The UK’s acrimonious Brexit debate has proven one thing: both sides of the argument lack a real long term vision for the UK, let alone for the European Union (EU). This is troubling because it’s that lack of vision mixed with competing complex geopolitical events that’s fuelling fear, mistrust and ultimately the public desire to retreat in on itself. This must be countered. Politicians must do a better job in explaining a positive role for European cooperation, the EU and specifically the role the UK needs to play. They must set out a comprehensive and compelling vision of where the UK is headed in an increasingly competitive globalised world, and how cooperation with its closest European allies can be leveraged for the UK’s, ultimately selfish, gain. The public has a vital a role to play. It must give this and future governments the mandate to tackle the EU and its more antiquated elements. Voting to remain a part of the EU would give a fresh mandate to the UK to force the changes needed to make the European institutions more accountable, effective and frankly relevant. The European Parliament’s Strasbourg seat could be the first anachronism to be axed. Successive British Governments must feel empowered to make change happen, by withholding funds if required. Leadership is needed.
In seeking better to understand the EU’s complexity, the public’s plea has been for facts. What will the economic, social, geopolitics, security and cultural consequences be if the UK leaves the European Union? Facts abound. Yet they have proven almost irrelevant. Many of the figures bandied around from both sides of the argument have been highly questionable. Most notable has been the leave campaign’s now infamous claim that an extra £350 million a week would be available for the NHS should the UK leave. This figure has been widely discredited and described as simply untrue. More unsettling than the numbers is the ease at which the leave campaign can dismiss them as well as expert opinion, possible risk or long term consequence. Numerous esteemed institutions and respected public figures have comments on the referendum and the need to vote to remain. Only to be dismissed out of hand. “Knickers to the pessimists” is just one of Boris Johnson’s many quips. “Who cares” if pound Stirling drops in value snaps Nigel Farage. In an era of post-facts politics it’s the soundbite that rules supreme. This, as pointed out in Alan Finlayson’s excellent piece, is rooted in the conspiracy theory approach taken by many who wish the UK to leave the EU. It’s easy to dismiss facts, or expert opinion when you believe that nothing is as it appears, and that the ‘establishment’ or political class are conspiring against you. Expert ‘facts’ from the likes of the Bank of England, Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and even President Obama are rendered irrelevant when you believe them to be a part of a wider and deeper conspiracy. The ease at which some in the Brexit camp are able to suspend disbelief should not come as a surprise. The Economist has highlighted the disconcerting overlap between the leading lights of the pro Brexit camp and climate change denial, a cause célèbre for those partial to seeing things through a more conspiratorial lens.
World tilted in the UK’s favour
As a by-product of the UK’s – at times unsavoury – history and perhaps a bit of luck, the current world order is very much tilted in its favour. It has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council as well as at the G7, it’s a nuclear power, the fifth largest economy in the world as well as being home to the global financial markets (for better or for worse). Added to all this the whole world is learning English (while the British are making little effort in the other direction). This is impressive given the UK is a small country of only some 60 million inhabitants. Ensuring the UK continues to play a significant role on the global stage requires utilising all opportunities and platforms to influence. The EU is one of many platforms and strategies that the UK relies on to magnify its international influence. Together with its fellow 27 Member States the EU forms the world’s largest economic trading bloc, an easy rival to the USA, China and other fast growing economies.
The UK withdrawing from the European Union would not be a private act between Members States. A renegotiation to establish new political ties, relationships and trading and movement rights would be slow, uncertain and undoubtedly painful. The Norwegian and Swiss models are irrelevant. Never joining is not the same a quitting. Moreover, leaving the EU would signal to the world that the UK believes the existing order in the West is not working. For those in any doubt just think about what the UK’s position would be if Germany abandoned the EU? Business as usual would be unlikely. Changing the existing geopolitical architecture may well lead to a wholesale recalibration. It’s questionable if the UK would remain in such a favourable position. While counties may not be lining up to wish the UK misfortune on a solo journey, the reality is more likely they will be looking for opportunities to capitalise on years of limbo as markets try to mitigate investment risk and political stability returns.
The European Union’s fundamental values include: respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. These are admirable values shared by Europeans and should be protected. The European Union has, however, failed in communicating the linkage between these shared values and the role of the institutions themselves. Member States shoulder much of the blame for this. For years, and especially in the UK, domestic politicians have ensured that all victories are Westminster’s and all problems come from Brussels. Unsurprisingly, supported by a hostile British press, the public has come to believe this. The collapse of support for the EU (not only in the UK) is not in isolation. It’s almost certainly a part of a loss of confidence in governance structures at every level. Where are the leaders with a long term vision for Europe? Certainly not in the leave camp, whose leading thinkers, such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, hark back to a bygone era of imperial greatness in speeches peppered with racist undercurrent. In an age where multilateralism is increasingly defining global corporation Britain’s post-colonial superiority complex is leading it down a less influential path.
Amidst a vacuum of leadership one person stands apart. Pope Francis, in his 2014 speech to the European Parliament (EP), has offered what might be one of the most compelling visons for continued and enhanced European cooperation. Famously confronting the EP with the EU’s shortcoming – describing it as elderly and haggard – he finished with an eloquent plea for European solidarity. To work together to harness the vast potential of Union and look beyond economic imperative.
“The time has come to work together in building a Europe which revolves not around the economy, but around the sacredness of the human person, around inalienable values. In building a Europe which courageously embraces its past and confidently looks to its future in order fully to experience the hope of its present. The time has come for us to abandon the idea of a Europe which is fearful and self-absorbed, in order to revive and encourage a Europe of leadership, a repository of science, art, music, human values and faith as well. A Europe which contemplates the heavens and pursues lofty ideals. A Europe which cares for, defends and protects man, every man and woman. A Europe which bestrides the earth surely and securely, a precious point of reference for all humanity!”
Pope Francis, European Parliament, November 2014
What’s needed is for the public to vote and give politicians across Europe the mandate to fulfil such a rich and compelling vision (and hold them to it!). The UK could lead the way.