Monday, 13 June 2016

The EU, The Referendum, And Beyond.



I thought I'd take a few moments to set out exactly where I am on this whole question of membership of the EU. Now, I've never considered myself to be among the most ardently 'pro-European' (in the sense of the EU 'project') of Liberals. I know there are even some (a minority, I suspect) who would even go so far as to want to see an end to the idea of 'nation states', and to have a single European, or even world, 'state' for all people. I'm certainly not among their number, or even close. Indeed, I'm not even a great believer in further integration in many ways, and I do have reservations about some of the things that the EU currently does and the way in which it does them. Having said that, I've yet to find anybody who thinks that the EU is 'perfect' anyway. I'm still very much on the 'Remain' side, though, so I thought I'd spell out why.

Firstly, let's briefly (as briefly as I ever do anything, anyway!) address that whole 'nation state' thing - what are they, and why do we have them, and what are the implications for Europe? They are actually largely a relatively recent invention, stemming from the rise in 'nationalism' during the nineteenth century. People tend to forget how 'young' states like Germany and Italy really are as unified administrative structures centred broadly around the geographical limits of a 'nation', occupying areas previously administered by smaller essentially 'feudal' aristocratic holdings. That brings up the question of the difference between 'state' (administrative unit) and 'nation' (people with a broadly common cultural/historical identity, often (but not always) occupying a particular geographical area), which is important to understand. The idea of 'nations' ruling themselves is an obvious one that comes with the idea of 'democracy' - 'the people' are sovereign, and so it makes sense to base the unit of sovereignty around the geographical areas that similar people occupy.

Of course, there's a potentially negative element of that 'nationalism' idea that we need to be very wary about - the idea that 'my nation' is somehow 'better' than 'your nation'. It's an all too common mistake for people to make when thinking about 'culture' (and/or language) and 'identity'. It's not necessary to believe that your own 'nation' and 'culture' is in any any way 'superior' in order to be comfortable with being part of it, or indeed in order to think that it's a fairly logical way to base an administrative unit. The mistake happens sometimes on both 'sides' - not only the assumption of 'superiority' on one 'side', but that assumption that any recognition of 'nation' is somehow based in that idea of 'superiority', rather than simple a recognition that something of a broad common cultural and linguistic context among a large part of the population in a geographical area is a reasonably good basis for forming a 'state' and taking democratic decisions (at least as good as any other basis, certainly), or indeed simply a matter of enjoying a distinct cultural heritage into which context you were born (or indeed moved).

Of course, it should be noted that there is nothing 'homogeneous' about 'nationality' - it doesn't mean that everyone is alike, or that anybody should have to conform to anything, or that new people with different ideas shouldn't be accepted, or that the context can't freely evolve. It doesn't mean a person shouldn't pick and choose what bits of  'their own' or anybody else's culture and heritage they want to enjoy and celebrate. It just simply means that the overall common background situation gives a large part of the population some common points of reference, which is useful in a democratic 'state', as is something of a sense of 'belonging' and 'fellowship' (as long as, as previously noted, it doesn't go beyond that into any thoughts of  'superiority', or even 'separation' from fellow man of other nations).

So, in the context of the EU debate, where does that leave the UK? Well firstly, it is vitally important to realise that the UK is not a 'nation state' anyway - it is not a state based around a single 'nation', but a state constructed around a political union of several distinct nations (each with their own historical and cultural 'identity', and even to an extent language). Despite efforts over the years to impose a sense of 'Britishness' from above, the English, Scots, Welsh, etc. still maintain their separate 'national identities'. That's fine - it doesn't have to stop us existing together in a single administrative entity, even if that entity hasn't always worked very well for everyone. Whether we remain together is a question of whether it is in our best interests to do so.

That brief (!) discussion of what the UK is does become important in the EU question, and that final sentence is absolutely critical. What administrative and bureaucratic entity we are a part of should depend on what is in our best interests. It shouldn't be about 'superiority', 'sovereignty' or 'identity', as the EU debate is all too often framed, it should be about things like security (financial and otherwise), and real benefit for the people.

This is where I come to the EU specifically - the question for me is one of balancing potential benefits and disadvantages of being 'in' or 'out'. It's about looking at the evidence, the expert analysis and opinions about what the future is likely to bring, and so on. It's about what is best for the people - which situation will benefit us (the people of  both the 'nation' and the 'state') the most in practical ways, and which will make our lives better or worse, or harder or easier. Without going into all of the details here, there is no doubt in my mind from looking at all of that that the UK and Wales are both materially far better off remaining inside the EU. The 'Leave' campaign is very much based around 'sovereignty' and 'identity' (and sometimes seemingly even 'superiority'), not just in terms of the EU itself but in terms of the 'threat' of immigration (somewhat ironic, I feel, from the point of view of an island (or islands) occupied by several identifiable 'nations', populated and 'cultured' largely as a result of waves of immigration and international contacts throughout its history!) - I don't buy any of that. It's entirely the wrong way to frame the debate to me, and entirely the wrong thing to be concerned about, even if the emotional appeal to some people seems quite obvious.

There's a very simple issue of political ideology here for me - as a Liberal I believe very strongly in both 'internationalism' and 'localism'. We should work together at all levels, and take decisions on issues at the most appropriate level. Sometimes that is best done very close to the people (should we spend money on putting in a new bench in the park?), and sometimes it is very much more international (how do we address climate change and global terrorism?) - those things are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. Some things are best done, I think, at a local level, some at a 'national' level (Wales, specifically, in my case), some at a wider UK state level, some at a more European (EU) level, and some more internationally even than that (and it should be noted that we have rightly 'surrendered' bits of our 'sovereignty' to organisations like the UN and NATO for that reason).

