though some among you have told me about aspects of his government that can be rightly debated.
My home state of Lower Saxony has a close connection with the United Kingdom. The Kings of Hanover used to rule over the United Kingdom and founded the Hanoverian dynasty which ran the country prior to the House of Windsor. The histories of Germany and the United Kingdom have been intertwined in more ways than one – some tragic, some happy. More recently, the state’s last Christian Democratic premier (akin to a US governor or a first minister in a UK home nation), David McAllister, was a dual German-British national. Never have Germans and Brits been indifferent to one another. I lived in the United Kingdom for four years, studied there and still retain many friends in the country. I have seen the mighty towers of the Canary Wharf financial district, strolled through Primrose Hill, admired London from The Shard, walked across the green and pleasant hills in Yorkshire, admired the grit in the cities of the Midlands, impressed by the beauty of Edinburgh and been touched by the waves at the shores of the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
English is one of my three native languages, and British culture has had a profound influence on me. I keep going back as often as I get the opportunity – and I am happy every single time to be back in Britain. My friends are German, British, French, Dutch, Slovenian, Austrian, Georgian, Italian, Greek, Slovakian, Swedish, Finnish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Turkish and many more. Finally, with experience both studying EU law and having limited experience of the European Court of Justice, I believe that I’m in a unique position to understand both sides of the debate – especially given my own comparably nuanced views on Europe.
This is no mere foreigner giving his opinion on this (though legally speaking, that would be correct), but someone who cares about the future of Britain, Germany and the entire European continent. For this will affect us all. So, if you have read up to now, you probably think that I’m going to ask you, my British friends, to vote to leave.
Wrong. I am firmly on the side of the Remain campaign – I want you all to vote to stay in the European Union. Even when considering the flaws that the EU has (and it does have a number of them, mind you), on balance, it is in the United Kingdom’s national interest to remain. From my very own perspective, here is why.
B. The economic case for Leave is rather thin
Despite its best efforts, the Leave campaign has not answered a central question: What will happen on the day after the United Kingdom votes to withdraw? Surely, Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union would most likely be invoked by David Cameron – should he still be in office after the first day following such a decision. Apart from the political turmoil that would most certainly engulf the governing Conservative Party and the government, the economic case for Brexit looks rather thin.
Let’s start with the economic fundamentals:
- The EU Single Market is worth £16.6 trillion (CBI Factsheet)
- The UK’s trade with the EU amounts to 44% of exports and 53% of all imports of goods and services
- The EU27 account for £496 billion of foreign direct investment
- The UK has a trade deficit of £68 billion with the EU (i.e. it imports £68 billion more in goods from the EU than it exports to the EU)
- The annual cost of the most burdensome EU regulations (according to the neutral Open Europe think tank) amounts to about £33.3 billion
- The EU28 accounts for 24% of the world’s GDP (even though it only represents 7% of the world population)
- For 2014-2020, the UK has been allocated cohesion funding for structurally weak regions (Cornwall, Northern Ireland, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Shropshire)
- International organizations like the OECD, the IMF, the World Bank, the US Federal Reserve, the EU itself (quite obviously), as well as allies like the United States, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India, Japan, China, alongside the majority of economists have warned against Brexit
- Since joining the EU (then the European Economic Community) in 1973, the UK has paid around £9 billion/per year. This is the equivalent of £140 per person, per year
- At present, whilst the nominal membership fee is £18 billion, you have to deduct the automatic British rebate (obtained by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s) of £5 billion, and also weigh it against £4 billion of EU spending on structurally weak regions and other public sector expenditures: Therefore, Britain’s net contribution amounts to £8.5 billion, equivalent to £132.61 per head – LESS than the annual TV licence fee of £145.50. To put it into even more context, the per-person net contribution amounts to £11.05/month.
- That is less than the cheapest Pay Monthly deal at Vodafone (£19.20), a monthly London Underground Zone 1 season ticket (£124.50), your first piece of luggage on Ryanair (£25), the fee for a tourist visa for the Schengen zone when applying as a Third-Country National from the UK (£46.80) or five lattes at Starbucks (£13.50)
Here are the questions that matter
- What about the trade agreements signed by the EU? Once Britain leaves, Britain would no longer be part of those. Whilst some of those trade agreements are vital (South Korea, South Africa), others’ impact on the EU can be neglected. Many important negotiations, whether with India    , China     or Australia   are either stalled/only in the initial stages or, in the case of the United States     and Canada (TTIP/CETA) highly contentious and unlikely to ever become law.
- On the other side of the ledger on trade, what is more thought-provoking are the intentions of many of the holdouts on EU trade deals. In fact, President Obama has said that the United States would be in no hurry whatsoever to conclude a special trade agreement with an out-of-EU United Kingdom. India, too, is not exactly interested in a preferential trade deal with Britain. Japan, China and others have expressed their clear preference for Britain to stay part of the EU.
- There is the issue of trade barriers: What stops the residual EU from imposing tough tariffs on the UK? Leave campaigners argue that the EU wouldn’t want to deny itself access to the British market. But let’s get real for a minute. What is more important? Access to markets like India, China and the US (with a total of 2.5 billion consumers)? Or access to the UK market of about 65 million? The numbers speak for themselves.
