Brexit the right future – for the EU as well as Britain

Brexit the right future?

Why Brexit is the right future for the EU, as well as for Britain (in my humble opinion).

Brussels, 17/12/2017. It would be unnatural not to have doubts about the wisdom of Brexit. The news reports play a daily tune on the latest setback or political difficulty, and it can be hard to find the balanced reporting to counter the partisan denunciations from one Brexit camp or the other.

Brexit was never going to be an easy process. Both parties, Britain and the EU, have actors split between pragmatists wishing to build a successful future partnership, and those who wish to punish the other side either for daring to leave the club or for making the whole process so difficult.

What makes it worse is that many who shout the loudest for one side or the other appear to have little or no direct experience of the way the EU works. They base their arguments either on some theoretical principle of direct democracy, or on an ideal of progressive, internationalist enlightenment.

And the EU is neither. It is a politically imperfect grouping of nations trying to find stability and improve their economies in the world; one dominated by major powers based on geographic region. Whether Britain leaves the EU or not, these realities will not change.

Even so, I believe that Brexit is the right choice for Britain. Talking to people around the country, it is clear that Britons of all background harbour a deep suspicion of the EU. Rightly or wrongly, many have an insularity, part born of pride in history and part from a view that the EU is failing to deal with the challenges we face today.

There is no doubt that many British people still see the EU as run by an unelected bunch of bureaucrats who have no real interest other than their own self-preservation. Why this view? Because for them, their lives, their neighbourhoods and their communities are getting steadily poorer, while the government fiddles at the economic margins, apparently unable to bring about real change.

Am I being harsh? Probably. It’s true that there are people in Brussels who work hard and believe that what they do is for the benefit of the people of Europe. Who think that the EU standards they have set, in quality of life, in the environment, in products and in safety, have become the envy of the world. And who will gainsay such arguments?

But I have come to the reluctant conclusion that Brussels presides over a system of government that ultimately fails. That the much-trumpeted successes such as the euro and the single European market benefit business and the accountants more than they do ordinary citizens. No country in Europe apart from Germany has a truly strong economy; the Germans simply gained from their own foresight in investing into the country at the time of re-unification, and now benefit from the sheer size of the domestic market.

In Britain, pay rates are falling while the costs of energy, rent and housing rise. The NHS is creaking at the hinges trying to cope with demand for health services. Across Europe, it seems that the economies of all EU countries bar Germany are in the doldrums. Greece is a basket-case, employment in Spain and Italy is suffering, while even France, one of the supposed motors of the EU, looks unstable.

Overall, the impression I gain is of living standards on an inexorable downward slope, while unemployment remains stubbornly high, especially among young people. And the EU solution to such problems? Create a better social dragnet while talking up innovation and even greater specialisation at national level. These are not realistic solutions to a general European problem.

Meanwhile, the single market, one of the much-trumpeted crowns of European achievement, has caused many small companies to fold, companies that were usually family-run and able to survive previously by providing niche products tailored to the needs of small, local markets. Such entities are seldom able, or willing, to gear up to the demands of a wider market.

And the euro itself. Does it offer the universal benefits often claimed? You can ask almost any pensioner, especially in Eastern Europe, if (s)he feels wealthier now under the euro. I am pretty sure of the answer you will receive – the single currency benefits business, tourism and the nation’s accountants, but seldom ordinary people.

Of course the euro and the single market have brought some benefits. Market consistency, and travel in what was once called a borderless Europe. But such advantages often merely hide higher prices, and tend to improve the strength of larger European businesses rather than benefit ordinary citizens. It is arguable that in this way they have reduced market resilience rather than increasing it.

Meanwhile, in Brussels …..

Presiding over this parlous state of affairs is a group of officials who benefit from a Brussels standard of living and its continuance, and who would suffer greatly from its demise. What do the British officials currently preparing to quit the city think? At the moment they are doing all they can to lobby for a reversal of the Brexit decision.

And yet it is difficult to write about the subject of Brexit – since I have myself benefited from a working life in Brussels. Not as an EU employee perhaps, but certainly in terms of finding a place to work on the fringes of power. Even so, I cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that the EU has to change. The centre, as it is, cannot hold.

