Watching the continuing Brexit debate has been… interesting. Since most of the people I know are Americans, so are most of the people I see commenting on it, and I don’t really think we Americans have much of a right to go telling the Brits what to do, largely because we don’t live there, we don’t have first-hand experience with whatever is going on in Britain, and we don’t have to live with the results either way. Still, I am going to try to offer, as best I can from my outsider’s perspective, an explanation for my confused compatriots about why (and what) just happened.
First, some background. According to Wikipedia:
The European Union (EU) is a politico- economic union of 28 member states that are located primarily in Europe. It has an area of 4,324,782 km2 (1,669,808 sq mi), and an estimated population of over 508 million.
The EU has developed an internal single market through a standardised system of laws that apply in all member states. EU policies aim to ensure the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital within the internal market, enact legislation in justice and home affairs, and maintain common policies on trade, agriculture, fisheries, and regional development. Within the Schengen Area, passport controls have been abolished. A monetary union was established in 1999 and came into full force in 2002, and is composed of 19 EU member states which use the euro currency.
Britain still uses the Pound, not the Euro.
Not all European countries are part of the EU–notably, Norway and Switzerland, both of which seem to be doing fine, though I don’t know the details of what treaties they have with other countries.
The EU exists for two main purposes: to make Europe richer by making trade easier, and to make Europe more peaceful by discouraging nationalism. This is supposed to be accomplished via free trade, a common currency, and free movement of people within the Schengen Area.
Parallels with the original 13 US colonies merging under the Articles of Confederation and later the federal system established under the Constitution are obvious. The Federal government regulated interstate trade, dealt with foreign nations, and organized collective defense (ie war) efforts. The individual states managed their own internal affairs.
Of course, if you are a British or Spanish or Finnish nationalist, the American example cannot inspire much confidence in your country’s long-term independent existence. When cracks emerged in the American coalition (mostly regarding trade, monetary policy, and slavery, which had a rather large effect on the economy,) and member states attempted to leave, the result was a rather devastating Civil War.
There are some rather obvious cracks in the EU, like fights between Greece and Germany over economic policy. (Germany’s rather strong economy and Greece’s weak one would most likely benefit from different economic policies, and the Greeks tend to express the sentiment that Germany is running roughshod over them.) (It strikes me that “Germany is running roughshod over other European countries,” is a rather common complaint.)
While Greece is clearly doing badly and Germany is clearly doing well, Britain seems pretty split, perhaps reflecting the close split of the British voters on the Brexit issue (52 to 48%.)
So what are the arguments against being part of the EU? Here are the main arguments I’ve seen (in no particular order):
- General cantankerousness
- Desire to control one’s own country
- “This has been secretly imposed on us”
- Immigration (Merkel)
These are not entirely separate things.
We’ll start with Number One, the least important. In any large enough group of people, you’re bound to get someone who doesn’t want to go along with things. In the US, we have folks who don’t want to be part of the UN or think the Rothschilds are running the New World Order or that fluoride and chemtrails are poisoning them. So Britain has its cranky people, who don’t want to part of the EU.
Dealing with (or ignoring) people who disagree with you–even if you think their ideas are flat out wrong–is one of the side effects of democracy. You get a vote, they get a vote. (In this case, if you’re an American, they get a vote and you don’t.)
I have seen several liberal acquaintances questioning, “Why was this even put up to a vote? Whose bright idea was it to let the people of Britain vote on something that could negatively affect corporations? Dumb people are messing things up for everyone else because they don’t understand economics!”
Look, this is how democracy works. If you don’t like it, let me offer you some Unqualified Reservations. Perhaps a bit of monarchy or neocameralism would be more to your liking.
But Britain is a democracy, and so that means the people of Britain, even the curmudgeonly ones with unpopular opinions, get to vote on things. (And by the way, the US is also a democracy, so if Brexit has you worried, hang onto your seats.)
