Britain & Germany in the EU context: similarities & contrasts

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Muddling Through Brexit

Brexit Image

My previous Brexit post was on the theme of Brexit and the Politics of Wishful Thinking. A few months later and the politics of wishful thinking has given way to the phase of the politics of muddling through or trying to do something while being disorganised and/or do not knowing how to go about doing it.

Brexit soundbite vs sound plan

Five months after the Referendum, little progress has been made in terms of defining what Brexit actually means. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, came up with the political soundbite: “… Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it”. However, she and her Government appear to be determined not to spell out exactly what Brexit actually means for British people and businesses, or indeed how they plan to go about achieving it. They insist that they do not want to give away their negotiating hand, thus disadvantaging the UK but, as Brexit approaches, it is becoming increasingly evident that they neither have a plan nor much of a set of negotiating cards.

Beyond the soundbite, the Government´s Brexit position is becoming a bit clearer in some respects:

  • The Government will officially trigger Article 50 and thus start the Brexit process at the end of March 2017 (presumably 01 April 2017 or April Fool day): this has been announced by Theresa May herself and it is known that there is a 2 year timescale for negotiating Brexit;
  • The UK will (almost certainly) leave the single market/customs union: the only firm British policy position is that the Government will neither accept the freedom of movement of people nor the European Court of Justice. This is the logical outcome of the insistence upon “full control of our borders” and laws.This is not compatible with anything but “hard” Brexit.

But beyond this, the Brexit waters are as muddy as ever in respect to the key strategic issues. What is increasingly clear though is that even before Article 50 is triggered, a full-blown constitutional crisis threatens to derail Brexit, the Government and possibly the United Kingdom itself.

Constitutional crisis dead ahead

The key issue is whether Parliament will be allowed to vote on Brexit or not. The British Government is trying with all of its might to divorce the EU on the strength of the referendum outcome. Its assumption is that a vote by Parliament is unnecessary was rejected by the High Court on the basis that this course of action is unconstitutional. Cue pandemonium in Government, outrage among Brexit supporters and a disgraceful onslaught on the British judges/courts by the right-wing media (i.e. the “Enemies of the People” headline) targeting both the judges involved (so much for the rule of law) and the legal ruling itself, namely that it is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution that the Queen´s powers cannot be used by the Government via the Royal Prerogative to change or do away with rights under British law, unless Parliament gives it authority to do so.

Although the judgement is pretty clear, the Government is appealing it. This is a curious decision given that it is an established constitutional principle and Brexiters have strongly argued in favour of British courts ruling over British matters. The expectation of experts is that the Supreme Court judges will maintain the existing ruling by probably a margin of 11:0. With these sorts of odds, it is a peculiar Government that would pursue a lost cause and risk frittering away its precious political capital and legitimacy.

If the appeal fails, the Government would have no choice but to go through Parliament or appeal again. The latter would mean referring the case to the European Court of Justice since its jurisdiction clearly covers European matters such as Article 50. This would represent a bitter irony for those who would have British courts rule over British matters and thus withdraw from the European Union and European Court of Justice! Such a move would not only smack of desperation, it would put the European cat among the Brexiter pigeons so is most unlikely to be pursued by the British Government, not least because it would derail its timetable for invoking Article 50 by April Fool´s Day.

Therefore, should it be forced to operate constitutionally by the Supreme Court (i.e. should it be given a bloody nose by the courts), the Government’s intention is to present to Parliament a Brexit Bill with the express intention of minimising debate (reportedly it amounts to three lines of text and the House of Lords has been told to behave, otherwise its powers will be curtained), minimising scrutiny (the whole thing will be over in three days) and minimising delay (time is clearly running out) in triggering Article 50.

The majority of MPs are known to be pro-Remain, however, it is highly unlikely (but not impossible) that they would seek to thwart the majority of British adults who voted for Brexit. Were they to do so, the implications for British democracy would be impossible to guess but the mother of all constitutional crises can be safely predicted.

This is merely the start of the Brexit troubles brought on by an inept Government, not the end of it.

The Scottish and Welsh Parliaments argue that invoking Article 50 would involve a “fundamental alteration” in the UK’s constitutional arrangements and the rights of their people without their Parliaments being consulted. For example, the majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU. Since the Scottish and Welsh governments have been granted the right to make separate court cases to gain a say over the Brexit process, there is the possibility that the Supreme Court might award their Parliaments a veto over the Article 50 decision. This is yet another risk in the Government´s Brexit “strategy”.

Separately, a further Brexit case is being brought by a private individual and has also been referred to the Supreme Court. Mr Raymond McCord is arguing that the UK cannot choose leave the EU without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. These issues, affecting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are of great importance to the future of the UK. The possibility of Great Britain emerging from the Brexit process down the line as Little England is remote but cannot be dismissed (or that quite a few Brexiters might actually rejoice at such an outcome).

All this has the potential to plunge the British Government and thus the United Kingdom into a full-blown constitutional crisis, as well as rip the Brexit timetable to shreds. The Government must be fully aware of this, which is perhaps why its overall approach amounts to “Brexit means Brexit”.

Muddling through

As if that set of thorny issues was not enough, assuming that the British Government manages to navigate all of these pitfalls and triggers Article 50, there are further uncertainties which mean that the Government is hardly in control of the Brexit process.

The first of these is whether there will be a referendum to approve the Brexit negotiations or not. There is a strong case for a further referendum to be held. The 37% of eligible British adults who voted to leave the EU (overall, there was a majority of 52% that voted to Leave) were making a simple “in” or “out” choice. However, at the time and indeed for a period of up to 2 years after Article 50 is triggered, it was and remains totally unclear what that binary choice actually means.

For example, the “in” or “out” vote could not take into consideration such momentous decisions as whether the UK would remain a part of the Single Market and Customs Union (such as Norway, Switzerland, etc., which are part of the European Economic Area) or a much more radical change (such as hard Brexit, dropping completely out of all EU trade and other treaties and relying entirely on the World Trade Organisation). The voter could not possibly be aware of the magnitude or of the practical implications of a decision to exit the EU, since this has never happened before.

At the moment, the Government flatly rejects the option of a 2nd referendum. I personally do not agree with this position. The British public should be given the option of voting on whether the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations is to their liking/expectations or not, rather than “buying a pig in a poke.” This is an apt English colloquialism which means that something is sold or bought without the buyer knowing its true nature or value, especially when buying without inspecting the item beforehand.

All the evidence emanating from the other 27 EU countries is that they will have no choice but to drive a hard Brexit bargain. The UK may still be hoping to achieve its Brexit plan of “having its cake and eat it” as well, but this is once again wishful thinking on the part of the Brexiters. The risk of the “European Project” falling apart following a generous Brexi settlement is simply too great for our European partners to contemplate.

In other words, it is critical to allow the British voter to decide whether s/he really wishes to accept the final negotiated terms of the EU-UK Brexit deal. There is a growing band of cross-party Members of Parliament buying into the 2nd referendum option. It and when the Government does trigger Article 50, the country should be given the opportunity to decide on the terms and conditions of the UK-EU deal prior it being ratified by Parliament.

A related question is whether the country should hold a General Election. An entirely new Government with a new political agenda closely determined by the referendum held in June 2016 has sprung-up since the resignation of David Cameron in June 2016, a few months after the last General Election. Especially if there is not to be a 2nd referendum and/or a Parliamentary vote on the negotiated EU-UK deal, this would give the country an opportunity to approve the negotiations of this new Conservative Government, as well as its totally new political agenda and emphasis since the Brexit referendum. Not surprisingly, Mrs May and her Government have flatly rejected this option.

The British Government´s Brexit strategy amounts to little more than winging it and muddling through (while also failing to communicate with the public). Such “strategies” are vulnerable and can change very quickly when challenged by the courts, a determined Parliament and/or the EU partners on the other side of the Brexit negotiating table.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Brexit and the Politics of Wishful Thinking

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It has been a little while since I last posted something on the AngloDeutsch Blog.

The reason is simple: the UK´s referendum decision in favour of Brexit was not entirely a surprise but it still came as a shock that the majority of my fellow Britons voted to leave the European Union (EU), a club that they had been part and parcel of for over four decades (Britain joined in 1973), even if it has always been a less than wholehearted member.

Since 23 June 2016 I have observed the unfolding UK-EU divorce while trying to come to terms with that it means for Britons, for Europeans and of course for me personally, a Briton who has lived in various parts of the EU and is a resident of Germany.

I remain as shocked as ever but unlike many Remainers who retain dim hopes that Brexit might somehow be averted, that Parliament could override the outcome of the referendum or that a second referendum could be held when the actual terms and conditions of Brexit have been negotiated, I am expecting Brexit to occur. Not only that, but I do strongly believe that having voted for Brexit, it must happen. The referendum was a democratic process, the decision was clear and democracy would be undermined, perhaps fatally, by anything other than Brexit.

Slow-burning Brexit fuse

This is not to say that I think Brexit is a good thing for either the UK or the EU, as I have made clear in my blog. I remain as convinced as ever of the opposite, even if a growing number of people are jumping on the bandwagon to claim that there has been no crisis post-Brexit. This is hardly surprising since Article 50 triggering the process of withdrawal from the EU has not yet been invoked, Brexit has not yet happened and the Bank of England has been very active in pre-empting a possible crisis by launching an aggressive “sledgehammer” stimulus package. The real Brexit impact will be medium- to long-erm in nature; it will have a slow burning fuse but it will eventually be more keenly felt in terms of investment, jobs, real wages and wealth.

The most notable thing about the three months since the referendum is how little progress has actually been made in terms of defining what Brexit actually means. Since there have been no notable decisions made, investors have not had anything substantive, positive or negative, to react to and are keeping a watching brief on what happens. This in itself is a negative, albeit not one that the Brexiteers would acknowledge.

The extent of the current policy position of the new British Prime Minister, Theresa May, boils down to a political soundbite: “… Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it.”

Beyond this, very little is clear about the British Government´s Brexit position in respect to fundamental issues such as:

  • When Article 50 will be triggered to officially start the Brexit negotiations (sometime in 2017);
  • Whether Parliament will have a vote on Brexit;
  • If the aim is to stay in the common market or not (hard vs soft Brexit);
  • When Britain will actually leave the EU;
  • How long it will take to sign new trade agreements with the EU and other countries;
  • What the rights and responsibilities of the EU citizens living and working in the UK;
  • What does Brexit mean for Scotland and Northern Ireland;
  • The same for the Britons living in EU countries, etc.

The only firm policy position is that the UK will not accept one of the EU´s fundamental requirements, namely the freedom of movement of people, and insists upon taking full control of the borders in terms of who is let into the country. These are non-negotiable for the government.

Wishful thinking

Theresa May said in advance of her first cabinet meeting as Prime Minister: “So we will not allow the country to be defined by Brexit; but instead build the education, skills, and social mobility to allow everyone to prosper from the opportunities of leaving the EU.”

However, Brexit will undoubtedly define her government´s work for the current political term. Not only that, it will involve nigh on Herculean efforts to unpick over 4 decades of close legislative, economic, trade, cultural, financial, environmental and other ties. Without a doubt, Brexit will define the next 2-3 UK governments´ policy agenda and thus the country´s destiny. Whatever the Prime Minister may suggest, Britain has already been defined by Brexit, certainly for the other 27 countries, and this will only intensify in period until 2019 when the divorce proceedings are likely to conclude.

The wishful thinking does not stop there.

The Eurosceptic knives are out and being sharpened; the Government already stands accused of not doing enough to bring about Brexit, as if it such a complex and critical issue in terms of Britain´s future economic wellbeing is something that could be decided upon at the drop of a hat. The Brexiteers may have gone into the referendum in a blithe manner in terms of their complete lack of post-referendum plan but at least they are being consistent.

The headlong rush towards Brexit is irresponsible. To be sure, Britain has the right to unilaterally withdraw from the EU at any point of its choosing but there is broad consensus that this would be disastrous for all concerned. The default position is thus the negotiated route to Brexit, despite the unrest among the hard core Brexiteers. However, choosing to enter complex Brexit negotiations without adequate analysis, preparation and forethought in respect to Britain´s long term interests would be the equivalent of tying both Britain´s metaphorical hands behind its back in the forthcoming marathon negotiations with the EU. Just as in the case of unilateral withdrawal, there would only be losers from such a process. The Brexiteers have won the debate, so whatever their ideological desire to head for the exit door host-haste, they will just have to rein their horses in the interests of their country.

There is a school of thought that Mrs May has made a strategic mistake by offering key ministerial positions to leading Brexiteers as Boris Johnson (Foreign Office), David Davis (Brexit Negotiations) and Liam Fox (International Trade). I think it has actually been a strategic masterstroke on her part. The political onus has been neatly shifted to the Three Brexiteers, who must now take responsibility for preparatory work, negotiations and whatever outcome Britain is able to negotiate with the EU. The Brexiteers cannot claim to have been undermined by the Remainers if the critical political posts are all held by the Three Brexiteers.

Row, row your boat…

The advantages of this approach are already becoming evident. Among the chaos and obfuscation (which might be characterised as Project Lies or Project Fear, depending on which side of the fence you sit on) evident during the referendum campaign, there were a few concrete promises made by the Leave Campaign, though the Brexiteers are busily rowing away from them:

  1. GBP 350 million per week will be invested in the NHS: Nigel Farage (UKIP) admitted that it was a mistake to make such a claim and that the NHS would not get the extra funds.
  2. Article 50 to leave EU will be immediately triggered: Liam Fox (Conservatives) has admitted that Britain is nowhere near being prepared to begin negotiating Brexit and that this will take time.
  3. Brexit is a relatively straightforward process that can proceed quickly: David Davis (Conservatives) admitted that the Brexit negotiations may be the most complicated negotiation ever and that they will start sometime in 2017, followed by two years of negotiations.
  4. Introduction of a points based immigration system to take back control of the borders: Boris Johnson (Conservatives) has abandoned the plan for a points based immigration system promised during the election campaign stating that what matters is taking control of the borders.
  5. A favourably UK-EU free trade agreement will be negotiated as the EU has more to lose than the UK: David Davis (Conservatives) admitted that it might not happen and that the UK might exit without a trade agreement, thus having to revert to less favourable WTO tariffs instead.

