Toby Young: Why I’ll be voting Leave on 23 June
Guest Blogger, 17 March 2016
I’m a bit loath to begin this post by pointing out that the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is the most important choice the electorate has faced in a generation, even though it is. Why? Because it’s not in the interests of my side to shore up people’s interest in this debate. According to Lynton Crosby, a low turnout favours Leave – one of the reasons David Cameron has chosen to hold the referendum in the middle of summer on the second longest day of the year. The last thing he wants is heavy rain.
Why does a low turn out favour my side? Because the Leavers are more passionate about getting out of the EU than the Remainers are about staying in. To put it at its most simple, we intend to vote with our hearts, whereas our opponents are more concerned about their bank balances.
I will get to the positive case for coming out in a moment, but first let me deal with the negative argument for staying in – Project Fear.
There are three main parts to the economic case for sticking with the devil we know.
First, there’s the claim that those sectors of the British economy that depend on EU citizens being able to live and work in the UK – financial services, tech, the NHS – will suffer if border controls are re-imposed.
But no one on the Leave side wants to stop immigration altogether, let alone repatriate those foreign-born workers who are already here, so the argument that large investment banks will relocate to Paris or Berlin for employment reasons is nonsense. Rather, we want to replace the free movement of labour with controlled immigration, admitting those workers with the right skills rather than anyone with an EU passport.
What will be bad for the British economy is if immigration continues at its current level, with annual net migration currently at an all time high around 330,000. Our schools and hospitals are already stretched to breaking point and unless we can get immigration down to manageable levels, they’ll start to snap. That’s particularly important, given the likelihood that Turkey will join the EU in the not too distant future, adding another 75 million to the EU’s 500-million strong population.
Another consideration is that if we stay in we won’t be able to stop Islamic State-trained fighters, disguised as Syrian refugees, entering the UK. According to the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, some of the million plus refugees that poured into Germany in 2015 are Islamist terrorists. Once they’ve obtained German citizenship, we won’t be able to stop them crossing our border.
There are some other, equally spurious claims made about immigration if we vote Leave. David Cameron has warned that France would abandon juxtaposed border controls, making it easier for illegal immigrants to cross the Channel and set up camp in Dover. But in reality, that would never happen, as the UK’s former chief inspector of borders and immigration has made clear. The two treaties covering UK-French border controls are bilateral agreements, not related to the EU, that it’s in the interests of both countries to preserve. The benefits to France wouldn’t end if we leave.
Another myth the scaremongers have put about is that British expats living on the Continent would have to return to the UK the day after a Brexit vote. In fact, deporting British nationals would be illegal under Article 19 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. Nor is it likely that travel to the Continent would become more difficult post-Brexit, as some Europhiles claim. My parents owned a house in the South of France when I was a child in the 1960s and early 1970s and I don’t remember there being any hold-ups at the border in either direction. Regaining control of our borders doesn’t mean Britain would suddenly turn into East Germany.
The second part of the economic case is that the trade deal we strike with the remaining 27 members of the EU post-Brexit will inevitably be worse than the one we have now.
There are several forms this argument takes.
In one version, there’s simply no way we’ll be able to preserve our unfettered access to the single market without accepting free movement. It’s worth noting that if that’s true, all the scaremongering I’ve dealt with above vanishes into thin air – a good example of the Remainers wanting to have it both ways. But of course it isn’t true.
Canada, for instance, will shortly have access to the single market without committing to free movement. Why couldn’t we negotiate a Canadian deal for Britain?
Maybe you could, say the Remainers, but Canada, like Norway, won’t have any influence over the rules and regulations that apply to the single market. Wouldn’t it be better to have some say over them if you’re going to be doing business in Europe?
Unfortunately, Britain exercises practically no influence over these rules at the moment – our objections to Brussels’ petty-fogging dictats are consistently ignored – and if we do negotiate a Canadian deal the voluminous red tape will only apply to those British companies that export goods and services to the EU, not all British companies. As things stand, a sandwich seller in Skegness has to comply with the EU working time directive, even though he’s never sold a sandwich outside East Lindsey. Only six per cent of British firms export goods and services to the EU so having no control over the regulations that apply to them is a small price to pay for liberating the vast majority of companies that don’t.
In another, more extreme version of this argument, Britain simply won’t be granted free access to the single market post-Brexit, even if we accept free movement. We won’t even be given the less attractive Norway option – all Norwegian companies have to comply with EU regulations, not just those that do business in the EU – let alone the Canadian one. On the contrary, the remaining 27 member states will gang up to impose tariffs on all British goods and services.
