Thoughts on The European Referendum

So, the referendum on the UK’s future in Europe draws inexorably nearer.  What’s been in my mind is that the official out campaign don’t seem to have a case that’s all that strong in my eyes. A bit of research around their figures reveals that those figures aren’t quite as good as you’d think, and to me their website seems to be fairly weak in presenting their case. Yet, they seem to be attracting support. I believe that  this is based more on nationalism and a desire to give Brussels two fingers than any rational assessment.

A few weeks ago we had a quite controversial booklet come round, sponsored by the government. This gave us the argument for yes and it seems that large parts of the media are making the no argument. Now, to be honest, I can understand why public money was spent on a “yes” leaflet as the official establishment stance is that we’re better off in. So while the No Campaign (with their rich media friends) are yelling about the amount spent promoting the “Yes” viewpoint you do kind of have to wonder how much was spent pushing the “No” argument. Maybe government money was the only way to answer that kind of sustained media coverage? Put like that, I think you could make a public interest argument for spending public money like that.

In any event, a week or two before the booklet dropped through the letterbox I did a little bit of looking around for a few figures. You see, the major argument that was put to me for why leaving was no problem and we’d have a very strong hand in any negotiations is: “We buy more from Europe than we sell to them, therefore they need us more then we need them.” I first heard this on a local radio station and have heard it repeated since, it seemed wrong headed then and it still does. So let’s reframe this argument as “We make a loss on our trade with Europe, so they need us more than we need them”. Hmm, not so good it is? So I went looking and it seems that our trade with Europe (who when taken as a bloc have the worlds biggest GDP) is worth 44% of our GDP. Their trade with us is worth 10% of their GDP. To be blunt, risking our relationship with our biggest customer isn’t exactly a winning move. In addition, I’m certainly concerned at the effect that any additional tariffs we get from being outside the EU would have on that balance of trade. One question I have is whether a higher trade tariff would make us more vulnerable to competition from within Europe if we left? It might well be cheaper for a European Union country to buy from some else. Could we make it outside of the EU? I think we’d have to tread carefully to avoid the freedom of movement clauses and that the time taken to make any deals would be a difficult period. I think we’d make it in the end though.

I’m not so impressed with “Leave” campaign responses to facts and figures, which seem to be denials or deflections. For example, consider the response in early April by Boris Johnson to comments from America which accused them of hypocrisy as they would never give up their sovereignty. I think this response is a poor one, almost to the point of being a Strawman. Firstly, America is a union of states and a global superpower, not a relatively small island which is already a member state of a larger union. We’d be better equated with one of the US States, than the whole USA.

As I write this paragraph, President Obama has just commenced his last official visit to the UK and has given a statement on a “Brexit”, this incensed a lot of Brexiters, but while they shout “hypocrite” and question his right to involve himself in UK politics, they don’t seem to be able to actually answer him. It’s claimed not to be any of his business but as this will certainly affect the US relationship with both ourselves and Europe, I’d say he has every reason to be concerned. Also, as he said he has to respond to people making statements about the US response; it’s better to get that from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. As for people saying that he’s an outgoing president who can be ignored, I see little indication that any successor would be more sympathetic. Yes, he was accused of playing to US interests but to say this is to complain that he is essentially doing his job. Consider his democratic mandate and where he got it.

I mentioned the Leave campaigns website earlier and I’ve read through it. The figure they use of £55 million per day paid to the EU has been refuted and isn’t supported even by the organisation that came up with it. On social media I’ve seen vitriol and “Remain” supporters even accused of being traitors, plenty of volume and heat but again no supported facts or figures.  This isn’t helpful, which is a pity as the Leave campaign do have some good points.

They make the point that the EU as it stands is a fairly unwieldy bureaucracy, that it’s slow to react and that it tends to mean that if the wishes of the majority really don’t suit a few of the member countries then there’s no flexibility. I do criticise the lack of figures that the Out campaign have, but then it’s also important to realise that if we leave then we’re sailing in unknown waters. How could there be figures and studies for something nobody has ever done?

From a Taoist perspective I’m considering the virtue of the small and flexible. If Europe is inflexible then it must learn to flex, or it will break eventually. If it’s too big and unwieldy then a smaller nimbler British competitor could have an advantage. This makes me think that the Brexiters have valid points, even given their understandable lack of hard figures. However, to use the metaphor of water, when many small streams join into one mighty river, then the power they have together is undeniable.

At this late point in the campaign I’m still inclined to suggest that we remain in Europe but work for some reform. But part of me questions if there will ever be any reform, if not, dare we stay?


  1. scribe June 13, 2016

    Nice to have a taoist perspective – I’m not torn, but have thought similar. There is something about “small and flexible” that is emotionally and practically appealing.

    However, after some consideration, I think a lot of the Leave narrative comes down to selfishness, and the idea of control over your own destiny. As a taoist, I don’t buy into that for two reasons: 1. “Small and flexible” still won’t apply under a nation state model that is intent on binding ties with places such as America and China. 2. Our destiny is, more than ever, a joint, global one in the face of transnational corporations, war, and climate change. If any of these are to improve for the future generations, it won’t happen by getting out and just not collaborating. There’s a very real sense of the Leave campaign having a head stuck in the sand for me, here.

    The Remain campaign is tough for this reason though – nobody knows what the future should look like, so much it’s difficult to say *why* we should stay and collaborate. So we’re left with a fear vs instinct dichotomy, which also gives us irrational/boring debate, and a sense of weird detachment from the whole thing.

    It’ll be interesting to watch, either way. From the taoist individual perspective, what matters is that the potatoes are growing.

    • Richard June 14, 2016

      Hi Scribe, thanks for your comments. I agree, small and flexible won’t work in a world of big blocs and an increasingly global world. Given the number of international treasures we’re signatory to, I question whether we could ever really flex enough. The Remain campaign could have offered a good argument by taking a less fearful tone and talking up the collaborative good we could do. We’re in a world of global corporations and criminals who work internationally, the only way to effectively combat that is to work internationally ourselves. Otherwise we become a backwater whose opinions and laws don’t matter as much, if at all. If we withdraw from the world, we risk irrelevancy.

  2. scribe June 13, 2016

    (p.s. sorry to be self-aggrandising, but unrelatedly I thought you might be interested in a somewhat taoist newsletter I publish infrequently. I should probably turn it into a blog, but currently it’s available for viewing/subscribing to at – been reading your blog for a while and feels like it would be up your street…)

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