Monday 27 January 2020

Bye, Bye EU - some thoughts at the time of Brexit

I haven’t blogged for quite a while. Brexit Limbo sapped my enthusiasm, not to mention the seeming pointlessness of expressing a measured opinion in a time of polarised debate. But with the UK’s departure from the EU due to begin in earnest late on Friday this week I feel ready to start writing again, not just on economics but on anything that takes my fancy (you have been warned!).

As for Brexit itself, I’m neither happy or too sad. I voted Remain in the 2016 Referendum because the risks of leaving a powerful trading bloc after decades of integration look considerable when compared to any proposed benefits. Not surprisingly, therefore, I won’t be rejoicing with the pro-Brexit enthusiasts as they dance around Big Ben or whichever alternative percussive devices are available. Yet I won’t be crying into my favourite high strength Belgian beer, either. This is partly because, like it or not, Brexit respects the outcome of the Referendum. I always opposed a second vote, which smacked of telling people that their vote only counted if it delivered the ‘correct’ (i.e. pro-Remain) choice. In addition, however, I have always been a rather reluctant European, a pragmatist rather than a Europhile.

I was only 16 when the UK joined the European Economic Community and to be honest not that interested (my social hinterland being somewhat wider than that of today’s kid’s army of wannabe Greta Thunbergs). By the time I went to university the 1975 Referendum had given solid public support to membership of the ‘Common Market’, any debate amongst my undergraduate associates on the subject largely confined to whether within the European fold the UK would steer more toward the Social Market or Social Democracy.

Thatcherism then totally upset the apple cart by demolishing the UK’s post-war settlement, with those like me opposed to a de-regulated free-for-all turning enthusiastically to the EU to safeguard minimum standards, notably in the realm of individual employment rights at a time when collective rights were being watered down. But this often created as many tensions as it solved. UK business culture and the legal system never really gelled with continental norms, creating frictions that tested the guiding EU principle of subsidiarity to the limit. Moreover, anybody who has sat through EU deliberations on policy matters would surely attest the clash between the plain-speaking British empiricist culture and the esoteric philosophical language favoured by representatives of some of the other powerful member states.

As my experience of such matters developed, my inclination leaned firmly toward a Europe consisting of trading relations between independent nation states. But it was difficult to swim against the prevailing tide of my pro-Maastricht contemporaries who increasingly took an almost Panglossian view of all things European to argue that nirvana lay in full-blown economic and monetary union and closer, not looser, political integration.

My underlying reservations nonetheless grew stronger in the early 2000s. Having initially been persuaded of the merits of the Euro currency, it became apparent that the institutions and rules governing the eurozone were more likely to stifle than support economic growth and employment (a view reinforced by the subsequent turmoil experienced by several member states after the 2008 financial crisis). The UK had been wise to remain outside. Then in 2004 came EU enlargement. This in itself made sense. But I seriously doubted the wisdom of extending the principle of freedom of movement of labour to a bloc of countries with such a wide divergence of income levels. I remain convinced that the resulting mass migration of EU labour to the UK is the main reason why Vote Leave won the Referendum in 2016.

As a pragmatic Remain voter, I would prefer a reformed EU to Brexit. But we are where we are and the imperative now is to make the most of Britain’s post-Brexit future. Some fellow Remainers, especially the most ardent Europhiles, will doubtless be tempted to run a rhetorical Re-join campaign. I would rather they campaign instead for a Better Britain.

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