The above can be interpreted in one way: the loud and clear sound of retreat can be heard and the buglers are none other than the Three Brexiteers.

For her part, Theresa May is keeping her cards close to her chest, holding bilateral preparatory meetings with the French, Germans, EU, etc. and repeating her “Brexit means Brexit” mantra. The three leading Brexiteers are the ones having to do all the running, carry the weight of political expectation and toil under the pressure to come up with a coherent plan for Brexit.

They are not giving the impression having much of a clue about what they are doing, let alone being capable of coordinating the process among themselves in a manner which inspires confidence about an outcome that will be at least as much in Britain´s interest as is the case today. Their fellow Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party are increasingly restless and if the current state of affairs continues, Mrs May might just be tempted in the future to relieve the Three Brexiteers of their duties. If she were then to appoint more capable replacements, whether Brexiteers or not, that might not be such a bad outcome and the Brexiteers would only have themselves to blame.

Choppy waters ahead

It takes two to do the Brexit tango, so how is the EU preparing for it?

Firstly, the rest of the EU insists upon Article 50 being triggered as soon as possible for the simple reason that an indeterminate period of uncertainty can only be negative for Britain and for the other EU countries. Ironically, the EU is pushing much harder for a quick Brexit than the Three Brexiteers and the rest of the government. However, since it cannot do anything about it, the rest of the EU is resigned to the likelihood that the UK will not invoke Article 50 and enter the negotiation phase until sometime in 2017, possibly later 2017 once the French and German General Elections are safely out of the way. Furthermore, the EU is firm about the fact that it will not start Brexit negotiations, formal or informal, until Article 50 is triggered by the UK. The hard core Brexiteers must be as bitterly disappointed about this likely delay as the rest of the EU, but at least they have finally one thing in common.

Secondly, it is not feasible for Britain to remain in the Common Market or join the European Economic Area (assuming the existing EEA members do not veto the UK from joining this club – the early indications are that these relatively small countries might not appreciate the prospect of being joined by what would become the dominant country, resulting in very different political dynamics) unless freedom of movement of people is guaranteed. Since this is a Rubicon that will not be crossed by the Brexiteers and/or the British Government, this option appears to be out of the question. The EU is inflexible on this fundamental issue, as illustrated by its handling of the Swiss referendum and the failed attempt to restrict freedom of movement while remaining in the EEA / common market. The omens are not good and the implication would be “hard” Brexit – leaving the EU and single market altogether without a free trade agreement with the EU.

The EU members are also unusually strong and consistent on other important issues.

Firstly, to make the UK divorce too easy would be to encourage other EU countries to consider leaving the EU club. Put simply, this is the very last thing that the other leading EU countries want. The negotiations will not be a stroll in the park, whatever the Brexiteers may claim. This is wishful thinking on their part and is misleading to it.

Secondly, it is entirely out of the question for the UK to expect to have its Brexit cake and eat it too. In other words, whatever is negotiated with the UK cannot possibly be as good as the current situation as a full and (formerly) leading member of the EU, something that the three Brexiteers continue to imply. Forget that sort of wishful thinking; it simply does not add up. If you join a club, you pay your membership fees, live by the rules and reap the benefits. If you choose to leave the club, you do not pay the fees, do not abide by the rules but do not get the benefits either. Period.

Thirdly, Angela Merkel has made Germany´s view unusually clear by stressing that Brexit is irrevocable (a one way ticket and Britons cannot expect otherwise) and that it is not feasible for the UK to be part of the common market without the EU´s four freedoms, one of which is freedom of movement. She has also stressed that Brexit negotiations cannot be a “cherry picking exercise” of keeping the good economic, trade and finance bits and ditching the rest. For someone renowned for mincing her words, this is as clear a statement as the Three Brexiteers will ever hear; not that they are paying any attention in their delusion.

The British government will also wish to factor in other important considerations in securing a Brexit deal. Whatever it turns out to be good, bad or indifferent, it can be vetoed by any of the remaining 27 countries. Any marginal hopes that Britain might harbour to somehow remain in the Common Market while avoiding the freedom of movement of people can and most probably will be vetoed by Visigrad nations such as Poland.

Loaded dice

There is thus a whole series of pitfalls to be avoided and the reality is that it will be very hard for a deal to be agreed within the maximum prescribed period. The negotiations are loaded in favour of the EU due to the time limit to finalise negotiations once Article 50 is triggered. Two years (unless there is a unanimous agreement by 27 nations to extend the negotiating period) does not sound like ample time to complete “…the most complicated negotiation ever” (David Davis) and do so in Britain´s favour while also securing a qualified majority of the EU leaders and the 27 Parliaments across the EU (as well as the European Parliament – see below).

As if that little lot was not enough to give the Three Brexiteers and their ilk food for thought, the EU has just appointed its team of Brexit negotiators and no one can claim that the intention is to give the UK and easy ride. The European Commission (EC) has put a Frenchman and former EU commissioner, Michel Barnier, in charge. The UK media was pretty clear about the possible implications. The Sun branded him “anti-British” and the Evening Standard called him the “scourge of the City”, with important implications given the significance of the financial sector and the sensitive issue of the UK retaining financial “passporting rights” without which a chunk of the financial sector concentrated in London could shift to Frankfurt, Paris and other EU cities.

Furthermore, the European Parliament has selected the MEP and former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt as the lead Brexit negotiator, since any deal agreed by EU Leaders will have to be ratified by the European Parliament, an institution which has often been in the crosshairs of the leading Brexiteers. The media immediately branded Verhofstadt a “diehard European federalist,” the worst possible insult that could ever be levelled by a Brexiteer. Without approval by the majority of the European Parliament, there will not be a Brexit deal. Perhaps Nigel Farage was a little unwise to gloat about Brexit at the European Parliament while still holding on to his seat and salary as a MEP (17 years and counting). Some might have concluded that Brexit was mission accomplished, but obviously not our Nigel.

Dream on

So the Brexit battle lines are being drawn.

It is evident that the EU´s position is a lot clearer than that of the UK, where pretty much everything is still up in the air, other than the intention to control its borders (despite being an island and not being part of the Schengen area) and avoiding freedom of movement of people (despite having almost as many Britons living in other EU countries, benefiting economically from EU migration and receiving the majority of its immigration from non-EU countries such as the Commonwealth).

The UK has yet to come up with the semblance of a cogent Brexit plan (“soft” or “hard” for a start), let alone one which unites the leading Brexiteers (a substantial minority of the Conservative Party) while also satisfying the majority Remainers in the same party. This is going to be tricky in the extreme: the Conservative Party has a slim overall majority of 16 in Parliament and UKIP will continue to breathe down the Conservatives´ political neck (the Labour Party is even worth mentioning, given its ongoing chaos and disarray).

Britain will need uncommon diplomatic and negotiating skills (eh hem! – yes, I am thinking of our Foreign Secretary), as well as a hefty dose of luck in navigating through the choppy waters coming up in 2017 and still coming out of with a Brexit deal, let alone a favourable one, whatever the Three Brexiteers and the British government may claim.

The likelihood of actually securing a deal that is at least as favourable as the status quo is nigh on impossible (though the EU is first and foremost a political construct and since politics trumps everything else, the possibility cannot be completely excluded). The prospect of the UK having its Brexit cake and eating it at the same time appears to be a load of wishful thinking and delusion. Everyone but the Brexiteers can clearly see the writing on the EU wall… in capital letters, underlined and bold.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Brexit has happened: good luck!

Brexit Image

And so, the day after the EU Referendum, a small majority of my countrymen and women have voted to leave the European Union (EU). Today is my “D” Day: D for “Disaster”. I always knew that this outcome was a distinct possibility, which is why I have spent time in the last couple of months writing a series of blog posts on difference aspects of the Brexit debate.

My effort has come to nought, hence my personal Disaster Day.

As I stare at the rubble of defeat, I am reminded of a few lines from “If”, by far the most popular poem in Britain, written by an Englishman, Rudyard Kipling. The lines are:

“If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with triumph and disaster;

And treat those two imposters just the same…

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

So I shall try to treat this disaster in the same way as I would have treated triumph, had the referendum decision been to Remain in the EU.

It has been hard fought and divisive referendum.

But more than 50% of British adults with a vote (I could not vote because of a rule that forbids this after a certain period of time living away from Britain) have made their view clear and it is pretty consistent across almost every region of the UK, except for London, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It was always going to be a close run race.

I offer congratulations to the winners and commiseration to the losers. The world will not end, nor will it change radically for the better as a result of Brexit.

There may be stormy weather ahead but Britain is strong enough, sufficiently wealthy and well-educated enough to not only withstand the turbulence but hopefully to thrive.

I wish Britain and my fellow Britons a prosperous future, despite what I consider to be the wrong referendum decision.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU

 


What has the EU ever done for us anyway?

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Britons will be voting on the EU referendum tomorrow. The vote will determine Brexit whether Brexit will happen or not. This is actually Britain´s second great Brexit debate, the first being the referendum of 1975, which the Remain side won comfortably. There is a different scenario now and the vote could go either way on the 23 June 2016. In this divisive and intemperate debate about whether to Remain or Leave, the emphasis has been on the negative. Fear is the name of the game: if we stay/leave, the UK will retain/lose x, therefore, vote to leave/remain. It is rare to read a positive set of reasons which connects up with people are interested in the things that affect our day-to-day lives.

This is the focus of this article. This one is written from the perspective of a citizen who happens to be British, has a German partner and has friends and family scattered all over Europe. It is the view of someone who has created a business in another EU country and who is active in EU nations as well as EU Candidate Countries and other nations.

The thing I love most of all is the freedom of movement of people. It is the greatest gift to be able to travel, work, live, study, au pair, retire, etc. wherever we like, whenever we like, as often as we like in any of 28 countries. This is the epitome of freedom and we lucky enough to have it.

If the climate in one country does not suit you, go to another. If the costs of living, such as housing, are too high, go somewhere else. If you cannot find a job in one place, try somewhere else. Britain is booming today but it might not tomorrow; this is when Britons will begin to appreciate it. Remember Norman Tebbit´s “on your bike Speech? If you can move freely within one country, to be able to do so in 28 / 508 million people is absolutely amazing.

And the beauty of it all, is that no one has the right to question or hinder you. You can study or work abroad, alone or taking your family, without applying for visas or other waiting at the borders for hours, paying any fees or being dependent on any bureaucrat´s whims. Once the freedom of movement of people is lost, life will never be the same again.

Not only that, the EU directives mean that I cannot be discriminated in any of the EU 28 countries on the basis of nationality, language, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc. This is priceless within the 28 countries, as well as between them all. This makes us the most advanced region in the planet – by far.

Despite the fears being put about by the Leave Campaign, only 5% of the 508 million EU citizens take-up the freedom of movement of people. Most people are quite happy to live where they are, but use the other benefits of the EU. What are those?

I love the fact that I can go on holiday whenever I like, wherever I like. I take for granted the fact that I can book a journey and set-off without delays due to visa requirements, border controls and other factors which transfer power from me, as a citizen, to others. The bureaucrats in 28 countries all have to apply the same rules to everyone from the EU. This increases transparency and freedom.

It also makes for cheaper, faster, more efficient travel. And since there is a group of 28 countries involved, it is much harder for telecom operators, travel agencies, airlines, commercial banks, etc. to divide and conquer customers, ripping us off by imposing the highest prices they can for no reason.

I now pay low mobile roaming charges and in 2017, I shall pay none because of the EU´s competition policy. I have an EU wide airline policy to ensure that I am compensated if my plane in unreasonably delayed, something that I have made use of. I can buy anything I like in other EU nations or via the internet and still have my consumer rights protected, regardless of where I live or which country I purchased something in – and I do not need to return to that country in order to make a claim. This is a great, even though I do not even think about it.

I particularly like the fact that if I fall ill in any of the EU countries, I shall be treated without having first bought a private insurance policy, thus saving me money, time and hassle. That is great when I am on business. When I am on holiday, especially with my family, this is wonderful. I don’t think about it anymore, but it is a saving and it is very welcome. Britons cannot benefit from this yet begrudge others of the same rights in Britain. Ask the British pensions living in Spain and France.

I am only too aware that the Eurozone, comprising 19 countries, is unfinished business, as the situation in Greece and other countries continues to show. On the other hand, even more countries are joining over time, which shows that others do not share the British newspapers´ Euroscepticism. They keep pronouncing the Euro dead: read the archives of any of the top journalists of the Mail, Sun and Telegraph and you will see how many times the Euro has been written off since 2007. Yet it is still here and is the world´s second reserve currency, not Sterling. Those journalists should occasionally re-read their previous articles and learn to a bit of humility.

I love the fact that I do not have to pay a provision to exchange money every time I go to another country and to pay again to change it back if I do not want have tons of useless coins and notes in a box somewhere. I transfer money between Germany and other countries freely or for a pittance, yet still pay through my nose to transfer money to and from Britain.

I can, if I wished to, buy a holiday / retirement home in any place I like, etc. If I fall ill and my health system forces me to wait years for an operation, I can just go to another EU country that can do it faster; it is up to the health systems to sort out the payment amongst themselves. I get treated faster and my quality of life improves immeasurably. I am empowered by the EU´s capacity to make this happen for 508 million citizens. Bureaucracies such as restrictive health systems lose. I gain.

