The real democratic deficit is not in the EU, but in the campaign about whether to leave it.
Market Street is an unremarkable road in the centre of Birstall, West Yorkshire. You are familiar with it, even if you have never been there.
The Princess Picture Palace, a cinema established in 1919 that has latterly become a dance school, stares down a squat red-brick library and community centre across the street. Either building could pass for a hundred others like it in small towns across the country. It was in this indistinguishable, but unmistakeably British, town centre that Jo Cox MP (Batley and Spen) was holding a surgery for her constituents on Thursday 16 June 2016. As she was finishing up, she was viciously attacked by a man onlookers say shouted “Britain First” as he repeatedly shot and stabbed her. Mrs Cox was declared dead on the scene at 1.48pm. She was 41 years old. It was broad daylight. The monthly tea dance was supposed to be kicking off across the way in the Princess Picture Palace.
The campaigns for and against Brexit – an ugly portmanteau of “Britain” and “Exit” – will forever be punctuated by this senseless, ghastly assault on a sitting MP, our system of government and our democracy. The tenor of the debate over the EU had long ago reached fever pitch, stoked by irresponsible tabloids and irresponsible politicians, inflamed still further by furious posts on social media and loud voices on Market Streets like Birstall’s up and down the country. We are being shouted at, metaphorically by headlines and literally by campaigners and politicians, some reckless, some dedicated, many both at once. A lot of us have joined the cacophony, myself included.
Vociferous debate is a sign of a healthy democracy, but a debate conducted in the prevailing, rancorous climate of distrust and misinformation does democracy little good. If politicians conspiratorially accuse one another of shilling for big business or Brussels or Rupert Murdoch, people will believe it or they won’t, but either way they will come to distrust the people who are supposed to be representing them.
This is hardly surprising. It is all too plain that many politicians have no compunctions about making “fact-based” claims that are no more fact-based than asset-backed securities were asset-backed in 2007. Look no further than Vote Leave’s repeated claims that Britain will be economically better off if it leaves the EU. Under challenge by Andrew Neil on the BBC, Kate Hoey MP had to concede she “can’t actually …. um … produce a study that says that” (it is notable that, though she must know it exists, Ms Hoey did not even pretend that the Economists for Brexit report, a lonely outlier based on Patrick Minford’s model of a post-Brexit scenario no one is seriously contemplating, was a “reputable” study).
The reality is that every reputable study says Britain will be worse off, probably much worse off, and those campaigning for Vote Leave know that all too well. It has not stopped Michael Gove, Priti Patel or Boris Johnson from claiming the economy, freed from the shackles of the EU, will prosper post-Brexit, evidence be damned. It likewise did not deter Iain Duncan Smith, Nigel Lawson, Norman Lamont and Michael Howard from alleging “startling dishonesty” on the part of, amongst others, the Bank of England, the Treasury, and other official sources, who they claimed, “have been peddling phoney forecasts and scare stories”. These are strong words indeed, but the four Tory Grandees did not so much as present calculations on the back of a napkin, let alone bother to cite any economic analysis, to back them up.
The Vote Leave campaign could instead have honestly acknowledged the potential economic cataclysm that will follow a vote to leave but made the case that a short-term recession and likely lower long-term economic growth is a price worth paying to be rid of the EU, a goal they believe is worth pursuing for constitutional reasons. Instead, they have shown a clear preference for unscientific bombast and expert-bashing, as when they described the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies as the “paid-up propaganda arm” of the European Union, simply because it deigned to point out certain inconvenient truths about Brexit.
Vote Leave will have a litany of similar complaints to make about the Remain campaign, which they have dubbed “Project Fear”, itself an example of the reductive sloganeering that has typified the Brexit “debate”. They fixate, not unreasonably, on George Osborne selling a detailed Treasury report in a single (misleading) statement: that the “Cost to UK families if Britain leaves the EU” will be £4,300 per year by 2030. On 18 April 2016, Mr Osborne sat besuited beneath a billboard boldly promoting this claim knowing full well that it deliberately confused GDP per household with household income. He knew too that the difference between staying and going, for most British households, will be nothing like that much, not least because income inequality is so pronounced in this country that using an average figure tells you virtually nothing about the experience of most British families (the LSE has run the numbers and concluded that the burden of lower living standards in the aftermath of Brexit will fall similarly on all income groups, including the poor and middle classes who can least afford to bear it).
