Since the completion of David Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ of the UK’s terms for EU membership, the news has been dominated by the forthcoming referendum on EU membership where we can vote for ‘in’ or ‘out’ on June 23rd. So far, this has remarkable similarities to the Scottish referendum in September 2014, where the Brexit campaign is comparable to the campaign for Scottish independence.
- Most significantly, the key rationale for independence and Brexit is self-determination. One of Alex Salmond’s most powerful comments was in a TV debate where he said (something like) ‘Why would any country not want to be independent and make their own decisions’ and the same could be said of the EU and the UK. The reason why, of course, is that there is really no such thing as ‘independence’ in a modern interconnected, globalised society and we are all dependent, to some extent, on other countries in the world so we have to work together with them. Sometimes being part of a larger economic unit is the best way to do so. There are benefits to Scotland being part of the UK and benefits to the UK being part of the EU.
- The proponents of the status quo largely base their argument on risk (or fear) – there are risks of change and it isn’t worth taking these risks.
- Those advocating change make a set of economic arguments that are presented in what might be called the ‘future optimistic’ tense. That is, they have no idea really what will happen but they pick some best-case scenario and assume that is what it will be. We have seen from the scenario of ‘oil rich Scotland’ that the best case doesn’t always happen. However, there is no doubt that Scotland could be economically successful outside the UK and Britain could be economically successful outside the EU. Whether we would be more or less successful is impossible to say and politicians who claim otherwise are liars.
- There are big personalities involved (Salmond and Johnson) whose rhetoric and political skill is excellent but who seem to me to be lacking in analytical skills and who present a partial (or perhaps, more unkindly, dishonest) picture of their preferred future.
- Both the ‘out’ campaign and the Scottish independence campaign attracted what have been called ‘swivel eyed loons’. The SNP Government had the sense to suppress these extreme views but people like Farage and Galloway seem to be playing a much more prominent part in the Brexit campaign.
The analogy between these referendums is, of course, imperfect. Thankfully, there was very little xenophobia in the Scottish referendum but attracting xenophobes by condemning immigration from elsewhere in the EU seems to be a big part of the Brexit campaign. And of course, the Government in Scotland were the proposers of independence and other parties opposed this whereas those political supporters of Brexit are mostly part of the governing party.
The argument for self-determination is a potent one and I respect those people who took this position in Scotland and will take this position in the EU referendum. I dislike many of the policies of the current and previous UK Governments and was attracted to the notion of self-determination. I don’t much like some of the policies of the current and previous UK Governments but I was swayed to vote ‘no’ in the Scottish referendum because of the dishonest and incoherent economic arguments put forward by the SNP and the recognition that there really is no such thing as independence.
Similarly, there are things I don’t like about the EU. The adoption of currency union without fiscal union was simply daft; the European Parliament with its migration between Strasbourg and Brussels, its lack of influence and what seem to me to be second-rate MEPs is a joke; European Commissioners have far too much power and should be democratically accountable; the bureaucracy and inflexibility of the European Commission is ridiculous. To be fair, however, much of this bureaucracy stems from the need to counter fraud – claims by farmers for non-existent sheep and olive groves, local authorities for non-existent jobs that had been created and universities and companies for non-existent scientific projects completed. These areas need to be reformed not the minor and largely symbolic reforms that Cameron has agreed.
Nevertheless, the EU case for me, is less ambiguous and a much easier decision than whether to vote for Scottish independence or not. I worked with colleagues in Europe and with folks in the European Commission for almost 20 years and discovered that our commonalities are much more significant than our differences (also true, of course, for Scotland and England). Nation states in Europe warred with each other for hundreds of years but this, since the formation of a ‘united’ Europe, is now simply unthinkable. The enormous challenges of the future – climate change, terrorism, national and global inequality, integrating migrants and controlling supra-national companies such as Google – are best addressed within a larger rather than a smaller unit. Britain cannot tackle these challenges on its own and I see no reason why its’s better to create ad hoc collaborations to do so rather than work within an existing collaboration.
I believe that in spite of its deficiences, the positive reasons to stay in the EU are overwhelming and I will vote to remain.