Part II: The 5 myths of the current Brexit debate
Myth no. 1: National states are the right answer to the challenges presented by the 21st century
Implementing the international agreement on climate change, fighting Islamist terrorism, strengthening a stable global financial system, fostering peace in Syria and the Ukraine, handling the Syrian refugee crisis, imposing sanctions against Iran, Russia or North Korea, achieving a fairer income and wealth situation, shaping the digital transformation era and the fourth industrial revolution – none of these challenges can be mastered by one nation alone. International cooperation and close political coordination are absolutely necessary to master these challenges. The bodies of the European Union provide a very reasonable and democratic framework for reaching a common stance on the basis of the values and interests shared by all citizens of the Union. And no organization other than the Union is large enough to be really effective on a global scale. Its capability to act in terms of foreign policy may only have existed for a short time yet, but it has become considerably more powerful over the past few years. An individual national state would not be able to achieve the same results. What is more, even today, individual national states are already restricted by and bound to numerous international agreements and international law within and outside of the Union. More than ever, sovereignty has become relative in the 21st century. Absolute sovereignty, as postulated by British Brexit advocates, is an illusion. The world is developing on the basis of interdependencies.
Additionally, the United Kingdom is no typical European national state. The English, Scottish, Welsh and people from (Northern) Ireland each form their own nation with its own history that is older than the United Kingdom. Under the command of England, the Welsh, Scottish and Irish people were united, which often brought with it much bloodshed. The Unions Act united England with Wales in the 16th century, with Scotland in 1707 and with Ireland in 1800. Not even one hundred years have passed since the Irish fought for their independence during a sanguinary and cruel civil war, and won it back. One can still witness the political consequences from this war in Northern Ireland today. Since the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, we have also known that about 1.7 million Scots – or 44 % of votes cast – would rather not be British but Scottish only. That is why Tony Blair has recently made quite a dry comment on Brexit: “If the United Kingdom votes to leave Europe, Scotland will vote to leave the United Kingdom.” We must not play down a potential failure of Great Britain in case of a Brexit as it is not entirely unlikely. Neither a Brexit nor the failure of the United Kingdom would correspond to European interests.
Myth no. 2: Size does not matter and more Europe is bad per se
Everybody who works in procurement in the private sector knows how important your bargaining position is. It often depends on the size of the organisation you represent. Great Britain is a country with about 65 million residents, i.e. less than 1 % of the world’s population. While it may still be among the world’s ten major economies, its share in global GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity is less than 3 % only. On its own and from a global perspective, Great Britain’s economy is tiny. And this is also true for any other European nation! Thus, there is a fundamental difference in whether 65 million British or 500 million Europeans negotiate with 300 million Americans about a free-trade agreement. This concerns such fundamental issues as environmental protection, consumer protection and data protection in Europe and the Safe Harbor Agreement. The mismatch would become even more apparent if 65 million British wanted to conclude an agreement on the protection of investment with what will soon be 1.4 billion Chinese. The best guarantee for all citizens of the Union – including the British citizens – for having their interests and values maintained is the Union and its size.
Also in terms of its inner affairs, the European Union offers numerous advantages. In its earlier days, these were the removal of barriers and freedom of travel. Then, exchanging currencies was no longer necessary thanks to the euro even though British decided not to take advantage of it. Today, one example of the Union’s advantages is the standardized regulation on data protection: A necessary foundation of a common digital domestic market that represents a considerable improvement compared to the patchwork of 28 obsolete regulations. Another example is a standardized minimum provision on corporate taxes. It would prevent large American corporations to use Europe to evade their tax liabilities. One thing has to be said clearly: The statement that “more Europe” means a worse Europe is fundamentally flawed. Actually, the exact contrary has often been true: “More Europe” has often led to significant progress for the benefit of and in the interest of all citizens of the European Union.
Myth no. 3: The European Union is undemocratic
Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, it says in the holy Bible (John 8:7)
Last May, in the elections of the British House of Commons, almost 4 million Brits, i.e. more than 12 % of all votes cast, voted for UKIP, the UK Independence Party. In accordance with the British electoral system, however, this only resulted in precisely one mandate in the British House of Commons. With a total of 650 seats in the English House of Commons, UKIP therefore only received 0.15 percent of seats. The votes of 4 million voters are represented by only one of 650 seats. It is quite ironic that the UK Independence Party of all parties has fallen victim of this grave democratic drawback. Therefore London’s mayor Boris Johnson should not point fingers at the European Union; which he did only a few days ago, on the occasion of his announcement that he would support Brexit. It has gotten him into dubious company: The Greek Yanis Varoufakis, probably the most unsuccessful minister of finance of modern democracies, has also criticized the European Union as undemocratic. It all gets even more disconcerting when some Brits compare the Union to a dictatorship or the Soviet Union. Everybody may form their own opinion about what to make of this.