It is tempting for a Bremainer (the inane portmanteaus never end) to respond that Osborne’s claim is at least based on a serious economic model, whereas Vote Leave has not bothered to support its claims with anything besides assertion. This is hardly the point. Remain has the facts but it is only too willing to abuse them. The Treasury Report does not support Osborne’s £4,300 per year claim (at least not in the form he made it), but it provides ample support for Remain’s economic case. It shows, for example, that the UK’s GDP will be between 3.6% and 6% lower in fiscal year 2017-2018 and between 3.8% and 7.5% lower by 2030. Nor are these numbers an elite conspiracy, as some Brexiteers darkly imply whenever a new analysis arrives exposing the stark economic reality of leaving the EU. Similar figures emerge from every serious study:
These analyses foreclose any serious debate on the likely economic consequences of leaving the EU, especially since Vote Leave have no serious analysis to offer in response. Economists often disagree about the future, which inevitably means many of them are wrong, but they have seldom, if ever, been as united in their forecasts as they are now. The short- and long-term effects of leaving are, as best as anyone can tell, going to be catastrophic. Though Osborne had no need whatsoever to mislead on the economic effects of Brexit, he did so anyway.
In the post-truth debate we are having, even the facts have a leave or remain bias.
Politicking of this sort only feeds the sense of exclusion from the process that many Brexiteers and Brexit-sympathisers already feel. According to a YouGov survey on 13-14 June 2016, many who want to leave the EU have simply given up trusting anyone on the topic: 81% of leavers distrust what politicians of any stripe say about it, 76% distrust journalists, 54% distrust academics, 57% distrust economists, and 64% even distrust the Bank of England, presumably because it has the word “bank” in it and they feel they have had little reason to trust anything responding to that description in years.
Those who wish to leave the EU essentially do not care what anyone has to say to them about it. It is difficult to see this as anything other than a revolt against the political class by those who feel so completely excluded from economic opportunity that the threat of economic catastrophe is effectively meaningless to them. However, surveys also show that as many as one third of voters remain open to changing their minds about the vote and as many as half of those will make their minds up on the day. There is still time to reach them.
People are rightly worried about questions of sovereignty, democracy, freedom and control if Britain stays in the EU. The Remain campaign has come across as dismissive of those concerns, even though they are the best of the reasons for leaving. It is vital in this last week of the campaign that, instead of banging on about economic doom, Remain subjects Vote Leave’s claims about sovereignty, democracy, freedom and taking back control to the kind of sober analysis that undecided and wavering voters can understand and accept.
This is particularly vital because there is a real risk that a vote to leave will address absolutely none of these concerns amongst Brexiteers; indeed, leaving may well exacerbate them. If, in the months and years after a glorious victory for the forces of Brexit, the average Briton is unable to perceive any real difference in the UK’s relationship with the EU, or worse that the vote to leave has magnified the very problems that motivated them to cut Brussels asunder, their lack of trust in our democracy and its institutions will be fully vindicated. And make no mistake: a vote to leave may well change next-to-nothing about immigration, Britain’s financial contributions to Brussels and the role of EU law. The Leave campaign’s promotion of Brexit as a silver bullet for sovereignty is foolish; public confidence will suffer a hammer blow when this is unmasked by the reality of life after the EU.
The question on the ballot paper on 23 June 2016 is this:
"Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?"
Problematically, it is not clear what a negative answer to this question means. Will Britain get the sovereignty, democracy, freedom and control the Leave camp are promising on the hustings if it votes no? The only reasonably definite answer anyone can give you is that a vote to leave will cause the government to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, although it does not have to do it right away. Article 50 triggers a negotiation with the EU over the terms for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU over a period of up to two years, the results of which are substantially uncertain and will be determined by the rest of the EU while we are not in the room. Anyone that tells you otherwise either does not understand the effect of invoking Article 50 to leave the EU or is not being truthful.
In 2011, Britain held a referendum on whether to adopt the alternative vote system or stick with the existing first-past-the-post system. What we were voting for was clear: we either kept the electoral system we had or we chose the alternative vote electoral system instead. We were not asked “Should the United Kingdom retain the first-past-the-post-system?” If we had been asked that, I expect the retort in ballot boxes across the land would have been “Or do what exactly?” If the campaigners against the first-past-the-post-system had answered “Well, it could be alternative vote or proportional representation or mixed member majoritarian or maybe single transferable vote”, most of us would have found that unsatisfactory. If I’m going to vote to change something I know, I want to know what it is I am getting instead.
The question posed to the electorate on 23 June 2016 raises this exact problem: we either vote to remain in the EU or we vote for our government to negotiate something else, without knowing what that something else will be. What alternative arrangement is Vote Leave even campaigning for? They haven’t said. The campaign cannot in good faith promise more sovereignty, democracy, freedom and control without answering that question, and they have not done.
Instead, we have heard about a bewildering (and for many voters soporific) range of alternatives: Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, which are in the European Economic Area (EEA) but not the EU; Switzerland, which is not in the EEA but has concluded a multiplicity of bilateral deals with the EU that essentially mimic EEA membership; Canada, which has just negotiated a free trade agreement, excluding some goods and financial services; South Korea, which recently negotiated a different and less expansive free trade agreement; Albania, which has an association agreement that is a pre-cursor to full membership of the EU; Turkey, which is in a customs union with the EU, restricted to only some goods and no services; or eschewing all of these options and falling back on WTO rules. Right now, we do not know which one of these we will get or if we will get some other arrangement entirely.