- Negotiating trade deals takes time. If history is any guide, even if the UK were to manage to snag a free trade deal with the rest of the EU, this could take years. In the interim, upon leaving the EU, Britain would have to trade under much less favourable World Trade Organization rules. British goods would, by virtue of no longer being in a customs union, become more expensive. Michael Gove has admitted that, in his view, it would take a full 10 years to negotiate a trade deal.
- Then there is the idea of Switzerland/Norway being bandied about by Leave as well. The problem is that whilst these countries are prosperous – none of this has to do with being or not being a member of the European Union. In Switzerland, it has much to do with an economic policy premised on the idea of fiscal stability and – the irony – a major influx of qualified foreigners (in fact, most Leave campaigners would shudder considering the rate of foreigners in Switzerland). Switzerland plays host to many banks and is renowned for a liberal, competitive environment. Norway has immensely benefited from its oil wealth and its wise investment in its own sovereignty fund (one of the richest in the world). And even if we left the specific circumstances aside, the truth is that both these countries (aside from Iceland and tiny Liechtenstein) have been given access to the free market – but at the price of the free movement of workers. And unlike an EU member state, EFTA member states have no say whatsoever in these matters. They implement the laws decided by the EU, without any possibility of changing them.
- Lest you think that I’m just making this up as I go along, there exist academic studies examining the actual benefit to the UK economy. There is this study regarding the scenario in which the UK had not joined the Common Market in 1973 (Campos), even more succinctly put by the same scholar here (Campos 2). Another study by Crafts estimates that the benefits of EU membership “appreciably” exceed any costs caused by budgetary transfers and regulation. Or take the University of Oxford’s Institute for New Economic Thinking, which has observed that the per-capita growth of the UK economy since it joined the EU has outperformed Germany and France (103 to 99 to 73%, respectively).
C. The European Union turns the United Kingdom into a major player
Leave campaigners such as Daniel Hannan MEP and Boris Johnson claim that Britain can actively engage with the rest of the world upon leaving the EU: Their Britain would conclude trade deals en masse, radically liberalize the economy, cut corporation tax and devalue the pound sterling – and gain access to the EU Single Market. Then, it is claimed that Britain’s UN Security Council seat, alongside OECD and G7 membership will preserve Britain’s international role in the world. Further, the Commonwealth is projected as an interesting alternative to the European Union. Some Conservatives even speak of an Anglosphere  comprising, variously, the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and India/the wider Commonwealth.
The truth is much more complex: the United Kingdom benefits from its access to a single market of 500 million consumers, as proven by several academic studies. Yes, it is a customs union – but one which enforces competition rules, ensures the mutual recognition of standards, ensures the comparability of goods and the ability of UK businesses to seamlessly provide goods and services. China, India, Japan, the United States, Canada and others have already announced their strong preference for the UK to vote remain. The Anglosphere, whilst an interesting theoretical construct, remains a chimera – especially as no one is seriously suggesting an institutional rapprochement between English-speaking countries.
Even more importantly, EU membership turns the UK from an otherwise mid-sized power acting as the junior partner to the United States into a more credible global player – especially when opportunities like the impending EU presidency in 2017 (the irony) come around. Britain is the third-largest economy in the bloc, the second-largest EU net contributor, a direct link to the Commonwealth and (via its special relationship to Washington) to the United States. Additionally, given the dynamism and significance of its economy, its importance in the international arena is further underlined by its membership of the EU. It can play a leading role in shaping the foreign policy of the wider European Union – and, alongside France, the UK has been held by the European Council on Foreign Relations to be just that. A leader, not a quitter.
D. A Tale of Two Democracies
Another interesting argument brought up by Leave campaigners is the following: “Ever since we voted for the Common Market in 1975, the EEC has turned into a European Union full of unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats supported by equally unaccountable, unelected judges at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Why should British citizens have to put up with this?” Let’s examine this particular claim. Yes, prima facie, the European Union does not work like a normal constitutional republic.
The European Commission & Mr Juncker
The European Commission is primarily a civil service, headed by political appointee commissioners. The civil service is recruited through fairly rigorous examinations from nationals of all 28 EU member states. Its President, Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, is not comparable to a head of state. He is not the commander-in-chief of any armed forces. He has no power of veto over any legislation emanating from the European Parliament and he also cannot order Member States to do anything. Excellent examples include the refugee crisis and the Eurozone crisis. Whenever he has proposed anything, like a long-term for a European Army, it has either been ignored, laughed off or criticized. Mr Juncker is a lot of a things, but a Leonid Brezhnyev he is not.
Mr Juncker is not a self-proclaimed monarch, but a compromise candidate supported by the overwhelming majority of EU Member States (26 out of 28 – the only ones who didn’t agree were the UK and the Czech Republic) and formally confirmed by the European Parliament (in which UK delegates are the third-largest contingent). He was chosen on the basis of his experience as the Prime Minister of Luxembourg. Luxembourg, for all the flaws in its taxation laws, happens to be one of the countries with the highest standards of living across the European Union. Luxembourgers, despite the occasional hiccup, respected Mr Juncker’s work and re-elected him to several terms as Prime Minister. Whilst I’m not a fan of either his unbridled federalist tendencies (which are not shared by most Europeans, according to opinion polls – more about this later) or his record regarding taxation issues, I believe that the EU could have (and has) done way worse than nominate him. Whilst his opinions on policy issues may matter, they have to be treated as initiatives and suggestions, not gospel. Mr Juncker, despite implications to the contrary by Mr Farage, cannot force EU Member States to change their constitutional arrangements to suit European Union objectives.
