Brexistential dread – why I want a Remain vote

There is a good chance that the UK will shortly vote to leave the EU. I suspect that nothing I say will swing any votes at this point. But, to assuage my feeling of helplessness, here are some final thoughts on why I so strongly support REMAIN, with an emphasis on relatively overlooked points.

1. The single market (EEA) is not an option if we vote Leave

Many (in Westminster) have argued that we could leave the EU and join Norway and others in EFTA, insodoing discarding some administrative baggage while remaining part of the single market and retaining free movement. As a liberal that certainly sounds better than the alternatives following a Leave vote. But, given the arguments at the core of the Leave campaign, it’s really not plausible that such a vote could be taken as approval for a settlement that involved still paying into the EU budget (as EFTA members have to), unchanged immigration policy, the same economic system and still having to implement EU directives.

Indeed, the only substantive change would be that we’d have no say in those laws.

That would be mad. It’s interesting to imagine an ‘alternative vote’ referendum with three options – EU, EFTA or leave the EEA, and I’d imagine the EFTA option would be trounced. But it might be that after a vote to leave, such a mad policy change is seen collectively as the least bad Leave option. However, although the Leave campaign has tried to avoid being pinned down on what exactly Leaving might entail, trying to mean all things to all people, I think it now has to be accepted that it means leaving the European Economic Area and its four key freedoms.

2. Leaving the single market would be economic self-harm

I won’t dwell too much on the well-aired arguments about potential economic harm here, even though they should be most people’s key concern (see for example the IFS conclusions, or those of any other economists). It should be obvious that, to start with, imports will become more expensive following a Leave vote, given how much the pound is responding to each referendum poll (strengthening when Remain improves). It also seems more than plausible that London will no longer be Europe’s financial hub following Brexit. We might think that’s not all bad news, but on balance we’d be mad to sacrifice one of our main sources of wealth and exports, and harm the many professions that are linked to it. Nor do I relish the thought of (further) years of uncertainty for investors, or harmful and regressive tariffs on imports or on British exports (and, no, our former EU partners would not be disposed to give us a particularly good deal).

The UK – and the world – are only just recovering from a massive economic shock. Average real pay is growing again, but is still lower than it was pre-crash. Unemployment is now as low as 4.8%, but benefit cuts are beginning to bite. The Bank Rate is already as low as it can go (probably). I think it would be crazy to risk another shock now.

3. Those who used to say that debt and borrowing are our biggest problem seem to have conveniently forgotten that

Many Brexiteers seem to have accepted that there would be an economic hit in the short-term (those politicians at least would not be out of a job). And they have also hit back at Osborne’s suggestion that this might mean higher taxes or more spending cuts. But these are the same people – UKIP and the Tory right – who have been the most unrelenting in warning of the perils of public borrowing.

In part this is confirmation that they value cutting immigration and leaving the EU as more important than the national debt – whereas public services and inequality were clearly less important. And perhaps it is also a real turning point in post-recession politics, where the deficit has been sufficiently reduced that is no longer the key economic debate.

But it’s still fun to ask whether UKIP policy is still to ensure “no backsliding” on delivering a surplus soon and whether the Tories who’ve criticised Osborne’s backsliding will say the same of a post-Brexit Chancellor. To use a (flawed but attractive) right-wing argument, public debt is already around £50,000 per household: why are Brexiteers now so blasé about both increasing that amount, decreasing our incomes, and decreasing the future population that it’s shared between?

4. Leaving the single market might boost EU immigration in the short-term

My views on immigration are very different to most British people’s (I’d go back to before the original Aliens Act 1905 – designed to keep out persecuted Jews). Economically I think net immigration has been a good thing for ‘native’ Brits overall. And it’s also great for the migrating people themselves – a point that is literally ignored in economic analysis (partly because of a lack of cross-border data and partly because we only seem to care about British people).

