Holding a British passport, and at the same time being committed to EU integration and the democratisation of the European Union, has never been easy. The months since the UK general election, David Cameron’s EU ‘deal’, and the subsequent referendum campaign, have been harder still. The Leave and the Remain campaigns have often sounded as nationalistic and inward-looking as each other, arguing that Britain – superior to all those foreigners – can get one over on those on the other side of the Channel more effectively by either leaving or remaining (depending who you’re listening to).
In that context it is hard to not feel some sort of vindictiveness, leading me to make the pro-federalist case for Brexit here, and flirt with the idea of voting that way. United Kingdom, if you cannot see the crushing contradictions of your own predicament, or overcome your post-colonial hangover, then sod off and leave the EU – and see how you fare when you leave the world’s pre-eminent political and economic supranational union. “You’ve started talking about Britain in the third person,” a friend remarked to me recently – that’s probably sign of how distanced I feel I have become from UK politics.
Meanwhile Brits whine about the EU’s democratic deficit while the House of Lords still exists. The UK is smug about its own economy and how competitive it is, while its trade deficit continues to grow. Meanwhile what economic growth there is – in services – is based on cheap migrant labour (mainly from other EU countries), which is precisely the sort of labour those in favour of Brexit want to forbid. Meanwhile the UK will strike trade deals to its own advantage with the rest of the world if it leaves the EU say the Brexit campaigners, blissfully neglecting that the other parties to such deals might have their own (and contradictory) interests as well. This all looks like a country that has lost its connection with geopolitical and economic reality. The European Union might well be better off without such a country inside it.
Yet despite all of this I cannot bring myself to vote for Brexit. And my rationale is not selfish, not about my own interests as a Brit living in Germany. I am sure I can survive and remain in Berlin if I have to, and I will be entitled to a German passport in the autumn of 2019 anyway, and earliest Britain could leave would be summer 2018. The issue instead is a wider one.
Ultimately the European Union is a cornerstone of the post-World War II international system and – for all its flaws – is still the most advanced international organisation there is. If the UK (or any other EU state for that matter) does not abide by mutually agreed EU law then the European Court of Justice can fine a Member State to ensure it does what it said it would. While the European Parliament could without doubt function far better, it is the only supranational and elected parliament in the world with proper legislative power. The European Union binds its states with rules that constrain those states’ worst excesses, and do this in a mutual manner – what looks like an excessive rule to one is a vital protection to another, while in another policy field the reverse will be the case. It is not that these frameworks are bad; indeed, it is precisely the opposite – Europe’s fraught history would seem to indicate that such constraints are actually a good thing.
The notion of absolute sovereignty is a myth – a country cannot shut itself off from the world. It has to deal with its neighbours. The question then is under what framework this should be done. One of classic intergovernmental haggling where a country makes a commitment but does not deliver upon it the moment it suits it, and cannot be forced to do what it said? Or the European Union system that forces collaboration as the decision is taken, and has a body of law to make sure the what is agreed is reasonably acted upon? The latter has got to be a better bet.
Yes, the behaviour of the UK in the EU might be annoying. I cannot bear the smarmy oneupmanship when British politicians talk about the European Union. But Brussels has to get better at ignoring British “extra-Wurst” demands and hold the UK at arm’s length until the British can eventually understand the way to play the EU is to seek mutual gains rather than trying to carve out a unique position for itself at the expense of others. That might be the way to stop the UK being outvoted so often in the Council for example.
So then, in conclusion, I’ve come to the view that the EU does more good to the UK than the UK does bad to the EU, and that is why I will be casting a vote for Remain on 23rd June. I’ll do so with a heavy heart as a convinced European and federalist, but – narrowly and on balance – the alternative is worse.