The absurdity of Brexit

It's been three years since I've posted anything to this blog. My Twitter feed has effectively replaced blogging. I probably needed a good excuse to resume writing more than 140-character thoughts and clearly if I didn't grasp the opportunity provided by the referendum that the Government has decided to call on withdrawal from the European Union, it would have meant that I would simply never have written an article again.

European integration is something I've never managed to feel enthusiastic about. Unlike my parents' generation, I have never seriously believed that war would ever come back to haunt us [i]. And perhaps more crucially, the federalist element in the movement towards European unity appalls me, for the simple reason that I view artificially forging a sense of shared nationhood between peoples as diverse as those spread across the European continent as a sure recipe for disaster: the precedents set by Napoleon and by the German Third Reich aren't just cliché—they really serve to remind us shared political traditions need to be balanced by our national differences.

Yet any sincere will to create a European superstate must have died irrevocably on the day in 1973 when the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland joined the original six members of what was still then called the European Union, since the motivation for that enlargement rested entirely in the advantage of joining what was then the world's most dynamic free-trade market. Admittedly, integration has continued in a number of areas that are clearly political, rather than economic, in content: the European arrest warrant and the Schengen travel-free zone spring to mind. Yet no member state has ever been compelled to join any of these additional layers: and the resulting opt-outs have multiplied and made Europe a patchwork of overlapping areas of cooperation, ruining any prospect of realisation for the federalist agenda.

Relationship of European nations to European organisations
The U.K. is already exempted from all the arrangements with political overtones in the EU (source: The Economist)

From a British perspective, therefore, membership of the European Union is a singularly unsentimental, rather technical affair, reminiscent more of the cooperation between participants at the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna than of the French-led oppression that preceded it.

Moreover, even in the historic core of the European Union where federalism had traditionally been strongest—the Benelux, Italy, Germany and France—a clear trend against diluting national identity has now emerged. Euroscepticism has gained considerable ground in all these countries, which means any further deepening in integration is unlikely to happen.

As Sir Malcolm Rifkind put it in a recent blog post in The Spectator:

When I was Foreign Secretary, a French newspaper described me on one occasion as a "eurosceptic moderate” and of course those two words tell you what my position is. I strongly opposed the single currency and was part of many other people who were opposing that at that time. But I don’t believe that it is one-size-fits-all: already, we have two kinds of European Union – those who are in the eurozone and those who are not, there are 15 who are in and 13 who are not, some who don’t want to be, some who used to want to be then changed their minds and some who will never be.

And while I don't agree with Sir Malcolm's concern, also expressed in his blog post, that departure from the EU would somehow put the whole Continent in military danger, the folly of unilaterally leaving the Single Market that was perhaps Margaret Thatcher's most remarkable achievement in the European field is in itself sufficient reason for staying.

As one who has voted Conservative all my life, until the Labour government disenfranchised me along with millions of other expatriate Britons, it thus seems obvious to me that Brexit is not the natural Tory choice: the burden of proof, from a Conservative perspective, should always rest on those who advocate radical change; and the Leave campaign have singularly failed to demonstrate any benefit from unilaterally giving up the economic advantages of membership.

Recent shifts in the referendum debate, however, have shown that the electorate is more concerned with immigration than it is with economics. And it is true that under the Labour Government that was in office from 1997 until 2010, immigration to the UK increased substantially. Yet Government statistics show that the increase in immigration from the New Commonwealth and, surprisingly, from China, vastly outstrips the flow of EU nationals, who are primarily made up of Poles unlikely either to settle permanently in Britain or, for the small number that do, to alter its cultural identity. Brexit would be unlikely to end the right of EU nationals to come to the UK, and even if we were to succeed in doing so, we would be putting in jeopardy the right of 1.2 million British Citizens currently residing in other EU states to remain there.

The prospect of Turkish accession to the EU or—slightly less improbably—Turkish visa-free access to the Schengen area (of which the UK is not a part) has more recently been brandished by the Leave campaign as a reason for leaving. Yet Turkey's chances of joining the EU not just in the short term, but even in the foreseeable future, are close to nil.