Accountability to the European Parliament
Indeed, Mr Juncker and his entire Commission can be removed by said Parliament at any time via a motion of censure – something the European Parliament made self-confident use of in 1999 when another Commission President from Luxembourg, Jacques Santer, came in for sharp criticism for his poor leadership skills and the corruption by some of his fellow commissioners (the former French prime minister Edith Cresson chief amongst them) and was forced to resign. Some may say that a 35% turnout in a European Parliament election isn’t exactly a great basis of legitimacy.
No, but that is not the fault of the current constitutional arrangements, that is the fault of voters failing to inform themselves (doubly unforgivable in the internet age when such information is easily available to anyone even vaguely literate) and Member State governments not wishing to lend greater legitimacy to EU organs by promoting high turnout – and a parallel power base. Of course, there are legitimate concerns about the size and red tape associated with certain rules and procedures of the European Union’s bureaucracy. But these shouldn’t distract from the failure of all Member States to agree on a common-sense institutional structure, be it for lacking the courage of their original convictions or just sheer convenience. Usually, politicians don’t tend to make serious proposals in favour of integration. Yes, there are mutterings about President Hollande of France wishing to see a Eurozone Parliament – but first, that would not affect the UK anyway and, second, that is more owed to Mr Hollande being increasingly desperate in his bid to get re-elected (current approval rating: 14%). Context matters.
Who Reigns Supreme?
There also exists another major misunderstanding about EU constitutional law. First, whilst the European Court of Justice claims primacy over the national legal orders of all EU countries, this claim has been disputed by national constitutional courts across Europe (including the UK Supreme Court). Rather than being a recipient of Luxembourg’s orders, the UK Supreme Court cooperates with the European Court of Justice in enforcing a common legal order for all EU states – which come to think of it, is necessary for a single market to be effective. Imagine if Germany, Italy, the UK and France had vastly different understandings of the same rules – the entire Single Market would effectively become a free-for-all, negating the need for the European Union in the first place. Finally, bear in mind that despite simplifications in the broadcast media, the European Court of Justice doesn’t decide any national cases – it merely offers a binding interpretation on European law, which it then provides the national court (that triggered that preliminary reference to the ECJ in the first place) with the opportunity to decide that case with the ECJ’s formal answer in mind.
There are a range of cases in which the national constitutional courts have effectively opposed the primacy claim of the ECJ by defining “primacy” in terms favourable to the Member States.   
It is also important to bear in mind that no steps towards full integration within the European Union (and a further transfer of sovereign powers) can be undertaken without the authorization of national parliaments and, in some cases (Ireland and France, for instance), the national electorates. The EU does not raise any taxes from EU citizens, EU citizenship (something regularly bemoaned by Mr Farage) is ancillary to every Member State’s citizenship (meaning that you’re only an EU citizen because you’re a UK citizen/a German citizen etc), national parliaments have been somewhat strengthened in regard to vetoeing proposed EU legislation (yellow and red card mechanism).
Further, I always have to smile when Leave campaigners complain about “unelected EU judges and bureaucrats”. Let’s be very blunt. I can only think of a few countries in the world where either are elected or directly accountable to the public. In fact, Whitehall civil servants are typically appointed on the basis of the government’s recommendations and, at the most senior levels, also enjoy considerable perks (right up to the same luxury cars that Vote Leave so vociferously criticizes in the case of EU officials). Additionally, before Britain became an EEC member, laws in the United Kingdom were nominally made by Parliament – but could always be reviewed by the House of Lords Judicial Committee (which is now the UK Supreme Court). Those judges typically undergo legal training as barristers, practice for many years at the Bar, are then recommended to judicial appointments and, after having gone through distinguished careers, are typically appointed to the Supreme Court. It is no different with the judges of the European Court of Justice, for the appointment of whom strict criteria have been laid down in the EU Treaties. Even in the event of Brexit, complaints about “unelected judges” and “shadowy bureaucrats” won’t stop – they will merely shift focus back to London. If countries like the United States are any guide, the role of the judiciary in a pluralistic society (especially a polarized one) will remain contentious.
Constitutionally speaking, the EU is best described as an international organization with limited sovereign powers having been transferred by the Member States. Despite claims to the contrary and attempts by hardcore federalists to pretend otherwise (for example, by laughably referring to the rather austere speech by the EU Commission President before the European Parliament as the “State of the Union” address), the European Union is nowhere near a federalist super-state, nor will it ever be. There is quite simply no support in any of the major countries, including Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain or Greece – let alone any of the new Member States which have just emerged from communist dominance by the erswhile Soviet Union and are not exactly keen to transfer too many of the core sovereign powers to a new entity.
