Reflections on Brexit and the moral presumption of the EU

Well that was a surprise; like most people I’d presumed that the British people would “always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse” and so vote, grudgingly, to remain in the EU. Among the acres of comment on this topic I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of Brexit — I have mixed feelings and would have preferred to stay in a reformed EU, if that were on offer — instead I’m going to completely ignore the economics and reflect on just one aspect: the presumption that joining in with and being part of a larger state is somehow morally virtuous in its own right, rather than being something to be decided on pragmatic considerations or purely by cultural preference.

“I’m sure the deserters will not be welcomed with open arms” said Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, as though membership of the EU were a moral obligation from which non-compliance would be rightfully punished.

The presumption that “ever closer union” of Europe is morally mandated has had dire consequences, including the notion that the righteousness of the project justifies doing it badly, and — more seriously — that its righteousness overrides the lack of democratic assent. Thus the EU’s leaders are currently anxious to prevent further referendums — preventing their people from having any say — since that might reveal deep dissatisfaction with the EU much more widespread than the UK. No matter, the democratic will of the people is less important than the moral principle of ever closer union.

Where did this presumption of the moral superiority of large agglomerations come from? In once sense the idea is valid: that is, it is not good to have small nations squabbling and fighting. The EU prevents wars, is the claim, resolving differences by negotiation. Yet countries can cooperate and live together peacefully without political union. The democratic idea that the people living in a region decide on and vote for the government of that region is surely so deeply established that squabbles over territory would now be unlikely to lead to war in Europe. You have to go to distant lands such as Argentina to find governments that don’t accept that principle. Instead, the tensions caused by integration, such as the near-terminal damage to Greece’s economy resulting from it adopting the Euro, are as likely to be the cause of strife.

The evidence is that the people of the Baltic States are happier not being part of the Soviet Union, that the people of the former Czechoslovakia prefer the separation into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, that the people of Kosovo are happier not being part of Serbia, and that the people of Croatia prefer being independent of the other parts of (the former) Yugoslavia. Further, the evidence is that regions are more stable and peaceful if everyone accepts such preferences, rather than trying to mash peoples into unwanted larger states.

The people of Scotland and Wales are happy (so far) to remain part of the UK, but do want the large measure of local autonomy that they now have. The evidence is that people do want significant government power at a local enough level. Where nations are large enough that the government feels distant and unresponsive, it can cause disenchantment with the whole idea of government, as currently seen in the US with the candidacy of Donald Trump.

Take a look at the Economist Intelligence Unit’s where-to-be-born index. Their ranking of the nations giving “the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life” is:

(1) Switzerland, (2) Australia, (3) Norway, (4) Sweden, (5) Denmark, (6) Singapore, (7) New Zealand, (8) Netherlands, (9) Canada, (10) Hong Kong.

Those are all small nations (in population terms) with many of them having a high degree of autonomy. In the modern world big is not better. It’s also hard to envisage any of those nations starting a war by invading a neighbour. Yes, global trade is necessary for global prosperity, but free trade and common market rules do not require political integration, they just require amicable cooperation. Nine of those ten countries have their own, relatively small, currency, and don’t seem to suffer for it.

In my own domain of science, many of the European institutions that works best (CERN, ESA, ESO, etc) are nothing to do with the EU but are amicable opt-in collaborations of willing nations. Such an à la carte approach to collaboration is surely better than a demand for enforced one-size-fits-all political union.

In the 19th century being big granted military might and security against being gobbled up by other nations. It also led to an imperialist ethic that the phallic attributes of the nation depended on the amount of territory it could conquer. But surely we’re passed that now?

Yet the presumption of “big is better” still seems to linger. Commentators are suggesting that, if Scotland votes to leave and rejoin the EU, then it would “serve the UK right”. But why would Scottish independence in any way disadvantage or “diminish” us in England? If the Scots wish to be independent then they have my good wishes, and an ongoing desire for amicable cooperation.

“Immigration boosts the economy” trumpets the Bank of England. True, it does. A million extra people increases the amount of economic activity, and thus the nation’s GDP is higher. But the evidence is that the UK’s GDP per capita is not increased, but stays (roughly) the same. Yet that is not considered relevant, the important thing (we’re told) is the overall size. Thus we can willy-wave about our ranking as the world’s fifth largest economy, boosted by the additional economic activity of the additional people, as if that makes us better than the countries that have a higher GDP per capita.

“Influence” is another supposed “good” granted by being big, or by joining in with a larger agglomeration. But is “influence” on the world actually that desirable? Many of the nations ranked above are not ones that would score highly on “influence”. One could suggest that the only thing that influence gains us is involvement in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya that it would be a better to stay out of.

We’re told that England faces a future where we lack influence, where Scotland has declared independence and joined the EU, where Northern Ireland has voted to join with the Republic of Ireland, where continental Europe integrates without us, leaving us “behind”, where our little (-ish) currency is buffeted by the markets, where no-one wants to come and live here (really?) and so we have to get by on home-grown talent — and where we’re outgoing to the world, freely cooperating and freely trading with anyone who will trade with us.