I know my children can study anywhere they choose to at primary, secondary and university level. Mobility is increasing and Europe will be their oyster in terms of studying, living and working. Should they, like me, wish get married to someone from another European country, I know their spouse will not be disadvantaged and they can live and work where ever they desire. Families will not be split.

The EU regulations are often vilified. But the rights that they assign over 28 countries mean that my children will not be discriminated. Their health and safety will be protected. They will also have at least 1 day off a week, 20 minutes break if they work more than 6 hours, 11 hours´ rest from work each day, not work more than 48 hours per week if they don’t want to, get at least 4 weeks´ paid holiday a year, etc. They will get the minimum package across all 28 countries: this means that employers across 28 nations have the same basis deal and they cannot screw the employees in a race to the bottom. Why would anyone, other than unscrupulous employers or politicians, turn down a package that upholds human dignity and protects health and well-being?

There are other things that I love but which are harder to pin down.

I know the mankind is flirting with disaster unless we do something about climate change. 28 countries doing nothing or perhaps something about climate change is not the same as all EU doing it together: working in concert is the only way to tackled the “tragedy of the commons” across the whole of Europe. This applies to the water I drink, the rivers and beaches I enjoy, the air I breathe and the birds, animals and habitats that I interact with and depend upon. I know that Britain did not take these things all that seriously until it joined in 1973 but that the EU rules apply to all: this is the reason why fish stocks are being preserved and renewed and is the reason why British beaches have become clean. I am glad the EU steps-in because I know for sure that some countries would otherwise just ignore environmental issues. Not all government care equally about what we leave behind for future generations and one that does today may change its mind tomorrow.

But it also applies to other abstract issues. I remain stricken by Europe and NATO´s inability to deal with the collapse of the former Yugoslav Republic. The war may be over, but there are still issues festering in parts of the Balkans and now, the situation in Ukraine/Russia threatens to spill into the rest of Europe.

I have lived through a civil war and I am only too aware of its consequences, even if my fellow Britons may not be. So I say this: Britain may be an island but it is not immune to what happens beyond its coastline. Two World Wars should make that abundantly clear. Even when Britain won, Britain lost big time in people, trade, wealth, empire and much more. I would rather live with the EU´s flaws and cost (as a German tax payer I contribute more than any other nation) than with the unquantifiable cost of possible future conflicts in Europe.

Criminal and terrorist activities are nothing new to Britain (I remember plenty about the IRA´s previous campaigns), Germany and the rest of Europe, though the nature and origin have changed over time. A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist regardless of nationality, race, religion or gender. My safety is enhanced when 28 nations share information, coordinate activities and act in unison. Going it alone is not my view of how to deal with a globalising world that brings new threats to every nation and every doorstep. If asylum seekers can find their way into Britain, so can a determined criminal or a terrorist, even if Britain does not have open borders as the Leave campaign wrongly claims.

Working in concert, working with 27 other EU nations, carries a lot more weight in terms of health, environment, defence, counter terrorism, international relations, trade, crime prevention, fraud prevention, consumer protection, research and development, education, etc. etc. etc.

This is a small sub-set of the benefits of being in the EU, as I see them.

So, what has the EU ever done for Britons? Plenty since 1973, I would say.

Is it worth paying less than 1% of GDP into the EU budget for and pooling parts of our sovereignty with the EU? Yup! Every single time.

Is the EU, perfect? Hardly. But neither it the UK now, let alone when it is on its own.

Would I want to give up the above on the 23 June 2016? The answer is obvious.

So the question to my fellow Britons who are undecided is: why would you want to?

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


The Brexiteers vs The Establishment: a very tall tale

Brexit Image

And so, with less than a week to go before the EU Referendum scheduled of the 23 June 2016, the Leave (or Brexit for British Exit) campaign took a lead in the opinion polls for the first time, quickly followed by other polls showing that everything is to play for. Such polls are not an exact science: they have not known for their accuracy in the UK. In the last referendum they were predicting that Scotland would choose to divorce from the UK. More recently they did not predict a majority for the Conservatives in the last General Election. Still something is happening which might result in the unimaginable: Britain could soon find itself heading out of the European Union (EU).

A theme which becomes more and more apparent in recent polling is that a shift has occurred and it is connected with particular social groups representing the working population pushing for Brexit. The reason has probably little to do with the EU itself, which is generally not that well known (in itself is an on-going problem and not just in the UK). Rather this seems to reflect be a groundswell of concerns, anxieties and fear which go beyond EU immigration:

“… the EU referendum debate has opened up a Pandora’s box of working-class anger and frustration… I would argue that the referendum debate within working-class communities is not about immigration, despite the rhetoric. It is about precarity and fear … For them, talking about immigration and being afraid of immigration is about the precarity of being working class, when people’s basic needs are no longer secure and they want change. The referendum has opened up a chasm of inequality in the UK and the monsters of a deeply divided and unfair society are crawling out. They will not easily go away no matter what the referendum result.”

This analysis rings true to me and hence my fear that the EU Referendum could swinging towards Brexit, whatever the merits of the Remain case. The Leave campaign has detected and tapped into this sentiment, and is now milk it for all it is worth. By contrast, the utter failure of the Remain campaign to articulate a strong case for remaining, as opposed sketching gloom and doom Brexit scenarios, has an alarmist and thus false ring to it.

Instead, the Brexiteers have positioned themselves to pander to these fears and anxieties, while at the same time offering them a golden opportunity to giving a bloody nose to the toffs representing the British Establishment / Elites that would preserve the status quo (i.e. remain in the EU) at all costs and against the best interests of ordinary Britons.

Austerity has  undoubtedly intensified the sense of precarity in British society and this is being exploited by the Brexiteers. However, the issue is what exactly is the motivation of the leading Brexiteers and their backers? Should Brexit occur, would they prioritise dealing with these legitimate concerns upon Brexit or are the Brexiteers spinning a very long tale?

The Noes

The “Noes” camp is led by Boris Johnson and his band of merry men such as Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Priti Patel, etc. (all Conservatives). Nigel Farage (UKIP) is ploughing his own furrow. The others consider him to be “toxic” to the Brexit because of his focus on the issue of EU immigration,  most recently demonstrated in UKIP´s intemperate use of the refugee crisis, though in reality the immigration theme is one which the rest of the leading Brexiteers have increasingly latched on to.

They are joined by those well-known supporters of democracy and transparency who only wish Britain well for the future, such as Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. All are encouraging Britons to Brexit, thus freeing the UK from the clutches, if not shackles, of the EU.

They all stress the need to regain control of the borders (i.e. stop EU immigration), stop EU benefit tourism, stop EU heath tourism, stop housing being taken up by EU foreigners, stop school places being taken-up by EU migrants´ children,  stop the loss of British sovereignty, stop EU enlargement, stop payments flowing to the EU, etc. (follow the links for an alternative analysis of the causes and the solutions). The grand plan is to stop anything and everything emanating from the EU because it is self-evident (to them) that all of Britain’s problems stem from being in the EU. This has the simplistic ring of pure populism and we all know what that has led to in the past.

The Brexiteers have few ideas about what they would do upon Brexit. The plan is basically to stop the EU, regain full sovereignty, regain control of the borders, reduce immigration through an Austria style points system, sign-up new trade deals and plough Britain´s EU financial contribution into public services. Britain will soon thrive upon Brexit. Apparently.

The possibility that most of the key problems in Britain (housing, health, education, low productivity, infrastructure, massive public and private sector debt, etc.) are the direct result of Britain´s own systemic policy failures and would cost a few zillion pounds more that the EU annual contribution seemingly does not cross their mind.

The EU is to blame for everything and the British Establishment / Elites (i.e. pretty much anyone daring to challenge the Leave arguments, especially experts) with it.

The Ayes

On the other side of the fence is a very long list of those calling for Britain to Remain in the EU because it is in Britain´s present and future interest to do so, including:

  • The majority of the Conservative Party, including the Prime Minister and Chancellor:
  • The majority of the Labour Party, including the leader of the opposition (officially);
  • The Social Democrats;
  • The Scottish National Party;
  • The Greens;
  • Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton;
  • The Treasury;
  • The Institute of Fiscal Affairs;
  • The Federal Reserve;
  • The World Bank;
  • The World Trade Organisation (WTO);
  • The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD);
  • The International Monetary Fund (IMF);
  • The other 27 EU nations;
  • The trades unions;
  • The great majority of established businesses;
  • The great majority of health professionals, NGOs and similar;
  • Almost all economists (since there are almost as many differences of opinion as there are economists, the fact that about 600 have united behind Remain is remarkable).

This is an overwhelming group of institutions that favour Remaining in the EU.

Such an incredible array of opinion would normally sway public opinion.

But the reality is that they are cutting little or no ice with the social groups previously discussed.

Instead, the Brexiteers have gained momentum and could well win the day.

The Anti Establishment Band?

The Brexiteers are putting-up a fight – an increasingly bitter one at that (as was the previous Brexit referendum in 1975).

They stress that they are fighting the British Establishment / Elite, pointedly alluding to the wealthy toffs such as David Cameron and George Osborne.

They emphasise that the Establishment prefers the status quo, rather than what is right for Britain.

They maintain that the Establishment from abroad (USA, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Australia, etc.) should butt-off and allow Britons to get on it, as if we are not all interconnected in this globalised world where whatever Britons decided affects all other EU national, as well other countries.

They dismiss international organisations for being stuffed full of overpaid and under-taxed bureaucrats that simply trot out what the EU and the Establishment wants to hear. They do the same with any other experts, Britons or not, for all being in the EU´s pocket.

Since the economic and trade case for Brexit is non-existent, except in their own imagination, they increasingly contrast themselves with the Elites / Establishment, while they uphold the interests of ordinary working class Britons by braving political correctness and speaking out against current EU immigration as well as immigration from future accession countries such as Turkey and Albania.

They point out that, unlike them, the Establishment has lost contact with ordinary, working class voters, who are suffering from the consequences of the EU.

And they insist that they are not racists, they are not nativists, they are not isolationists and they are not Little Englanders. They just want what is in the best long-term best interests of the UK.

There is an element of truth in some of the above; there has to be a veneer of it in order to connect with people.

But there is a very tall tale at the core of it too, which is what I would like to emphasis in this post.

Question: when is the Establishment not the Establishment?

Answer: when you belong to the leading Band of Brexiteers

Maybe it is possible that all the British and other institutions previously listed are not in cahoots in a someMachiavellian national, European and global  conspiracy to get Britons to vote for something that would be detrimental to their own future.

Maybe ending EU membership will not miraculously cure Britain´s structural problems, which are the main reason that the key British public services are in their current state.

Maybe Britain´s austerity, which has nothing to do with the EU, is the driver of all the angst.

Maybe Brexit might actually accentuate the problems, not least the massive and growing public sector deficit, in the short, medium and long-term.

And maybe, just maybe, the Brexiteers are themselves deeply embedded in the very bedrock of the Establishment / Elite which they are so dismissive of.

Consider the following:

  • Boris Johnson: Eton, Oxford University, ex-Mayor of London, Cabinet Member;
  • Michael Gove: Robert Gordon´s School, Oxford University, Cabinet Member
  • Iain Duncan Smith: St. Peter´s RC Secondary School, Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, ex-Cabinet Member;
  • Nigel Farage: Dulwich College, ex-city trader, Member of European Parliament.

Put in these terms, and not even alluding to their likely personal wealth, the band of leading Brexiteers dismissing everyone else for being the British Establishment / Elite could be construed as a good case of “the pot calling the kettle black,” to use a quaint but fitting British saying.

The most prominent Brexiteers did not exactly grow-up in a council housing estate, attend a public school, let alone go around waving a flag of St George or driving a white van, to use some of the usual terminology which the media and politicians now use to denote the white, working class social groups in England (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland remain solidly for staying in the EU).

I doubt that Boris Johnson and his band of merry Brexiteers are to be regularly found at the local pub, quaffing a celebratory pint of ale after a football match to wash down their bacon butties (unless TV crews are present, of course). I exaggerate, but the point is that all the leading figures of the vote Leave campaign appear to have done rather well out of being an integral part of the British Establishment /Elite. You can be confident that their children and grandchildren are likely to do well out of being part of the same social group.

Therefore, for this set of people to be tapping into the palpable angst among working class Britons in order to further their own political ambitions grates with me. They are seeking to mobilise working class sentiment to achieve an ideological objective which, in the long-term, may very well work against those same voters while, at the same time, propelling BoJo and his band of merry Brexiteers ever further up the greasy pole of British politics and Establishment positions.

The fact is that the leading Brexiteers are not exactly committed to protecting the average person.

In a recent televised debate, Boris Johnson said that the Leave side is determined to protect the workers after Nicola Sturgeon quoted something he once wrote: “The weight of employment regulation is backbreaking. We should get rid of the collective redundancies directive, the workers’ directive, the working time directive and 1,000 more.”

Yet these are the very things which are protecting British employees from having their rights undermined by such British developments as “zero hour contracts”.

Nigel Farage has been widely reported for calling for a move away from a state-funded NHS.

Gove is the architect of educational academies that is not only flawed but may well be damaging education while also increasing inequality.

Iain Duncan Smith is the author-in-chief of the austerity drive which has cut out billions from the welfare state, thus impoverishing the lives of the non-working population of the UK, while also dismantling various parts of social security safety net for low income workers.

The sad fact is that the leading Brexiteers and Brexit, which is definitely on the cards likely, may actually accentuate the fear, insecurity and precarity that is driving the recent trends in voting intentions in relation to the forthcoming EU referendum. When they no longer need to take the EU into consideration, further deregulation and labour market flexibility will lead to even more winners and losers. Your guess about who is likely to be on the losing side is as good as mine: the very people that might vote for Brexit as the outlet of their frustration and anxieties?

