Should a pro-European vote ‘leave’?


Last week, I collected my medal for twenty years of European public service. I have dedicated my entire professional life to the EU, it is the issue about which I feel the most passionate. As a student I was an activist for the Young European Movement, I joined the EU public service with a strong sense of purpose, and I am a believer in a European tier of government as a necessary evolution of our political system which benefits us all.

So you would have me down as a cast-iron certainty to vote ‘remain’ in the upcoming Brexit referendum, wouldn’t you? Right now, I’m not so sure.

Like Anand Menon, I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more opinion pieces like this excellent article in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. The deal which David Cameron is trying to negotiate with the European Council will no doubt be presented by him as a good one for the UK, and there will be lots of debate over whether it is or it isn’t. But it will be very hard to argue that any deal he strikes will be good for the EU and its other 27 Member States. How could it be? He will seek to protect UK interests, narrowly defined by the current right-wing and ideologically-driven government, with a view to appeasing his party’s nationalist fringe. There will be a number of superficially insignificant but symbolically meaningful features which further water down the vision of the EU as a post-national political community; and there may well be more ideologically-driven elements which water down the EU as a force for social justice. I do recommend that you read Adriaan Schout’s aforementioned article for a sense of where this is likely to be heading.

You might think that the other 27 Member States are unlikely to allow themselves to be bullied into a bad deal. But experience tells us otherwise. In the world of horse-trading and compromise that is the European Council, short-term political considerations tend to count for more than long-term sustainable visions, which is why the Treaties of Nice, Amsterdam, and Lisbon left us with such a mess in the eurozone. The EU and its Member States, acting together, can be a formidable force; but when decisions are made in the European Council it’s all about the weakest link in the chain and this results in cautious incrementalism and defensiveness.

If Cameron were negotiating for a deal which introduces meaningful reform to the mechanics of the European Union, making it more effective and efficient, I would enthusiastically back him. He isn’t, though. And his fellow heads of government are likely to bend over backwards to accommodate his political needs in order to avoid a scenario where the UK leaves the EU. So there is a fairly strong possibility that next week’s European Council will sign off on a deal which would be a step backward for the EU in order to keep the British in. But even with such a deal there is still the real possibility that the British could vote to leave in 2017; and even if they vote to stay, the European question will not go away, and the next neverendum becomes only a matter of time. The Council may buy a temporary respite, but at what price?

One way or the other, we will soon find out what the deal is which David Cameron has negotiated. Most of the debate will be about whether it is good enough “for Britain” to justify a vote to remain. I will be looking at it from the other perspective: will the deal he negotiates be good enough “for Europe”?

As a Briton, I see nothing to be gained for my country by its leaving the EU, and much to be lost. As a European, I see nothing to be gained for our collective wellbeing by further handicapping the European Union simply in order to appease one Member State. Indeed, we stand to lose a great deal. Unfortunately, although the outcome of the UK referendum will have an impact on all Europeans, only the British will get to vote. That potentially presents pro-European voters with an awful dilemma. If the final choice is between a bad deal for Europe, and a Europe without Britain, I will feel dreadfully torn. While my heart would revolt against a vote for Brexit, I can see a real possibility that the best thing for Europe would be for the UK to leave rather than stay on the basis of a bad deal for the rest of us.

9 thoughts on “Should a pro-European vote ‘leave’?

  1. Martin Cole

    Interesting but unsurprising. This is what voring is all about, what the EU has failed to grasp and exactly why it is both dangerous and worthless.

    Voters always vore for their own personal best interests, as they (the sole experts of that topic) so decide. Thousands of such sound decisions form the collective will of the electorate with which it is impossible to argue,

    Nothing in the EU allows for such decision making, which is why it is fatally flawed in every area of endeavour and WHY it will hopefully disappear as an element between rulers and the ruled ASAP and without bloodshed!

      1. Steve Peers

        Member States have held many referenda on whether to join the EU or approve treaty amendments, to say nothing of the huge role of elected governments in the process.

        My bigger beef is your apparent assumption (Chris) that the UK’s departure from the EU would remove an obstacle to further integration. This begs a whole series of questions: (a) could some UK concerns be generally valid, not just parochial (ie the role of national parliaments); (b) is the UK really the only obstacle to further integration (cf Le Pen, among others); (c) whether further integration is desirable at all (see (a)); and (d) whether the effect of a large member leaving will inherently damage the EU (and notably ‘-it’ movements in other Member States), rather than bolster it. I will explore all this in more detail in a blog post with an exciting title in the New Year…

        1. ottocrat Post author

          I look forward to the post and to commenting on it! Too much to digest properly right away, but briefly: the UK’s departure would remove an obstacle to further integration, but not all obstacles to further integration (very far from it); some of the UK’s concerns may well be valid and to lose the UK’s voice would indeed be a serious loss; and I take it as axiomatic that further ‘integration’ is desirable if by integration we mean effective government at each tier – European, national, regional, local.

  2. Nick

    Agree with many of your points,but I hope he won’t get enough from his renegotiation to warrant supporting Brexit. Is continued British membership a barrier to integration for those in the Eurozone?

    1. ottocrat Post author

      It rather depends on the deal he achieves – one of his objectives is indeed to place restraints on the Eurozone from taking certain decisions without non-€Z members. But even if he fails to win the argument, continued British membership outside the Eurozone effectively means a continuation and proliferation of variable geometry which acts as a brake on integration.

  3. Joe

    Thanks, reading afterwards can be illuminating too!
    Just a belated question…
    why did cameron even try to get a deal?
    >> why not just the uk vote on membership <<
    Arguably and for some reasons you mention he could/should not have gotten much back anyway … prob helped lead to brexit – not avoid it.
    And yes, I did think so at the time too….


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