But not only would that be a breach of the World Trade Organisation’s rules on tariffs, it wouldn’t be in the EU’s economic interests to become embroiled in a trade war with the UK since the total value of the goods we import from the other 27 member states is greater than the total value of our exports to their countries.
Ah, say the Remainers, that’s a basic mathematical error. Forty-five per cent of Britain’s exports go to those 27 countries, while only 16 per cent of their exports, taken collectively, come here, which means a tit-for-tat tariff war would hurt our economy more than the EU’s. Moreover, the 27 remaining members will have an incentive to do what they can to make the terms of trade as unattractive as possible to deter other members of the club from following in our footsteps – pour decourager les autres, as they say in France.
Two things in response.
First, this prognosis depends upon a very jaundiced view of our European allies. Are they really going to make an example of us to frighten other members of the EU into staying in? That makes the EU sound less like a club of liberal nations, committed to peace and prosperity, and more like the Medellin Cartel. It also illustrates one of the fundamental flaws of Project Fear – it requires the Remainers to paint such an unattractive portrait of our European neighbours it makes the prospect of remaining in the club pretty unattractive.
Second, it’s simply nonsense to say the economies of the remaining 27 EU members could more easily absorb the impact of a trade war than we could. Britain has the fastest growing major economy in Europe. We overtook France in 2014 to become the fifth largest economy in the world. The economies of Italy, Portugal and Greece, by contrast, are teetering on the brink of collapse. Even a tiny drop in the sales of their exports to the UK would send them into a death spiral. The idea that they could be persuaded by their Brussels overlords to accept a drop in exports for the sake of meting out a punishment beating to the UK is preposterous. Provided Britain doesn’t impose tariffs on imports from the rest of the EU, there’s zero chance they’ll impose tariffs on UK exports, whether we accept free movement or not.
The third part of the economic case against Brexit is that it will result in a prolonged period of uncertainty while we’re negotiating the terms of our departure. That will lead to a decline in investment in British businesses and, inevitably, a fall in output. Britain’s sputtering recovery will grind to a halt.
This is the most plausible of the doom-mongering arguments, but still unconvincing.
First, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets out the procedure for leaving the EU, puts a time limit of two years on any exit negotiation. That deadline can’t be stretched unless all 27 of the remaining member states unanimously vote to extend it. If they don’t, Britain’s membership of the club automatically ceases.
Second, even if the British economy suffers from a lack of investment during those two years, we can more than compensate for this – and any other negative economic consequences of leaving the EU – by negotiating our own trade deals with the rest of the world once we’re out. At present, we have to negotiate as part of an EU trading block. Post-Brexit, we’ll have our own seat at the table.
So the economic case for Remaining really isn’t all that solid. What about the positive case for Leaving?
Well, that’s summed up by the slogan of the most impressive of the out campaigns – “Vote Leave – Take Control”. At present, approximately 65 per cent of UK law is influenced by the EU, if your definition of “UK law” includes EU regulations. However, Viviane Reding, the former EU Justice Commissioner, reckons it’s 70 per cent. Even Chuka Umunna, one of the leading figures in the Britain Stronger In campaign, puts the figure at 50 per cent.
It would be bad enough if those laws originated in the European Parliament, which is at least an elected chamber. But the EU body responsible for proposing legislation is the European Commission. Only one of the 28 Commissioners is elected – the President, Jean-Claude Juncker, and only by the European Parliament, not any actual voters. The other 27 are appointees. If they do a bad job, the European Parliament can technically get rid of them but it’s extremely unlikely ever to happen.
So the main argument for getting out of the EU is to restore democratic control to the people of Britain over those who make our laws.
The Remainers argue that the EU can be reformed and if Britain stays in we can make it more democratic. Not only is that naïve – David Cameron discovered how resistant the EU is to reform during his attempt to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership – but a more democratic EU wouldn’t be that much more appealing.
It makes sense for the different nations of the UK to pool their sovereignty. We share a great deal of history, our institutions and traditions are either shared or broadly similar, and we are united by our love of liberty. The union has developed organically and has withstood numerous tests in its 309-year history, including two world wars and a resurgence of Welsh and Scottish nationalism. (And while we’re on the subject, I reject the argument that a Leave vote would trigger a second Scottish referendum in which the Scots would vote Yes. In that scenario, the Scottish people would face a choice of remaining in the UK or joining a United States of Europe. Not only would they have less control over their own destiny as a new EU member state, they’d have to swap the pound for the euro and, because of the state of their economy, accept an austerity package that would make George Osborne look like Father Christmas. In those circumstances, the Scots would vote to stay in the UK by a far greater margin than they did in 2014.)