The EU Bashers

The band of Brexiteers is far from being alone in the aggressive fight for Brexit.

There is a strong anti-EU bias at the core of the British Establishment. A recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that the British press coverage of the EU Referendum is “heavily skewed in favour of Brexit”. It is not just any newspapers that are anti “Europe” but specifically the ones which just happen to be most influential in terms of the social groups turning towards Brexit, as well as having massive circulation compared with the pro-remain newspapers, as illustrated below.

Pro Leave Circulation Pro Remain Circulation
Sun 1.800,000 Mirror 809,000
Mail 1.700,000 Financial Times 198,000
Telegraph 472,000 Guardian 164,000
Express 408,000 Independent 55,000
Times 404,000
Total 4,784,000 Total 1,226,000

 

In other words, much of the British reporting (printed and online coverage) has a strong anti-EU spin and they are not particularly concerned about such trivialities as balanced argument and truthful reporting. The fact is that the Brexiteers are not exactly in their own: they are strongly and systematically aided and abetted by the most influential newspapers in terms of circulation and readership by social groups which are turning against remaining in the EU. The “drip drip” effect clearly works.

Billionaire Brexit Backers (BBB)

The Brexit backers are not restricted to a few billionaire newspaper tycoons such as Rupert Murdoch, Barclay Brothers, Lord Rothermere, Richard Desmond, etc. A simple internet search of the backers of the UKIP / Leave campaigns reveals that quite a few multi-millionaires / billionaires are bankrolling Brexit. These are mainly financiers of various sorts, as well as property tycoons, ICT and retail magnets.

This is not to suggest that the Remain campaign does not have über-wealthy supporters but to illustrate the sort of people that are funding the Brexit campaigns. If these über-wealthy individuals are not, like the leading Brexiteers, and much of the British media, not part and parcel of the very essence of Elite / Establishment, then I do not know who is. If these sorts of individuals not extremely well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities that might arise post-Brexit, not least from the turmoil that might be caused in the property and financial markets, then I do not know who is.

These are not the sort of individuals who are likely to take much notice of the concerns of working people in relation to jobs, wages, housing, social services, etc. It is a safe bet to suggest that protecting British workers´ rights upon Brexit and thus counteracting the drivers of the recent referendum polling trends is not likely to be at the top of their post-Brexit agenda. Take an illustrative quotation from one of the billionaires bankrolling Brexit. Peter Hargreaves has acknowledged the insecurity that would result from Brexit and stressed that: “It would be the biggest stimulus to get our butts in gear that we have ever had” … “We will get out there and we will be become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic.” Maybe a billionaire stockbroker truly believes this but I doubt that the average Briton will see perceive insecurity in quite the same manner. This very insecurity is what is driving part of the trend in the possible Brexit vote.

Picking-up on the earlier quotation, for once BoJo is correct: the fact is that millions of the currently working-class people are actually protected by the common rules applied throughout the EU designed to create a single market. The protections include:

  • Anti-discrimination rights;
  • Written terms and conditions;
  • Maximum 48 hour working week, rest periods/breaks;
  • Paid annual leave;
  • Improved health and safety protection;
  • Maternity rights;
  • Parental leave rights;
  • Equal pay for equal work between men and women;
  • Fair treatment of part time, fixed term and agency workers;
  • Rights for outsourced workers;
  • Collective rights such as human rights, collective bargaining, information and consultation, etc.

Source: UK employment rights and the EU

These are not the sort of things to give-up lightly… unless you are so well-off that you do not need them. The people that are feeling the consequences of austerity most certainly do benefit from these labour market protections.

Wolves in Sheep´s Clothing?

 

Don´t be fooled by the über-rich advocating for Brexit on behalf of the ordinary working (and non-working) class British citizen. The great majority of the journalists / media advocating for Brexit stem from the same privately educated, Oxbridge elites. Whatever they may imply, protecting the average working (and non-working) person in Britain from the angst that plagues many of them is not their beer.

What many of them seek is a future where Britain can continue unimpeded down the path of deregulation and maximum labour market “flexibility” such as zero hour contracts.

A lot of Britons are anxious and angry. They have seen a few do very well indeed while austerity and the poor economic performance since 2007 has taken a chunk off their disposable. They know that we are certainly “not all in it together”. They have seen politicians such as David Cameron saying one thing to them and doing another himself. They have seen public services steadily deteriorating and that the future for people that depend on them is anything but rosy. This the result of decades of lack of investment in public services due to lack of political prioritisation. But during the EU Referendum the media and the Brexiteers point to the EU and EU immigrants and ordinary Britons fear that there will be even greater competition for a perceived smaller share of the social and economic pie.

But Britons are nothing if not fair and sensible: they know that when things appear to be too good or too simple to be true, they usually are. They know that pointing to the EU and EU immigrants (and who else post-Brexit?) is a simplistic solution to a complex set of British problems which will not be solved overnight and may well be accentuated by Brexit, especially if the economy takes a turn for the worse. The EU budget will not make much of a dent on the needs.

I grew-up in a council housing state in inner London.

I went to a low achieving secondary school and I was in the tiny minority that lucky enough to get to university.

I worked my way up my profession without the benefit of old boy networks.

I stumbled into an international career which has taken me throughout the EU member countries, as well as all the Candidate Countries knocking at the EU door.

My friends and family count among the people that are suffering from the angst that afflicts Britons.

So I feel able to say this: by tapping into the anxieties and frustrations of ordinary working Britons, the leading Brexiteers, their Oxbridge educated journalist buddies and their billionaire backers are spinning a very tall tale so as to tap into the legitimate concerns of ordinary Britons.

They are doing this knowingly, manipulatively and without the least intention of doing something about those concerns, should Brexit occur. Quite the opposite: their privileges and advantages are likely to be reinforced once they no longer have to look over their shoulder or deal with the bright glare of the other 27 countries of the EU.

Brexit will undoubtedly lead to winners and losers.

You can be certain of which side the leading Brexiteers, their über-wealthy and well-connected friends funding the campaigns and writing the misleading newspaper articles will be on.

But can you be so certain that your employment rights, wage levels, social benefits, etc. will be protected, let alone improved, upon Brexit?

I´m not. Not in the least.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


EU Enlargement: Lies, Damn Lies and Brexit

Brexit Image

The European Union (EU) referendum to decide whether Britain will remain in the EU is less than a month away and the “Brexiteers” (those in favour of leaving or “British Exit”), complain that their opponents, the “Remain” campaign, are making every effort to scare the electorate (“Project Fear”) so as to get a vote to stay in the EU. The Brexiteers cannot complain, as far a I can tell, because they are busily bending the truth while also cranking-up the pressure (“Project Fear”) on the poor average British voter.

To illustrate this let us consider the way the future enlargement of the EU is being handled.

The Balkan Horde Cometh

Ms Theresa May, the Home Secretary, was the first to bring-up the issue of EU enlargement even though she is superficially in the Remain camp: “The states now negotiating to join the EU include Albania, Serbia and Turkey – countries with poor populations and serious problems with organised crime, corruption, and sometimes even terrorism.  We have to ask ourselves, is it really right that the EU should just continue to expand, conferring upon all new member states all the rights of membership?” (emphasis added)

Iain Duncan Smith formerly the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and one of the leading Brexiteers, immediately jumped on the enlargement bashing bandwagon: “The Home Secretary is right to warn of the dangers of countries like Albania and Turkey being allowed to join the EU. If these countries are let into the EU’s open border system it will only increase the pressure on our NHS, schools and housing. It will also vastly increase the risk of crime and terrorism on British streets.” (emphasis added)

Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London and the most prominent of the Brexiteers, was his usual self. He said whatever came to his mind that sounded vague humorous while paying scant regard for facts. He can be relied upon to say the exact opposite at a later point in time if it suits him and can help to position him to become the next Prime Minister.

The supposedly most intellectual of the leading Brexiteers, Mr Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Justice, then capped it all in his widely reported article about possible future enlargement: “Albania is on course to join the European Union — alongside four other countries, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. The already unwieldy group of 28 is due to become a throng of 33” … When (they) join the EU, another 88 million people will soon be eligible for NHS care and school places for their children. And what will even more immigration from the EU mean for access to housing across the UK? … What will it mean for jobs and wages?” … “And allowing millions more people to come here from the Balkans and Turkey is too much.” (emphasis added)

Unusually for the Brexiteers, they went on to be very specific about the implications of a future EU enlargement connected with the five countries:

  • Turkey, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia could join the EU in 2020;
  • They forecast 3,1 to 5,2 million extra immigrants coming to the UK from the 5 countries;
  • Britain would face an influx the size of population of Scotland by 2030.

The Sun, Telegraph, Mail, Express and the other pro-Brexit newspapers widely reported the enlargement claims and forecasts. The image conjured up was one of 5,2 million extra immigrants (the population of Scotland) beating a path straight to the UK, bringing crime and terrorism to our streets, along with making all our public services unsustainable. Since the Brexiteers keep constantly suggesting that British public services are already at “breaking point” due to EU immigration, it is not hard to imagine what life would become like for the long-suffering Britons, once the Balkan hordes have descend upon the green and beautiful land in 15 years´ time. Thanks so much for the timely warning!

So I though you might be interested to read the perspective of someone who has worked in all the Central and South East European countries that are now part of the EU (e.g. Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia), as well as the five current EU accession countries.

I know that the mere fact that I have worked in all those countries, including the European Commission as a client, will mean for some that I am disqualified from commenting on the issue of EU Enlargement. They will automatically dismiss me as someone who is “benefitting from EU funding” with the implication that I must be totally biased and am somehow being paid to write something in favour of the EU. I notice this particular argument frequently emanating from the Brexit camp whenever someone has the temerity to call the case for Brexit into question. I can only say that if first hand experience of EU accession is not relevant to a debate about EU accession, then that is a bit of a Catch22, right? Perhaps it is those that know absolutely nothing about the countries or the process of enlargement that are best placed to comment (like some ministers I could mention)?

A little respect goes along way

The first point is that those countries are far from perfect. There are criminals, there is corruption, there is fraud, there is terrorism and there is much else besides such as imperfect democracies and questionable treatment of human rights in the EU accession countries. All true but if that were not the case, they would probably already be part of the EU. It could be argued that a similar litany of woes applies to Britain, Greece, Poland, Hungary… indeed all 28 EU countries; it is merely a matter of degree.

The whole point of trying to join the EU is to develop rules, regulations, policies, standards, norms, etc. through adoption of the EU´s body of rules (called the acquis communautaire) that will enable those countries to become more democratic, transparent, productive, competitive and wealthy and thus developer a higher quality of life. Yes, this does indeed happen by preparing to join and then being part of the EU: it happened in Ireland, it happened in Greece (their implosion was due to joining the EU, which is why the Greeks have absolutely no desire to leave the EU) and it happened in Britain for those that remember the country prior to joining in 1973. For the citizens of the EU accession countries, the EU remains a bright beacon of hope. As a consequence they are willingly going through a painful and drawn-out process of reform and change across all elements of laws, institutions and practices, so as to approximate the EU framework.

To then be singled out for misused in a British debate which tars them with the brush of all current British public fears, is an affront for people and countries that also have their national pride. Shame on you Brexiteers, for your smug, holier than thou attitude, as well as your lack of respect towards the people of those nations. 

Not only is it offensive to project a future EU enlargement far into the future and couple it with “crime, corruption and terrorism on British streets”, it is also a wilful and malign mischaracterisation of the nature of the people concerned. I have worked with and enjoyed the company and hospitality of Turks, Serbs, Macedonians, Albanians and Montenegrins (as well as Kosovars, Bosnians and others who aspire to join the EU). I feel privileged to consider many of them to be my colleagues and friends. My experiences have never been anything short of positive in those countries. (As an aside, it so happens that I am writing this post in Tirana; the UK Ministers in question will no doubt be relieved to find out that I have yet to be kidnapped, robbed or terrorised.) In contrast to the calculating Brexiteer portrayal of these people, I am reminded time and again of their warmth, friendliness and positivity in the face of their everyday challenges as they make the slow, painful transition towards alignment to the norms of the EU.

They are as European as the rest of the EU. They have the right to aspire to become part of the EU, as long they fulfil the extremely rigorous conditions connected with EU accession. That applies equally to Turkey, a small part of which is undeniably a geographical part of the Balkans and thus Europe. The EU is not forcing any country to join: those countries wish to be part of the EU and it would be wrong to deny them the opportunity, just as Charles de Gaulle was wrong in vetoing the UK´s efforts to join the EU, twice. The Balkans is undeniably the next, obvious phase of EU enlargement, even if the Turkey question remains highly politically charged.

Every European should be aware of the fractured history of the Balkans. It is totally indefensible for one Brexiteer after the other to chuck them all into one big basked and then proceed to attach to them the most negative stereotypes imaginable. As if the EU does not suffer from some of the same problems. There has always been more than enough crime, fraud and terrorism in the original EEC/EU6 and there still is in the enlarged EU28, as far a I can tell.

I doubt that the Brexiteers have been to the countries that they so disdainfully dismiss. For Europe to turn its back its Balkan neighbours (including Turkey) would be a mistake of epic proportions (let us not forget Europe twiddling its thumbs during the collapse of the ex-Yugoslav Republic and its aftermath) that would reverberate through decades to come. The EU understands this intrinsically, hence the process of Balkan enlargement. Ms May, Mr Gove, Mr Duncan Smith and Mr Johnson: your cheap political points are calculated to instil a dreaded fear of those countries, those people and the process of EU enlargement. In my eyes, all of you have forfeited your status of being serious, thoughtful and responsible politicians.