I’m sure Brexit would ultimately allow for reduced immigration (and reduced emigration). In the short-term, however, I still think there’s an unanswered question. During the period between a Leave vote and formally leaving the EU – which would be a minimum of two years but likely more – would there be a surge in immigration before the drawbridge was raised?

It seems like the options are either 1) yes; 2) restrict EU immigration before then, as Chris Grayling may have suggested, which would be illegal (as we’d still be within the EU); or 3) announce that any new EU migrants would have their residency rights removed once we formally left. I’m no legal expert but it does look like even this third option is not legally straightforward (to say nothing of the practicalities). The Vienna Convention seems to suggest that residency, once given under an international treaty, can’t be easily removed: and indeed this is an argument that pro-Brexit campaigners have used to argue that British expats in the EU have nothing to fear. Whether it’s a surge in economic migrants or a wave of returning, forced-out Brits, a vote to leave may actually boost net migration in the short run. Of course, a good UK recession might avoid that but that’s no consolation, and Brexit might harm prospects in other countries too.

5. The wave of Polish immigration has already happened, and won’t happen again

It’s true that the UK has seen a substantial influx of people from Eastern Europe and particularly Poland, and that this shock has been as unpopular as every other wave of migration since those foreign Celts came over. But this shouldn’t be a vote on whether we retrospectively approve of that: the question is more about whether that level of demographic change will continue.

I don’t think it will. Poland joined the EU in 2004, with the UK offering free movement immediately, and at a time of sky-high unemployment (c.20%) there. Now (partly because of emigration) Poland’s unemployment rate is 6.8% – basically the lowest it’s been (in this data) and also lower than France has ever reached. In Romania (the only other really big new member, though only about half as populous as Poland) unemployment is even lower. Unemployment, while still far too high in many countries, is now falling across Europe. And while there’s still a huge wage gap with some countries, attracting many, it may well be that net EU-UK migration has peaked. Note that in the long run the best way to stop influxes of poor Europeans is to ensure that there are no poor Europeans: and the EU is a great tool for reducing cross-border inequality (even if that’s not what Brits want to hear).

unemployment in europe

Of course, the EU may expand again. But it should be appreciated that there are no more ‘Polands’ that can join. Personally I hope that Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Moldova will (following institutional improvement) join the EU over the next 20 years or so, but their combined population is only 22 million – approximately the size of Romania or half of Poland. Even if all of these joined, they would increase the EU’s population by only around 4%, while at the same time giving it a much simpler border. There is no possible big expansion (e.g. Ukraine, Turkey or Russia) even vaguely on the horizon and in the EU the UK, like every other member, has a veto (which, incidentally, it would lose as an EFTA member).

Finally, there’s the argument that we are about to be swamped by refugees (many of them dark skinned, and even Muslim!) from the Middle East and North Africa. Here again I think the potential impact on the UK is overstated. Note also that Nigel Farage’s campaigning really does have parallels with Nazi propaganda. But, in short, these refugees are not EU citizens and the UK is not obliged to let them live and work here just because we’re in the EU. Crises like that in Syria can’t be wished away, and even if we wanted to withdraw from the problem as much as possible, leaving the EU is not a helpful way to proceed.

6. The UK may have even more power within the EU in future

I can see the argument that we don’t know how the EU might evolve even over the next few years (though this seems somewhat contradictory with the idea that the EU is unreformable), and that there remains a risk that a two-speed EU (which is presumably what we want) means decisions are made by those in the Eurozone. But it is overlooked in this debate that:

  • the UK will have the rotating presidency of the EU Council next year (I don’t know if it’s possible that we’d lose this following a Leave vote)
  • qualified majority votes in the council require support from countries representing 65% of the EU’s population. The UK already represents 13% – giving it substantial power – but on current demographic projections that’s set to rise further, overtaking Germany by 2050. This is a marginal effect, and the UK is already rarely overruled, but worth noting.
  • Similarly, in future we can expect the distribution of the EU’s 751 MEPs to shift away from Germany. In a few decades the UK may have more MEPs than any other country. Let’s just hope they’re not as useless as our UKIP and Tory ones.

