Is there anything positive to say about the EU? Marcus Johnson admits there is a very strong case to remain in the EU but it is nuanced and complex.
When I wrote about Brexit in the April issue of Cambridge Business Magazine my friends, wife and business colleagues all accused me of being wholly negative. It is true that I concentrated on the near term certain costs to the UK and the risks to European and world peace and had nothing good to say about the regulatory mess we label Brussels. That is because, in the short term, I believe we would be poorer and the longer term risks of war are ignored at our peril. A decade of depression might lead to social unrest on a Victorian scale, and Russia would certainly take advantage of a break-up of the EU. So I make no apologies for emphasising the disturbing possible consequences of an ‘out’ vote. Likewise I make no apology for condemning the over detailed counter productive regulatory web we live within, although I have my suspicions that the regulatory burden would stay the same or worsen if we had Whitehall in sole charge.
But what, I was asked, could I say positive about remaining in? I do believe there is a strong positive case to make, but it is nuanced and complex, and involves a belief in human progress and a confidence in the system of parliamentary democracy we have evolved in the UK and now in the EU. I believe that the EU can do two hugely valuable things; one for us in the UK, the other for the world.
The reason that Oxford and Cambridge are in the top ten universities of the world has less to do with the brilliant minds who constitute these intellectual powerhouses and much more to do with the stability of the environment in which they have operated over the centuries. This has allowed academic excellence to flourish without the interruption of invasions, insurrections or dispossession. It is not unreasonable to believe this relative stability springs from Magna Carta and the representation of all powerful interest groups in parliaments over succeeding generations. Magna Carta recognised that successful government involved an accommodation to the interests of commerce and civil society and that social order was best maintained by self restraint and a common adherence to a written system of laws and justice. This was preserved by a representative system where the most powerful were consulted and a broad consensus preserved. The interests then were Crown, Church, and Land and that has evolved over the years to Commerce, Finance, Industry, Civil Service and Unions but the same idea of putting representatives together and letting them try to create a consensus has with one or two problems along the way proved a success for the best part of a 1,000 years. This settlement is under threat today as never before in all democracies by two powerful forces. The first is an increase in the ease and speed of mass communications; this is leading to a threat to the representative system. The ability to sample and observe public opinion on individual decisions is tending to replace informed debate by representatives with uninformed short term fashion driven popularity seeking. Referenda are one example but frequently the use of opinion polls and focus groups is replacing “what is the best solution?” by “what is the most acceptable solution?” within both the government and our political parties. The second powerful force is the creation of ever more “entitlements” by politicians seeking votes. In a system when 300,000 people pay one third of all income tax received by HMRC it is very easy for voters to vote for benefits in the belief that someone else will pay. In a UK which had no treaty commitments to respect private property, and with borders closed to free movement of capital and people, there would be no control on such dictatorship of the majority. So the first great positive contribution the EU can offer in future years is a control over populism and over politicians using bribery to buy votes. The reason the EU offers a control is simple – as long as there is freedom of movement of people, of goods and of capital, those who suffer as a result of uncontrolled populism or electoral bribery can move their business, their capital and their home to a more congenial country and the knowledge that this could happen – or evidence it was starting to happen – would of itself offer a control over extremism of this sort. The Treaty of Rome itself provides protection for individual rights and against seizure of property in the same way which the Constitution does for the USA.
The second major positive influence of keeping the EU (and our departure would set off several others unless the nasty consequences showed themselves very fast so as to deter others from following suit) could be on the rest of Europe. In 1054 the Great Schism was the first act in 1,000 years of bitter dispute between East and West which is still going on today in the Ukraine, was recently in evidence in Bosnia and for most of the last century has regularly surfaced in hostilities between Russian and her neighbours and Turkey and her neighbours. The latter was the cause of the three Balkan wars and then the First World War and the Russia today has soldiers occupying some or all of several of her neighbours. The EU has already shown it can persuade former fascist and communist dictatorships to adopt democratic forms of government and to open their borders to free movement of labour, goods and capital. The extent to which Eastern Europe has changed to adopt our democratic norms is not yet proved, and Poland and Romania are both in different ways profound challenges to the liberal and free society the EU has tried to impose, but to date the model has, broadly speaking, worked both to attract new members and to keep them in line once admitted. The almost unimaginably worthwhile and desirable positive which the EU then holds out is the possibility of integrating Turkey and Russia into our UK and western European model of civil society. The adoption of a secular free social order in these two nations would be the single most positive development we could aspire to in our lifetimes, and it is perhaps achievable if we can show the EU has surmounted its current problems. There are those who might argue that a Brexit followed by depression and disorder in the UK would be a good way of demonstrating first how beneficial the EU can be but this assumes that the EU would survive without us, and as I argued in my previous article we should assume that a success for UKIP here would be rapidly followed by others playing the same nationalist theme elsewhere and the breakdown of the Union as we know it.
So my positive statement about the potential for the future is rather similar to the hopes of those sitting down to sign the Rome Treaty sixty years ago. But whereas their dream was limited to making the next 50 years peaceful in Western Europe my suggestion is that in the next 50 years our aim should be to heal the great divide which opened up in 1054, to bring an end to the instability on the eastern and southern borders of the current EU by making it very obvious that the system of parliamentary democracy we have built can lead to peaceful resolution of disputes and offers a framework within which individual countries can maximise the well-being of their citizens. I believe that the existence of a common agreed framework which sets rules of civilised behaviour will also be likely to help preserve the UK as a united country, and most importantly to help preserve representative democracy and thus the freedom we enjoy today for future generations. If we can extend the current union to bring in Turkey, its first Muslim nation, and Russia, the most aggressively threatening European power, we will have made the world a much safer place for our children and reversed the single most costly policy error of post Roman European governments.
This article was published in the Cambridge Business Magazine – May 2016 Issue 54