Number Two: Outside vs. Inside Control
Mere cantankerousness does not a Brexit make, as there aren’t that many cranky people, even in Britain, so let’s get to the real reasons.
Any treaty or organization imposes duties and obligations on people. Being part of the EU removes part of a nation’s natural sovereignty and transfers it to the organization as a whole, just as being part of the US removes part of the individual states’ sovereignty and transfers it to the Federal government.
There are times when this trade-off is worthwhile, like when several small states must band together for their common defense, or when a free-trade zone makes everyone within it better off. There may also be times when this trade-off is not worthwhile–the liberalization of French trade policies with Britain shortly before the French Revolution, for example, decimated French textile industries by introducing competition from the British wool and cotton industries, which ultimately worked out very badly for Louis XVII’s head. Modern-day Greece, as previously mentioned, may not be benefiting from being in an economic union with Germany.
The people of Britain may be completely fine with most (or all) EU features, like open borders and free trade, but still want to have control over these things–and the option to decline them–in their own hands. I like being able to control my own destiny; so do they.
Merkel’s decision last year to throw open Germany’s doors and take in as many Syrian refugees (or people pretending to be Syrian refugees) as possible has had a huge effect on other EU nations. Once these refugees are granted citizenship, they will be permitted to any EU nation they want, not just the one that accepted them.
And just in case it’s not obvious: the people of Britain did not vote for Andrea Merkel, and don’t necessarily want to have to live with her decisions.
Merkel’s decision had an almost immediate effect on the EU, even before the Brexit vote, as countries threw up barbed-wire fences along formerly open borders:
The Schengen Area /ˈʃɛŋən/ is the area including 26 European countries that have abolished passport and any other type of border control at their mutual borders. It mostly functions as a single country for international travel purposes, with a common visa policy…
As a result of the ongoing migration crisis and terrorist attacks in Paris, a number of countries have temporarily reintroduced controls on some or all of their borders with other Schengen states. As of 22 March 2016, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden have imposed controls on some or all of their borders with other Schengen states.
The EU responded to countries like Hungary refusing to allow Germany to dictate their immigration policies by
reaffirming their independence proposing heavy fines:
BRUSSELS—The European Union’s executive body on Wednesday proposed controversial new asylum rules forcing member countries to take in refugees, and it gave a green light to visa-free travel for Turkey and Kosovo.
The new rules from the European Commission, which have ruffled feathers among central and Eastern European states, would require nations to pay €250,000 ($287,000) for each asylum seeker they refuse.
(And let’s not forget that Turkey, which has one small chunk of territory in Europe and 80.5 million people, is a major bone of should-it-be-in-the-EU? contention.)
This does not exactly apply to Britain, which has its own special immigration setup within the EU that I don’t know much about, but the setup sounds awfully similar. I can understand, though, that it may be very worrying to Brits to watch the EU try to bully other member states into taking migrants it clearly doesn’t want, particularly from the Calais “Jungle” Camp. As The Independent reported:
Hundreds of refugees and migrants have stormed a motorway leading to the port at Calais in desperate attempts to board lorries heading for the UK. …
Local newspaper La Voix du Nord reported that up to 400 people climbed fences on to the motorway and attempted to stop traffic so they could hide on lorries.
Clashes reportedly broke out, seeing migrants throw rocks and projectiles at riot police, including one that injured a lorry driver.
The Daily Express has a similar story:
More than 50 refugees can be seen swarming around the truck at the French port of Calais, helping their comrades into the cargo hold before closing the doors behind them.
Others run alongside the lorry, even trying to pull off an underside panel in a desperate bid to climb on board. …
British lorry drivers have said they fear for their lives every time they travel through the notorious port, with migrants resorting to increasingly violent tactics in a desperate bid to reach the UK.
The situation is so bad that drivers now refuse to work the Calais route and many freight companies are close to pulling out of the UK market all together. …
“All these guys are trying to do is deliver goods into the UK. The situation is damaging the UK economy and is affecting the supply chain.”