It does not seem too optimistic to think that the UK can play a big role in driving further reform of the single market and EU, as The Times’s pro-Remain editorial (£) says.

7. Don’t do what Putin wants

It’s only two years since Russia invaded parts of Ukraine and since 298 civilians (including 10 British) were shot down as a result on flight MH17. International sanctions are still in place. The Russian leadership, when not embezzling money and assassinating opponents, has over the past few years threatened to nuke Denmark, Turkey and Poland. Russian jets, bombers and submarines frequently test and provoke the defences of the UK and other countries. Just this week Russia has bombed anti-ISIS, US and UK trained Syrian rebels. It is also believed to have funded far-right and anti-EU parties across Europe.

The fact that Brexit would be great news for Putin isn’t a clinching argument, of course, but it should give you pause for thought, particularly on top of the case that the EU has been good for peace within Europe, 100 years after Verdun and the Somme.

There is an argument – one of the few that might make me support Brexit – that says that giving Putin what he wants: breaking up the EU and NATO, is the best way to avoid devastating conflict in this century. But I suspect not even Brexiteers would argue this: that we should deliberately weaken our own foreign policy – and that of our allies – because it’s too threatening to Russia.

8. The EU is good for the environment.

Avoiding nuclear war really matters. In terms of what the world will look like in 100 or 200 years, it probably matters far more than anything that either side of the referendum debate has argued about… with the possible exceptions of technology, climate change and other environmental issues. And on the environment, I think the EU – and the UK’s role within it – has been a great force for good.

The EU’s made mistakes – arguably promoting renewables too heavily (at the expense of R&D and coal replacement, for example – see Dieter Helm’s writings) and being unable to tighten the Emissions Trading Scheme post-recession (incidentally it’s not clear if we’d remain in this post-Brexit, and if we did whether we’d have any say over its evolution). But its recognition of environmental problems, its countless actions and its key international role I think deserve huge respect.

The UK has had, and could have, its own bold green agenda too, but given the people leading the Leave campaign, and that their main environmental policies seem to be to reduce taxes on fuel use and increase fishing, I’m not sure, from an environmental perspective, that future generations would look back on a Brexit vote with gratitude.

9. A vote to Remain might just mean we can stop talking about the EU

I for one can’t wait for political discussion (and my Twitter feed, most importantly) to stop revolving around the EU. If we vote Remain, that might even take just a week or two. If we vote Leave, the mechanics of leaving will take up most political discussion for at least the next three years.

This might sound like a stupid line of argument. But there’s a serious point. There are many challenges facing the UK and many ways in which life and our economy could be improved through the actions of parliament. While you might think it better for the Conservative government to have no time for governing, on the whole I want our lawmakers to spend the rest of this parliament and the next looking to the future, not arguing about how exactly to unpick the detailed implementation of decades of EU-influenced policy.

Given that it’s also expected that Boris Johnson would be the PM following Brexit, that his Cabinet might include some really awful people (reportedly perhaps even Nigel Farage as an unelected Lord) and that parliament would be hopelessly divided, a Leave vote does not inspire me with hope for the country’s politics. It’s not clear how politics will evolve after a Remain vote, but I think there’s more chance of good governance and reconciliation.

10. A vote to Leave might break up the UK

There has been no answer to the question of how to deal with the border between Northern Ireland and Eire, post-Brexit. Ireland would still be in the EU, while the UK would be seeking a firm “take control of our borders” immigration policy. The only possible resolutions would be 1) to simply let illegal (i.e. non-Irish EU) immigrants walk from the EU into the UK; 2) to increase border checks at the Northern Ireland – Eire border; or 3) to increase border checks at the Northern Ireland – rUK border. None of these options are very desirable. And this is only one of the challenges that might face Northern Ireland post-Brexit.

