On Brexit

By Joshua Bird (Editor-in-Cheif)

Today, the world looks on with bated breath as Britons around the nation decide whether or not the United Kingdom will remain part of the European Union.  Politicians and pundits and people the world over have spilled untold real and digital ink explicating the importance and implications of this decision, so I will try to not do that here. As a second generation Maltese, born in England, raised in the U.S., and now resident in Scotland, I will try to make sense of what is perhaps the most important decision that British people have had to make in at least a generation.

There are a variety of issues underpinning the Brexit debate, but I have found substantive analyses of the actual issues rather than political pandering and hyperbole to be few and far between. Inasmuch as I can tell, Brexit boils down to three key issues: the economy, sovereignty, and immigration[1].

I am no economist, but to me the economic arguments for Brexit are dubious at best. Whilst the UK does pay billions of pounds every year to the EU, it also gets billions back through the special UK rebate, agricultural and fisheries payments, support for other industries, research funding, etc. Additionally, the EU is by far the UK's biggest trading partner, and this will persist regardless of the vote outcome. In the case of Brexit, this would mean negotiating a new trade deal that will of course have to be commensurate with EU laws. So in effect, the UK will still be beholden to EU trade regulations, but without the 'seat at the table' to influence what these regulations are. I should note as well that Brexit will also mean that the UK will have to renegotiate trade deals with countries outwith the EU. Frankly, I’m not sure that wee Britain is going to have much clout when facing China, India, Russia, and other much larger countries without the backing of a supranational body like the EU.

The sovereignty argument is likewise questionable. First, the EU legislates on the basis of subsidiarity. That is, it must be demonstrated that legislation cannot be achieved by member states individually, and that it would achieved more effectively through EU regulations (i.e. environmental and energy laws, consumer protection, rules on product standards, etc)[2]. In addition, laws must be approved by the European Parliament (which constitutes MEPs that are directly elected by EU citizens)and the Council of the European Union (which is made up of a Minister from each member state, so 28 ministers in all). I should note as well that for the latter body, votes are weighted to account for population differences between member states. I will concede that the EU is in need of serious reform, but to suggest that it is the bureaucratic, malicious, unaccountable entity that the Brexiters would have you believe is simply not true.

So that leaves immigration, which basically boils down to 'THEY are taking OUR benefits/jobs/money'. Leave proponents are overwhelmingly white, working-class, uneducated, older and based in rural areas. These demographics have had a hard time as of late. The Brexit campaign has pushed the 'Little Englander' message very effectively to entice legions of angry and disillusioned Britons to the Leave camp, and this image released just last week shows the lows to which that campaign has stooped to push this message. (I should note that I am not excusing the Bremain campaign because they have propagandized extensively as well). Essentially, Boris Johnson et al have managed to equate the EU with immigration (especially 'bad' immigration, i.e. people with brown skin as opposed to Western Europeans) in the minds of voters, which is disingenuous and inaccurate for two reasons. First, in the case of Brexit, there's no way the UK is going to be able to secure a trade deal with the EU without including provisions about the free movement of people (which I think is the EU's crowning achievement). In addition, the UK will remain reliant on immigration because its demand for foreign specialist labour (which is not insignificant) is going to persist regardless of the referendum outcome.

Perhaps most disconcerting is that in the case of a Brexit, David Cameron is certainly going to resign, and there is a general consensus that Boris Johnson (who is basically Donald Trump-lite) will assume the premiership. This will kick off a protracted and undoubtedly highly adversarial renegotiation process between Westminster and Brussels that will literally take years and will get nowhere fast. And those disaffected Britons who voted Leave will see no meaningful change in their day-to-day lives. But even most importantly, a Brexit will likely mean the end of the European project as we know it, which I think would be the greatest injustice. 

Once again, I want to emphasise that I am not an expert in any of the issues underpinning the Brexit debate and neither are many of the people casting their votes today. But as both the Brexit and Bremain campaigns have demonstrated, this referendum isn’t really, nor was it ever, about empirical facts or verifiable evidence. I should note as well that both sides have garnered cross party support; both campaigns are led by Tories, and both sides also boast numerous Labour MPs (I must admit, it strange to see David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and Nicola Sturgeon on the same side, but as a dear friend once said to me, “politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows”). In these ways, the whole referendum is reminiscent of the Scottish Independence Referendum because people are voting with their guts rather than their minds. And in the end, I think we are all worse off for it.

The latest polls hold that the vote is basically a toss- up at this point, and it seems very likely that the ‘undecideds’ will tip the scales. Regardless of the outcome, this referendum will do little to settle the debate about the UK’s place in Europe, and indeed, the world.

[1] See Britain’s Decision, released by the David Hume Institute, for a brilliant and impartial analysis on this issue

[2] It should be noted that regardless of subsidiarity, member states may find it difficult or impossible to develop laws that contravene those passed at the EU level when they have a change of heart, i.e. when ruling governments in member states change