I am undecided about the EU referendum.

Although I am fast approaching 50 (actually 48) I never had a chance to vote on this issue, and indeed when my parents’ and grandparents’ generations voted to join the Common Market, it was very different to today’s European Union. The increasing constitutional power of the EU over its member states has been justified by the words “ever closer union” that appear in the original treaty that established the European Community, but subsequent generations have never been consulted on whether this objective is desirable or what form it might take in practice. We’re not even being asked now – it’s “take it, or leave it”. This lack of consultation is a symptom of a broader problem – EU citizens just don’t have much say in its direction. So, I don’t really want to miss what is likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to have some say in the issue, but I am feeling decidedly ambivalent.

In its current form the EU undoubtedly brings some benefits to the UK, and from my perspective these outweigh the costs but the EU already lacks the level of democratic accountability needed for its expanded role, and any further integration needs to be accompanied by reforms in this area. There is little sign that increasing accountability is on the agenda, and of course there is little incentive among the less than accountable EU leaders to put it there. Even given my (lukewarm) appreciation of the current EU, I worry that the situation will worsen and that in the future the EU will continue to expand its competencies, moving toward a European super-state with increasing power over the lives of citizens lives, but without adequate democratic checks and balances. Against this the UK constitution, though far from perfect, provides adequate checks and balances on power and has provided Britain with uninterrupted democratic government for hundreds of years.

So how should I vote in the referendum?

Peer group pressure

A really bad, but nonetheless compelling, reason to vote to stay in the EU would be peer group pressure. I have to admit that almost everyone I know and respect seems to be in favour of remaining and many of those who are campaigning to leave are at the opposite end of the political spectrum or so far away they’ve gone round the other side. When I see people like Michael Gove, John Whittingdale, Nigel Farage telling me to go one way, I instinctively want to go the other way. However, these instincts short-circuit thinking and are not a good way to make such an important constitutional decision.

It also can’t be about how the EU benefits me, or people like me. It has to be what’s best for the country in the long-term: our children and grandchildren will have to live with the results of our decision. It can’t really be based on gut feelings and tribal loyalty.

Immigration and culture

I am untroubled by immigration from the EU or elsewhere and I think immigration unambiguously enriches our culture and is beneficial. Free movement within the EU is a good thing and I wish the country were more open to people outside the EU than it currently is.

Because I think cultural diversity is enriching and beneficial, I am keen to protect the distinct languages, customs, cuisines, intellectual and artistic traditions of Europe. I love the Frenchness of France, the Spanishness of Spain. So I am very positive about Europe, and Europeans, but cultural diversity is not necessarily compatible with the end goal of an “ever closer union”. When Europeans get together we can often agree on a “lowest common denominator” of cultural values we all share. It’s a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest where distinctive ideas lose out to Boom Bang-a-Bang Europop we can all sing along to. Nobody’s favourite song, but one we can all agree is OK.

I’ve seen this kind of cultural compromise play out in a number of scientific projects, and (to put it gently) the results are not always equal to the sum of the parts. The same perhaps applies to industry: would the German approach training, manufacturing and engineering really be improved through compromise with e.g., British practices? How can we ensure that European legislation defends the “best” of our respective traditions?

So I don’t see the European Union as unambiguously good for culture. I think it endangers diversity within Europe, and I worry about who gets to decide which cultural values are preserved, and which are marginalized (see Democracy, below). The English language and “Anglo-” elements of British culture already have a global reach and will not be threatened by a decision to stay in Europe, but I think other more internationally marginalized traditions could be lost if we move further towards federalism.


We’ve heard an awful lot about the economic benefits of staying in the EU, and I don’t find these arguments hard to believe. Continuing free trade within a single market is likely to be beneficial to the participants, and it hugely increases our collective bargaining power in the global economy. We’ll probably be better off (economically speaking) in Europe, but the benefits are not as clear cut as some people seem to argue.

Britain is a very large and important part of the EU economy both in terms of our trade and population. I think Britain would survive and could even eventually thrive outside the EU and that the EU would be seriously damaged by a decision to leave. Given its importance it is surprising and disappointing that Britain has not been able to exert more influence over the direction of EU policy. For example, Britain made the wise decision not to join the Euro – Europe’s grandest federal project to date was premature and rushed. Why weren’t British doubts about its viability heeded more widely? Now as outsiders to the Euro Zone Britain runs the risk of being further marginalized in the EU’s economic decisions, especially where (as seems inevitable) there is conflict between policies that benefit the Euro and those that benefit the UK. We can remain part of this bigger, richer club, but it is one whose rules will potentially be skewed against us.

