The EU could not accommodate our desire for reform, we were told, because to do so would have opened the floodgates to further demands from across our beleaguered continent. After all, had the UK managed to negotiate a good deal with the EU, any of the other 27 nation states would naturally have followed suit.
This goes to the heart of the problem: there can be no reforms because to do so would only invite more reforms. This, in turn, would mean challenging past assumptions about political integration and accepting that sometimes, in politics as in business, “things” don’t go according to plan.
There are just two alternatives in dealing with the current calamity: Humility or Hubris. An acceptance of the reality, through a careful diagnosis of the situation, is the first step to a steady convalescence. However, with only hubris seemingly on offer, pan-European dissatisfaction with the EU is growing visibly as voters increasingly look for parties that provide a vocal alternative to the current unsustainable status quo.
The evidence of a splintering polity is overwhelming. The chasm between the debtor South and the creditor North is widening; neighbours feel entitled to opine in the internal affairs of others without having been invited to do so; borders are springing up between nations again. So-called fundamental principles such as the free movement of people are increasingly seen as an existential threat to some, mainly because trust has gone.
Indeed, with Germany intent on fast-tracking Turkey’s accession to either Schengen or even to the EU itself, Hungary, Romania, Greece and Bulgaria among others watch on in dread as their former imperial masters are bribed, cajoled and entertained to help solve issues Germany and the EU helped create in the first place and over which they have no control.
Even that most ardent backer of political integration, Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, seems to have had a Damascene conversion as he declared recently that the EU is turning into a “Frankenstein monster” which sucks democracy out of member states. His answer to the problem, however, is to turn the old nations of Europe into regions of what former EU Commission president Barroso called an Empire. This will not win the popular vote.
Mervyn King, former Bank of England governor, writes in his excellent book The End of Alchemy that the current crisis cannot be resolved without “confronting the supranational ambitions of the EU and the democratic nature of sovereign national government”. Crucially, he adds that the established order has “for many years failed to make clear the nature of this choice to their peoples for fear of being seen to rock the boat”.
Wherever one looks, the news is less than uplifting. The problems are many but the establishment is petrified of reforms.
In this storm, some business leaders say that, of course, the EU is not perfect, but “on balance”, in spite of everything, we should vote to remain. However, we know that reform is impossible in the current state because that would imply the unravelling of the whole project as is. But in the long term, without reforms, the compounded interest of failure will become increasingly difficult to deal with. So what should pro-European and undecided voters do?
As an electorate we are faced with a binary choice: we can choose to either leave or remain.
Self-evidently, voting to remain is not just a vote for “no change” in the EU’s direction of travel; it is a vote for an acceleration down an already unpopular path.
If the peoples of Europe are unhappy now, it is only natural to expect, all else being equal, that they will be even unhappier further down the line. However, a vote to leave gives the UK and Europe many potential positives. Here are just three.
First, it will speed up a horizontal process of reform across the EU. This should be welcomed by anyone who self-describes as a progressive. With the UK’s blunt rejection of the current situation, other nations will be able to recalibrate their own unsatisfactory relationship with an EU that has visibly overreached. The EU would not be able to continue in the present state as our generous yearly contributions would cease. This, in turn, would increase the liabilities on the taxpayers of Germany and France, who would understandably not want to play ball. This would, of necessity, trim the ambitions of EU institutions, forcing the EU to re-appraise its aims. It would be a revolution that could unleash the creative forces of the world’s most diverse continent.
Second, a vote to leave will encourage a beneficial new relationship between the UK and the EU.
In a fast-moving world, being flexible and focused is more important than being large and dissipated. The ability to react quickly to events according to well-defined yardsticks is a real strength. By way of example, the Bank of England was the first central bank to deal decisively with the 2008 financial crash. By contrast, it took seven years for the European Central Bank to follow suit. In that time, the recession turned into a depression for many parts of Europe. Slow decision-making in this instance had a real human cost. Of course, the UK is not in the euro, but the single currency’s failures have a direct impact on us.
Third, and perhaps most crucially, a vote to leave would lead to a healthy internal rethinking of the link between elected governments and their electorates across the 28 members. The reconnection of domestic politics with the concerns of the peoples of Europe would swiftly defuse the tensions sweeping across the member states of the EU.
For pro-Europeans and undecideds, this vote is the opportunity to rescue Europe from the clutches of the Frankenstein monster – the EU.