Sunday, 19 June 2016

Why I'm In

I am glad to be a British citizen. And an Englishman. And a Midlander. And a native of Warwickshire. And a Coventrian. Patriotism can and does work on several levels. So I'm also glad to be a European. I've grown up as an EU citizen, and it's part of my identity.

I'm also a Christian, specifically a Catholic, which helps to give me a more universal viewpoint than might otherwise be the case ('catholicos' = 'all-encompassing'). Believing that every human being's fundamental value comes from being made in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ puts other markers of identity in perspective (while not eliminating them – see above paragraph). And let's not forget that the EU flag is based on the twelve-star crown of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Add to that the fact that I'm now a member of an international religious order, with members in most countries of the world, including Europe. The free movement of people within the EU is not only practically useful to us Capuchins – it also helps to strengthen our fundamental identity as brothers, regardless of nationality and race.

I'm also sympathetic to the original inspiration of the EU, which was to counteract the sad tendency of the European powers to be at war with each other every generation or so. It was in the aftermath of the Second World War that the idea was conceived to make the countries of Europe more interdependent through trade and therefore less likely to become antagonists. It's been over seventy years since the last major European war, so that idea might be working. I'm not claiming that leaving the EU will lead to World War III; but anything that furthers peace is not to be given up lightly.

This peace-making consideration has been reinforced for me by my recent visit to Ireland. The Irish are quite worried by the possibility of Brexit; not just because of the economic impact on them, but also because they fear a return to the bad old days of border controls between the Republic and Northern Ireland. The free movement between both parts of Ireland has considerably helped the peace process.

All of the above is in order to briefly explain why I'm in principle and almost instinctively in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. And that means that during the course of the referendum debate I've tended to see the burden of proof as lying with the Leave campaign. If there are practical disadvantages to our membership of the EU that might outweigh the principled reasons for remaining, I've been willing to listen. So far, however, the Brexiteers are nowhere near convincing me.

I'll deal with the economics argument first, not because it's most important but because it's been most prominent in the debate. Economics has always seemed something of a dark art to me, so like most voters I'm left confused by the arguments being played back and forth. But the fact that many if not most businessmen and economists warn against Brexit suggests to me that the economic advantages to leaving are at least doubtful. And as a complete amateur, I would think that free movement of goods is bound to be good for trade on the whole.

Another major area of concern is about the effects of immigration. I think this whole area can be summarised under two headings: economic and cultural. The economic concern is that immigrants take jobs from British people and put pressure on housing and public services. On the other hand, many immigrants take jobs which British people don't seem to want (e.g. working in care homes or fruit-picking in our fields) or for which we don't have enough qualified people (e.g. nursing). By the same token, houses are being built and hospitals staffed by immigrants – think what a pressure our system would be under without them. In fact, even the Leave campaigners admit that high levels of immigration would have to continue, because the UK needs people of working-age to fill the demographic gap from decades of low birth-rate. When analysed closely, the Leave campaign's real point is to be able to 'control' immigration. I will touch further upon this whole issue of 'taking back control' a bit later. But for now I note that I don't see any evidence that immigration is badly out of control – rather, as just noted, the immigrants are mostly doing good work. Furthermore, the free movement of people is a two-way street, which many British citizens have been able to take advantage of.

The cultural impact of immigration is one for which I have more sympathy. It is undoubtedly true that it's harder to maintain our British culture when large numbers of people from other cultures are moving in. I would submit, however, that immigrants still form a small minority of our population, so a healthy culture shouldn't have any trouble integrating them. The problem is that British culture is not healthy, partly because of a growing historical illiteracy and partly through the loss of Christian faith. If we really want to protect our culture, those are the problems to address, along with the low birth-rate.

Another argument of the Brexiteers is that the EU is undemocratic. It is certainly true that European Commissioners are unelected; but there are several points to make about this. Firstly, the members of the European Parliament are elected. Secondly, the Commissioners are appointed by our elected representatives, so they are not far removed from democratic accountability. Thirdly, no one objects to judges, for example, being unelected – and in fact no system can practically run entirely on elected posts. Finally, Commissioners are unelected because the EU is a fundamentally a treaty between sovereign states, not a democracy in its own right. Anyone who wants to make the EU more democratic would have to move more towards the European super-state that people seem to so much dread.

The rhetoric about 'taking back control' doesn't impress me much. Imagine, for example, there was a move for my home town Coventry to 'take back control' from Westminster. Romantically though the notion of a city-state would appeal to me, I would want to ask what actual advantages it would bring. The reason Britain is not a collection of city-states or that England no longer consists of its original Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is that there are many advantages to becoming part of a greater whole. We transfer a lot of decision-making to that greater whole in return for those advantages. So any argument to reverse that process needs to clearly explain the benefits such a reversal would bring. Thus far I have seen nothing satisfactory in the way of such an explanation. The assumption often seems to be that 'taking back control' is automatically a good thing.

I also reflect that the 'control' currently wielded by the EU would return to a British Government which was elected by a minority of the British people and which I personally do not trust to act for the common good.

It's not as if the EU has that much control over us anyway. Most decisions that greatly affect us are taken at the national level. The electorate, I think, understand this in that they pay far more interest to a General Election than to European elections.

Another complaint against the EU is that it is grossly inefficient to the point of corruption. People on all sides seem to concede this point to at least some degree, so I won't contest it. But I will ask how inefficient the EU is in comparison to other levels of government, which often aren't particularly impressive either. With regard to other levels of government, we do not seek to abolish them because of their inefficiency or corruption; rather we seek to reform them. Why should we not do the same with the EU?

The Brexiteers have therefore failed to convince me that there are any major advantages to leaving the European Union. This is not least because no one is able to predict what actually will happen in the event of our leaving. But I also find the whole tenor of the Leave campaign distasteful, in that it has an overall attitude of 'Us and Them'. Whether 'They' are immigrants or faceless Eurocrats, the attitude is one of opposition to an outside enemy. I do not want a Britain based on that attitude.

To summarise: I have many principled reasons to remain in the EU, and I am wholly unconvinced that there are good practical reasons to leave.

1 comment:

  1. What sbout this: it seems that the problem is that the majority of people think that politicians are making decisions for the Common Good. It will be easier for us all to know what is happening if we only have to look at what our own parliament is doing (and not the European parliament as well). There as some discrepency with Corruption ideas/attitude with: "Even the European Commission has admitted that the extent of corruption is "breathtaking" costing £100bn annually. Equivalent to the bloc's annual budget.
    Likewise, it is said, the EU has allowed the multinational eg Starbucks to have tax havens.