Playing a different tune, again

It is important to stress that Britain is now playing a very different tune in terms of its position on EU accession. For decades the UK was one of staunchest advocates of EU enlargement. In 2004, it allowed all new EU countries (Poland, Slovakia, etc.) to have access to the UK´s labour market a full seven years before it was required by EU transition provisions to do so. This is because the British economy was booming at the time. Many EU citizens responded to the UK´s invitation and came to the UK, thus maintaining the growth of the British economy. However, when the global economy faltered badly during 2007/8, the very same people which Britain had encouraged to come, who had paid their taxes and who had contributed to our wealth generation, were suddenly persona non grata.

First there was Labour´s “British Jobs for British Workers”, then UKIP´s swift rise shuffled the cards of British politics, leading directly to the decision to hold the EU referendum. The longer this debate has gone on, the more it has become divisive, resulting in a no holds barred onslaught on EU immigrants, emboldened by the Brexiteers insistence on overcoming the deadening hand of political correctness and determination to call a spade a spade. But the simple fact is that the persistent characterisation of EU immigrants coming to the UK for benefit tourism, for social housing, for health tourism and all the rest of the claims about public services such as shortages of school places (all distorted – follow the links) amounts to scapegoating people who are hard-working, contributing to the wealth creation of the country and perfectly within their rights as EU citizens. Blaming all of Britain´s long standing public service woes upon the EU and EU citizens, apart from being untrue, lacks class, is unfair and does not reflect the values that Britain and Britons have historically stood for.

British public services have been run down by decades´ worth of neglect, underfunding and lack of political will, which is the reason why housing, education, health, transport, etc. are in the state that they are. It has something to do with the recent levels net immigration, granted, but it is primarily to do with consistent and systemic public policy failures and insufficient funding, over a period of several decades. It is politicians such as Mr Gove, Mr Duncan Smith and others in Government who were responsible for those public services. The current situation reflects long-term political neglect combined with an unprecedented degree of austerity which is squeezing British citizens beyond the point where the pips squeak. The losers in this process are first and foremost the non-working population, followed by those on low incomes, followed by the middle-income population. All are feeling the pinch, but it is the EU and the EU citizens are feeling the fall-out.

It is hypocritical to invite EU immigrants with open arms (certainly during early to mid-2000) when all boats were rising, and then promptly turn our back on the same people, once the recession came along and life becomes harder for most. This is not for the first time. Think back to when the Afro-Caribbean population was similarly invited to keep the British economy ticking over and then made to feel somewhat less welcome in the 1970s and 1980s, when the economic tide turned (as it invariably does). History is repeating itself, though it is no longer a racial matter. Indeed, because they are being squeezed hard by the economic situation combined with the effects of austerity, some of the harshest critics are some of the non-EU immigrants: irony of ironies. But the fact is that by being part of the EU, the EU immigrants who are being derided by the Brexiteers have full and equal rights to be in this country. The very same rights as the very large number of Britons living throughout the other 27 EU countries have. The issue is how to deal with the public policy issues, none of which are new, not to scapegoat some people while blithely continuing to sit on our hands, rather than responding to changing patterns of demand and supply in public services, including housing.

Get your facts right

Coming back to the main point, Ms May, Mr Duncan Smith and Mr Gove and others have also got their facts wrong about EU accession.

The five candidate countries comprise an overall population of 88 million, of which Turkey makes up 75 million. Four out of the five are a mere drop in the ocean in the scale of things. If they were to join the EU, they would add 12 million or 2.3% to the population of the EU (currently 508 million). How adding four countries would turn 28 into a “throng” is up to Mr Gove to explain. The greatest concern would undoubtedly be the possibility of adding Turkey, set to become the most populous country in Europe (but see below), potentially adding 7% to the overall population of the EU at some point in the future.  But the issue of Turkey has little to do with population and a lot to do with religion. It is not by accident that Turkey has been has been an Associate Member of the EEC/EU since 1963 – it has been waiting in the EU´s antechamber for 53 years! How the Brexiteers can suggest that Turkey will suddenly become a full member of the EU by 2020 stretches credulity. But the Brexiteers´position undoubtedly has little to do with “Project Fear” or hounding Britons into voting for Brexit by suggesting that the Balkan horde cometh. 

The EU has learned from the accession process in 2004 and especially 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania joined. The progress (or lack of it) being made by all five existing Candidate Countries is regularly assessed and widely available for all to see in the EC website. A reading of the annual progress reports makes it clear that negotiations have only started with Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey, but not with Albania and Macedonia. It is clear that none of them is making particularly rapid progress and accession will take years, possibly decades, for them to be assessed as having made sufficient progress for the European Commission to recommend that they be accepted as new members of the EU.

The suggestion that they will all join the EU any time soon, such as 2020, is far-fetched, with the possible exception of Montenegro, a country of 600,000 inhabitants. Turkey´s ongoing struggles with the basics (democracy, human rights, media freedom, etc.) mean that it has an extremely long path ahead before it reaches the point of accession readiness: 2020 is completely out of the question at the current rate of progress. The suggestion that all of them, including two that have not even stated officially negotiating accession, could join the EU by 2020 is simply pie in the Brexit sky.

28 accession vetoes

The Brexiteers are ruthlessly stoking-up and exploiting people´s fears by projecting an unrealistic scenario 15 years from now. This calculated fearmongering is as manipulative as it is irresponsible for several reasons:

  1. None of the countries is making sufficient progress to be ready for accession by 2020;
  2. The European Commission has learned from previous rounds of accession and is monitoring progress much more careful than in previous rounds of EU accession;
  3. Two of the countries have not even started official negotiations;
  4. Each of the 28 EU member countries has a veto on EU enlargement (despite what Brexiteers, such as Ms Penny Mordaunt may wrongly claim);
  5. There has been a sea-change in public mood towards further enlargement, especially after Bulgaria and Romania, though Croatia´s accession is barely mentioned;
  6. Some EU counties have pledged to hold a referendum on enlargement connected with Turkey, thus adding a huge degree of further uncertainty about its future accession.

The Brexiteers´arguments are plain wrong and they are fully aware of this. The same goes for their diagnosis of the role of EU immigration in relation to the breakdown of British public services. The same applies to the claim that the EU costs Britain GBP 350 million per week. And yet the Brexiteers keep pushing the misleading buttons. They have run out of valid economic arguments and the only Joker left in the pack is the current and future EU immigration card.

7 year transition provision

The Brexiteers are wrong in their estimated scenarios of possible future immigration from the five EU accession countries. Because in addition to the arduous process of accession connected with the acquis communautaire, there is the small matter of getting 28 unanimous “yes” votes to accession, followed by the referendums that any of the 28 nations may choose to hold. These multiple barriers undermine the scaremongering.

Even if the EU accession countries, especially Turkey, get through all those hurdles, there is also the EU´s 7 year transition provision, which means that each new country that joins the EU, must wait up to 7 years before its population acquires the right to live and work in the rest of the EU countries.

Even in the extremely unlikely scenario that all five countries join the EU by 2020, it would be 2028 before any of them would have the right move, live and work in the UK, unless Britain chooses unilaterally to suspend the 7 year rule, as it did in 2004 but not in 2007. For 5,2 million additional EU immigrants to move wholesale from these five countries to the Britain is yet another stretch of the Brexiteers´ febrile imagination as the 23 of June 2016 approaches.

When it comes to EU enlargement, there are lies, damn lies and Brexit.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


The crisis in school places: is Brexit the quick fix?

Brexit Image

With about a month to go before the EU referendum scheduled to take place on 23 June 2016, high-profile Brexiteers keep pushing the line or argument that it is because of the European Union´s (EU) freedom of movement of people that Britain has major problems with its public services, not least health (EU health tourism), housing (being priced out by EU migrants), benefits (EU benefit tourism), education (too few places due to EU immigrant families), etc.

I have already discussed some of the arguments (see links above), so now attention turns to another major public policy concern in the Brexit: education. If it true that the education system is under pressure specifically because of immigration from the EU, then this could be a reason for considering leaving Brexit from the EU.

On the other hand, if the pressures for educational places predate 2004, when the EU immigration to the UK started in earnest, or if EU migration is only one factor among others that are causing the particular problem of pressures for school places, then it is also reasonable to discuss those other issues, thus putting EU immigration in context.

After all, everyone knows that government has ultimate responsibility for securing public goods which the market cannot deliver on its own: where an important public policy gap is diagnosed, it is for government to devote the necessary public funds to correct the market failure. No one is suggesting that Brussels is responsible for education (or housing construction, funding hospitals and clinics, etc.), not even the Brexiteers.

My kingdom for a school place!

In a clear echo of their diagnosis of the nature of the crisis in the health sector (i.e. the NHS is at breaking point because of EU health tourism and similar), the Brexiteers they are once again pressing the crisis button and pointing in the direction of Brussels: the school system is under “huge and unsustainable pressure” from a dramatic rise in the number of children from European migrants’ families. Ms Priti Patel, the pro Leave Employment Minister, echoing her now familiar anti-EU immigration refrain, keeps making comments such as: „These figures show how the EU’s open borders policies, and the uncontrolled immigration that stems from that, is leading to huge and unsustainable pressures on our schools.“

This possibility is deeply troubling for the average British family, so let us try to unpack this issue.

First of all, it is clear that Ms Patel and her bedfellows are not making allegations about the performance of the school system. There, it is clear that educational performance is a long running concern that cannot be pinned on the EU: Britain is responsible for the national curriculum, the schools and the teachers, not the EU. In any case, Britain has a long and proud history of accepting children whose mother tongue is not English and turning them into integrated citizens. Furthermore, the experience of EU migrant’s children has generally been positive in pushing up standards, especially in the urban areas where EU and other migrants tend to concentrate. So instead, the Brexiteers are focusing on the issue of insufficient school places (i.e. the unsustainable pressure bit) and pointing to EU immigration as the reason for the crisis.

So the central question to be asked is: are there sufficient places for school age children in the UK?

The answer is a clear and unequivocal “yes”. At the national level there is a notable surplus of both primary and secondary school places.

While Ms Patel and other Brexiteers are pointing the accusing finger of blame in the direction of EU immigrants, even Migration Watch, an initiative that maintains that immigration is neither properly managed nor sustainable and thus has an impeccable Brexit pedigree, says otherwise:

“There are currently 4.416 million primary school places in England and 4.011 million pupils on school rolls which means there are 434,000 unfilled places. At the moment the number of unfilled places as a percentage of total places is 9.8%…  The current number of secondary school places in England is 3.637 million while the current number of pupils is 3.191 million. This means that there are over 450,000 places currently unfilled. The number of unfilled place as a percentage of total places is currently 12.9%.” (emphasis added, 2014 data).

The real issue is that Britain’s fertility rate combined with immigration has resulted in a projected increase in school age children, which will feed into the school system from 2018 to 2020, as illustrated in the chart below.

So the point is not that there are currently unsustainable pressures but that in the future there might be unsustainable pressures if the British government fails to act. Perhaps this is what Ms Patel actually means, as opposed to what she and the rest of the Leave campaign are implying. Either way, the effect on the average voter can be imagined.

Responding to present or future school place demand is categorically not the responsibility of the EU or of EU citizens who choose lo live in Britain, as is their right to do.

It would be absurd to blame the large numbers of Britons living in France and Spain for causing unsustainable health / housing / education, etc. pressures there. Relatively little of the projected increase in demand for UK school places can possibly be attributed to EU immigrants. Generally speaking, they tend to be younger, better educated and single, factors which tend not to be correlated with large families and thus disproportionate number of school age children. As far as I can tell Britons, including Ms Priti Patel and Mr Nigel Farage, as well non-EU migrants who make-up the majority of the annual immigration to the UK, also find the time to make babies. British children clearly and unequivocally make-up vast majority of the children taking-up places in the schools.

When it comes to forecasts about future school places, it is the responsibility of Ms Priti Patel, Mr Boris Johnson, Mr Michael Gove (former Secretary of State for Education (2010-2014) and previously Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (2007 – 2010)), Mr David Cameron, Mr David Osborne, etc. to ensure that resources are allocated to meet those needs. Since politicians keep on about our children being our future, one would expect them to get on with funding the necessary school places, so as to avoid any future unsustainable pressure from a well-documented surge in school age children. Is this too much to expect of a responsible government and its leading ministers?

Bread today, not tomorrow

It would not be appropriate to suggest that the problem of school places is only about the future: it is also about today. The point is that demand for school places varies from location to location. Some schools are much more attractive than others for the simple reason that some perform much better academically than others. Most parents want to send their children not just to the nearest local school but to the best performing nearest school, since this is likely to affect their educational performance and thus their chances of getting to university and land a good job. That is a perfectly rational desire on their part.

But the result is that in high demand locations/schools, the parents’ first choice of school may or may not work out. The issue is thus not one of not getting a school place, whatever the Brexiteers may imply (though it may come to that in the future), but of getting a place in the school that the parents would prefer their child to attend. The better schools will always attract more demand for school places than they can possibly satisfy. In this context, available primary and secondary school places may not match demand for specific schools in particular parts of the country, especially in urban areas. In some places, it is possible that simply not enough school places are available to cope with demand.

None of this is new, unusual or driven by EU immigration.

Since demand and supply vary across time and space, it is up to central and local government to meet that future demand (based on population projections), as well as current demand in hot spots. This is at the core of governance, which includes taking into account the fact that EU migration not only happens, but has been happening since even before the UK joined in 1973. Nothing new there, though the scale of EU immigration has increased since 2004.  That is nothing new either, so the responsible individuals have had more than enough time to factor it into their planning.

