Considerations on EU “BrExit”

Why should we remain in the EU? There are many reasons: some are economic (and most cost/benefit analyses are primarily economic); others idealistic (the route to a putative United States of Europe or the bringing together the peoples of Europe). There is a long list here and elsewhere. The primary reason, in my view, is geo-strategic (which actually is for ensuring our economic security via peaceful cooperation between the nations and peoples of our continent). For over three centuries, Britain’s foreign policy goals have been to provide security so as to ensure Britain’s economic well being (which in the 19C as it does now, impacts the “price of bread”). In the 18C “mercantilist” era, this led to quite a few  wars both to protect Britain’s back door in Europe as well as its trading interests overseas. In the 19C, as mercantilism led to free (or at least more open) trade as Europe and the USA industrialised, whilst we intervened militarily much less, we still had strategic interests in stabilising Europe as it went through the turmoils of nation building (primarily Italy and Germany), the growing hegemony of Russia, and imperial decline of Austria/Hungary and the Ottomans. Canning, Palmerston and Disraeli were exponents of manipulating the concert of Europe to achieve strategic goals mainly diplomatically. The period of so-called “splendid isolation” was actually quite brief and not, as many Eurosceptics characterise, the long standing normality rudely interrupted in August 1914 and again in 1939 for Britain  to “save Europe from itself”.

After WW2 and the belligerents in Western Europe concluding there must be a “better way”, the EEC developed out of the original collaboration in coal, iron and steel and by the 1960s Britain (whose growth and general prosperity was then not as great as the EEC six) concluded it should join. The goal of the Treaty of Rome was “ever closer union”, something that Eurosceptic mythology overlooks, especially in the context of the 1975 referendum. Macmillan, Heath and Wilson certainly viewed it in geo-political terms and not “just about trade”. Of course, free trade facilitates peace and underpins economic prosperity (and democracy) but that trade was to be underpinned by institutions facilitating broader collaboration [remember in 1914 Germany and Britain were each others’ biggest trading partners, but that did not stop them going to war]. To do this requires the pooling (not surrender) of sovereignty in some defined areas but the result is actually to achieve goals where largely national sovereignty is irrelevant, unhelpful or even obstructive and hence is largely abstract and hypothetical. Paddy Ashdown articulated this eloquently recently in the House of Lords.

Agreeing standards and rules for trade is one example (there is no point in 28 states each having their own standards for car safety, for example: it keeps prices higher and cars actually less safe – manufacturers being able to apply a “divide and rule” approach –  than agreeing a common set; alleged monopolists and cartels can more easily shrug off threats of actions from individual states, but not one representing 28 states and  500 million consumers). But in environmental matter, the problems are regional and global. One state acting in its selfish interests to (say) burn coal that then leads to acid rain across the North Sea and sea level rises in the Pacific islands, will result in consequences, so decisions have to be made in agreement with our neighbours and with states large and small on what actions to take.  The EU provides the regional basis for addressing this and many other problems (collaborating in scientific research, regional economic development, crime, security, dealing with the resurgence of Russia etc). The BrExit arguments revolve around these being “zero sum games” where benefits to one member are at the cost of other members, rather than a positive sum game of reciprocal benefits. Similarly sovereignty pooling is not a zero sum game where by our global standing is diminished because some decisions are taken at an EU level.

Many Brexiters argue that these goals can be achieved in normal intergovernmental bodies. But free trade via the WTO remains as far off as ever (hence the preference for FTAs between trading blocs), the UN is largely impotent (as it was designed to be by the WW2 victors) in many crises, the climate change deals would be dominated by the USA and China were it not for the EU, and most standard setting bodies struggle to get cosnistent implementations (which is what the EU is more successful at).  Crises in Bosnia (in the 1990s), in migration now, the Eurozone and the UK renegotiations do show the limits of its power but in fact show the nation state is alive and well: the Brexiters can’t complain about the EU ineffectiveness AND claim it’s a tyrannical dictatorship. They do though.

In the context of peace and security, the claim that the EU has played a key role in maintaining peace over the past 70 years is often challenged by BrExiters who say that claim belongs to NATO. In fact it was a combination: NATO protected Western Europe from external threats; the EU ensured that NATO had something worth protecting. In particular, the EU removed the historical tensions between Germany and France which saw three German invasions of France in 70 years. It provided the foundations for democracy, cooperation and economic prosperity in its original members and as it expanded did so in its new members. In the mid 1980s it was the sight of Western TV programmes on East German television and the obvious prosperity of those living over the wall that caused citizens of the Communist bloc to question their governments, not the choice of whether NATO or the Warsaw Pact was a better military alliance.

The idea that we’re isolated in a group of 28 but wouldn’t be in groupings of 100-200 sovereign states is bizarre. By using our influence to agree EU action, that influence is leveraged and amplified in global forums. In the 21st Century this gives us the ability to punch above our weight and influence one of the key institutions of the global order. That then ensures the “price of bread” does not become more expensive than it would otherwise become. Leaving the EU, even to the relative “safe haven” of the EEA, will undermine our leverage and the EU’s at a time when the global issues require concerted collaboration, not fragmentation.

Don’t just take my word for it:


Below is a more detailed exploration of the issues:

Geo-Strategic Reasons for EU Membership

Geo-Political Considerations

What is meant by “Leave” the EU?

Analyses of Brexit Options

EU Laws: Are they really “pointless rules and regulation”?

Reciprocity: a glass half full or half empty?

Is the EU really undemocratic?

EU Cost of Membership

Implications for exPat Brits

Will we save money by leaving? The cost of EU Membership

Some tiresome arguments from BrExit advocates

It’s such an easy decision to leave, right?

Was Cameron shafted in the renegotiations?

Commentary on Gove’s BrExit statement

Does BrExit solve the migration crisis for the UK?

Boris at the Treasury Select Committee

Is it really Project Fear?

The Trade Embargo Strawman

The Government’s pro-Remain Leaflet

Summary of Brexit Alternatives