There won’t be a European Federation – Ever
That’s why it is vital to make a distinction between the reality of public sentiment in the Member States and the fanciful ideas expressed by some of Europe’s leaders. One day you will have Mr Juncker indicating his desire for a European Army (a completely useless undertaking, since other than France and the United Kingdom, none of the other EU Member States have effective military capacities anyway – and since it merely represents a duplication of work already done by NATO) or Martin Schulz, the Speaker of the European Parliament wishing for closer cooperation. But that’s all they are: Wishes, desires, items on a wish list. Without the approval of ALL 28 Member State governments, the European Union will never be able to become a federation anyway. And bear in mind that countries like the Netherlands, Ireland, Malta, Austria, France, Hungary, Spain, Luxembourg and others would require (or have a tradition of consulting via) a national referendum. In my country, Germany, joining a federation (according to legal experts) would necessitate the calling of a constitutional convention or a national referendum – both of which would (in the current climate) result in a loud rejection of any such plans. Fears of a European superstate are overblown and primarily fanned by publications like The Sun or the Daily Mail (none of which are exactly known for their journalistic standards). In the same breath, Leave advocates accuse the EU of being incompetent, feckless, outdated and outright dying. So, what is it?
D2: Like it or not, the Swiss model is a chimera – and so are Norway and Iceland
In their effort to convince the public of the merits of leaving the European Union, Brexit campaigners are presenting Switzerland as a model for a post-Brexit Britain. Yes, at first glance, the idea sounds very appealing. Switzerland is one of the strongest economies, outperforms the Eurozone, boasts low unemployment and some control on migration. Those are laudable and vital qualities which have fuelled an economic success story that has few peers (Germany would be another one). That said, there are many caveats.
First, Switzerland’s arrangements with the EU rest on a complex network of bilateral arrangements – the first part of which alone took 10 years to negotiate after Swiss voters rejected accession to the European Economic Area. The first set of bilateral agreements include areas as diverse as free movement of persons, technical obstacles to trade, public procurement, agriculture, research (suspended after Switzerland voted to restrict the number of EU nationals in 2014), civil aviation and overland transport. A second set of bilateral agreements includes Switzerland joining the Schengen Zone, accepting the Dublin asylum regimen, committing to anti-fraud measures, enables Switzerland to participate in the EU’s film funding programme, Switzerland joining the European Environment Agency, Switzerland adopting the statistical standards of the European Union, enabling Swiss students to participate in the Erasmus+ programme, exchanging information with Europol, cooperating with Eurojust and EU competition authorities (including the DG Competition of the European Commission).
Second, Switzerland still has had to accept free movement of workers – from the point of view of the Leave campaign which has been about retaking full control of immigration policy, this is highly problematic. In fact, the Swiss federal government is on record as conceding that the restricted access to the Single Market places Switzerland at a competitive disadvantage – especially its financial services sector, something that should make Britons particularly wary. Iceland and Norway also offer no solace for those who wish to have access to the Single Market and avoid free movement rules being applied to the UK. In fact, the Prime Minister of Norway has warned the United Kingdom from leaving the European Union. Her tagline: “They will not like it”. And she would know – after all, Norway voted against EU membership twice (in 1972 and 1994), but still has to accept free movement of workers and most of the Single Market legislation, without any say. It also appears that there may be a signifcant underreporting of the country’s unemployment figures – something claimed by independent researchers who themselves rank Norway well in terms of prosperity it must be noted. Taking back control? Not so much.
Third, neither Iceland, nor Norway, nor Switzerland offer proper guidance in the event the UK decides to walk out of the proverbial door. Why? Because none of these countries ever were EU members in the first place. Let’s acknowledge, first of all, that the UK boasts one of the world’s five major economies. It is a member of the G7, the G20, NATO, the OECD and the UN Security Council.
However, even a UK with 61 million inhabitants will face a European Union with about 440 million consumers in the Single Market – boasting 5 of the world’s 20 leading economies (Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands), an established legal order, a functioning Single Market, as well as (via its relations with the EFTA countries and neighbouring countries) a fairly iron grip on the continental economy. Consider the fact that during the original renegotiation, other Member States made it very clear that there would be no further concessions and that “Out means Out” in the event of Brexit. Consider also that both Angela Merkel of Germany (with some prospect of success) and Francois Hollande of France (with less prospects of success) face re-election campaigns in their respective countries, as well as formidable challenges from Eurosceptic right-wing populist forces in their countries. Consider further that there are already strong Eurosceptic movements active in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Austria – and that is in addition to governments whose agendas have proven somewhat intransigent towards the EU in Hungary, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
What incentive would the European Union (and especially the leading Member States Germany and France) have for offering the United Kingdom a preferential free trade deal without demanding freedom of movement for its citizens (if Switzerland does offer any guide, then it is that the EU does not compromise on freedom of movement) – especially when the latter has been rejected as politically unacceptable by the proponents of the UK’s withdrawal? Think about that, and then compare that to the claims made by the Leave side.
