A few days ago I wrote a post about the EU referendum. At that time I was undecided now I’ve made up my mind, so I thought I should update the blog.
Given my uncertainty, I can’t tell anyone else how to vote and can only talk about the issues as I see them. One of my frustrations is that people on both sides of the debate argue that the decision is straightforward, and I don’t think it is. However, I am going to vote to Remain. The process of coming to the decision has been disturbing. I’ve written previously about the role of the unconscious in decision making, and I am not sure my own decision is entirely rational, as I explain below. Unusually, I went through the process of carefully thinking through and articulating my main concerns in the previous post, and it’s been uncomfortable to feel my position gradually “shifting beneath me”.
This well-judged interview from Wolfgang Schäuble in Der Spiegel was helpful in making my mind up. He explains “In response to Brexit, we couldn’t simply call for more integration. That would be crude, many would rightfully wonder whether we politicians still hadn’t understood. Even in the event that only a small majority of the British voters reject a withdrawal, we would have to see it as a wakeup call and a warning not to continue with business as usual. Either way, we have to take a serious look at reducing bureaucracy in Europe.”
In the earlier post, I thought the EU had some major benefits, in terms of free trade and free movement. I think our economy benefits from being able to trade freely with our neighbours and I think immigration and diverse cultural influences unambiguously enrich the UK. But I saw one major negative, which I couldn’t overlook in the EU; the lack of direct democratic accountability in its main executive structures, the European Commission and the Council of the European Union.
Without the ability to control the leadership of the organisation I worry about a future where the citizens of Europe will have little say in the direction of an increasingly powerful union. Its supporters often argue that the EU is antidote to the wars that blighted the continent in the 20th century, but they sometimes seem to lose sight of the fact that in many cases these conflicts were struggles for freedom and democracy which were threatened or stolen by undemocratic regimes.
If the EU is going to go beyond a mere trade agreement (and it already has) then democracy has to be at the heart its constitution. It isn’t just a bureaucratic detail to be sorted out later on, if necessary. I was really pleased to have this concern addressed by two prominent remain campaigners on twitter – and perhaps that did shift my view a little – but I still think that we need more from the EU itself: a commitment to urgent reform.
At other times, I must say, I found the rather dismissive arguments of Remain campaigners simplistic and actively off-putting (something the campaigners might bear in mind if aiming to change others’ minds before the vote). After all, if you call someone stupid or racist they are unlikely to thank you by changing their vote and may even become more entrenched in their views. Although most thoughtful commentators concede that there is a valid case for democratic reform, this was not always recognized. Despite what Schäuble, Soames and Garriaud-Maylam had said, some of the more vocal Remain supporters tended to minimize the importance of democracy and accountability and some seemed to have a fairly limited understanding of the structures they were defending (admittedly they are mind-bogglingly and unnecessarily complex, which is half the problem). “Well,” it was argued a few times “the House of Lords isn’t elected either so…” I did not find these arguments persuasive.
Another factor in my decision, which I had hoped to rule out in the last post, was the role of conformity (it has its own dark history in Europe and beyond). I really didn’t want to be seduced by the need to fit in with others who I like and respect, but I think the truth is that there is a powerful and largely subconscious influence.
Over the past fortnight I’ve talked to friends, colleagues and strangers (via social media) and I’ve listened to and read a great deal of argument, debate, and rhetoric. Did some of these arguments shift my opinion? It was hard to deny that most of the people I like and respect weighed the advantages and disadvantages very differently from me, so was peer group conformity at work? Perhaps, I am not sure. The clearest evidence that unconscious factors were at play was when my family and I stayed at an AirBnB in another city. The place we had rented was perfect – very neat tidy and beautifully furnished, but the front gate had a very prominent “Vote Leave” sign. As we passed through it, I shuddered. I didn’t want to be seen as a “Vote Leave” person, and I had a visceral sensation that I didn’t belong there.
Whether or not this unconscious feeling took precedence over reason, I don’t know. One way or another, I decided. It would have been so much easier if I could have convinced myself my earlier thoughts were wrong, but I couldn’t. My views on the EU’s benefits in terms of the economy and free movement haven’t changed. Neither has my deep scepticism about its lack of democratic accountability. Neither, if I am honest, has my view about the relative importance of these factors (democracy is absolutely critical). I think I have come to a somewhat more nuanced position on the risks associated with the different decisions (but perhaps I am just rationalizing here). If we vote to Leave the EU we will certainly disrupt the important benefits we get from it and the negative effects will be significant and immediate. If we Remain in the EU the current structures, though deeply flawed, are just about tolerable with the EUs current competencies. My concerns about democracy are more distant. In ten or twenty years, we can expect the EU to have a bigger role in defence, taxation, and every strategic and super-national aspect of government, and we don’t know and (without reform) can’t control who will be elected by each tiny country and what power they will wield in the Council or Commission. Before the EU expands and integrates further we need much stronger and more direct democratic links, but to be optimistic perhaps this can still be done? I am not sure, but I am willing to take a chance. As things stand, a vote to Remain is less risky in the short-term and in the long-term, I fear other, even larger forces (political change in the US, Russia, China and emerging powers) will dwarf my concerns about the EU itself.