Imagine 29 states, each with their own languages and cultures, forged together in an economic and political union that transcends a history of war and division to create a single nation that shapes the world. Well, what you are imagining is India, not the European Union.
The European Union, made up of 28 states rather than 29, may wish it could accomplish what India did, but Brussels has yet to find its Sardar Patel. In the meantime, it is struggling to find its way. It will face its biggest test on 23 June, when the people of the United Kingdom will vote on whether to remain in the union, or leave. Regardless of the outcome, the tensions at the core of the EU will remain, and likely increase. So, it is worth looking at some of the issues that lie at the heart of the debate.
What is the goal of the EU?
The core of many of the disagreements between the UK “leave” and “remain” camps is philosophical.
A large section of “remainers” believe the world would be a better place without borders—there would be less discrimination, less war, more trade. Like some of the Marxists from JNU, they believe borders are a byproduct of a retrograde 19th century political philosophy.
A sample policy byproduct of this philosophy is that Spaniards working in the UK can get child benefits from the UK (at UK rates) that they send back to their children in Spain, where the rates are substantially lower. This is considered “right” in the context of a borderless union, since the UK and Spain are considered interchangeable.
“Leavers”, meanwhile, believe the voters and the people they elect should be “local” so that they can better understand and respond to changing conditions, and governments can be held directly accountable to the people they govern. One policy example they give is that, given most of the EU’s agricultural policy is decided and funded via Brussels, land use in the UK cannot adapt quickly to changing social and climate conditions and is out of touch with ground realities.
One specific event encapsulated the combination of lack of flexibility and abundance of bureaucracy leavers think is endemic in the EU. The EU fisheries policy sets strict limits on who can catch which fish. However, with climate change and overfishing, stocks are changing and moving. In this case, herring and mackerel moved north to find colder waters as the seas warmed.
Three years ago, the Faroe Islands suddenly found themselves with more fish in their seas. The Faroes are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but are self-governing. While mainland Denmark is part of the EU, the Faroes have a looser relationship with Brussels. The EU told the Faroes the herring and mackerel were EU fish, and they couldn’t catch them. The Faroes unilaterally decided to catch more fish. The EU declared a boycott on the Faroes. This meant that, for a while, due to EU policy, one part of Denmark was boycotting another part of Denmark. The boycott rankled the Faroes, and contributed to its subsequent decision to open a trade office in Moscow.
Leavers are concerned that this sort of cascading unintended political consequence of inflexible bureaucratic positioning in a time flux is becoming more common. They say the EU’s handling of the Greek debt crisis, combined with Greece’s limited economic self-governance options, have not only weakened Greece, but the south-eastern border of the EU, making Greece less able to handle the refugee crisis. Far from making the zone more stable, they say, some EU policies make rapid response to changing conditions more difficult, leading to more instability.
Additionally, when one powerful country in the Union unilaterally enacts a policy that affects all, as Germany did when it threw open its borders to Syrian migrants, there is little smaller countries can do, even if their stability is affected. The EU, some leavers say, was designed to distribute bounty in the good times, not share the burden in the bad times.
Many disagreements between the UK ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ camps are philosophical. Some ‘remainers’ believe the world would be a better place without borders—there would be less discrimination, more trade. They believe borders are a byproduct of a retrograde 19th century political philosophy.
EU as a military force?
Remainers believe that the solution to this problem is to give the EU more powers, including an army, so that response can be quicker and more decisive. UK remainers think it is important for the UK to stay in the EU to have a voice in shaping this stated desire for increasing political integration.
UK leavers think that their primary concern should be the welfare of UK citizens, as opposed to EU citizens as a whole. Though they also think that, given what they believe are some of the core problems with the EU, a Brexit might trigger the course correction the EU needs to become more responsive to member concerns, and so ultimately more stable and resilient.
Pointing to the UK’s advantage of geography, leavers see the islands of the UK as being an intrinsic defence against some of the challenges faced by continental EU members. Some also voice concerns about how that EU military would work in the context of NATO, especially given one of the first tests of that sort of EU political engagement, they say, contributed to the situation in the Ukraine.
EU as an economic force?
The discussion about economics is also fundamentally philosophical. Remainers are opposed to change, and are Europe focused. Essentially, they think the global economy will, or should, stay balanced more or less the way it is now. They believe that it is important for the UK to stay part of the EU market, one of the largest in the world, and are concerned about the effects of leaving on the financial services sector.
Leavers say that the EU is a zone of exceptionally low growth, with little long-term hope for high growth. They see a UK that is primarily just a part of the EU economy as restrictive and regressive. They say the EU is not going to stay the way it is anyway, and the UK will have limited say in the new directions, so a vote to stay is not a vote for the status quo, it is a vote to ride along to an unknown destination in the backseat. They are not concerned about “losing” access to the EU market because they say the EU will need access to the UK market, and so there will be room to negotiate.
They are also not concerned about the financial services sector, saying that sector in particular thrives in the margins and, as the EU/UK rules are being rewritten, the sector will boom as it looks for, and helps to create, exploits. Also, as individuals, too many people from around the world are too comfortable in London to abandon it. Highfliers from Mumbai aren’t going to leave London for Lisbon, they say.
Building on that, they see the future with countries like India. They are more Commonwealth and Anglosphere focused, seeing the potential for a global market of English speaking allies, in which the UK will hold a unique position.
Migration is a key component of the leavers’ strategy. Last year, the UK experienced 300,000 in net migration, with around half coming from the EU. This causes planning difficulties as physical and social infrastructure sees massive shifts. For example, aging water reservoirs can’t keep up with sudden new demand, or a primary school class with 30 children may suddenly get 10 more non-English speaking students, each speaking a different EU language. The next year, they may all leave as economies change, or another batch, with different languages, may come in. How is a city to plan and budget, say the leavers? Leavers prefer skills-based migration, something that would favour, for example, an educated English-speaking Indian over a unilingual Spanish barista.
When one powerful country in the Union unilaterally enacts a policy that affects all, as Germany did when it threw open its borders to Syrian migrants, there is little smaller countries can do, even if their stability is affected. The EU, some leavers say, was designed to distribute bounty in the good times, not share the burden in the bad times.
Whichever way the vote goes on 23 June, the EU debate is far from over. The EU is evolving politically and economically at a time when the world as a whole is changing geopolitically, geoeconomically and geophysically. The Brexit debate has uncovered some very deep differences in political philosophy at the heart of how to handle those changes. And, so far, there is no leadership at the level of Sardar Patel to guide the path ahead. The EU is in for some very tough times.
Cleo Paskal is Associate Fellow, Chatham House, London and Trudeau Visiting Fellow, CÉRIUM, Montreal. Views are her own.