E. Fixing Immigration – Together
Leaving the European Union is not going to fix immigration. Let me be very blunt: Australia has immigrants. The United States has them. Canada has them. New Zealand has them. At least half of the UK’s immigrants are from non-EU countries. Even if all EU immigration was frozen tomorrow (and even Leave isn’t proposing that), the problem of immigration from outside the current European Union would still remain. Additionally, Leave has promised that current EU citizens would be permitted to stay in the United Kingdom – with their status being transitioned to a UK-based permanent leave to remain in the country. If that is the case, there will remain a resource shortage.
The United Kingdom has never been a member of the Schengen passport-free travel zone. Therefore, it already has a greater measure of control over its border than most EU countries – which still retain the residual right of reintroducing border controls in cases of public order disturbances and the like. One example for that? Germany, which reintroduced border controls last September in response to the growing refugee crisis. France has introduced them multiple times during times of national need, including the immediate aftermath of the 13 November terrorist attacks and the current European championship.
It also does not address another problem on the United Kingdom’s direct doorstep: the Republic of Ireland, with which the UK shares a common land border. All a refugee needs to do (as some have attempted) is to cross the Irish Sea and arrive in the Republic of Ireland – and then enter the UK via the land border. Apart from the potential problems that the closure of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could cause on the entire island of Ireland, this remains a major issue that has not been addressed by the Leave campaign. The fact remains that if the United Kingdom leaves, there will be no cooperation with the remainder of the European Union on immigration issues. The UK border posts at the Gare du Nord in Paris and in Calais would undoubtedly be abolished – especially as there would be no further incentive to cooperate.
Immigration is no easy topic, but it is vital that the flow of migrants be more controlled. However, it is also important to level with the peoples of Europe about the need for strategic, highly qualified economic migration to our Continent. We need the highly-skilled, but it is part of our creed as humans to help genuine war refugees in need. One nation on its own cannot be a fortress unto itself, but together we are more likely to find a solution to crises related to immigration
F. Stick to the question
When looking at some of the campaign materials disseminated by the Leave campaign, especially online, you could think that this referendum is about any of the following issues
1.) Turkish EU membership or the supposedly imminent entry of Albania, Macedonia or Serbia into the EU
2.) The refugee crisis
3.) David Cameron’s term as Prime Minister (or “sending him a message”)
4.) Revolting against the Westminster elites
5.) Supposed German domination of the European continent
6.) Various statements made by Messrs Juncker, Schulz and Tusk; or Angela Merkel
7.) The Greek bailouts
The truth is, however, that none of these are on the ballot. The question, despite what tweets, speeches, advertisements, leaflets and posters have occasionally sought to portray is neither of the following:
“Shall David Cameron remain Prime Minister of the United Kingdom?”
“Would you prefer David Cameron or Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom?”
“Would you like a better deal with the European Union than the one presented by the Prime Minister?”
“Would you like Turkey, Macedonia, Albania or Serbia to join the European Union?”
“Do you approve of Jean-Claude Juncker’s presidency of the European Commission?” or
“Do you wish to accept x number of refugees into the United Kingdom?”
Instead, the question is: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Just like the prosecution in a criminal case, the Leave campaign should be held to a high standard. After all, it is, directly or by implication, asserting the following facts:
- The United Kingdom has suffered ever since its accession to the European Economic Community
- The European Union offers no tangible benefits to the UK economy or UK citizens
- The United Kingdom will do comparably well without the European Union
- The United Kingdom can negotiate a deal preserving full control of its borders, avoiding free movement of workers and still retain access to the Single Market
- The United Kingdom has done everything it could short of leaving to exhaust the possibilities of membership to the nation’s benefit
For the aforementioned reasons, it is my sincere belief that the Leave campaign has failed to provide satisfactory replies on these questions.
G. The patronizing Leave campaign and its Republican tactics
I have already explained above that I’m not an ardent Europhile. I don’t believe in “ever-closer union” and think this particular ambition should be deleted from the Treaties. It was an aspirational statement when the world was recovering from the horrors of the Second World War. But we are more than three generations removed from those, and it’s time to acknowledge the popular mood across the European Union – and it is certainly not in favour of a full-fledged federation.
That said, one of the reasons why I would strongly advocate voting to Remain is that their opponents from the Leave campaign has failed to make a coherent, logical case for departing from the European Union. Instead they have adopted a mindset that is reminiscent of Republicans and the extreme Tea Party in the United States. Before I continue, let me give you a brief primer on that particular matter.
Basically, US Republicans have been gradually exposed to nativist, atavistic and crassly bigoted influences over the past generation or so – starting with the winning presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush against his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1988. That was the time when ads prominently portrayed blacks as criminals (Willie Horton), played up the Stars and Stripes, and emphasized the so-called culture war issues (settled in many other educated nations) – namely abortion, equal marriage, school prayer and the like.
This accelerated during the term of office of Mr Bush’s son, George W. Bush which began in January 2001 – and was particularly boosted after the 11 September attacks. Alongside the cultural issues, you suddenly had a militarization of American society, which also led to an increased suspicion of Islam. In 2008, as President Bush’s term was ending, Senator John McCain’s campaign elevated Sarah Palin to become his running mate against then-Senators Barack Obama and (running mate) Joe Biden. Especially Palin used tactics attempting to link Obama, the first black man to plausibly seek the office of President, to Islam (Obama is a Christian) and terrorists.
