Now that David Cameron has finished his negotiations on Britain’s place in the EU, the Vote Leave campaign is gathering momentum. Eurosceptic Cabinet Ministers are free to make their case. Michael Gove has made a very clear statement on why he thinks that Britain ought to leave the EU: a ‘Brexit’. Boris Johnson, having talked to Gove and having made his own political calculations, is also campaigning to leave. There are serious weaknesses in their arguments though, and they are ignoring Scotland’s likely demand for independence if Britain were to leave the EU.
Michael Gove argues that Britain should take control of all its own decisions; he accuses the EU of democratic unaccountability. He criticises its policies on refugees. He cites examples of what he sees as over-regulation. He also argues that Britain would be more prosperous outside the EU. These are persuasive arguments, each worthy of some attention, but he does not tell the whole story.
He puts a nationalist case, arguing that Britain should recover its sovereignty, despite the fact that we would continue to be affected by the decisions of other countries – as The Economist has pointed out. He praises Britain’s democratic accountability and contrasts it with the appointed EU Commission. What he does not say is that the 28 member States have only allowed the EU to have jurisdiction over matters of shared interest, which include protecting the environment and the human rights of all its citizens. He also fails to mention that the European Commission is subject to the authority of elected politicians, albeit the collective political authority of all the countries affected. The hidden sub-text of his stance is that he wants Britain’s political elite to have unfettered control over all aspects of our lives. Britons would then have no right of appeal – even if a government were to legalise indefinite detention without trial, for example, and in 2004 it was only prevented from doing that by human-rights law.
When he states that “EU immigration policies have encouraged people traffickers and brought desperate refugee camps to our borders”, he doesn’t explain how Britain would be better protected by leaving the EU and having no influence on its policies. The French are currently cooperating with Britain by holding back refugees at Calais. He also notes that political tensions are rising within Europe, largely because of the refugee problem. This is a legitimate cause for concern for Britain, whether or not it is an EU member; a Brexit would not help Europe to solve those problems.
It is easy to find examples of inappropriate regulation in any set of rules that has developed over many years. There are anachronisms in both British law and EU regulations. Michael Gove argues that the British economy outside the EU would no longer be held back by excessive regulation, but he does not say which regulations he would dispense with. Workers’ rights perhaps? Or environmental considerations? Or financial regulations (a tricky subject, given what happened in 2008)? Most EU regulations have been introduced to protect its citizens from what might otherwise be harmful actions by big companies (who might be donors to the Conservative party).
It is wishful thinking to assert that Britain would somehow be more prosperous if it were outside the EU. Most (but not all) British business leaders want to stay in the EU; their views should carry more weight than the assertions of self-interested politicians. It is also interesting to consider how we would achieve this additional economic growth without more people; we would need immigration from somewhere and several employers have expressed frustration at the arbitrary limits set by the government.
Boris Johnson has made a political calculation, in which self-interest will have played a part. The Economist article referred to above mentions his desire to replace David Cameron, for example. He would have taken account of Michael Gove’s arguments and he almost certainly would have assessed the strong popular tide running for Brexit, particularly when so much of the national press is banging that drum. Unfortunately, many people will not try to make up their own minds by closely examining the arguments for Brexit; they might be attracted by the nationalist sentiments expressed by Michael Gove and Nigel Farage, they might trust Boris Johnson as a politician, and many will unquestioningly accept the opinions expressed by those newspapers with whom they feel most comfortable.
There is a bigger picture, which is less sentimentally nationalistic and which puts real influence before the pipe-dream of complete autonomy. Having close links with one’s neighbours is the best policy in a joined-up world. Those who wish to put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain should reflect that the world was different when it had an Empire. Then it was seen as an island protected by the world’s strongest navy; now it is more appropriate for the United Kingdom to cultivate its soft power and its economy –both of which depend upon it having close relationships with other countries.