Sorry, what’s wrong with that? Why should we be forlorn at the prospect?

13 thoughts on “Reflections on Brexit and the moral presumption of the EU

  1. GBJames

    “I’m going to completely ignore the economics…”

    Ignoring the elephant. Doesn’t this mostly come down to economics?

    1. Coel Post author

      Well yes, the economic side of things is indeed all-important. I just wish the EU would separate the pragmatic, economic considerations from the political “ever closer union” policies.

  2. Heather Hastie

    This is a really good argument to have not joined the EU in the first place. I think that once you become a member though you have a responsibility to the other members as well as your own country. There’s no doubt the EU needs reform, and I think this is more likely with Britain as a member because of their size and negotiating ability.

    Greece should probably never have been allowed to join and we know now that they lied about their economy so they could, and that the EU was so desperate to have them as members they ignored red flags.

    As you say, bigger isn’t necessarily better, but more cooperation between nations is and I would argue that on the whole the EU helps that.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Heather,

      This is a really good argument to have not joined the EU in the first place.

      Though when the UK joined, 43 years ago, the EU (then the “EEC”) was very different, and was much more what the UK wanted, a free-trade area. Since then its reach and nature has been progressively extended by multiple treaties (Treaty of Maastricht, Treaty of Amsterdam, Treaty of Nice, Single European Act, etc). At each stage the UK position has been “well now we’re in we have to go along with it”. None of these treaties were put to a referendum in the UK (since the government knew the vote would be against). One of the reasons for the Brexit vote is that many people are unhappy that all this has gone on over decades without any democratic approval from the British people. The Brexit vote was the first time that anyone under the age of 62 has been able to cast a vote directly about the EU.** Hence many people casting a cost effectively saying “I’m annoyed”.

      The problem with reforming the EU is that, the way the EU is set up, fundamental reforms require unanimous consent. Any one country (out of 28) can veto any major reform. To a large extent the EU has brought this crisis on itself by not having proper democratic mechanisms to keep it in tune with the electorate.

      [**Of course we can vote for MEPs, and the UK has routinely elected a heavily Euro-sceptic cohort of MEPs, including UKIP members, and even people too extreme for UKIP standing as “We Demand a Referendum” and “Independence from Europe”, but the MEPs actually have little power to change anything.]

    2. Heather Hastie

      Some of the rules within the EU are bad. It’s like some of the United Nations rules. It is bad how far the original EEC has been extended without proper consultation/information. It’s one of the valid reasons I see for voting Brexit. But don’t expect a Bremain fan to admit to the others of her own free will! Besides, I don’t believe will is free. 🙂

    3. Heather Hastie

      Yeah, I’d agree. However I’ve seen commentators I respect say that anyone who thinks it might not go ahead is dreaming.

      Still, it’s only been a few days. There’s a lot more water to flow under the bridge yet. I suggest Pooh sticks. 🙂

    4. Coel Post author

      I don’t think that anyone can do more than guess at the probability that it won’t go ahead — we really are in uncharted waters.

      But of the current leadership of the 5 biggest parties (in terms of MPs), none of them want it to go ahead.

    5. Heather Hastie

      I’m just glad I’m in boring old NZ! It must be very difficult over there at the moment.

  3. Phillip Helbig

    While I agree with most of your thoughts here, no-one has claimed that the UK remaining in the EU is per se better because bigger is better, so that’s a red herring here.

    Also, the “closer union” is something which has been played up by the leave side but does not actually refer to political union if you look it up. Yes, it is fine to oppose a closer political union, but not justified by this phrase.

  4. oarubio

    I am confident the UK will be better off on its own, and not because I probably have some very distant cousins on my mother’s side of the family there.

    Agree, size in any endeavor is not necessarily beneficial. A small yacht and an ocean liner each have good points. (I own neither.) Smaller companies can usually react more swiftly than big corporations. A small guard in basketball can bedevil larger and more lumbering players.

    The UK will be fine regardless of the number of countries in its union as well! — Tony (50% English, 50% Colombian)

  5. Phillip Helbig

    “Take a look at the Economist Intelligence Unit’s where-to-be-born index. Their ranking of the nations giving “the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life” is:

    (1) Switzerland, (2) Australia, (3) Norway, (4) Sweden, (5) Denmark, (6) Singapore, (7) New Zealand, (8) Netherlands, (9) Canada, (10) Hong Kong.”

    Yes, some of the most successful countries, many in Europe, are small in population (and sometimes in area as well). But these are often exceptions. Norway is rich because of North Sea oil. Many small countries are well off because they are tax havens, aiding and abetting criminals, and for the same reason don’t want to be in the EU. On the other hand, these countries are not in the EU: Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzogovina, Serbia, Montenegro. All are relatively small in population, some relatively small in area, all relatively autonomous (in some cases as a(n over)reaction to having been part of Yugoslavia. With the possible exceptions of Romania and Bulgaria, any EU country is better in almost every respect than any of these small, autonomous countries.

    Yes, you are right, bigger is not better per se. But neither is smaller better per se.


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