In reality, the European Union is much more democratic than its reputation would make you think – even if such statements might not be popular. It is democratic thanks to the contributions made by a British Commissioner to the EU, 78 freely elected British MEPs and about 1000 British employees at the European Commission alone among other things.
Democratic compromise is one of the genuine characteristics of democracies. It means balancing the various interests of the citizens. And which organization, if not the European Union, has been known – sometimes notoriously known – for trying to find a compromise, to strike a balance? This is why the European Union is often referred to as gigantic compromise machine. British citizens who are used to open competition and the clear assignment of responsibilities – government on the one hand, opposition on the other hand and no coalition most of the time – may be less familiar with this approach than citizens from different EU member states. But this does not mean that it is undemocratic.
Passing laws for 28 nations and 500 million citizens in 24 languages just is a bit more sophisticated. And who has contributed to such laws and has been able to form an informed opinion? And who among the citizens is really interested in – let’s say – the European Capital Requirements Directive? Complexity is the Union’s major challenge – both in terms of content and size. This often means that it is not as easy to determine the different positions as in British Parliament, for example. European legislation takes place in the form of trialogues – a complex interaction between Commission, Parliament and the Council representing 28 nations. What is more is that the European Parliament is, by definition, more about achieving tangible results than about debates; and that, due to European history, there have not been genuinely European parties but only political groups so far. This makes it difficult for citizens to identify clear responsibilities. However, none of this has to remain as it is. The Union is still young. It will make progress.
Still, one thing is clear: The European Union is far from being perfect. British democracy developed over centuries. More than 400 years passed between the Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights; and more than 300 additional years between the latter and women’s eligibility to vote in Britain. In many cases, blood was shed in the fight for these achievements. So why should we expect European democracy to be perfect after 66 years of entirely peaceful evolution? Or, borrowing from a great British politician: European democracy is the worst form of government throughout Europe except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time: Fascist and communist dictatorship or imperialist national states.
Myth no. 4: The European Union is incapable of reform
The history of the European Union is short by comparison; yet, it has already been struck by many crises and setbacks. However, the Union has mastered them all. Almost all of these crises have made it stronger: The failure of the European Defence Community in 1954 was followed by the Treaty of Rome in 1957; the crisis of the empty chair caused by France in 1965 by the Luxembourg Compromise; the veto by Charles de Gaulle on the admission of Great Britain in 1963 by Great Britain’s admission ten years later, European overproduction of butter in the late 1970s was followed by a reform of common agricultural policy; the rejection of the Treaty of Nice by the Irish by the Seville summit and the subsequent Irish assent in a referendum; the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty by the Dutch and the French by the reformed Treaty of Lisbon; crises in several member states in the wake of the global financial crisis by the European Stability and Growth Pact and the European Banking Union. These are but a few examples.
It is therefore not surprising that the Union is still just as very attractive to candidate states in the Balkans as ever before. There is no need to explain it to someone from a Baltic state, either. Together with NATO, the Union is the best guarantee that Baltic people no longer personally experience Russian detention and Gulag but only know it from stories told by their fathers and grandfathers.
In view of this history of managing crises, there is currently no reason to doubt that the European Union will learn to better protect and defend its borders; and that it will master the Syrian refugee crisis, even if the Schengen Agreement will have to be temporary suspended for that purpose. Compared to national states, the Union is still young. However, it is an old hand at dealing with crises and reforms. Of course, its processes tend to take more time, after all, it does consist of 28 nations which have developed over a long time, speak 24 languages and always have to communicate to each other first.
Myth no. 5: The European Union is weak
A Brexit is not desirable, but the Union would be able to cope with it. What the Union would not be able to cope with, however, would be if the British example caught on. In that case, the current situation would develop to become an existential question, a question of to be or not no to be for the Union. What distinguishes the European Union from Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy by Hamlet is that the Union is not contemplating the sleep of death, but the vitality of a powerful, democratic and prospering life.
A potential Brexit must therefore not offer any incentives for other nations to follow the British example. It must not set any precedents. This would have to play a role when the British access to the European common market and an exit agreement would be negotiated after a potential Brexit. The British have every right to leave. But the remaining 440 million citizens of the Union equally have every right to specify the terms on which they intend to grant the British access to their common market after a potential Brexit.
The Union does not only have to protect its values and interests against pro-Brexit British, but also against governments of member states violating the values laid down in Article 2 of the Treaty. Hence, it is only logical for the Union to have recently started assessing the actions by the Polish government under its rule of law framework. It was also right to not be misled by the Greek government one year ago but to insist on further reforms as a precondition for continuous financial support. Equally, the Union is well-advised today to request additional efforts to reform the Greek pension system.
The European Union has become stronger than many people think. Many may still underestimate it, but this is more a problem for those who do, not for the Union.
The next part will focus on what will happen after a Brexit vote and who will benefit from it. And it will touch the real alternative to it. It will be published by the end of this week.