Dr Jon Frost is Assistant Professor of Finance at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Originally from Seattle, he is a fan of British rock music and met his (German) wife while studying in Bath.
In one short week, British voters will take on historic responsibility for the future not only of their own country, but of Europe as a whole. With all the headlines about the economic implications, the role of political personalities and the latest polling numbers, I’d like to focus instead on historical arguments (as Goethe said, “he who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.”) My contention is that leaving the EU would be an historic mistake, and the arguments in favour of “Leave” are myopic and flawed.
I’d like to start with migration. In the EU, the freedom of movement between EU countries has been a huge improvement to the quality of life of millions of Europeans, from the Swedish students with Summer jobs in Berlin, to the Spanish architects working in Amsterdam, to the British pensioners who have retired to Spain and the South of France. Surely the enormous benefits of this for many individuals are worth something. If Brexit supporters are sceptical toward the free movement of people or to immigration in general, then I hope the irony of this is not lost on them. The UK has exported tens of millions of its own citizens to other countries over the centuries (I’m not complaining; many of my own ancestors were among them). And the UK has benefited enormously from inward migration: many “great Britons” – from David Ricardo to Roald Dahl to Freddie Mercury – were the children of immigrants. Leaving the EU because of the arrival of a few hundred thousand Poles (who, incidentally, pay more in taxes in the UK than they receive benefits) seems like an overreaction.
A second issue is sovereignty. The way British politicians like Michael Gove talk about the EU, you would think that all decisions have now been transferred to Brussels and ordinary citizens have no control over what happens there. This is silly. First of all, the EU operates with the subsidiarity principle, by which EU actions are only justified when they are more effective than actions at a national, regional or local level. Second, the European Council is made up of elected national leaders, and the European Parliament is directly elected by voters. Finally, it is never clear which actual political decision the British Government would like to take but cannot due to EU obstacles. If “Brussels” would try to impose unjust laws on the UK (please name something more sinister than caps on bankers’ bonuses) then isn’t it possible that other EU countries would also protest, and that this could be settled through the political process? With the new package of concessions, the British Government has influence even for policy decisions on initiatives it is not participating in, e.g. in economic policy coordination in the euro area. When do other countries (the colonial period notwithstanding) give the UK that kind of say in their internal affairs?
Finally, there is the argument of British exceptionalism: many feel the UK “does not belong to Europe.” This argument is as commonly used as it is ill-founded. Britain’s intellectual heritage has been inspired in large part by continental thinkers – and vice versa. Fellow American and Anglophile Bill Bryson has noted with wonder what an out-sized influence the UK has had on science, the arts, political theory, economics and many other areas of human endeavour. But in all of these fields, British artists and thinkers have, to use Newton’s phrase, “stood on the shoulders of giants” – many of whom were European. Shakespeare took inspiration from Italy, Newton built his theories on the pioneering work of a Pole (Copernicus) and a German (Kepler), and the Beatles got their start in Hamburg. The UK’s exceptional openness to the world and to Europe have enabled the UK to make the scientific and cultural achievements that make it unique.
There have recently been many warnings of what the world could look like if voters choose to leave the EU. No one can predict the future and it is difficult to verify many of the claims; much would depend on political decisions in the UK and Europe after the referendum. But I am worried that with Brexit, the EU would lose an important country’s voice in European discussions. I am worried that other countries may decide that they, too, would like the benefits of free trade without any of the responsibility of helping to run a regional union. And I am worried about the implications for break-away regions – from Catalonia to Scotland. (Incidentally, it is ironic how some British politicians saying that the UK would be able to negotiate deals with the EU on trade are the same that had quite different views toward Scotland during their referendum in 2014).
In all of this, I hope British voters will think about one question: how would you like to tell future generations that you voted? In 1973-2016, the EU played no small part as democracy was entrenched, the Iron Curtain fell and peace was maintained across the European continent. In 50 years, people could look back on this period as the start of a long Pax Europaea – the precursor to an age in which EU countries came together to address climate change, the refugee crisis and geopolitical issues at Europe’s borders. Alternatively, they can look back on it as an unusually enlightened interlude before national bickering and egos tore Europe apart again. No one can say which scenario will come true. But I expect that a UK that remains in the EU, engages in European policy discussions, and contributes its perspective as an established democracy, would be both a more stable and prosperous country and an asset to the European project.
This Opinion Piece is the first in a series related to the EU Referendum debate taking place next week, 23rd June. If you would like to contribute a differing Opinion Piece, to present your ideas on what British Voters should consider before voting, please email James Harle to discuss.