by Dominic Hogg8 minute read
Much has been written in recent weeks – tomes, in fact – regarding the EU membership referendum decision that faces UK citizens. Each day, we are drip-fed new opinion, and new faces come to the fore in the media, swearing their allegiance to one or other side. Just occasionally, a little piece of actual evidence surfaces – although few of these appear to be lodging in voters’ minds.
There have been many echoes of the Scottish referendum, not least the characterisation of the “status quo” option’s campaign as “Project Fear”; but when so much remains unclear about what the effects of change might be, it is perhaps inevitable that some of the less palatable possibilities will be highlighted. I suppose I had hope that some lessons might have been learned: in Scotland, some issues were raised which you really thought might have been determined in advance, like the question of whether Scotland would be allowed to “keep the pound”. If they had, then people could have made a more informed decision. We seem to be back in that territory, with “facts” and lines of argument being revealed only during the frenzied campaign period.
For a moderately rational UK voter, the fundamental question right now would be ‘what will be the difference between life within Europe, and life outside it?’ We have a plausibly good view as to what life in the EU looks like, since it’s what we experience at the moment; and we have fairly significant powers to stop future changes we don’t like the look of. So what do we know about what might be different about life outside?
The reality is that, to a far greater extent than in the Scottish referendum, no definitive answer can be given. Some aspects – what restrictions are placed on trade, how much European regulation we accept in return for access to the market – depend on negotiations with the EU that simply can’t take place unless the die is cast. Paradoxically, though, one of the key reasons for the uncertainty is intrinsic to the aims of those who favour Brexit: we cannot know how our future national governments might choose to exercise any repatriated powers.
Given how little resemblance parties’ actions in government seem to bear these days to their pre-election promises, guessing what policy implications Brexit might have is a somewhat forlorn task. However, if Boris Johnson’s father Stanley is willing to attempt it, so too shall I – focusing on the environment.
If Brexit is worth voting for, then presumably, it’s because, when we gain control over decision making, we change things. At the moment, we comply with various Directives, but we are free to choose how we achieve the objectives set. An EU-wide 50% recycling target for 2020 is agreed in Brussels; but we decide (in Westminster, Cardiff, Glasgow, Stormont, and town halls up and down the country) what that means for waste collection operations. The EU prescribes recycling targets, but not how many bins we have, or how frequently they are emptied. My experience of the Brussels machinery is not of officials desperate to tell countries exactly what they should do, but of people who respect the principle of subsidiarity, which leaves Member States to determine how they implement Directives.
Since we already control the “how”, if Brexit is to bring about change sufficiently significant to make the whole shooting match worthwhile, it must mean change in the “what” – divergence from the broad objectives set in European law. And since very few Directives prevent us from going beyond the minimum requirements, it feels reasonable to assume that change will mean doing less than Europe currently requires.
Although Brexiteers need to hold out the prospect of positive change in order justify asking for your vote, they have been remarkably reluctant to offer specifics. As a pretty broad church, perhaps they’re keeping quiet because they simply can’t agree on a positive programme; or perhaps they’re aware that the kinds of changes that might be on the cards wouldn’t be too palatable.
Take, for example, European air quality standards. Because the UK fails to meet these requirements, more of our citizens are dying prematurely than would otherwise be the case. In the absence of European law, are we to believe that a UK Government of more or less the current complexion would suddenly pay more attention to this problem? Or is it more likely that it would simply ditch the pesky targets we currently risk being fined for missing?
One of the benefits of EU legislation is that someone does actually hold the UK to account if our own politicians fail to prioritise protecting us from breathing polluted air, or swimming in dirty bathing water at the beach, or being piped contaminated drinking water. These and other benefits could be for the chop post-Brexit.
Of course, it’s difficult for Remainers in the current government to sell the message that there are benefits to EU legislation when for years the rhetoric has been about EU red tape and gold plating. Under their watch, Defra appears mainly concerned with restricting the costs involved in implementing the bare minimum required by EU Directives, and in areas such as waste is showing little sign of taking even this seriously. When we fail to comply with EU standards, it’s harder to argue they’re a good thing. But that’s exactly what they should be saying.
Only on climate change, where our targets are overseen by the Committee on Climate Change, have we (entirely independently) gone well beyond what’s required by the EU. Those targets have cross-party support in the UK so voting for Brexit shouldn’t lead immediately to them being abandoned – though if we elected a government that denied the phenomenon, it would remain free to do so. None of this, though, has stopped Brexiteers from trying to claim that the costs of energy in the UK are determined by diktats from Brussels.
Away from the fevered headlines, you will find some interesting insights, even in the Brexit-leaning press. One paper, while happily trashing the latest missive from the Remain campaign on the economy, gave a rather different view in its travel pages. There it forecast that if we stay in the EU, your euros will cost 11% less than if we decide to leave due to the impact of Brexit on the pound.
This is not just a point, though, for travellers. The number of pounds in your pay packet might not reduce after a Brexit decision; but their value will be much diminished. So, there it is: even according to advocates of a vote to leave, it could cut the purchasing power of your wages by 11%. By comparison, what’s described as “Project Fear” is a pretty sober projection of the uncertainties which will follow from a Brexit decision.
In fact, the travel pages have a better grasp on basic economics than the headlines: uncertainty = less investment. Less investment weakens the currency. Exporters (including Eunomia) could gain, as our products will be cheaper (and the sterling value of the holdings in our euro account will go up); but only if we have access to the markets to which we want to export our services.
As far as the EU is concerned, the UK won’t get the same trade terms without complying with the bulk of EU law, and anything we export will still need to meet European standards (so why leave?) And as far as everyone else is concerned, it would be up to us to try to negotiate deals. Brexiteers may believe that their policy promises a Panglossian world where “everything happens for the good”, but we cannot be certain of even equalling the international trade access the EU has secured on our behalf.
There is an alternative vision, which the Remain camp has struggled to articulate. It’s obvious to anyone who has had the ‘pleasure’ of sitting in expert meetings and watching UK officials make cringe-worthy attempts at point scoring against their European counterparts: we could try properly engaging with Europe’s institutions and politics. When our media, whose news agenda is so often set by the pro-Brexit tabloids, so rarely reports what is happening in European politics, is it any wonder that people feel that Brussels is “faceless” and “unelected”? If we don’t like how the EU spends its budget, what we would we prefer it to focus on? If voter turnout at elections is low, is that because we don’t have the freedom to make decisions ourselves – or because our own politicians seem so remote from our everyday reality, so unaccountable to their manifesto commitments – and in the case of the Lords, so unelected?
How you vote is up to you. But a vote for exit looks like a vote that opens the door to lower environmental standards, and a reduction in many other standards and protections that you might not appreciate you currently enjoy. Those who want to bring “control” over these matters back to the Commons have not been able to tell us how they would exercise that control. If you vote to leave the EU, you simply do not know what you are voting for.