I confess. I’m torn. I don’t know whether I will vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in June to leaving the EU. I may have spent the last 30 years dealing in some aspect or other of the EU’s policies and practices, but I still can’t decide. It isn’t as though I have a vested interest that would help make up my mind.
My experience of the EU has been too varied to make me a Euro-phile or a Euro-sceptic. I was a commercial lawyer in the 1980s struggling with European regulations and directives and decisions often weighing down my corporate clients. By the 1990s I’d given that up and was a witness to the EU’s global influence as I studied its new human rights agenda and the power it wielded to help end the tyranny of Hastings Banda in Malawi. And since the 2000s I’ve been studying and writing about the ‘justice’ record of the Union. On the whole I’ve been a critic of its practices, though optimistic that things could change.
But all that varied experience and so-called ‘expertise’ doesn’t seem to help now. Nor does listening to the politicians lining up to tell us which way to vote. They only mock our intelligence by dealing in simplicities: we’re being swamped by no-good Eastern Europeans; we won’t be safe outside the walls of the Union; our businesses are hampered by Brussels’s unnecessary and ridiculous red tape; we’ll enter into economic meltdown if we’re not part of the single market; we’ll regain the ability to make decisions for ourselves if we’re on our own; we’ll lose our influence in the world if we leave the club.
Even when they’re pressed to give hard economic information, no one trustworthy seems able to tell us if the benefits of being an EU member have been greater than the costs. Numbers in billions are thrown around as insults not enlightenment for confused audiences. And if they can’t say what has happened, how can they predict whether we’ll be better off in or out?
The absence of ‘facts’, of any definitive and reliable information, means the politicians retreat to fundamental principles. Those who want to stay in, tell us about the peace imperative which forged the EU in the first place. They applaud the collective drive to make things better for us all and the counter-weight the Union offers to the super-powers in the East (once the Soviet Union now Russia and China) and the West (always the USA). We’re stronger acting in concert, they say, and able to do good and keep the peace more effectively, with twenty-eight countries speaking and acting as one.
Those who want out, focus on sovereignty. We need to regain control of ‘our’ borders, control over our laws, control over to whom we pay social welfare. These are the core arguments, each represented as elements of recovering our national ‘freedom’ to make decisions for ourselves according to our democratic processes.
Both sides can be annoyingly persuasive, perhaps depending on who is articulating them. I could back either one. So where does that leave me? Still confused, of course. There’s no killer argument one way or the other. And the decision is too important to leave to gut reaction or worse: voting against the position of whatever politicians I like and trust the least. What to do?
If all those years of experience and study have any value, now surely is the time to draw on it. I can’t magic up decisive economic statistics nor can I speculate authoritatively on what the outcome would be if we left the EU. Fear stalks whether we stay or go.
But I can look at the EU’s past and decide whether on balance it’s been a ‘good thing’ or not. And on that grounding, I have a better chance of deciding whether the cost of remaining is less than of leaving. By cost I do not mean price. Concentrating on some contested profit and loss account won’t provide an answer. Instead, this is for me a matter of value. Have the EU’s claims to value been broadly true or broadly false? In short: what has the EU ever done for us?
Over the coming weeks I’ll look at some of the areas I think are important. It’s a selfish act: to help me decide what to do. I think that would be more useful than listening to shouted debates on Question Time and Newsnight specials and yah-boo exchanges in the House of Commons.
Where to start? The retreat to fundamentals, the basic battle lines, might make sense after all. Where better, then, to begin with the claim that the EU has been a force for ‘peace’? The first priority of the original six nations that forged the EEC back in 1957. As Boris Johnson wrote recently, ‘We should remember that this federalist vision is not an ignoble idea. It was born of the highest motives – to keep the peace in Europe.’ Beyond the obvious absence of war between those states, what evidence is there that the EU has promoted peace? What evidence is there that we have been made more secure because of its existence? This will be the subject of my first article.
Banner photo by European Union/ECHO