Number Three: Secrecy
How Immigration Came to Haunt Labour:
But “Young Blair” … was briefly silenced during a fraught meeting early in Labour’s second term in which a worrying rise in the number of asylum cases was being discussed.
The gravest offence, in Lord Irvine’s eyes, was to call into question Britain’s solemn commitments on human rights, notably those made after the second world war in the European convention on human rights (ECHR). When ministers dared to broach the issue of drawing back from some aspects of the ECHR as a way of curbing asylum applications, Irvine’s response was sharp. … The discussion was brought to a swift conclusion when Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, pointed out that Britain would be in breach of its EU membership terms if it sought to wriggle out of its responsibilities under the separate ECHR.
… it is easy to forget just how much immigration and asylum haunted Downing Street throughout New Labour’s time in office. Between 1997 and 2010, net annual immigration quadrupled, and the UK population was boosted by more than 2.2 million immigrants, more than twice the population of Birmingham. In Labour’s last term in government, 2005-2010, net migration reached on average 247,000 a year. …
Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, has made capital out of his claim that the Labour government embarked on a deliberate policy to encourage immigration by stealth. Ukip often cites an article by Andrew Neather, a former No 10 and Home Office adviser, who wrote that the Labour government embarked on a deliberate policy from late 2000 to “open up the UK to mass migration”.
From Neather’s article, Don’t Listen to the Wingers, London Needs Immigrants:
So why is it that ministers have been so very bad at communicating this? I wonder because I wrote the landmark speech given by then immigration minister Barbara Roche in September 2000, calling for a loosening of controls. …
That speech was based largely on a report by the Performance and Innovation Unit, Tony Blair’s Cabinet Office think-tank.
The PIU’s reports were legendarily tedious within Whitehall but their big immigration report was surrounded by an unusual air of both anticipation and secrecy.
Drafts were handed out in summer 2000 only with extreme reluctance: there was a paranoia about it reaching the media.
Eventually published in January 2001, the innocuously labelled “RDS Occasional Paper no. 67”, “Migration: an economic and social analysis” focused heavily on the labour market case.
But the earlier drafts I saw also included a driving political purpose: that mass immigration was the way that the Government was going to make the UK truly multicultural.
I remember coming away from some discussions with the clear sense that the policy was intended – even if this wasn’t its main purpose – to rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date. …
Ministers were very nervous about the whole thing. For despite Roche’s keenness to make her big speech and to be upfront, there was a reluctance elsewhere in government to discuss what increased immigration would mean, above all for Labour’s core white working-class vote. …
And this first-term immigration policy got no mention among the platitudes on the subject in Labour’s 1997 manifesto, headed Faster, Firmer, Fairer. …
Right. So immigration increased, a lot, and without any big official announcement. The Guardian thinks this was basically an accident they couldn’t figure out how to avoid, whereas Neather asserts that the policy was both purposeful and intentionally kept secret because voters would reject it otherwise.
Nothing to see, move it along…
And finally, #4, Immigration:
From The Telegraph:
Record number of migrants arrive in UK without jobs as Net migration rises to 333,000… The figures also show that 77,000 EU migrants have come to the UK without employment. …
Responding to the latest ONS figures, Boris Johnson, who is campaigning for Brexit, said the figures mean “we are adding a population the size of Oxford to the UK every year just from EU migration”.
The former London Mayor insisted a vote to leave is the “only way to take back control of immigration”.
He added that people have watched: “Prime Minister after Prime Minister make promises on immigration that cannot be met because of the EU and this has deeply damaged faith in our democratic system.” …
Asylum claims in the UK have jumped by more than a third to the highest annual level for more than a decade, according to the local ONS figures. …
The highest number of applications came from nationals of Iran (4,305), followed by Eritrea (3,321), Iraq (2,805), Sudan (2,769), Pakistan (2,669) and Syria (2,539).
