I sincerely doubt many people who will read this have not made their mind up how to vote on Thursday, but wanted to offer my rationale for voting remain. This is undoubtedly the most important political issue that we have been asked to make a decision on in my life time, so it seemed worthwhile putting it into words.
Leaving the EU would be like playing geo-political Jenga. I am not an economist (although I believe some of predictions that economists have made about the referendum and discuss these below), so the argument that is actually most important to me is the geopolitical one. At the moment, the world seems like a very unstable place. It is hard to see how the UK leaving the EU would help stabilise it, and it seems likely to have exactly the opposite effect. Throughout this campaign, this argument has been caricatured as Brexit leading to continental war (a particular favourite example of this genre is this Daily Mirror article which sees no contradiction between the headline ‘Brexit’ could trigger World War Three, warns David Cameron and including the quote “No, I don’t believe that leaving the EU would cause World War Three”, also from David Cameron). This has been coupled with the argument from the leave campaign that the EU has very little to do with post-war peace in Europe, which is really down to NATO (Boris Johnson, for example, made this argument). This is historically illiterate. The EU and NATO’s development have gone hand-in-hand since the 1950s. Indeed, the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (the precursor to the EU) was regarded by the French as a way to build a common destiny with West Germany. Therefore, successful implementation was regarded in Paris as a prerequisite for West German rearmament and NATO membership. It is the combination of these and other institutions that kept the peace, won the Cold War and shaped the postwar world.
Furthermore, Brexit is not the only threat to this settlement. Bizarrely, Nigel Farage almost came close to being right (for all the wrong reasons) on this subject when he described Barack Obama as “the most anti-British American president there has ever been”. This is clearly nonsense, but it hits on a grain of truth: with the end of the Cold War and huge economic growth in China, the US is becoming less Atlanticist and more orientated to the Pacific-world. This is why Donald Trump is able to suggest that the US could withdraw from NATO. But what Farage has – of course – missed is that this is an argument for European integration, not against it. If the US disengages from Europe, we will need our continental partners more than ever.
Even if the worst economic predictions are not true, it will still be bad. To put this in perspective, the highly controversial claim from Leave that the UK would get £350 million per week that the UK would get back – even if it was real – would be obliterated by a 0.6 per cent drop in GDP. Almost every reputable economic authority suggests that the decline will be considerably larger than that. The IMF’s most optimistic prediction is that UK GDP will take a 1.5 per cent hit (although they also argue it could be as high as 5.5 per cent). This has two important ramifications. The first is that all those spending pledges from Leave will not be met – no money for the NHS, no money for schools, no safeguarding for current recipients of EU money. The second is that our society we will have to decide how to pay that bill, and that will likely mean worse public services and lower living standards which will hit those least able to protect themselves.
We have more power inside the EU than we will ever have outside it. Leave make a lot about the issue of sovereignty, but the argument is something of a red-herring. In particular, they employ a very narrow definition of sovereignty to make their case. Even if we accept their case at face value (and this neglects the fact that the EU has only ever acted according to treaties endorsed by the UK Parliament), it neglects the vital question of power. In short, by cooperating with European partners, the UK government massively amplifies its ability to get things done on the international scene, increasing its real power greatly. Cooperation inevitably involves some compromise, but in return we get real, global power.
We really don’t know what being out would look like. The media has not had a good campaign, and one of the major reasons for this is that they have allowed the Leave campaign to offer a smorgasbord of visions for what post-Brexit life might look like without question: we might be like Norway, Switzerland, Canada, the list was seemingly endless. We were going to be in the free market, we were not going to be in the free market. We are going to control immigration from the EU, but the Northern Irish border with the EU will not have border checks. The logical inconsistencies are both spectacular and nonsensical. Perhaps the biggest irrationality of the Leave campaign though is the belief that their critiques of the EU will suddenly cease to be applicable the morning after Brexit – that is, the belief that the bureaucratic, unwieldy, power-hungry, petty EU of their imagining will overnight become the negotiation partner required to ensure rapid British exit on favourable terms. Ultimately, neither the caricature nor the prediction is true, but there is no doubt that Brexit will take years and years of political effort. Instead, this energy could more productively be put into reshaping the EU from the inside, as well as dealing with a host of other real problems in the world.
It would be a disaster for higher education and academic research. This point might appear slightly parochial, and I certainly have to declare a self-interest. Higher education is one of the most globalised sectors of the British life. UK universities are a success story precisely because we have students and researchers from all walks of life from all over the world. There is clearly a concern that Brexit would undermine this model. But there are two additional concerns. The first is resources for big research projects, which European money makes possible. In theory (and if we accept their promises at face value, despite them having no access to the constitutional machinery required to deliver them and not factoring any possible decline in the size of the British economy) the Leave campaign has said that no sector currently funded with European money will lose out post-Brexit, with any monies lost being made up by the UK government. This would presumably include university research. But that neglects the second problem, ignoring the networks of collaboration that European research projects build. The UK currently sits at the centre of those networks. Brexit would jeopardise this, and the collaboration it fosters in vital areas such as research on cancer treatments.
What type of country do we actually want to live in? One of the strangest rhetorical developments in this referendum has been the conflation of criticisms of the European Union with the Brexit position (most famously in The Sun’s story about the Queen supporting a leave vote). Let’s be clear: The European Union is not perfect. But this is not a vote on whether the European Union is perfect. It is a vote on where we see our future, what type of country we want to be, and how we want the world to see us. It has been a common refrain among Leave voters to say they love Europe, but don’t like the EU. But this misses the point that the EU is the institutional embodiment of a particular idea of Europe and European history, based on the ideas of tolerance, openness and co-existence, and the rejection of isolationism and rivalry. While it does not always live up to these values, if we vote for Brexit – whatever the reasons offered by individual voters – we will not only be rejecting these values, but also signalling to the world (including the many countries who warned the UK of the dangers of Brexit and will be caught up in the economic backdraft) that Britain is an insular and insecure country, lacking the self-confidence to work with its near-neighbours to shape more effective European institutions. In short, we will be a diminished nation.
I don’t know if this has helped persuade anyone, but in case you are still undecided, here is a selection of some of the best writing that I have read on the subject in recent days, covering a range of the issues I have mentioned above.
· Nick Cohen, Take your country back from those who seek to destroy it, The Observer
· David Smith, Britain succeeds in the EU: we’d be daft to leave it, The Sunday Times
· Simon Schama, Let us spurn Brexit and remain a beacon of tolerance, The F