It is up to each local authority not only to ensure that there are sufficient school places, but also to promote parental choice, diversity and fair access.

If there are access hot spots in particular locations, would you blame the parents for choosing to live in those parts of the country or wanting to send their kids to be best possible schools? If there are particular areas with insufficient school places, would you blame people for still wanting and expecting their children to get a school place? If there are problems, I would point to central and local government for failing to act according to the population forecasts and patterns of demand. There is absolutely no rocket science and there are no sudden unexpected factors involved. The nationality of the children or parents involved is irrelevant, except if some choose to make a political issue out of it.

The Department for Education is tasked with making capital funding available to establish new schools and maintain existing ones. For their part, local authorities argue that they cannot cope with the funding pressures: in 2014, 3 out of 4 claimed that capital funding for new places was insufficient. The National Union of Teachers argues that where there is a school places crisis, it is caused by the curtailment of local authorities’ powers and the centralisation of decisions over where to build new schools.

I can see that a problem exists in the policy nexus between the Department of Education, local authorities and the National Union of Teachers. What I fail to see is how Ms Priti Patel can attribute blame to EU immigrants when she and her fellow Brexiteers, such as Mr Gove, have systematically failed to perform their day job. It is British politicians and ministers who are paid to assess, plan and fund school places (and housing and health services and infrastructure and all the rest of public goods that only government policy can deliver) according to changing patterns of national, regional, local and micro demand. This applies equally to all public services.

Surely Ms Patel and Mr Gove can understand this point and their own role in the future availability or otherwise of primary and secondary school places? But fear not, it is not too late. There are still a few years before the looming school place crisis hits the school system (see chart above), so they may as well just get on with building the necessary schools, rather than blaming all and sundry for national and local politicians’ own policy failings. It is not just a bit too convenient to push the blame for public policy failures to someone else?

Scapegoating immigrants is never a pretty sight and can be downright dangerous.

With her background, Ms Priti Patel should understand this point much better than most even if the EU referendum, so dear to her ideological heart, may be at stake. I acknowledge that for someone with an immigration background in theReferendum Party and now the Conservative Party, talking tough about EU immigration may be some sort of mark of distinction, but she has to be  fair and reasonable in apportioning blame for the problem. As far as I am concerned, that particular bar is set even higher for senior members of the British government with constant access to the media. With power should come at least a sense of proportion, if not responsibility. The longer the Brexit debate goes on and the more the polls shift slowly towards Remaining, the more shrill the Brexit case become. The same could be said about the Remain campaign to some extent, though the focus is different.

One is tenuous and based on the premise that EU immigrants are to blame for almost all the public policy problems (housing, education, health, etc.). The other talks principally about the economic consequences of leaving on taxes, wages, pensions, house prices, jobs, etc.  This claim and counter claims muddy the waters and confuse the public prior to what will undoubtedly be the most important vote for a generation. However, this decision cannot possibly be reduced to just the issue of EU immigration, no matter how emotive it may be. Apart from anything else, British people returning home to the UK, together with non-EU immigration, constitute a larger portion of annual net migration than does EU immigration.

Returning to the issues of school places, let us keep things simple: any way you choose to look at it, Brexit cannot possibly be a quick fix for the forthcoming crisis in school places at primary and secondary school level. The surge in school age children is coming because of fertility rates: that means first and foremost Britons, as well as non-EU immigrants and EU immigrants. Why single out the least important contributing factor that is dwarfed by the impact of Britons themselves? Leaving the EU will change little in this respect, not least because EU migrants are attracted by work, are younger, are better educated and are more mobile, all of which tend to reduce fertility levels compared to the UK average.

Neither will Brexit affect well-established and long-standing local patterns of demand for the better performing schools. That is, unless Brexit is to be combined with forcing non-native Britons back to the other EU-27 countries. This is something which has been ruled out by everyone, even UKIP, since it would prompt a retaliatory reverse flow of almost as many Britons back to the UK. Apart from unleashing unpredictable forces in Europe (there are enough of those around at the moment) for very little gain, it would be one heck of a mess to sort out.

Blaming is easy, solving is not

So if Brexit is not the answer to the coming surge in school age children, as well as the high local demand for certain schools in particular locations, what would improve matters? There no prizes for guessing the answers:

  • The UK government (Department of Education and Chancellor of the Exchequer) should take its responsibility seriously and allocate the capital funding today in order to create the necessary new school places tomorrow and relieve localised pressure for school places.
  • Local government should ensure that public funds result in schools being built in the right locations, especially in high demand urban areas, while also ensuring fair access in demand hot spots so as to avoid accentuating social segregation.
  • Ms Priti Patel and the rest of the Brexiteers, not least Mr Michael Gove, should acquire a bit of humility and refrain from pinning their and their fellow British politicians’ own long-standing public policy failings (e.g. housing provision, NHS funding, capital funding for school, etc.) on the EU and scapegoating EU immigrants at the same time.

Now that would be a nice start in actually trying to solve at least one of Britain´s public policy challenges.

Will it happen? Fat chance.

It is much easier and politically rewarding to keep pointing the finger at EU immigrants. In the past, that finger was pointed at any old immigrant. These days, in the lead-up to the EU referendum, it is no coincidence that it is EU immigrants that are singled out.

And what happens after the 23rd of June 2016, when it has become normal and acceptable to blame Britain´s long-standing public policy ills (e.g. access to housing, access to education, access to health, benefits abuse, etc.) on foreigners, rather than the Britons who are responsible for policy-making, planning and funding? Will Britons wake-up and find that those public services have miraculously improved? Scapegoating is far too easy; trying to understand the problems and then solving them is much, much harder.

“It’s too easy to criticize a man when he’s out of favour, and to make him shoulder the blame for everybody else’s mistakes.” ― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Britain’s Productivity Puzzle and Brexit

Brexit Image

Britain has a huge challenge. In the fractious lead-up to the Brexit referendum on the 23rd of June 2016, almost everything imaginable is being use for or against the European Union (EU), but on this occasion I am not referring to the EU challenge. I am alluding to the title of this post, namely the productivity of the UK, as this has direct implications for economic growth, wages and ultimately living standards. Given its importance, it should be the No 1 issue in the debate about the future of the UK, except that it is barely touched upon. This is a mistake.

The Theory

Productivity refers to how efficiently inputs (i.e. capital and labour) are used to produce outputs (i.e. goods and services), the best measure of productivity being output per hour. In theory productivity matters a good deal: Britain’s capacity to raise its standards of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to increase its output per worker.

Productivity is also crucial in determining the long-term growth rates of the economy; stronger productivity growth leads directly to faster GDP growth. If this happens, tax revenues increase and budget deficits decrease. Governments have more to spend on public services such as health, housing, school places, GP / hospital capacity, infrastructure, etc. all of which are at the centre of the Brexit discussion. Naturally, the reverse also holds true: with lower productivity. And if Britain’s productivity is lower than its competitors, such as other EU nations, its relative standard of living decreases over time.

Productivity matters a great deal. The Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman is reported to have said that: “Productivity isn’t everything, but it’s nearly everything”. What is the situation in Britain?

Productivity Puzzle

British labour productivity has traditionally grown at around 2% per year since the 1970s. That is not at all bad but the point is that since the global recession began in 2007, Britain´s productivity stagnated and continues to do so almost a decade later. Official reports stress that: “… such a prolonged period of essentially flat productivity is unprecedented in the post-war era”. The Chart below illustrates the trend.

Chart UK Productivity and GDP

Although economic growth has resumed quite strongly since 2013, this is mainly the result of an increase in the total number of hours worked in the UK, rather than rising productivity. What this means is that Britons are working harder to produce the same amount of goods and services than was the case prior to 2007, and much harder than if productivity growth had continued at its 2% annual trend rate. The feeble productivity level leads directly to the stagnation in UK wages and living standards. This is already having significant effects in terms of the on-going package of austerity in Britain, which is being felt across the whole country and is, if anything intensifying. People´s economic pain is much more a consequence of low productivity than of the costs of the EU or the freedom of movement of people (EU immigration).

If Britain’s productivity does not bounce up to the 2% trend, the implications for the economy, public finances and future living standards will be even more severe than is already the case.

International comparisons illustrate just why this is the No. 1 challenge.

Chart International Productivity Comparison

Based on real GDP per hour worked in 2014, the UK was ranked sixth among the Group of Seven (G7) countries, with Germany top and Japan bottom (the Chart below illustrates the issue). UK productivity was 18 percentage points below the average of the other G7 countries, the widest productivity gap since at least 1991. To illustrate the point further, it was 10 percentage points lower than Italy (which is hard for Britons to swallow), 30 percentage points lower than Italy and 36 percentage points lower than Germany. On the basis of output per worker, UK productivity was 19 percentage points below the average for the rest of the G7 in 2014.

The resumed economic growth and low unemployment rate combined with stagnant productivity has led people to talk of the UK’s “productivity puzzle”, as Britain loses ground to its major competitors.

Pumping-up Productivity: Brexit implications

Unlike Eurozone economies, Britain has its own currency and is fully in charge of its monetary policy. Blaming the EU and European immigrants for all its ills is far too easy and convenient. Instead, Britons should take a good, hard look at their own economy and what is required in order to increase productivity not just back to 2%, but ideally above this threshold.

What kinds of solutions are available to Britain in order for it to rise to the productivity challenge? The good news is that there is broad agreement about the main policy options. The bad news is that none of them are quick fixes and most of them will almost certainly not be improved by leaving the EU. The possible solutions include the following:

  • Raise the skills and qualifications of the labour force: the education system has to produce a better educated labour force and employers need to invest more in skills via training, apprenticeships, etc. These are known to increase labour productivity, however, the evidence is that this is not happening sufficiently. This may be part of the reason why Britain has been attracting ready-made, educated and trained migrants from the EU and non-EU countries (academia, R&D, industry, health service, financial sector, etc.). It is doubtful that the UK can immediately raise skills and qualifications to substitute what comes through the EU (the EU labour force is more highly educated in terms of average levels of human capital), thus productivity levels are unlikely to be enhanced by Brexit in the short to medium term. It takes time, investment and planning to systematically build-up the human capital base.
  • Increase investment in technology: the adoption of new technology is a key factor in improving productivity, as illustrated by the advent of computers and the internet in the recent past. A strong focus on generation of innovative products, services and processes would translate into high productivity levels. However, exiting the EU may either slow down this process or increase the investment cost. This is not just because of the potential loss of international collaborative innovation and R&D networks across European countries, which the EU funds. Brexit would also result in uncertainty about trade in the short-term and almost certainly less favourable trade agreements with the remaining EU trade block of 27 countries. This is likely to translate into increased import and export costs for Britain, including of equipment and technology. By opting out of the EU and its 50+ trade agreements, less favourable trade agreements will eventually be negotiated with 120+ countries. If investment in technology becomes more costly, firms may delay or avoid it, so it is unclear if the UK’s productivity levels will be enhanced by Brexit.
  • Increase substitution of capital for labour: if labour becomes cheaper and more freely available, firms may have fewer incentives to invest and may choose to use labour intensive methods, rather than capital-intensive ones. This would result in lower levels of productivity, though jobs and incomes would be maintained, at least for a certain period of time. A surge in productivity would require a reverse in the trend of underinvestment in plant and machinery, as well as physical infrastructure. If Brexit means much less availability and/or more expensive skilled capital, this could spur greater levels of substitution of capital for labour, thus stimulating productivity. At the same time, this might have implications for employment.
  • Improve the morale of workers: during recessions or periods of industrial unrest and low worker morale, productivity tends to fall. By contrast, if workers are motivated and happy, productivity is likely to be higher. The morale of employees can be affected by numerous variables, including but not only wages, bonuses and other monetary incentives. It is also affected by issues such as state of industrial relations, sense of having a stake in the company and enjoyment of the job. These are specific to each nation and enterprise. But to the extent that morale is affected by other factors such as nature of the labour contracts, hours worked, leave of various sorts, etc. Brexit is unlikely to affect morale positively, since many of those factors are influenced by EU rules and regulations (see below) affecting all 28 countries.
  • Minimise rules and regulations: regulations should not impose excessive costs on enterprises and a balance has to be struck between say being able to get rid of poor or disruptive employees and having lax labour market regulations which exploit employees and results in high turnover and demotivation. EU regulations affect health and safety standards, discrimination at work, hours worked, paternity/maternity periods, minimum breaks, minimum paid holiday periods, etc. Brexit might well be good for British employers if regulations are scrapped and labour market flexibility is increased, but would almost certainly come at the expense of employees. Many other regulations are the solely the purview of the British government. Britain has already spawned zero hour contracts which maximise employer flexibility over almost a million employees. It widely acknowledged that Britain already has one of the most deregulated business environments around – some have argued that there is excessive deregulation, for example in the financial sector. Further deregulation would be possible upon Brexit, but it is questionable whether this would necessarily be desirable. It might undermine labour gains, for example, if rules and regulations concerning discrimination, maximum work hours, health and safety, etc. are undermined. These would reduce job security, employer costs and possibly spur productivity, but much would come at the expense of employees.
  • Maximise capacity utilisation: during economic booms, firms tend to squeeze more output out of existing capacity by encouraging people to work overtime, thus increasing labour productivity. In recessions, they may hold on to workers, rather than releasing them even if they are working below capacity, resulting in labour productivity falls. There is some evidence of “labour hoarding” (firms cutting output but keeping labour in reserve for the recovery), which is part of the reason for the productivity puzzle previously discussed. It seems unlikely that leaving the EU will increase capacity utilisation. Britain´s trade balance is already poor, it exports 44% of its goods and services to the EU and Brexit would mean negotiating new, less favourable terms with the other 27 countries of the EU and 120+ countries that the EU has trade agreements with. Rather than maximising capacity utilisation, it is likely that the reverse will happen upon Brexit (less favourable trade agreements, more risk, higher costs, etc.), with negative implications for employment, wages and tax revenue.

