Many in this referendum debate have treated this referendum as though it concerned not whether Britain should Leave or Remain in the European Union, but the virtues of the respective campaigns – particularly that of Leave. Yet it is not. Still less is it an election. Stronger In suggest otherwise, demanding that the Leave campaign nominate a preferred model, outline the details of negotiations, explain how they would spend any money returned to the Treasury. Perhaps foolishly, the Leave campaign has obliged, making promises they know they cannot keep. Whatever happens, the Government will remain in power (albeit possibly under new leadership) however we vote unless and until there is another general election; and the Fixed Term Parliament Act makes that unlikely (albeit not impossible). It will be the current government which conducts negotiations with the remainder of the EU (‘rEU’) and this and future governments that will decide the course of any legislation, using any powers returned to the UK.
And it is for this reason that the continued demands for Vote Leave to outline their preferred model are beyond the point. We cannot know what form of deal that may be negotiated between Britain and rEU, nor their negotiating position, nor the means by which our negotiating position can be most effective. Still less can we know what form of arrangement we will eventually achieve.
I fully accept the implication: that it is for Leave to show that leaving the EU will be preferable to remaining. I believe that it would be, whatever relationship Britain is able to negotiate with rEU.
First, while a vote to remain in a gradually and continually integrating organisation is not a vote for the status quo, we must consider what the EU is. Certainly, it is a single market of 500 million people (a part of a much wider tariff free trading zone). This undoubtedly brings benefits. But it is also an international organisation that already has all the trappings of a state: a(n unelected) body that has the exclusive power to initiate legislation (the Commission); two lawmaking bodies (the Council and the Parliament) and a Supreme Court (the European Court of Justice (ECJ)). For as long as we are members of the EU, the laws that are made within it bind the United Kingdom and our own laws can be – and have been – struck down by the ECJ.
The answer to the Commission being unelected is not that it does not have the power to legislate. Nor does the President of the USA; or of France; or of any country that elects its government independently of its legislature. The defining feature of the executive (not legislative) branch is that it introduces legislation and has responsibility for the civil service. While not all the powers of a government are vested in the Commission, it is at least a proto-government.
The laws that may bind the UK include not only those relating to the single market but laws about justice and home affairs. Britain was granted opt-outs – including from the EU Arrest Warrant and extradition arrangements – but surrendered most of them. They cannot now be retrieved. This is what Leave campaigners mean when they say we lack control, including over our rebate. Once a government has surrendered powers (or money) they have gone for good (or for as long as we remain in the EU). To use the example of the European Arrest Warrant: a person arrested in the UK cannot challenge his extradition on the grounds that he will face imprisonment for an indefinite period or that he will be tried unfairly. The European Court of Human Rights (a non-EU institution) will not intervene until after the trial process has completed – not much comfort for a man locked in a Bulgarian or Greek gaol for years facing a trial in which he is unable to cross-examine witnesses (to use true examples). For as long as we are members of the EU, this extradition arrangement is not simply subject to our Treaty relationship with EU member states, it is enforceable by the ECJ.
Because it is the EU that has supreme power over all areas in which it is competent. Its Supreme Court (the ECJ) can and has overturned British law where it is incompatible with EU law. The answer to that is that our Parliament is still sovereign because it can vote to leave the EU. As the redoubtable Dan Hannan has replied, that is like saying that a kingdom is a republic because it could vote to remove its monarchy. It is no answer at all unless that power (to leave the EU) is itself exercised.
Even were the EU to reform and to directly elect its President and Government, would that be an answer? While that isn’t the EU we are asked to affirm, the answer is no. Democracy requires two elements – a Kratos (state), yes, but a Demos (people) too. This demos – to have any meaning at all – must be a unified political community. Not merely a collection of peoples that wish to trade with each other, travel and work in each other’s countries and feel, together, culturally European. A political community is one that considers its affairs as one; one that feels a collective sense of national identity; one that is not so remote from its government that that government cannot be accountable to it. There is no such political community in Europe. Even in European elections, we vote on national issues; and the low turnout in those elections suggests that we do not feel part of a joint, European political community.
The United States is very different. There is no doubt that all that Americans, while hugely diverse and facing great cultural differences, are a part of one political community. I felt that particularly in the US when travelling there in September 2001, as I’m sure has anyone with any experience of the US or its peoples. To compare the EU with the USA is to lack any historical or politically cultural insight. A better comparison would be a political union of all North American states with institutions in Latin America. That would have no political community, no demos. Any institutions – elected or not – would have no real accountability and would not reflect the will of one people.
Economically, would we fair badly outside the EU? I will be briefer and make these points:
- The economic analyses that have forecast losses in the event of Brexit are based both upon assumptions that are patently untrue (such as that we would not achieve any trade deals for 15 years) or on a misunderstanding of international law (such as that we would not continue to be parties to EU free trade agreements (FTAs) with other countries – see further). Moreover, the only FTA the EU has with a major developed economy is with South Korea.
- The Treasury analysis is particularly inaccurate because, in addition to relying upon these assumptions, it creates the concept of GDP per household by dividing its predicted UK GDP by the number of households; despite the fact that total household income is around half that of UK GDP. Worse, it reaches that figure (£4,300 less growth ‘per household’ by 2030) by dividing total predicted GDP not by the total projected 2030 population but by the population now. This is factually wrong; and the presentation of these figures has been deeply misleading.
- Outside the EU customs union, we would be free to negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs) without having to wait for the EU to negotiate them, requiring the consent of each of the 27 other members. Sure, we have a population of 65 not 500 million but smaller countries – including Switzerland (which has FTAs with Japan and China) and Australia (FTAs with China, Japan and South Korea) – have negotiated FTAs with far larger economies than has the EU. It helps to be able to negotiate according to one’s own national priorities, not those of an entire continent.
- Given that the director general of the German (equivalent of the) CBI, Markus Kerber, called yesterday for no tariffs to be imposed against the UK and that 6.5 million jobs in the EU depend on trade with the UK, I do not believe that we would not negotiate a deal that worked for both of us. Any deal done within two years of our giving notice to leave (under Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union, added by the Lisbon Treaty) would require the support of only a qualified majority of EU member states. (It is the extension of the two year negotiating period that would require unanimity.) No country would act against its national interest purely to create an example of another.
- If we ended up in the single market but not the EU – like Norway, Switzerland (to an extent) and Iceland, we would not have a bad deal. Only 28 % of EU law would have to be applied and then only to goods and services trading with the EU. We would have all the benefits of being outside the customs union, the ECJ would have no authority over us, we would not have to implement any law relating to social or justice affairs, we would regain control over fishing rights in our international waters and we would leave the Common Agricultural Policy.
- Finally (and importantly), were we outside the EU (including with a Norwegian relationship) we would have our own seat on the international bodies that make much of the regulations that bind the EU, where we are currently represented by the Commission (see further).
Of course leaving the EU poses some risks. It was also a risk to the Gold Standard in the early 1930s, to abolish incomes policies in the 1980s and to leave the ERM in 1992. Each of these risks had two things in common: they led to huge economic growth; and they were opposed by the vast majority of economists and elite business opinion at the time. The same, of course, goes for Euro membership (as Andrew Roberts has argued).
Yet, if we have the confidence in our ability to govern ourselves, to have leaders who are accountable to us and to be good Europeans without being a part of a European state; if we would rather strike into the world than be stuck in a customs union, we should vote to Leave the European Union.