Even though those claims were discredited, a fringe in American society started questioning Obama’s patriotism and eventually the fact that he was born in the United States. People like Newt Gingrich, a former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives questioned a supposed “Kenyan post-colonial mentality”. Upon him assuming office, Republicans then proceeded to question statistics (like the official unemployment rate), denied climate change and also went about to restrict access to voting in the states in which their governors ran the state governments. The result?
Donald J. Trump – a man who despises Mexican immigrants, wants to ban Muslims and blames other countries for America’s ills – is now the presumptive nominee for President of the United States.
Why this excursion into American politics whilst explaining one of the reasons for supporting Remain in the British European Union membership referendum? Because the Leave campaign has essentially adopted the strategy of US Republicans and Mr Trump. Examples are legion.
Ironically, one of them has to do with President Obama. When he visited the United Kingdom, the president made a rare foray into domestic UK politics – the United States has never made a secret of its preference for the UK to remain in the European Union. The response by the Leave campaign was rather unsubtle. Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London and leading Leave campaigner surmised that Mr Obama was being influenced by his “half-Kenyan ancestry” against the UK’s best interests. By the way, this is the same man who referred to black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” – far from being a bumbling buffoon with a blond shock of hair, Mr Johnson is playing a strategy of hardball against Mr Cameron to win the prime ministership. In this game, anything goes – even subtle appeals to xenophobia. Then, there is always the fear of Germany dominating the EU  – or as Mr Johnson phrased it, the EU being yet another attempt to dominate Europe in the spirit of “Napoleon and Hitler”. Yes, he took it there.
Another example is Nigel Farage – the suited, beer-guzzling and ever-so-polite leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party. Whilst some of the issues he has raised are legitimate topics of criticism – say, the democratic deficit in the EU – his criticism comes across as disingenuous on a number of levels. This is a man who criticises the EU Parliament, yet is happy to draw a salary from it and has one of the worst attendance records   (even though UKIP has the largest UK contingent in the EU Parliament). This is only matched by his terribly low attendance record in the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament: 1 out of 42. That’s right, a man who campaigned on the plight of UK fishermen, (supposedly) at the hands of the EU, was a truant when it came to doing the hard work of seeking information, proposing solutions and getting things done. In recent months, he has identified his winning topic: EU immigration. He complains about EU immigrants flooding the UK and essentially taking away resources from hard-working British people. Sound familiar?
If it does, you’re right – this is the same approach followed by the likes of Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Filip Dewinter in Belgium and Heinz Christian Strache in Austria. As if that were not enough, the Leave campaign then stoked fears of Turkey joining the EU: Apart from the fact that Turkey’s membership application (despite the refugee deal) would be dead on arrival (the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria for membership, including democracy, the rule of law, an independent judiciary and a free press, would take care of that) and not imminent for the next generation (especially under President Erdogan’s dictatorial leadership   ), the Turkey argument is a transparent attempt (“75 million Turks will have freedom of movement”) to incite fear about more prospective welfare recipients flooding the shores of the UK. Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? Nigel Farage’s unveiling of his Breaking Point poster, just hours prior to the brutal murder of Jo Cox MP, spoke volumes about the tone of the Leave campaign.
Leave has been particularly vicious about personal attacks against the leading Remain campaigners, including the Prime Minister who by now has been called a liar and a fraud by his own cabinet ministers. Celebrities, artists and other public figures supporting Remain are viciously attacked on social media, defamed as traitors and virulently insulted. What is even more concerning are the tactics used by Leave, which have the cumulative effect of coarsening public debate in the UK and establishing denial of facts, xenophobia and deliberate anti-intellectualism as valid strands of opinion in the Brexit debate. Take the example of Justice Secretary Michael Gove who dismissed warnings by international organizations warning of major economic ramifications as hot air by saying: “The British people have had enough of experts”. Really Lord Chancellor? The British people have had enough of availing themselves of the best possible estimates, based on years and decades of experience in economic forecasting? They have had enough of reasoned arguments, real expertise and knowledgeable debate? Well, judging by their campaigning style, you could assume that Leave is indeed done with the realm of reasoned debate.
H. Brexit will merely shift the bogeyman from Brussels to London
In tweets, press releases and media messaging, the Leave campaign has heavily concentrated on a few bogeymen and –women: Angela Merkel (reviving the old stereotype of the power-hungry German willing to go to any length to dominate Europe – when the exact opposite is true  ), Martin Schulz (ditto, in addition to being the President of an admittedly barely legitimate institution – sorry, that’s what 35% turnout gets you) and, of course, Jean-Claude Juncker (the EU Commission President who is hardly a poster boy for fighting tax havens, to say the least – and has been criticized in the British press from his federalist views to his alleged proclivity towards having a drink or two).
The refrain is the same: “Look at these unaccountable individuals, wasting the money of hard-working British taxpayers on ridiculous spending like two headquarters of the European Parliament, MEP salaries being too high, luxury cars, wine cellars and the like.” Look, that’s all well and good. But does the Leave campaign realize the irony behind all these statements?