The issue of 'sovereignty' is, for me, an entirely outdated concept - we no longer live in a world where the primary question of government is one of which guy (the sovereign, obviously) has 'absolute power' in a certain geographical area, and thankfully so. It's not about us as a state (or nation) having 'control' over everything at all, but about making sensible decisions about which level is best to have a level of 'control' over which particular issues. Do we exercise our collective democratic 'control' to deal with certain things within our local community, or as a whole across a continent? The answer to that question should depend on the issue being discussed, in my opinion, and how it is beast dealt with. Indeed, as I have posted previously, I don't think it's only a matter of the issue area, but of the specific question being asked within that area - that comes down to that issue of 'localism' and 'internationalism' being able to compliment each other in the decision-making process.

There are, I think, some legitimate concerns about the EU taking more decisions at is level than it needs to be doing, but equally there are similar concerns about it not being able to take some of the decisions that really would be best made at that level because 'state' governments are unwilling to allow it the responsibility for doing so. That's a question of pushing for, and leading, reform, though, and not throwing out the baby with the bath water - just because it doesn't get everything right at the moment doesn't mean that it can't improve, and doesn't mean that it is getting everything wrong. Indeed, it has done, and continues to do, many good things, and it continues to reform and improve (if sometimes frustratingly slowly!). There are also issues surrounding whether all of its mechanisms are currently fit for purpose. Again, though, the answer to that is to reform, not to cut ourselves off, surrender the very real benefits that it brings, or pretend that we'd somehow be better of without it altogether (or indeed that losing the benefits of it would be a 'price worth paying' for our 'sovereignty'). I think it's quite clear that we wouldn't be better off, and even if we were to leave it would still very much exist, and we would still very much be tied to it and its rules, but we would no longer have any voice in the way that it works or the way it reforms. I think that's a really bad idea.

So, what if we do end up voting to leave? Well, aside from the potential for economic damage and so on, it's going to have significant implications for the UK as a 'state' unit, partly because of its own international nature. We have recently had a referendum on independence in Scotland, and the Scots would, in my opinion, be entirely justified in claiming that the UK leaving the EU has changed the context of the specific question that was asked entirely. The choice was one of a UK within the EU or a Scotland seeking to join the EU, but it would have become a choice of UK or EU (and I don't doubt for a second that, while there would be new things for Scotland to have to accept as 'new' members, the EU would do everything possible to 'fast track' Scotland's membership). As much as I would be against an 'Indyref II' any time soon under other circumstances, I for one would fully support that choice being given to the people of Scotland in the form of another referendum should the UK vote to leave the EU.

Indeed, there will, I have no doubt, be voices calling for the people of Wales to have a similar choice, and not just among the traditional voices of Welsh political 'nationalism' (and mine might very well be one of them). The issue comes down to a choice about the most appropriate avenues for doing things at the 'international' level, and whether Wales and its people would be better off in the UK but outside the EU, or in the EU but outside the UK. My preferred option would by within both, obviously, but if that choice is no longer possible the context changes, the question changes, and my answer to the question of Wales seceding from the UK may well also change (especially if Scotland decides to leave, and even more so if there is some prospect of a loose 'Celtic' cooperation of mutual benefit with Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, within the EU). Wales in particular has long had a pretty raw deal in terms of 'need' from the UK, whereas the EU has taken the issue of under-investment and poverty in Wales far more seriously. If the choice becomes one or the other, I will be thinking very, very carefully about which serves the interests of Wales best, and I know I'm not the only one. And that isn't even touching on the whole can of worms that could be Northern Ireland in the event of a 'Brexit', of course.

If the UK leaves the EU I think it very likely that it will bring an end to the UK in its current form. I suspect many people in some parts of the current UK will feel that the UK has become a 'state' entity that is no longer necessary or useful - it would no longer represent any kind of 'internationalism' - quite the opposite. That is not something that I want to see, and is not something that I think is in our best interests, but if the UK were to leave the EU I think some kind of move away from the UK entity for some parts of its current territory will become inevitable. I see the best interests of Wales firmly as being within the UK, though I am very much a 'Federalist' rather than a 'Unionist' in that context - UK reform is as important, if not more so, than EU reform to me. If the UK no longer serves the best interests of Wales through choosing a path of isolation outside the EU, that changes the equation. I confess that, as I see things currently, I would be far more concerned about a future within the UK but outside the EU than I would be about a future within the EU but outside the UK. That is not a choice I want to have to make, and I don't think it is in the interests of anyone in any part of the UK for anyone to have to make it.

What it comes down to for me is a practical, evidence-based consideration of whether the interests of the UK and its people are best served by remaining in the UK, or by leaving. I really don't give a damn about 'sovereignty' (perhaps partly because my own 'nation' is not used to having it anyway!), and not do I give a damn about 'identity' and that kind of nonsense. It isn't relevant to government, and it isn't relevant to the question of what will bring most benefit to all of our lives. For that reason, I am fully in favour of the UK remaining a full and leading member of the EU. Yes, we need to reform the EU, and we need to reform the UK even more, but that to me doesn't mean that it isn't in our best interests to remain within both of those entities. I don't see that it is worth chasing an outdated, rose-tinted dream of the wonders of 'sovereignty' at the expense of what is actually in our best interests.

So that is where I stand. there is a huge amount of information, and mis-information, and emotion-playing nonsense (it's a kind of 'we can create more fear than you' battle going on, which I think is distinctly unhelpful!) coming out from the various campaigns and organisations on all sides, but I don't want to fall into the trap of repeating and/or dismissing those in any detail. People should do their research, cut through the nonsense, and make their own decision. My decision is clear, though.

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