Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 17 June 2016
Groucho Marx did not want to belong to any club that accepted people like him as members. Next Thursday, the British will have to decide if they feel the same way about the European Union.
Geopolitically, it is perhaps the most significant event of 2016, rivalled only by the US Presidential election.
Britain will not only seal its own fate but also the fate of the EU. Should it remain, the project of European integration will continue as it has in the past. If it pulls out, everything is possible.
A potential British withdrawal comes with risks and side-effects. For a start, it would take London and Brussels years to prepare the divorce papers. Everything in the relationship between Britain and its European neighbours would have to be renegotiated.
Brexit could also spook finance markets. This is a major worry especially since Britain is dependent on foreign capital to plug its large current account deficit.
The EU would be severely damaged by a British withdrawal. Brexit would be a humiliating defeat, and it would encourage other countries to consider their relationship with Brussels.
So with all of these adverse effects, how could anyone make the case for Brexit?
Well, one could just enumerate the failings of the EU that even its supporters cannot deny. Europe does not have the best track-record for creating economic growth. In fact, it is the slowest growing continent other than Antarctica. Its monetary union project, the Euro, has been an unmitigated disaster.
One could also point out that Europe has been an irritating source of news laws, regulations and bureaucracies. The ‘acquis communautaire’, which is the body of EU law, now comprises an estimated 170,000 pages. Or think of the more than 10,000 EU bureaucrats paid more than the British prime minister.
Heavier than these irritations and failings, however, weighs the EU’s anti-democratic nature. In any functioning democracy, it is possible to have public debates, kick out the government, or at least campaign for change.
Unfortunately, the EU does not allow such basic democratic procedures in any meaningful way. It is, essentially, an anonymous power.
No wonder the British struggle to reconcile their individualist tradition since Magna Carta with the EU’s construction.
The referendum’s real question is whether in its current state the EU is a club that freedom-loving democrats happily want to belong to. Next week we will find out the answer.