The above does not represent a complete list of possible solutions to the British productivity puzzle. Other factors could be considered, such as seeking to rebalance the economy away from services (about 75% of GDP) towards manufacturing (about 10% of GDP).

In 2015, the Government published its productivity plan (Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation), covering issues such as improve transport and digital infrastructure, increase investment, enhance workforce skills, build more houses, move people off welfare and into work, encourage exports, rebalance economy away from London, etc. The 15 point plan is illustrated in the Chart below.

Chart 15 Point Productivity Plan

The productivity plan seems worthwhile implementing but none of it is a quick fix to Britain´s fundamental problem and, on balance, Brexit would not unleash an immediate gain in productivity.

To conclude, the cause of austerity, low productivity and stagnating wages in the UK are first and foremost to do with the UK, not the EU or Europe more generally. The number one priority for the country is to raise the productivity levels, regardless of whether Britain remains in the EU or not. If this happens, the wages, the public expenditure and the standards of living take care of themselves. But it is hard to see just how the UK’s productivity puzzle could be eased by Brexit.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


The Big Brexit Risk? It’s the trade, stupid!

Brexit Image

When I have discussions with my fellow Britons about the Britain, the European Union (EU) and Brexit, sooner or later, I hear a complaint that runs along the following lines:

“We thought we were joining for trade reasons, but it has evolved into something completely different. We did not agree to that.”

The implication of course is that in making the decision to join in the mid-1970s, the British public had somehow misled about the true nature of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) and is now the European Union (EU). There is also a strong sense that the main reason for joining, trade and commerce, has become less important over time.

The simple answer is that all institutions, the EU included, must evolve or become irrelevant. This applies to NATO, the UN and this certainly applies to the EU. Still, there is a sense of Britons having being “sold a pig in a poke”. That somehow they got into something without knowing its true nature. This sense of Britons having got in bed with an EEC trading relationship in 1973 and waking up in 2016 with the EU, with all its imperfections, is important to the outcome of the EU referendum to be held in Britain on the 23 June 2016.

Therefore, this post delves into history to examine the debates that were held in Britain in the mid-1970s and to unpack whether joining the EU was just about trade. It also addresses the extent to which trade remains important to any decision about whether to remain in the EU or not.

Brexit Referendums I and II

To put it bluntly, the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973 without the British voter being asked. The Labour Party’s general election manifesto of October 1974 committed Labour to allow Britons the opportunity to decide whether Britain should remain in the Common Market on renegotiated terms or leave it entirely. In 1975, the first referendum covering the whole of Britain was held. One could say that 2 years after joining the EEC, the first Brexit referendum took place. The result was clear-cut: 67% of voters supported the campaign to stay in the EEC.

If the clear result was meant to put an end the debate about Britain in the EU, it failed. On 23 June 2016, we shall have the second Brexit debate, 43 years after joining the EEC. You can be sure that it will still not end the debate either, regardless of which way the vote goes.

A reading of what took place then shows that commerce/trade was a focus of the debate on the pros and cons of remaining in the EEC or, put another way, an evident desire to ensure that Britain´s relative economic decline compared with its EEC neighbours was put to an end. It is not unusual for a particular topic to predominate in elections and referendums. But it would not be correct to suggest that commerce/trade was the only topic of discussion at the time or indeed that the political nature of the EU project was not clear to Britons at the time. Labour figures of the day, such as Simon Jenkins, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, as well as Enoch Powell on the Conservative side engaged in a debate about the possible effects on British sovereignty, among other issues. The deep fissures that were created in the Conservative Party (and to some degree the Labour Party) were not the result of a simply a debate on the commercial/trade pros and cons of Brexit. At the core of the heated difference of opinion was a possible loss of sovereignty and Britain´s place in the world, be it at the side of our European neighbours or facing towards the Anglophone / Commonwealth world. Today, there is an equally fractious debate where immigration is the leitmotif, connected with a discourse about health tourism, benefit tourism, access to housing, trade prospects and loss of sovereignty to Brussels.

The polling in the mid-1970s illustrated voters’ wider concerns, including defence, Britain’s voice, avoiding future wars, etc., though trade/commerce/economy was undoubtedly a major issue. By then, Britain had lost the empire and replaced it with the Commonwealth. The “special relationship” with the USA was stronger, not least because the Cold War was still raging. The Anglosphere relations in general (USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc.) was in much better shape than today.

And yet, in 1973 the British Government under the Conservative Party still decided that it was in UK’s best interests to join the EEC after a decade of persistently trying to join the club and being vetoed by the French under Charles de Gaulle on two separate occasions. This was no spur of the moment decision on the part of the British government, but a clear recognition that it was in the country’s long term interest to do so. On 5 June 1975, a clear majority (over 67% of voters) reinforced the situation by voting to remain in the EEC, rather than going it alone again.

Those decisions were made at a time when Britain was much more dominant in global trade, prior to the rise of China and India, and before the dawn of full on globalisation. If it was the right decision then, there is no obvious reason for presuming that Britain would be better off on its own today, when the world is so much more interconnected. This is especially so because regional trade aggregations are increasingly common so as to maximise negotiation power, rather than bilateral arrangements. Examples of such regional trade blocs, apart from the EU itself, include the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), perhaps soon the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), etc.

I do not subscribe to the view that a future outside the EU will be bleak for Britain. This argument is overdone by the Remain campaign and backfires because Britons do not believe it and resent those seeing to make use of the fear factor to “bounce” them into voting accordingly. Britain has an amazing economy, with dense infrastructure and packed with exceptional human capital. This is a fantastic foundation for future competitiveness. Britain is and will remain a key international economy and will continue to be a wealthy nation with quality of life and standards of living for the foreseeable future, regardless of the Brexit outcome.

So the real issue is: will Brexit help or hinder Britain´s future prosperity, since trade will play a key role in its future development.

EU and UK after Brexit: lose — lose

The EU area is the largest trade block by a considerable margin. Although trade patterns do shift over time, the simple fact is that the EU is by far the UK´s largest market: around 44% of exports went to the EU in 2014. British firms sold around £500 billion worth of goods and services to foreign buyers, according to the Office for National Statistics, and almost half (£230 billion) of those earnings came from the EU. The EU´s dominant role in the UK trade position is hardly surprising: our 27 EU trading partners are geographically close, there are no tariffs, close proximity means low transportation cost, etc. To reinforce the point, exports to the faster growing BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) accounted for only 10% of exports in 2014 according to Full Fact.

Furthermore, Britain´s trade balance is directly connected with the 50 trade agreements which the EU has signed with approximately 120 countries around the world. It is hard to foresee exactly what will happen immediately upon Brexit. What is clear for starters though is that Britain will have to negotiate a new trade deal with the 27 countries of the EU. It is wishful thinking to imagine that the EU will be willing to agree a trade agreement with the UK on a comparable basis to what pertains now. Furthermore, a trade agreement similar to the one that applies to the European Economic Area (EEA) is also extremely unlikely, since this would require Britain to accept the EU’s freedom of movement of people, paying into the EU budget and other concessions which would be impossible to justify. Such concessions would cause the British public (and everyone else) to question why they were asked to vote for Brexit in the first place.

Whatever trade agreement is reached with the EU, you can be certain that it will not be as advantageous to Britain as the above two scenarios (EU or EEA). It is also certain that the trade negotiations will take years to reach a conclusion — they always do. Moreover, it is unavoidable that the costs of export will increase for British firms. Several years to negotiation means uncertainty which in turn increases risk and thus raises the costs for British firms. This third scenario cannot possibly be an advantage to the British economy and the same applies to the remainder of the EU: Brexit will be a “lose — lose” scenario. Both the EU and Britain itself will lose in the short-term. The medium to long-term effect could go either way, including a continuation of the “lose — lose” scenario. This cannot possibly be good for the UK’s economy. After all, the Britain´s trade balance has been in deficit more or less permanently since 1990. This will only make things worse since the EU accounts for 44% of the current exports.

The Anglophone Zone: hopes dashed

The Brexiteers are well aware that in the short-term both Britain and the EU will lose out. This is precisely the reason why they have emphasised that it is in the EU´s own interest to negotiate a good deal with Britain. Perhaps, but I would not hold my breath on that account. What sounds too good to be true, usually is. There will be a price to pay for Britain undermining the “European project”. There is such a thing as vindictiveness in human nature and the leaders of the EU nation states are only too human.

Whatever they may say in public, the Brexiteers are also aware of this, which is why their pin their main hopes and expectations on other countries, not least the key Anglophone ones, to step into the breech and sign-up bilateral trade agreements with Britain.

So it came as a bitter blow to them when Barack Obama came to the UK and highlighted a few points, including:

  • The priority for the USA is the EU as it covers 28 countries and 500+ million people;
  • Britain will need to go to the “back of the queue” for a trade agreement;
  • It will take years for a trade agreement to be negotiated with Britain;
  • Being part of the EU does not moderate British influence in the world, it magnifies it.

With this, the Brexiteer Emperors (Boris Johnston, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Nigel Farage, etc.) were left without any trade clothes. They went ballistic in their attempts to discredit the President´s statement of fact, for that is exactly what it is. Any country would prioritize trade negotiation with the largest trade block in the world over a nation of 65 million people. The Brexiteers´ fragile trade hopes were dashed and predictably there was an unprecedented outpouring of vitriol, verging on racism, against the outgoing President of the USA, the country that Britain stresses it has a long-standing “special relationship” with. But obviously this does not extend to trade matters.

Should Brexit occur in June 2016, Britain would need to negotiate some or all of the EU´s 50 trade agreements with 120 countries, not counting the EU and EEA countries, if it expects to continue trading with them on a similar basis to today. Since it is impossible to negotiate all of those trade agreements in parallel, it will take decades to go through the trade negotiations just to end-up with the same situation as is currently the case within the EU. The UK does not have a Department of Trade but you rest assured that not only will one be created immediately upon Brexit, since the current trade competences lie with the EU. The institutional needs would arise in other areas where the EU currently has competences. The future Department of Trade will be large, it will be costly and it will be under tremendous pressure to get bilateral trade agreements done, and sharpish. When pressure exists to get things done quickly, bad deals are struck. Ask any salesman.

There is no evidence that either the Anglosphere (USA, India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, etc.) or other major countries such as China, Japan, Brazil, etc. will be willing to negotiate trade deals with Britain as quickly or as favourably as with the EU: the size and potential EU market is so much larger. Britain only constitutes 13% of the EU´s population but will be under pressure from enterprises to negotiate the new trade deals, pronto. Consequently, there is absolutely no reason for the future bilateral trade agreements to be as generous to the UK as to the regional block of EU countries.

If we accept the assumption that delays, uncertainty and risk add to the costs to doing business, then British exporting firms will experience higher costs for the years and/or decades that the negotiation process will last in replacing the existing EU trade agreements. The firms´ higher cost base will affect the level of British exports, probably negatively, though the magnitude and duration are not possible to predict without economic modelling.

The likely post-Brexit trade scenario does not look rosy for Britain… but the bad news is that it is probably the best case scenario.

A worse scenario is that the EU will not rush and/or wish to punish the UK for Brexit. The worst case scenario though is that, in addition, some of the 120+ countries covered by the EU agreements that Britain is currently part of, may close their markets to British enterprises until bilateral trade agreements are negotiated and signed. If this were to happen to any extent, British firms will automatically lose market share. In this scenario, British exporting enterprises would almost certainly suffer a major contraction until they are able to replace the (hopefully) temporarily lost markets.

It does not take genius to work out the possible consequences for British firms and thus for the British economy, in terms of the loss in competitiveness, export, employment, wages, tax revenue, public expenditure, etc. There are other interpretations though, such as by those bankrolling the Brexit campaign. Peter Hargreaves has acknowledged the insecurity that would result from Brexit and stressed that “It would be the biggest stimulus to get our butts in gear that we have ever had”“We will get out there and we will be become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic.” Maybe so for a billionaire stockbroker but I am doubtful that the average Briton will see perceive insecurity in quite the same manner.

Is the Brexit trade risk worth it?

The above analysis is not based on economic modelling or other statistical analysis: it is based on the application of logic to the likely consequences of British exit from the EU and thus no longer being part of the Single Market. Voters must make a decision about whether the risk of Brexit is worth it. The facts relating to trade are not complex, even if the exact process, duration and impacts are:

  • Brexit means Britain turning its back on (in the sense of no longer being part of) the largest single trading block in the world in terms of population (500 million) and/or purchasing power;
  • British withdrawal from the EU means no longer being part of the 50+ trade agreements with 120+ countries;
  • EU countries are extremely unlikely to react immediately and offer Britain the same trade terms as the current one, which means uncertainly, risk and greater cost for British enterprises, rendering them, all other things being equal, less competitive in terms of export;
  • Britain will also have to negotiate new trade deals with non-EU countries, all of which will take years or probably decades to achieve;
  • Britain already has advantageous trade relations with the Commonwealth countries dating back to 1949, so cannot expect to greatly expand in its traditional markets;
  • The Anglosphere will not necessarily offer the UK preferential treatment. The USA has stated that Britain will “go to the back of the queue” in trade negotiations. None of the other Anglophone or any other countries has offered Britain accelerated trade agreements for the simple reason that they are complex and take a long time to negotiate to mutual satisfaction;
  • Even if the UK goes through a process of negotiating the current 50+ trade agreements with 120+ countries on its own (it lacks people and skills since it has relied on the EU to perform this role for decades), it will take years or decades to achieve and a nation of 65 million cannot negotiate trade agreements on a comparable let alone more advantageous basis than the EU;
  • Whether the Brexiteers care to admit it or not, Brexit will not be good for Britain´s trade in the short term. It will be bad for the EU too but it is not as reliant on the UK market as the UK is dependent on its market (44%of exports in 2014). On the other hand, Brexit could have catastrophic economic consequences if key countries refuse to make their markets accessible during the period until bilateral trade agreements are signed, which could last quite a while.