One of the most blatant absurdities of European interference with British sovereignty actually has nothing to do with the European Union and would in fact remain even in the event of Brexit. Despite the fact that civil liberties in the UK have enjoyed, since Magna Carta, a vastly superior degree of protection that they did in any other European country, the Blair government decided to give the European Convention on Human Rights effect in domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

Two aspects of the Convention rightly had previously given the United Kingdom's representatives to the Council of Europe cause for concern: the establishment of a European Court of Human Rights and the right of individual petition to the Court, which were felt to be open to abuse. Just how well-founded those fears were was demonstrated by events after the enactment of the Human Rights Act: this led to a string of decisions privileging the rights of convicted criminals and terrorists, especially in cases where the deportation of criminals has been prevented on the basis of the risk supposedly posed to their human rights in the country to which they are to be sent.

It has been Conservative policy since 1996 for the Human Rights Bill to be repealed and replaced by a Bill of Rights. The current administration's failure to fulfil that commitment is unfortunate: support for Brexit would have been reduced if a Human Rights Bill had been enacted in 2015 or early 2016 [ii].

Membership of the European Union, from the outset, has always enabled us to voluntarily delegate certain tasks to a supranational body better able to carry them out for the common benefit of all participating nation states. The legal basis for our participation is a treaty between nation states to which we have freely acceded. The ultimate authority in the land remains the Queen in Parliament, whose law-making power remains absolute, unbounded by any higher authority other than God's: it can, even now, legally forbid Frenchmen from smoking in streets of Paris [iii].

There is thus not a single good reason to support withdrawal of the U.K. from the European Union. Yet it has in recent days, culminating the folly of the murder of Mrs Cox, the pro-Remain MP, become apparent that support for withdrawal is not based on rational motives, but rather on prejudice. And despite appearances, the European Union is not the real target of that prejudice.

What has been angering a growing portion of the electorate in the United Kingdom is a pattern that has also been at work in France—explaining the rise in that country of the Front national and in the United States—where we are currently witnessing the surreal phenomenon of the now-inevitable Trump nomination as the Republican candidate for the Presidency. The thread of that pattern is clearly the failure of the establishment in all those countries—and, indeed, more recently in Germany following Frau Merkel's astonishing mishandling of the negotiation with Turkey over the migrant crisis—to live up to its obligation to act the general interest rather than pursuing its own sectarian agenda.

The deep unpopularity of Britain's finest institutions—the Public Schools, the great Universities, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Established Church, the Army, the Courts— is explained by the failure of the class which had successfully made these islands into the world's foremost power, not just militarily and economically, but also morally, to live up those standards in the shadow of Empire. And while the European adventure is unquestionably one which, like the Battle of Waterloo, was originally played on our finest school playing fields, it is not the Establishment's greatest failure—indeed, it is not really a failure at all. By using it as a pretext to punish it for the moral turpitude it has abundantly displayed in so many other areas, the Brexit campaign is unfairly holding the entire country to ransom. If I could, I would have no hesitation in voting Remain.

_______________
  1. Though of course the horrific wars in the former Yugoslavia and more recently in Easter Ukraine should serve as a warning that that assumption applies perhaps not quite as widely as we would like. []
  2. Following the 2010 general election, the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition agreement provided for the establishment of a Commission to investigate the creation of a Bill of Rights. The Commission was set up in March 2011. The nine-member Commission reported back in December 2012 that it had been unable to reach a consensus, with Lord Faulks and Jonathan Fisher, the two Conservative members, in favour of withdrawal from the Convention, while Philippe Sands, a Liberal Democrat adviser, and Baroness Kennedy, a Labour peer, opposed the introduction of a bill on the basis that it could be used to remove the United Kingdom from the European Court of Human Rights. The Commission did agree however that no action should be taken until after the Scottish independence referendum, at which point a constitution convention should be held. []
  3. Contrary to what is sometimes read and believed, parliamentary sovereignty has not been eroded by accession to the European Union, and would not be enhanced by withdrawal, despite the fact that English and Scottish judges now set aside provisions of an Act of Pariament in certain situations where they conflict with European legislation, as illustrated most famously in the case of R (Factortame Ltd) v Secretary of State for Transport, which was taken against the United Kingdom government by a company of Spanish fishermen who claimed that the United Kingdom had breached European Union law by requiring ships to have a majority of British owners if they were to be registered in the UK. The case produced a number of significant judgments on British constitutional law, and was the first time courts held that they had the power to restrain the application of an Act of Parliament pending trial and ultimately to disapply that Act when it was found to be contrary to EU law. []