In Scotland, polls have shown that Brexit wouldn’t necessarily lead to a successful second Scottish independence referendum. But it’s not hard to imagine that changing if Brexit does do economic harm and if the UK government takes a further step to the right. And perhaps pressure in Northern Ireland for a referendum (albeit between two unpopular options) would then grow too.

Maybe this is just idle speculation, or Project Fear, but it seems entirely plausible that in 10 years, thanks to those patriotic UKIP and Conservative and Unionist politicians, England and Wales will be its own country, with a substantial land border with the EU (Scotland) and not much else to show from Brexit but years of legal nightmares, uncertainty and economic gloom.

11. We shouldn’t encourage Leave’s style of politics (i.e. lying)

I can understand why Leavers are frustrated with the Remain side’s economic projections which are of course just that, rather than ‘facts’ (though we shall see if we vote Leave…). And it’s normal for the ‘opposition’ to be able to promise expensive things that the government cannot. But it’s fair to say that the Leave campaign has customarily outright lied, and the lesson so far is that there appear to be no sanctions whatsoever against such lying. And of course, this builds on a long history of media lies about EU policy (apparently instigated long ago by Boris Johnson as a journalist).

Another Leave pattern has been the denigration of experts – not merely disagreeing with the findings of previously respected institutions but attacking their character and motives.

These things should not be encouraged. Campaigns should pay a price at the ballot box for lying and misleading. A vaguely accurate view of reality is needed to make good decisions and, to reflect on Alex Massie‘s post, you can feed people a stream of lies to help your own position or to sell news, but don’t be surprised if they then make terrible decisions.

Even if we vote to Remain, there are other big political battles coming in the next year, notably including Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. A vote to Leave would not just be a disaster in itself, but a worrying precedent.


Please vote to remain.

3 thoughts on “Brexistential dread – why I want a Remain vote

  1. Great blog with many important points I’ve not seen written about much elsewhere (e.g. the environment and future generations).

    One question. “My views on immigration are very different to most British people’s (I’d go back to before the original Aliens Act 1905 – designed to keep out persecuted Jews)”. What are your views and do most people really differ from them?

    1. Hi Andy. I look forward to discussing this with you properly when you return from your own travels (provided they let you back into the country)!

      But my view is essentially that the freedom to move anywhere in the world (and to work there and pay for accommodation) should be a fundamental human right, and that international migration restrictions are just as strange and illiberal as if people were told they weren’t allowed to move from Blackpool to Manchester for a job, or that the person you loved wasn’t allowed to move in with you in London because they were Welsh. I feel that migration restrictions are essentially discrimination based on ‘nationality’ (which is usually illegal), and that – while I don’t have a problem with tracking people at borders – the pre-2oth century freedom to go anywhere would be preferable. Admittedly, there are lots of good questions about how open borders could work alongside 20th century welfare states (questions the EU has done quite well at addressing, in my view) but I won’t go into that now.

      Migration restrictions enforce a lottery of birth, and make the world a lot poorer than it needs to be. They’re also a human tragedy (not that needless poverty isn’t), from the refugees who are told they have to stay in (or even go back to) Syria, or Eritrea or North Korea, to the UK couples who are broken up because one partner supposedly doesn’t earn enough to deserve a place in the UK.

      I think the Brexit vote is just another data point that shows how much most Brits disagree with me on migration. But maybe there are some areas of agreement:
      1) Most people, I reckon, think that *they* should be allowed to move and live anywhere.
      2) In general, I think Brits are open to the idea of free movement between rich countries (though maybe that’s helped by those countries also being white and/or often Anglophone).
      The disagreement is of course more about migration from poorer countries to the UK. I think the answer is to do everything we can to reduce the staggeringly high level of inequality between countries, as well as allowing free movement. While, at the risk of being unfair, I think many comparatively rich Westerners don’t care at all about inequality between countries (after all, they’ve won the lottery of birth) and want to keep up a drawbridge to insulate themselves from having to see or interact with people who are poorer, foreign or both.

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