In any event I don’t think political decisions should be dominated by their consequences for our wallets. Having lived through several downturns and recessions they rarely seem a disastrous as they are portrayed by the wealthy and powerful. In Britain, I think, we too often uncritically accept the importance of economic growth and competition and focus too much on the benefits of wealth generation, and not enough on the importance of happiness and wellbeing. To be fair, this is more of an Anglo-Saxon than a European failing, so perhaps being in Europe will help temper the worst tendencies of British neoliberalism, but if so I’d be more persuaded by these under-rehearsed arguments than by the prospect of being a bit richer in than out.


The main problem with the EU, and one that in my mind trumps all the other benefits and risks is its lack of direct democratic accountability.

Tony Benn famously put it like this:

“If one meets a powerful person … one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you?”

I am not sure the answers the EU can give are satisfactory.

The executive is called the European Commission, and is led by the Commission President. The president is nominated by the European Council (the leaders of all the member nations). The nomination has to be approved by MEPs, but no one stands against the nominee. He or she then appoints the commission – one from each country regardless of its size or economic contribution – the cabinet of the EU’s government. Again, these appointments are merely approved by our elected representatives.

In my view this is a shockingly indirect way to “choose” a government. Almost all the power lies in the hands of the Council and the Commission and hardly any with the citizens. The EU president ought to stand in a contested direct election (comparable to US presidency), or else the commission and president should be determined in a bottom up way from the parliament (comparable to the UK parliament). As it is, there’s a sense that it is a cozy club for the leading politicians of Europe (however small their own electorate), and it is no surprise that they are on the whole keen to recommend it to the rest of us.

Powerful people will always try to find ways to whittle away and dilute their accountability. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples in recent European history of non-democratic government, we should have learned these lessons by now. As things stand EU citizens are almost powerless to enforce change, and if we vote to stay in Europe we’ll be helping to entrench this position.


I love Europe, I am not a xenophobe or a little Englander, but I am deeply unenthusiastic about many facets of the EU especially its lack of direct democratic accountability. We may be better off financially in the EU, but there’s a danger we’ll lose something even more important. I am undecided, but I don’t want to abstain.


Author: tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

4 thoughts on “Undecided”

  1. I’m going to vote to remain. In general, I think societies do better coalesced than fragmented. We face difficult times ahead as the planet heats up and millions of people continue to be driven out of the equatorial regions into Europe – I don’t think we can pull up the drawbridge and say it’s not our problem. It’s going to be our problem whether we like it or not and we are, in my view, better off with a place at the high table helping devise solutions, than watching from our moated citadel. I agree that there are problems with the way the European “democracy” is run but hopefully we can slowly overcome those.

    1. Thanks Kate, I must admit that I am coming round to your way of thinking. Sadly, I am not sure this is due to the rational arguments in favour of remaining. Instead, I keep catching myself trying to come up with ways of weighting the different factors so that I can agree with the people I like. I don’t normally “think” like this and it is an uncomfortable thing to feel this tug-of-war play out.

  2. The reasserting of democratic rights has been the most alluring of the Leave campaigns’ arguments. The basic principle is very hard to argue with. But as with most of Boris’s arguments it is based on a very loose grip of facts.

    The amount of control that the EU exerts on us is far less, IMO, than the Leave campaign would have you think. It is far short of a majority of laws, somewhere about 14% I believe (I doubt the EU is efficient enough to really take control) – https://fullfact.org/europe/uk-law-what-proportion-influenced-eu/

    But what should also be remembered is how many of those laws the UK is initiating and how many really ought to be european legislation. Does climate change legislation work better on a supranational basis?

    The funniest example of this misconception was Boris (him again and how much of this campaign really is just about him and his mates wanting power) moaning about EU regulations preventing the recycling of tea-bags. Then it was pointed out that that particular regulation was conceived of by the UK during the Foot and Mouth (or BSE) outbreak. Comedy Gold.

    Vote remain.

    1. Hi Shane, and thanks for taking the time to respond. From my perspective both campaigns have been deeply unimpressive. Both sides have focussed on the economy and on immigration, and on both these issues I am already convinced that staying in the EU is the best course of action. Neither side has had much to say about democratic accountability in the EU. The problem is that without strong democratic structures at the top of the EU, it could easily get worse in the future, and there won’t be much we can do about it. So even though their current policies are fairly benign, the trend is toward a more powerful and less democratic superstate with inadequate checks and balances.

      I can’t remember Boris saying anything about it, and to be honest I doubt if I’d be influenced by it either way.

      Anyway I am reluctantly coming to the view that a vote to remain may be the lesser of two evils. It seems safer in the short-term, and perhaps as so many people say Britain can play a part in improving EU structures in the future, but frankly I am sceptical.

      I just wish we had been able to secure more reforms in the past or at least a commitment to reform in the future.

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