Just a few years ago, a substantial number of members of the UK House of Commons were caught having fiddled their expenses, claiming money for second homes in London, employing their relatives as assistants and, in one case, the construction of a moat around their house. Tony Blair deliberately misled the nation into a costly war (once again, more expensive and wasteful than any of the EU’s foibles), a decision which he hasn’t apologized for to this day. Gordon Brown abolished the 10% tax rate for the most vulnerable taxpayers. The defence minister of the pre-EEC Macmillan cabinet was involved in a sex scandal with a high-priced callgirl (the Profumo/Keeler affair). One of the lowpoints of the Thatcher era was the Westland helicopter scandal. There was the Bernie Ecclestone donations affair involving the Labour Party in the late 1990s. On the other side of the aisle, a range of scandals involving both the ethics and corruption of a range of cabinet ministers and MPs led to the landslide defeat of John Major’s Conservative government in 1997. None of these scandals had an ounce to do with the EU. Whilst I don’t seek to minimize the profilgate, unnecessary and downright unjustifiable spending by the EU on boondoggles like a second seat for the European Parliament, a bureaucracy-laden Common Agricultural Policy and an excess number of directorates-general in the EU Commission (or for that case, an excess number of Members of the European Parliament), it does stand to reason that political scandals will continue well after a potential British withdrawal from the European Union. And even though publications like the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Express like to hammer home the message of corrupt Eurocrats, it needs to be borne in mind that withdrawal from the EU is neither a satisfactory, nor a particularly effective way to end corruption or wasteful spending.
Some of the criticisms levelled smack of hypocrisy. If Nigel Farage and his UKIP group in the European Parliament (the largest UK contingent) were honest and principled about their opposition, they could go the Sinn Fein route in London and stand for election, but refuse taking the oath – especially as they do wish to leave the EU. Why draw salaries from a parliament which you regularly criticize and rail against?
The bogeyman of the Eurosceptic press will merely be shifted from Brussels to London.
Finally, it also seems that beyond the most obvious, many EU citizens (and that, with respect, includes many UK citizens) are not aware of what the EU actually offers them. So let’s list those:
- Travelling, living, studying and retiring in any of the other 27 Member States without the need for a visa, an entrance fee, restrictions upon your stay or the need for formal registration. It provides you with flexibility, as you don’t have to apply for a Schengen visa and pay for it. If you are someone who travels to continental Europe for either leisure of business on a regular basis (and not just for that often vaunted “trip to Ibiza”), you will appreciate the freedom this offers you. For families, that’s also no small matter. Imagine being parents of two children, or travelling with your best friends and the like. A €60 visa fee may not appear like much to some, but it can get pretty expensive pretty fast for families. European Union locations represent the majority of destinations for British travellers.
- Being able to avail yourself of a range of consumer rights: Warranty of 2 years for any product manufactured in the EU; having the possibility of returning products bought online for up to a week (without an explanation etc)
- The right to emergency healthcare when abroad in the rest of the EU28 (25.9 million EHICs in circulation as of now in the UK alone – EHIC Report 2014) – In fact, ill British tourists cost the EU27 a grand total of £155 million (in 2013-14), whereas EU tourists cost the UK exchequer around £30 million
- Benefiting from the Working Time Directive: You are entitled to 28 days of paid leave
- Age discrimination laws passed in 2006 came about as a result of EU legislation
- EU environmental standards ensuring you have cleaner beaches, fresher air and better drinking water
- Legislation ensuring anti-discrimination, equality between full-time & part-time employees, equal pay for equal work (see also Sabena v Defrenne)
- Your driving licence is valid across the remaining EU27
- Equal pay for equal work – enshrined for all people
- More certainty and LESS red tape for British businesses: That’s what happens when you don’t have to deal with 27 separate sets of rules & regulations across the continent. No customs formalities, no trade barriers, less bureaucracy
- The UK benefits from the second-largest amount of research funding for the EU. Funding that may prove vital to cure cancer, alleviate other illnesses or create new technologies for wider consumer applications
- Food labelling: Allergic substances and genetically modified ingredients must be clearly labelled
- Protection of British businesses from discrimination: Governments in the other EU27 (for instance, in my home state of Lower Saxony – home to Volkswagen) are not permitted to financial distort the market by offering state aid. The EU competition authorities enforce free & fair competition across the continent and have been successful in keeping market-dominant corporations like Google, Microsoft and Ryanair in check. This has benefitted consumers in the form of lower prices, more transparent commercial practices and greater market choice.
- Elimination of telecoms and aviation monopolies (Open Skies policy) have led to cheaper phone calls and cheaper flights across the board
- Swifter and less complex extradition of fugitive EU nations via the European Arrest Warrant
- Cleaning up British beaches: When Britain joined, most UK beaches failed the EU Bathing Water Directive test. Now, 98% pass it with flying colours. The EU has speeded up the pace of environmental measures on clean water, clean air and
- Want to reduce refugee numbers? Counterintuitively, the EU might be your best bet. It is the world’s largest contributor of foreign aid, giving £42.8 billion to developmenrt work across the board. In the mid- to long run this may be the best method to decrase the pressure on asylum
- Your British degrees and qualifications must be recognized across the EU, instead of Member States stalling on recognition. The Bologna reforms (modelled primarily along the UK degree structure) have improved the comparability of degrees across the EU28
And these are only some of the advantages of being part of the EU.
