We have learned so much
Our correspondent, who writes under the name Future of our Children, shows how the Brexit debate may have inadvertently strengthened Britain’s future influence inside Europe – though only if we use the People’s Vote to Remain. We have learned so much – let us not waste our knowledge on Brexit but put it to better use for the benefit of the UK and all Europe, our own neighbourhood.
The June 2016 EU Referendum was hugely divisive and caused much distress, especially within families and between friends who voted in opposing ways. It is understandable, therefore, that there is no great enthusiasm for a repeat performance! However, nearly two years on, we understand much more about our relationship with the EU and the implications of different potential Brexit scenarios on our lives – especially the lives of young British people. It seems only right, therefore, that, as envisaged by the People’s Vote campaign, voters should have the option of either endorsing any draft agreement made by the government or indicating their preference that, given this new knowledge, the UK should continue to remain a member of the EU.
What we have learned
The main message coming out of the negotiations so far is that, if it leaves the EU, the UK cannot reasonably expect any future relationship that is as favourable to the country as are the present arrangements. We won’t benefit from a future trading agreement that is as frictionless as the Single Market unless we subscribe to all the obligations that go with its membership – most notably to the freedom of movement of labour between EU member countries and to accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The government’s own (secret!) figures are claimed to show that any Brexit scenario will leave Britain less prosperous and therefore less able to invest in better health, education, care for the elderly, social security and housing as well as environmental stewardship. A recent independent study supports these conclusions.
A second emerging impression is that, though there are some opportunities for entering into new bilateral trading agreements, these will not open up British access to very large potential markets, comparable in size and accessibility to the EU’s Single Market. They may also take years to firm up and come with nasty strings attached!
What we have also come to understand better is that, if only because of our juxta-position to EU member countries, we are bound, even as an island-nation, to continue to be deeply affected by the Commission’s programmes and policies after we cease to be a member of the EU. This applies not just to trading arrangements but also to the many other issues that are addressed collectively by EU members. These include defence, security, environment, human rights and nuclear facilities as well as the activities of many of its decentralised agencies. We and our neighbours share many similar problems and, where these have transboundary dimensions, they can only be effectively addressed by well-orchestrated joint actions – whether they refer to air and sea safety; many aspects of environmental management, including those related to climate change; banking standards; international crime; food safety or the prevention of human and animal diseases – and so on. We have also learnt that there are big benefits from collaborative scientific research between institutions spread across the EU. Going it alone on all such topics is futile.
If Britain leaves the EU it may be able to buy its way back as an associate member of the institutions that handle these joint programmes, but it is unlikely to be able to secure a place in their management or to have nationals working as staff members. We will thus forfeit our capacity to shape policies and programmes that will ultimately impact on our lives. We may claim that, by dropping our full membership, we are “taking back control”, but, in fact, we are abdicating our responsibilities, becoming rule takers rather than staying as rule makers.
We need a new certainty
The huge uncertainties over the outcome of the disengagement process have played havoc with individual and corporate investment planning and have left many people in a state of confusion and worry. What we all really want now are not more years of fruitless negotiations and transitions to unknown outcomes but a new certainty so that we can get on with our lives, free of the tensions that have emerged in the last two years.
Harness the ideas and relationships of the Brexit process to improving the EU
Surprisingly, this new vision could emerge as a by-product of the Brexit debate. In spite of the problems that the referendum unleashed, it has also had the very positive impact of stimulating a wealth of thinking across all sectors on how an “independent” Britain could improve its policies. Perhaps the most visible example of this has been the work done by Michael Gove’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on reducing plastic pollution and shifting to truly sustainable farming and land management systems. While this was focused on defining future British policies, these are also relevant to the rest of Europe – though Gove would be the last to admit this! As a result of such initiatives, taken by civil servants, special interest groups and political parties, in all sectors, Britain, if it was to stay in Europe, would be advantageously placed to become a leader in reforming EU policies. In DEFRA’s case, for instance, the UK could contribute very constructively to reshaping the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
The negotiating process itself and the creation of David Davis’ Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) has presumably built up a deep understanding amongst concerned civil servants of the workings of the EU and has probably also nurtured bonds of trust and mutual confidence between people on both sides of the negotiating table. These assets, created to facilitate our exit from the EU, could equally well be be harnessed by the UK to enable it to become a highly influential member of the EU as it grapples in future with the kinds of problems that led British voters to opt to leave.
As one example, Britain could turn its back on its failed approaches to reducing immigration through creating a “hostile environment” towards migrants and by setting unattainable limits on the number of EU migrants entering the country, thereby excluding itself from the Single Market. Instead, it could stay in the Single Market and work with the European Commission to reduce the “push factors” that now drive EU citizens to migrate by helping it in levelling the social security and benefits playing field and opening up labour markets in main migrant source countries. The resulting welfare improvements would reduce the flow of people intending to seek work in the UK.
The EU’s central mission: peace
Finally, we need to remind ourselves that the EU emerged from the idea that, after 6 years of horrendous conflict between European countries, everything possible must be done to prevent any other such war. The current wave of sabre-rattling between the UK, the US and Russia, combined with a rise in ultra-nationalism in some countries and the perverse hijacking of social media, runs a real risk of degenerating spontaneously into an open conflict which would be a total disaster for our country and the world as a whole.
As parents and grandparents, our highest hope is that our children and grandchildren should be able, like us, to live their entire lives in peace and prosperity and to bequeath to their descendants a healthy planet. We believe that this is best assured by the UK continuing to retain its place in Europe as a full partner, applying its talents in shaping its future policies. We fully agree with Boris Johnson who wrote in his inspiring biography of his mentor Winston Churchill, that it was his “idea to bring these countries together, to bind them so indissolubly that they could never go to war again – and who can deny that the idea has been a spectacular success?”.