The European Union is facing mounting challenges. The economy, unemployment, migration, an ageing population and more. At the same time, the pressure of human population on Europe’s borders is building inexorably. All the Mediterranean countries are struggling to control migration flows, while to the East the rising number of razor-wire fences is making a mockery of Schengen.

And the EU is, transparently, failing to cope. In moments of crisis it has never coped, from wars in Bosnia to the recent levels of illegal immigration. Sweeping such issues under the table does not solve them; in Bosnia’s case it took NATO and US involvement to bring an end to the war, while the migration issue remains unsolved.

A lack of leadership

I do not see, indeed I wonder if anyone sees, how the EU can cope with such challenges. It is a system built on consensus, and lethargically slow to arrive at it (perhaps necessarily so). Even if the lethargy can be managed, I am not sure that consensus will be possible on the multiple challenges facing Europe today.

Those problems are going to get worse, and the EU will not be able to ignore them. In Africa multiple wars, climate change and most of all, shortages of water are destabilising whole regions. These issues will push the continent to an inexorable conclusion – there are simply too many people.

Saying so makes me feel like the little boy who pointed out the emperor’s lack of clothes, but I feel the conclusion is inescapable. The growth in human population generally will be the challenge of our time – it is probably that already. And it is one that few are prepared to acknowledge, let alone face up to.

And here we come to the crux of my argument. Holding the EU together in the face of such challenges requires vision; it requires leadership. I do not see that leadership on display in present-day Europe. Worse, I do not see how the EU can ever acquire such leadership, given the emphasis on concensus and the fact that the decision-making power is held by the foreign ministries of the various EU member states (i.e. the European Council).

The very nature of the European Union works against the rise of leadership in the form of talented individuals or groups within the EU member states. People with education, brains and imagination will always be drawn to the centres of power. If you have skills in empathy, in people management and, not least, in languages, then Brussels is an attractive option.

At the same time, the ever-active Brussels bureaucracy is busy finding new ways to compel member-state governments to play by the EU rules and deliver on the political commitments they make. All well and good, except that improved enforcement of EU regulations also tends to limit national governments’ freedom of action. The tendency is always towards less freedom and more constraints.

Brexit as disrupter

The EU, then, seems to be stuck in a rut of its own making. Of course democracies are almost always slow to react to major crises. But sometimes those democracies need a shake-up in order to improve their functioning. I am not arguing for another Donald Trump, but I do think that Brexit is a necessary disrupter, for the EU as well as the UK.

A senior Eurocrat friend in Brussels (who must remain nameless) has argued passionately that the challenges facing Europe are all the more reason for Britain to stay in the EU. That acting as one is more effective than acting separately.

I disagree. Acting together is sensible. But failing to act, because of institutional weakness or paralysis, is the worst kind of government inaction. The EU institutions do not, indeed cannot, offer a solution to problems of leadership and inaction at the top. Which is why I think the disruptive influence is needed.

I think that leaving the EU would be good for Britain for a huge number of historical and societal reasons. But I also believe that the shock, and the disruptive effect, of such a change will be good for the EU itself. I think a Britain unbound by the more constraining EU rules and regulations would be able to make changes that would improve its ability to cope with the challenges of the 21st century.

In just one industry sector, being able to offer greater support to renewable energy for example, without falling foul of state aid regulations that have become a standing joke in Brussels (witness EDF in energy for example, or the German coal industry), will be liberating.

As Britain gradually releases the hold of the EU over its economy, making changes in order to adapt to new challenges will become easier. And since the UK will remain a close partner to the EU in most economic aspects, it is likely that decisions made in Britain will be reflected, in not dissimilar ways, within the EU. Not to mention vice versa.

It may well be that a Brexit Britain will be a better partner for the EU than it ever was while a full member. Freed of the mental shackles of a perceived control-from-outside, Britons will be able to move on and face the challenges of the future.

Those challenges will not be any less than they are today. But the partnership will continue. We may no longer be a full member of the club, but we will still act knowing that Britain remains part of the community, the comity even, of Europe. And understanding still that decisions arrived at amicably with neighbours are more effective, and last longer, than those arrived at under duress.

© Philip Hunt, 2017.

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