J. Confidently Advancing into the Future
In less than 24 hours, you will be making a decision that will define a generation. The truth is that both the Remain and the Leave campaigns have not set standards for factual campaigning. The Remain campaign failed to present a positive, confident and unapologetic defence of Britain’s European Union membership. Whether it may have been because of the sway held by the rabidly Eurosceptic tabloid press (largely backed by Australian-American magnate Rupert Murdoch) or because of an increasingly toxic environment in politics today, the Remain campaign felt lifeless, devoid of passion and playing it too safe. The Prime Minister failed to drive a hard bargain or cultivate diplomatic relationships early in his first term that could have built a credible alternate constitutional arrangement in the EU. The EU does require radical root-and-branch reform (though hardcore federalists will probably disagree with me, but such is life), but David Cameron failed to rise to the occasion.
Equally, this referendum campaign could have been, like the Quebec independence referendum campaign or even the campaign on the Scottish referendum, an opportunity to engage in a broad civic debate about the type of country the United Kingdom wishes to be, the priorities it wishes to set and the bridges its citizens prefer to build. The question that David Cameron should have asked in terms of messaging should have been: “Which Britain do you wish to choose?” It would also have been a great opportunity to finally lay waste to the false belief that you cannot be a loyal subject of Her Majesty and a good European at the same time. It is this debate about what it means to be both British and European that has been sorely missing in the past few years.
However, whilst continental European politicians (from the occasional unhelpful intervention) have been wise to not engage in loose talk about the Brexit debate, they too need to be held to a higher standard: the Brussels formula of just muddling through and relying on a time-tested canon of “more integration” will need to be genuinely questioned and adapted to the needs of the moment. A vote to Remain should not been seen as a mandate to just keep going as usual. It should be the impetus to take the concerns expressed by many reasonable supporters of the Leave side seriously. The EU does need to become more flexible, more nimble, less in love with its own rhetoric and more willing to repatriate select powers back to the Member States. It also needs to remember that it is not an end unto itself, but a means for Member States to achieve common objectives.
At the same time, we need to aggressively push back against the demonization of everyone who believes in the cause of closer cooperation among the nations of Europe and everyone who serves this cause as a civil servant in one of the European Institutions. From my own experience I know that those working in the EU Institutions are driven by a genuine, sincere desire to serve the wider public. That said, the political decision-makers need to stop being sentimental about the EU and start seeing it as a means to an end, namely greater prosperity, security and stability. That also means taking care of contingencies. Much of the current mess could be avoided by having clear exit procedures for the event of a country wishing to leave the Eurozone or the EU.
On the other side of the ledger, however, the Leave campaign found itself with the formidable opportunity to make a concrete, facts-based, positive and coherent case for a United Kingdom capable of providing an alternative to the EU model – for example by acceding to the European Free Trade Association and rebuilding it as a credible model for those current EU Member States which have soured on the one-size-fits-all, inflexible policies emanating from Brussels. A coherent proposal could have been made for an alternative arrangement improving upon the good sides of the EU, whilst minimizing those transfers of sovereignty that Eurosceptics deemed problematic. Such a solution could have provided a coherent counter-narrative. A more nimble, effective structure offered with a concrete plan by the Leave campaign would have made for a highly compelling and positive theme behind which the British people and the publics of other European nations might have been able to assemble.
Alas, the Leave campaign offered no such vision or imagination. It has to be judged by its actual offering – a horrific hodgepodge of false claims about controversial, incendiary issues like (supposedly impending) Turkish membership of the EU (a variation of the same argument about Bulgarians and Romanians circa 2007), the allegedly corrosive effect of EU nationals on public services, a shadow campaign for the prime ministership run by former London Mayor Boris Johnson, paired with either a wilful or casual ignorance of European (and UK) law, as well as a blatant, US Republican-style disregard for inconvenient facts. Considering that it also failed to deliver a credible, coherent and realistic alternative plan for the economy, international trade and future relations with the European Union (something that could have been done by adopting the model sketched in the preceding paragraph), one has to wonder what the Leave campaign’s resort to wedge issues like immigration suggests.
On balance, it would appear that Remain should have the upper hand – provided that the UK government then needs to see it as a mandate to pursue long-term, structural change in the EU – change that will take more than one or two well-spun news cycles to achieve.
My British friends represent the width and breadth of the country. From my own experience voting in federal elections here in Germany, I know the feeling when you step into the voting cabin, carefully reflecting about your choice. I believe, as someone who cares deeply about the future of a country I lived in for several years, that the United Kingdom will be better off as a leader in the European Union.
Standing on the sidelines worked during much of the Thatcher Years and the Blair era, but this moment demands an active, modern, pragmatic Britain. A withdrawal into itself will do no one good, and could very well lead to “buyer’s remorse”. This is no easy decision, I’m sure. So step in there, do the right thing and usher in a new chapter in the colourful relations between Britain and the rest of Europe. For Britain is European – and we over here on the Continent (unknowingly or fully aware) would be all the poorer without the experience, outlook and understanding of our British friends from across the Channel.
Together, let’s make sure that Britain – and Europe – can be even greater still.