Brenig, Brenig, Brenig. In the words of Margaret Thatcher – No, No, No. You claim that you wrote your article for Click on Wales to clarify your understanding of the main issues in the Europe debate and that the process led you to change your mind and to place yourself now in the Leave camp despite having voted to Remain in 2016.
The first thing to say is that I share your obvious frustration at events since the 2016 referendum. We are, in effect, still in a continuation of the referendum debate, largely because this riven government has not put forward a concrete proposal that we are able to assess. It is no wonder that the public has tired of the arguments and now has an understandable wish for life to move on. I have some sympathy for that view, despite trying to organise a campaign urging the government and the public and now you, Brenig, to think again. If it isn’t a contradiction in terms, allowing weary fatalism to run riot is not the answer.
So, let’s come to the core of your argument that you conveniently summarise under the headings of Economy, Sovereignty and Democracy.
At first I was not sure what your argument was on the economic side. Initially it seemed to me that you were setting aside the economic arguments on the grounds, first, that there is an unresolved debate amongst economists and, second, that the economic forecasts of both sides project things forward for up to 15 years, so confining the consequences of leaving the EU to a distant future that someone else can deal with. It is true that at the very end of your article you concede that the economic case for remaining in the EU is powerful, although you did not spell it out.
Let me try. The debate between economists on this issue is not unlike the situation in the climate change debate. Opinion is far from evenly split. The vast majority of economists believe that the economic consequences of leaving the EU will be severely negative. Economists who support our departure from the EU are a small minority, but even these concede that leaving the EU will entail an economic hit in the short term. The real debate is on whether we would be better off in the long term, and on this the ‘free traders’ are in a tiny minority.
The ‘Economists for Free Trade’ are worryingly optimistic. I would prefer to call them economists for a flat earth, since they generally discount the factor of distance in trade. Empirical studies demonstrate that trade tends to halve as distance doubles, which is why we should all be sceptical of trade policies that presuppose any damage arising from the creation of new barriers between us and Europe will be compensated by building trade with that nice man, Mr Trump, and getting China to give us a better deal than it will give a much bigger European Union. Important delusions that we should shed.
You omit another important argument. You have been a great supporter of the IWA over the years and I know you have the interests of Wales at heart. So why do you not address the matter of the impact on Wales? We are already at the bottom of the UK’s economic league tables, and yet we will be hit disproportionately hard. For that reason it is not open to us to turn our back on the economic arguments as if they were a lesser matter.
Under sovereignty you rehearse some of the common criticisms of the EU as overly bureaucratic. In fact, it is remarkably modest in its staffing compared with most national bureaucracies. The European Commission employs 33,000 – not a large number for a continent-wide organisation, especially when you think that the UK Government is likely to have to take on 10,000 new staff simply to handle the consequences of Brexit, or that the Welsh Government employs 5,000 staff.
But, again, you do not tell us what argument on sovereignty has pushed you towards the Leave camp. In fact, you seem to imply agreement that many of the criticisms of the EU under this heading are either wrong or exaggerated. The most important gap of all is that you do not address the proposition that is basic to the Remain case, that pooling sovereignty with our European partners actually increases our influence in the world. The notion that the UK, cut adrift from every major trading bloc, will carry more clout or even the same clout is a post-imperial delusion that we should have buried long ago.
I am also surprised that you think the democratic argument is a trump card. We have had a robust debate about democracy in Wales for decades past, and have taken great strides forward. As you know, the IWA has been at the forefront of that debate, believing that our democracy has long needed modernisation. That is why I am surprised at your affection for the “endearing features and odd procedures and processes” of the British constitution that, elsewhere, you regard as both “robust and flaky”. Hardly a ringing commendation.
Would you really have us forsake the economic advantages of EU membership – ones that you yourself acknowledge – in order to live untrammelled with our quirky democracy? One might conceivably run with this line of argument if the EU posed a real and immediate threat to democracy, but are we really to put our population through decades of unnecessary pain because of some arguable misgivings about the future direction of the EU’s governance?
At present it seems likely that the EU will have an inner ring – the Eurozone – and an outer ring. We would almost certainly be in the outer ring that would be much less affected by any further strengthening of the EU’s centre. We all know that the EU is not a perfect organisation, even if the complaint that it is undemocratic is overdone. But then the British state is hardly without blemish.
Isn’t the more responsible (and self-interested path) path for us to be at the European Union’s centre, wielding our undoubted influence to ensure that it heads in the right direction? In or out of the EU, it is not in the UK’s interest for the EU to fail or falter. There is no choice to be made between the economic and democratic arguments. They hang together.
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
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