Is Brexit a risk worth taking in terms of the possible consequences for trade, export and potentially unemployment and wages? To paraphrase the well/known USA electoral saying, “It´s still the trade, stupid!”

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


Is British Sovereignty undermined by the EU?

Brexit Image

The single most important criticism made by the Vote Leave campaign in the current European Union (EU) referendum is that Britons should vote for their politicians who in turn should decide their own laws, rather than politicians from other nations. This boils down to a matter of British sovereignty and whether the UK is being drawn into accepting legislation that is emanating from the European Commission (EC) and European Parliament (EP), rather than from the British Parliament. If Britain has become a “captive” state and EU-imposed competences are out of kilter with those of the nation state, in this case the House of Commons and House of Lords, then democracy is undermined. 

If this simple but powerful argument is correct, then I too would be fearful of the overweening power of “Europe” as opposed to those who are elected by us to represent us. So it is worthwhile examining the potential loss of sovereignty in more detail.

In, Out…

The UK to keep out of what has now become the EU from the point when it was established in 1952 (European Coal and Steel Community). Its membership was then vetoed by the French (1963 and 1967) until 1973 when Britain joined the European Economic Community (EEC). It took over a decade of determination on the part of the UK to join the EU. Britain did not join on a whim but on the basis of a hard-nosed calculation of the balance of benefits that the UK would gain from joining. In 1975, a majority (67%) of British voters chose to remain in the EU, following a hard-fought first EU Brexit referendum. Britain joined and chose the remain in the EU fully cognisant that as a result it would be voluntarily and willingly pooling some aspects of UK national sovereignty with what was then the EEC. This was nothing new or unusual: all nations do this to some degree where they see the benefits of doing something which is cannot be achieved on their own. Classic examples, apart from joining the EU, are the United Nations (UN), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), etc. These agreements amplify the UK’s power and influence at the global level.

UK vs EU sovereignty

There is a pervasive viewpoint in Britain that it thought it was joining a trade agreement, rather than a political one. All commentators agree that the EU has always been first and foremost about avoiding future wars in Europe, something which the EU has done very successfully.  So much so that it, rightly, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for six decades of advancement of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe. There is no diagreement about the fact that it was always a political project which went beyond trade, indeed trade was not even a reason for the EU receiving the prize. If the politicians in the mid-1970s chose to highlight the trade angle to the nation during the lead-up to the EU Referendum, it was their choice (just as immigration is the topic of choice this time around). But this underestimates the broad and intense nature of the debate that took place in the mid-1970s. It was never just about trade so Britons were not sold a pig in a poke by their own politicians.

Also, it is frequently claimed that too much of the legislation comes from the EU. No one has been able to pin this down precisely but estimates vary from 7-70%. The  House of Commons Library has undertaken a comprehensive analysis how the extent of ‘EU influence’ in UK laws and concluded that: “it is possible to justify any measure between 15% and 50% or thereabouts”, depending on the approach. It noted that 15-17% of UK law is derived from EU membership, but about 50% of UK legislation with “significant economic impact” originates from the EU. It is up to each one to decide what is too much. But perhaps it is more enlightening not just to ask how much originates from the EU but to assess the degree to which such law is useful or not (see the Balance of Competences review below).

Another point to note is that all the EU directives, regulations, treaties, etc, take years to develop, which allow all nation states, Members of European Parliament and stakeholders to engage with the process of developing new laws and regulations within the competence of the EU. Each national parliament decides whether to accept or not and in recent times, national referendums have scuppered draft EU Treaties. The days of a “single speed” EU are long gone and nation states can opt out if they so desire and Britain regularly chooses this option. 

In joining the 8 other countries, now 28 following further enlargement, the UK is closely involved in the process of making the EU legislation. It is not simply a matter of fighting for the national interest, something which Britain as one of the big beasts of the EU is able to do. Compromise was and remains the name of the EU game. However, whenever push comes to shove and Britain bangs on the EU desk, it has got what it wants. This includes Margaret Thatcher’s rebate, the various opt outs such as from Schengen and now the EU special accommodation of Britain’s needs in advance of the EU referendum on the 23 June 2016 (see below).

It may have chosen to pool its sovereignty in the mid-1970s but the fact is that Britain can opt out of the EU at any point of its own choosing. The British government does not even need to hold a national referendum to leave. If the British government decided upon Brexit tomorrow, it could exit the EU simply by dissolving the European Communities Act of 1972. Permission would not be required from either voters or the EU.

On the basis of the preceding points, it is evident that the UK is a sovereign country that chooses to engage with the EU, that it can opt out of EU treaties and other legal instruments that it does not agreed with and that it can regain control of all the elements of its sovereignty that it currently chooses to pool authority with the EU in order to achieve goals that it would otherwise not be able to do on its own. This is the very essence of sovereignty.

… Shake it all about (or the Balance of Competences Review)

If Britain remains a sovereign country and is able to abolish the European Communities Act whenever it likes, which is after all the whole point of the forthcoming EU Referendum, what are the competences that it has chosen to pool with the EU and do these make sense?

At the end of the day, what really matters is not whether laws and regulations originate from the House of Commons or the EU but whether such laws contribute to our economic, social and environmental well-being or not. The public concern about a potential or actual loss of national sovereignty compared with a gain of “unelected” and “Eurocratic” powers is what led directly to the Review of the Balance of Competences between the UK and the EU which was initiated by the UK government in 2012 and completed in 2014.

The Treaty of Lisbon (2009) sets out the exact competences or the areas where Treaties give the EU competence to act, including giving EU institutions the power to legislate, to adopt non-legislative acts or to take any other action. The type of competences vary:

  • EU has exclusive competence: only the EU can act such as customs, competition, international agreements, etc.
  • Competences are shared between the EU and the member states: the member states can act only if the EU has chosen not to such as consumer protection, environment, transport, etc.
  • EU has competence to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the member states: EU may not adopt legally binding acts that require the member states to harmonise their laws and regulations such as health, economy, employment, social policy, etc.

The UK government undertook an official review of a whole raft of EU competences, including the following 32 documents:

Report title Lead department / ministry
1 Single Market: Free Movement of Goods HM Revenue and Customs
2 Taxation HM Treasury
3 Animal Health and Welfare and Food Safety Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
4 Health Department of Health
5 Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid Department for International Development
6 Foreign Policy Foreign and Commonwealth Office
7 Single Market: Free Movement of Goods HM Revenue and Customs
8 Asylum and Non-EU Migration Home Office
9 Trade and Investment Department for Business Innovation and Skills
10 Environment and Climate Change Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
11 Transport Department for Transport
12 Research and Development Department for Business Innovation and Skills
13 Culture, Tourism and Sport Department for Culture, Media and Sport
14 Civil Judicial Cooperation Ministry of Justice
15 Single Market: Free Movement of Persons Home Office
16 Single Market: Free Movement of Services Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
17 Single Market: Financial Services and the Free Movement of Capital HM Treasury
18 EU Budget HM Treasury
19 Cohesion Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
20 Social And Employment Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
21 Agriculture Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
22 Fisheries Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
23 Competition and Consumer Policy Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
24 Energy Department of Energy and Climate Change
25 Fundamental Rights Ministry of Justice
26 Economic and Monetary Policy HM Treasury
27 Police and Criminal Justice Home Office, Ministry of Justice
28 Information Rights Ministry of Justice
29 Education, vocational training and youth Department for Education
30 Enlargement Foreign and Commonwealth Office
31 Voting, Consular and Statistics Cabinet Office, FCO, National Statistician’s Office
32 Subsidiarity and Proportionality Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The House of Lords, in its assessment of the review of competences, stated that: “The Review was an ambitious, indeed unprecedented, exercise. The production of the reports, broadly within the projected timetable, was a considerable achievement. We believe that, for the most part, the individual reports within the Review give a fair and neutral assessment of the balance of competences between the EU and the UK.” The House of Lords did express disappointment that: “… no consideration was given to the Justice and Home Affairs measures subject to the block opt-out decision” and the “… lack of balance in the Single Market: Free Movement of Persons, Animal Health and Welfare and Food Safety and Fisheries reports” as well as the lack of “… a final report that could reflect upon cross-cutting areas, such as inter-institutional agreements and flexible integration.

These are quibbles with what was a thorough, transparent and comprehensive process carried out by the British public authorities, experts and stakeholders. No one questions the overall conclusion of the balance of completeness review, which is that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the balance of EU competences in the UK. Had this not been the case, you can be sure that the Leave Campaign would be using this treasure trove of information. 

What was prioritised by the UK for EU reform?

Now that the Government, the civil service and a multiplicity of stakeholders across all 32 reviews have had their say and overwhelmingly agreed that the balance of competences is broadly appropriate, what did the Government chosen to push for reform in the EU?

After a drawn-out period of public posturing, the British government set-out the government’s basis for renegotiating the terms of the UK’s membership ahead of the EU referendum in a letter to Donald Tusk in November 2015. The UK’s demands focused on four issues:

  • Eurozone: explicit recognition that the euro is not the only currency of the EU to ensure countries outside the Eurozone are not disadvantaged, including ensuring that deeper financial union cannot be imposed on non-Eurozone members and that they also UK do not have to contribute to future Eurozone bailouts;
  • Competitiveness: a target for reduction of excessive regulation and extension of the single market;
  • Immigration: restriction of access to in-work and out-of-work benefits to EU migrants until they have been resident for four years or an “emergency brake” to stop the payments for four years is being discussed as a compromise;
  • Sovereignty: allow the UK to opt out from the EU’s ambition to forge an “ever closer union” of the peoples of Europe so it will not be drawn into further political integration and giving national parliaments greater power to block EU legislation.

What has Britain got from the EU?

The EU has generally played ball with the UK’s requests – nothing would be worse to the EU than losing one of its key members, especially when the refugee and Eurozone crises continue to rumble on. The outcome is the following:

  • Emergency break: a four-year freeze on in-work benefits for EU citizens working in the UK but this will only apply for new EU migrants for a period of 7 years. Thereafter the emergency break cannot be extended;
  • Child benefit: instead of stopping all child benefit payments going to children living outside the UK, whose parents are working in the UK, child benefit will be indexed to the cost of living for children living outside the UK to new arrivals to the UK and to all workers from 2020;
  • Eurozone vs rest: the top item was safeguards to protect countries outside the eurozone against regulation made by those inside. The UK got its wish: any non-Euro country will be able to force a debate among EU leaders about ‘problem’ eurozone laws. No country has a veto but can discuss, amend or delay Eurozone laws.
  • Ever-closer union: the UK wanted a declaration that this would not apply and got this: “It is recognised that the United Kingdom … is not committed to further political integration in the European Union … References to ever-closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom.”

Given that the EU involves 28 countries with diverse needs and priorities, the UK did not receive as bad a deal as many Britons and segments of the media maintain. Many EU member states were not exactly ecstatic about what they perceive as yet another example of Britain threatening to throw its referendum dolls out of the EU pram if  its national interests are not accepted. When push comes to shove, each nation must do what it has to, while still rubbing along with the others around the negotiation table.

British sovereignty: our way or the Highway?

The UK remains a sovereign state. It can withdraw from the EU at any point that Parliament chooses to. It does not need a referendum or approval from the EU. This is the essence of sovereignty and Britain (and all other 27 EU nation states) retains it. Britain is involved in all treaties, directives and regulations. It can influence them and it can choose to accept them or opt out of them, a right that it regularly exercises, as do other nations. 

An estimated 15-17% of UK laws originate from the EU and an estimated 50% of its important economic laws originated from the EU. But the issue is not what percentage originates from the EU, a process that Britain is closely involved in. The real issue is whether such legislation is valuable or not: perhaps this is a point recognised by the Vote Leave campaign, which is why they have been strangely quiet on this issue. 

The UK has gone through the most comprehensive assessment of the competencies of the EU ever conducted involving 32 detailed reviews, extensive consultations with British stakeholders, including civil servants, professionals and other experts. The conclusion was that the balance of competences between the UK and the EU (arising from the EU legislation) is appropriate.

On the basis of the evidence, the British  government has sought a new EU deal for Britain, prior to the referendum, focusing on: Eurozone, competitiveness, immigration and sovereignty and the EU has agreed to various changes. These do not amount to a fundamental change in the relationship with the EU but are a considered response to Britain´s self-defined priorities for reform. Whatever the EU agrees to must be acceptable for all 28 nations and it was never feasible to find a compromise that could satisfy the Brexiteers.

  • Is the EU sovereign over the UK Parliament: EU legislation affects 15-17% of UK law and up to 50% of economic legislation according to the estimates that have been made.
  • Is British sovereignty compromised by EU competences: Britain is a key part of the process of making laws and regulations in the EU. Britain has secured-opt outs from EU treaties, directives, etc. The British government chooses to pool British sovereignty with 27 other countries in order to achieve what it cannot do on its own such as legislation affecting the environment, countering terrorims and the common market.
  • Should I vote to leave the EU because of lack of sovereignty / balance of EU/UK competences: Britain can choose to leave the EU whenever it chooses to. There is not need to hold a referendum. It has the ultimate decision-making power. The unprecedented EU review concluded that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the balance of EU competences in the UK. The EU has responded to the British priorities for EU reform. As one of 28 countries, Britain cannot always get everything that it wants. Compromise is the essence of the EU game.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU