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Why I voted to leave the EU

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

[This piece, in substance, was written in January 2019]

A remain supporter has asked why I am pro-Brexit. Whether it was a genuine question or not, I thought it was something worth answering properly. My first memories of European political interest were in the late 80s, I recall there were information campaigns “1992 and all that” etc, but “Europe” at that time was almost universally, as far as I could tell, considered benign. The ERM, whilst undoubtedly a mistake was seen as a UK decision we got wrong. I don’t think anyone, to my knowledge anyway, blamed the EU. There weren’t any deep divisions, our membership wasn’t in doubt, and there was a general positivity about 1992.

Then something changed. Someone said the words “Federal Europe”, and whilst the phrase was deleted from the Maastricht Treaty, “Political Union” remained. This was a statement of purpose that was certainly different from the perception people had about the EU. I bought my own copy of the Maastricht Treaty which I still have to this day. Reading through it was clear that this wasn’t really about trade – we were laying the foundations for a new political entity. My Euroscepticism started here.

Who knows what would’ve happened if we had had a referendum in 1992 rather than 2016? Certainly Maastricht would have been rejected, but what then? Who knows. I think a large number of the people who voted leave turned Eurosceptic following Maastricht. Like other people at the time, I was just against the Maastricht Treaty, rather than EU membership, but it did generate an interest – why has the European Union suddenly (it appeared to many) changed direction like this?

Of course, it hadn’t “suddenly” done anything. To understand my position I would recommend two books – Monnet’s Memoirs and “Europe’s Last Chance” by Guy Verhofstadt.

Consider Monnet’s position – a high ranking French civil servant, with an illustrious career during the darkest times in French history. From our point of view, one can only imagine how it affects your morale, and indeed the morale of the nation to be under German occupation, with the Vichy Government in France, whilst you and the “legitimate” French government were based in Algiers. That your nation state can overcome whatever challenge it is faced with no longer held true.

Monnet of course had already come to this conclusion. Indeed he wanted to merge France and the UK in 1940. Not co-operation – an actual merger of the two countries into one single Political unit. At the end of the war, this was essentially his vision for Europe. He rejected the OEEC (the OECD today) as a model for post-war Europe because it was based on co-operation. His vision was unity – complete unity.

The urgency after the war was to prevent another one – so Coal and Steel production was taken out of the hands of nation states in the ECSC and all strategic decisions regarding Coal and Steel production were taken by the High Authority (an early incarnation of the Commission). Member states simply wouldn’t have the materials to fight a war even if they had the inclination.

The method of integration was, whenever there was a friction of any kind, to take decisions in the common interest, rather than in the interest of any particular member state. As the countries integrate more, there will be further frictions between them, and each time resolve the problems in the common interest and then formalise the decision making, removing the competency from the member state.

In 1968, the common external tariff, part of the 1957 Treaty of Rome of course led to further frictions, on almost every aspect of manufacturing. The economies were slowly merging. The purpose, as was with the ECSC wasn’t efficiency – the purpose was always a Political Union - from the Schuman declaration on day 1. So our external trade policy is operated “in the common interest” but there are still exchange rate frictions, so we need to manage exchange rates in the common interest, but the frictions persist (see the ERM), so we have a common monetary policy, but this leads to fiscal frictions (see Greece, Italy, Spain) so eventually we’ll need a transfer union, and a full Fiscal union, by which time Political Union, a Federal Europe, won’t be a question we need to be asked, it will already have happened.

Now, Guy Verhofstad’s book is immensely readable. There’s a bit of hyperbole about nationalism etc, but generally it’s difficult to disagree with any of the thrust of the book, which is basically that the European Union doesn’t work. 26 countries in Schengen, each with their own external border control, with different security policies. 28 different Defence systems and strategies – why bother meeting the NATO targets whilst so much money is wasted running all these different armies and navies? During the financial crisis in 2008, 2009 the US was able to quickly deploy TARP etc, but the EU couldn’t. EU member states still had too much control of their finances to commit to the action required to ensure liquidity in the Eurozone.

Mr Verhofstadt is of course just describing the frictions that are inevitable when economies merge – and his solution is the same as Monnet’s all those years ago. These frictions can only be resolved from the centre – if we have a Eurozone it needs a fiscal union or risk collapse, economic catastrophe. This will drive integration to its ultimate, inevitable conclusion. It is actually what the European Union was designed to become.

People always say that we have nothing to worry about, we still have a veto over some key areas. The veto is why the EU will always underperform - objectively the EU, as a Union, won't work effectively until it removes the veto from member states. It is manageable, if not perfect, when you have a Union of 6 member states, but for 27 member states it just cannot work.

The EU should follow Guy Verhofstadt's advice and remove unanimity. There are two options as I see it - either the EU eventually becomes a Federal Union (in the fulness of time, perhaps using the same method it always has) or it will always underperform and eventually fail. Neither of these options appeal to me.

OK, but surely you don’t want to be worse off? No-one voted to be worse off, did they? Well, leave aside the ludicrous economic forecasts, accurately predicting what life will be like in 15 years, from people who can’t forecast one quarter to the next. Leave that aside. “Worse off”. It depends on what you value, doesn’t it? I could be offered a job in Frankfurt for a 50% pay rise – but I’d have to leave my family behind. Surely I wouldn’t want to make myself “worse off”, would I?

The question of whether we should leave the EU may not be a right or wrong answer – but a question of values. Would I accept £1million (if it was my decision alone) to merge the UK into a Federal European Union? No I would not. I might be wrong. Perhaps when I, and Guy Verhofstadt for that matter, come to the conclusion that a United States of Europe is inevitable, I have miscalculated. Yes, that’s a distinct possibility. Perhaps the EU we see now will integrate no more? I don’t know for sure – no-one does - but I think it will because I don't think it succeeds otherwise. We analyse the risks of our course of action and make an honest judgement. I think there is a risk of a Federal Europe – but not everyone will see it that way.

Some people don’t see it as a risk, or they don’t care, or they positively wish for it. It all just depends on your point of view, your opinions and your values. Is this island just a patch of damp grass, or is its independence as a nation state a valuable good in itself? Do we consider it ours to do with as we please in our financial interests? Or is it something that has been passed down from generation to generation for us to pass on intact to the next?

No-one should be castigated for holding one view or another, but I voted to leave in full knowledge of the reasons why and the most powerful expression of my democratic right is not invalidated just because you disagree.

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