Contrast this with the argument for pooling sovereignty in Europe. It makes little sense for the countries of Europe, with their wildly divergent histories and traditions, their 23 official languages, and their varying levels of commitment to freedom and democracy (women didn’t get the vote in one canton in non-EU member Switzerland until 1991), to place themselves under the jurisdiction of a single political system. We’ve already witnessed the problems created by trying to impose a single currency on the 17 members of the Eurozone. Just think how much greater those problems would be if all 28 member states were yoked together in a political union. Add Turkey’s 75 million Muslims to the mix, and it’s a recipe for perpetual turmoil.
The federalists argue that a genuine union is the only alternative to further bloodshed – this is the great prize that justifies almost any political and economic cost, however high – but that’s unconvincing. For one thing, the EU hasn’t prevented wars breaking out in Europe – there have been plenty since the formation of the EU, including the current conflict in Ukraine. Yes, there hasn’t been a third world war, but the reason the Soviet Union didn’t invade Western Europe between 1945 and 1989 was thanks to the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance and mutually assured destruction, not the EU. You could just as plausibly give the credit to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
There are other, equally compelling arguments for repatriating powers to the British Parliament, including control of our borders. Over the past 25 years or so there has been an erosion in the public’s confidence in Britain’s political elite, partly because it has been unable to address some of the issues that are uppermost in the electorate’s mind, such as uncontrolled immigration. If we restore the sovereignty of Parliament, some of that confidence would be restored.
There’s also the question of Britain’s national identity. As Ronald Reagan said, “A nation that cannot control its borders is not a nation.” (A principle embraced by every American President, which is why Barack Obama’s intervention in the Brexit debate is so galling.) In the 43 years since Britain joined what was then, misleadingly, called “the Common Market”, our sense of Britishness has become somewhat dulled. Before 1973, most Britons didn’t think of themselves as being in Europe, but as being part of an exceptional, independent country, comparable in stature, if not greater, than the land mass just off our eastern and southern coasts. Our membership of other regional blocs — the British Isles, the Commonwealth, Nato — loomed larger in the national psyche.
Today, that’s no longer true. The Anglosphere has receded into the background and Europe is pressed up against our borders. One of the aims of the European project is to blur national differences, to reduce the gravitational force of our separate histories, to pool our identities as well as our sovereignty. All this is justified, say the federalists, to avoid a repeat of the bloody conflicts that tore the Continent apart in the last century. But is it really such a binary choice? Must we water down our sense of national identity almost to the point of nothingness in order to preserve the peace between us?
This, above all, is why I’ll be voting Leave on 23 June. It’s not just the inevitable erosion of our parliamentary sovereignty that I fear, but the gradual ebbing away of everything that makes Britain different and special. I want my four children to feel they’ve won the lottery of life, not because they have a European passport, but because they have a British one.
The vote in the forthcoming referendum isn’t a choice between the status quo and a “leap into the unknown”, as the Remainers would have you believe. Rather, it’s a choice between Britain being an independent nation-state or becoming gradually absorbed into a United States of Europe. David Cameron’s claim to have secured “special status” for the UK following his renegotiation is just empty rhetoric. As I pointed out in the Telegraph at the time, he hasn’t even met the four modest objectives he set out with. Far from securing a “red card” for Britain, he has watered down the protections secured by his predecessors against further integration and our exemption from “ever closer union” – itself a cosmetic concession – is dependent on treaty change that looks unlikely to happen.
The truth is, if Britain votes to stay in on 23 June we’ll be locked into an irreversible process that will end with the transfer of Parliament’s remaining powers to Brussels, the abandonment of our currency, our absorption into the Schengen area and the loss of our national identity. Our island story, arguably the greatest in the history of mankind, will be at an end.
The name of Winston Churchill is often invoked by the Remainers because he was the first European statesman to call for a United States of Europe. What’s often overlooked is that he didn’t want Britain to have any part of that union. If Churchill were alive today, he would be on the side of the Outers, not the Inners. Let’s honour his memory, as well as the memory of those who died defending our country’s right to self-determination, by voting Leave on 23 June.
Note: this blog was edited on 21 March 2016. The sentence ‘Britain has the fastest growing economy in Europe’ was changed to ‘Britain has the fastest growing major economy in Europe.’