And from the Guardian article quoted above:
Between 1997 and 2010, net annual immigration quadrupled, and the UK population was boosted by more than 2.2 million immigrants, more than twice the population of Birmingham. In Labour’s last term in government, 2005-2010, net migration reached on average 247,000 a year. …
the key players of the time show in candid conversations that they were struggling to cope with a new world of rapid population movement across porous borders. At times they felt they were stumbling from one move to another, unsure of the present, let alone the future.
There is some very interesting information here about how the confused, messed-up bureaucratic system contributed to politicians feeling like they couldn’t control the number of people flowing into Britain, but I can’t quote all of it.
“We were entering an age where a number of things were happening at the same time – you’ve got cheaper air fares, you’ve got mass telecommunications, it was a different world in which people travelled much more easily,” …
At the time Roche gave the speech, the fact that Britain could not control immigration from the EU was a relatively uncontentious issue. In the early years of the Blair government, income levels in most of the 15 member states were on a par with UK levels. Migration from the three poorer EU members at the time – Greece, Spain and Portugal, which joined in the “southern enlargement” of the 1980s – was relatively low, thanks in part to the generous EU funding of infrastructure projects in those countries.
Then ten new countries, most from the former Soviet Block, enter the EU. The government tries to predict how many migrants Britain will get from them and fails miserably–they predicted 5-13k per year, and got over 50k. (The guy who gets blamed for this points out that his numbers were off because Germany didn’t open its borders at the same time and so they got a bunch of migrants who would have gone to Germany.) It turns out that when you can move relatively easily from a poor country to a rich country, massive numbers of people will, while relatively few people want to move from rich countries to poor countries.
And while America may still be a land of great plains and wide open spaces, Britain isn’t.
But as Sir Stephen Wall, Tony Blair’s former EU adviser explains:
…there was a strong moral case for providing free access to workers from eastern Europe. “The primary argument was the political one – this was the right thing to do, we attached a lot of importance to them as democratic countries and keeping our position as the number one friend of eastern and central Europeans.”
Of course, people started noticing the sudden surge in migrants:
According to the memo, roughly 14,000 eastern European immigrants had arrived in Southampton within the previous 18 months. This was placing immense pressure on maternity services and leading employers to lower wages. …
Outlining the impact on the everyday lives of his constituents, Denham argued at the time that resentment of immigration would grow. “One of the problems was that people were supposed to register if they were employed but many came as self-employed,” Denham says. “The biggest impacts were in self-employed trades like construction, where you didn’t have to register.” In the memo, Denham stated that the daily rate for a builder in the city had fallen by 50% since 2004. He also noted that hospital accident and emergency services were under strain because migrants tended not to use GPs as a first port of call.
The Atlantic reports:
The force that turned Britain away from the European Union was the greatest mass migration since perhaps the Anglo-Saxon invasion. 630,000 foreign nationals settled in Britain in the single year 2015. Britain’s population has grown from 57 million in 1990 to 65 million in 2015, despite a native birth rate that’s now below replacement. On Britain’s present course, the population would top 70 million within another decade, half of that growth immigration-driven.
British population growth is not generally perceived to benefit British-born people. Migration stresses schools, hospitals, and above all, housing. The median house price in London already amounts to 12 times the median local salary. Rich migrants outbid British buyers for the best properties; poor migrants are willing to crowd more densely into a dwelling than British-born people are accustomed to tolerating. …
Now throw in the possibility that anyone in the EU–such as Merkel–can throw open their nation’s doors to whomever they like and the rest of the EU will just have to accept these migrants, fait accompli, and you’ve got a situation that 52% of British voters have decided they just don’t like:
If any one person drove the United Kingdom out of the European Union, it was Angela Merkel, and her impulsive solo decision in the summer of 2015 to throw open Germany—and then all Europe—to 1.1 million Middle Eastern and North African migrants, with uncountable millions more to come.