This point matters a great deal, maybe more than any other point voters should bear in mind on 23 June 2016. Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Albania and so on are not a range of similar options; they differ markedly. It is like comparing an Aston Martin and a camel: the only thing they have in common is that they are both modes of transport. For the average Briton, the difference between Norway and Albania is the difference between almost nothing changing and changing almost everything.
The differences between the models largely turn on the type and level of access to the “single market”. Most of you will have heard the term many times during this interminable debate, although not everyone will understand what it means. At its simplest, a single market is the product of an agreement between countries to trade without restrictions or tariffs. It means the UK cannot levy a customs charge of 10% on French meringues and the French cannot levy a tariff on British sausages. The European single market came into being on 1 January 1993 and is now the largest economy in the world. It is the deepest and most comprehensive single market ever negotiated; it is much more than a “free trade area” and it shouldn’t be equated with one.
Access to the European single market legally requires that Members guarantee four fundamental freedoms: (i) the free movement of goods; (ii) the free movement of services; (iii) the free movement of persons, including free movement of workers; and (iv) the free movement of capital. As a condition of access to the single market, EU members are required to implement EU laws regarding the single market, competition, social policy, environmental policy, state aid, transport policy, financial services, indirect taxation, consumer protection and company law. They are also required to contribute financially to EU institutions.
One likely outcome of a vote to leave is the “Norway model”, which essentially means being in the single market but outside the EU. Norway has to comply with all of the requirements of the single market, including applying the vast majority of EU laws (despite having no say in drafting them), making similar financial contributions to the EU as Britain (about €107 per capita as compared to about €139 per capita) and guaranteeing free movement of persons. If you have driven across the border from Sweden to Norway, as I have done, you will know there is no immigration control (there is a customs control to check the origin of goods, an inconvenience that experts consider would cost the UK as much as 1% of GDP if applied to it). Norway, like all members of the EEA, is in the Schengen Zone, and so has much less control over its border than the UK does. Although the UK would not join Schengen even if it pursued the EEA option, it would have no greater control of its borders than it does now. Norway may have some degree of additional flexibility in applying EU law, notably in relation to fisheries and agriculture, but this is necessarily limited. Norway's government has repeatedly emphasised that it does not think the benefits outweigh the costs.
Suppose Britain votes to leave on 23 June 2016 and then ends up with the Norway model. What will that look like? Once the inevitable short-term economic turmoil dies down and the arrangements are finalised, the vast majority of Britons will simply notice no difference at all in their day-to-day lives or our relationship with the EU: immigration rules for EU citizens will not change; the vast majority of European laws will continue to apply to the UK as they do now (although the democratic deficit will now be compounded because the UK will no longer have any say in drafting them); and the UK will continue to be required to make a large financial contribution to the EU budget. The tabloids will carry the same headlines; Eurosceptic politicians will continue to complain about the EU and “dictatorial Brussels” (which would for the first time actually be able to dictate laws to the UK). Almost everything that out voters dislike about the EU will remain the same. The “freedom”, “democracy” and “control” they hoped for on 24 June 2016 will have proved chimeric. They will feel, rightly, that we went through the noise and expense of the referendum and the ensuing economic uncertainty for nothing.
Instead of being pinned down, the Leave Campaign has been able to make claims that depend on incompatible post-Brexit counterfactuals, such as "taking control of our borders" or "abolishing burdensome EU regulation" or "stopping the government sending your money to Brussels" while simultaneously promising that we will retain full access to the single market. Vote Leave cannot have its cake and eat it: it is fundamentally dishonest to promise people restrictions on immigration that will require being outside the single market while also promising that we will have full access to the single market. No one has that relationship with the EU and there is no rational basis for thinking that Britain alone would be allowed the benefits of the single market without the burdens. Switzerland is an instructive case: it voted to restrict migration from the EU in 2014 but the EU has refused to compromise on freedom of movement. If Switzerland tries to impose any restrictions on immigration, it will lose access to the single market. Debate over.
Even if Britain were to leave the single market (which some Brexiteers have recognised as inevitable to attain other things they want), it will not suddenly be free from Brussels. For instance, British Banks will still need to comply with Basel III, regularly identified as one of the top-two most “costly” European regulations by Brexiteers. British businesses that export goods and services to the EU will still need to comply with EU trade and related laws and regulations. It is right to point out that those businesses that export are a small percentage of the number of businesses in Britain. However, they are also, inevitably, the biggest, representing a large share of our GDP and employing up to 4 million Britons in jobs linked to EU exports. For the millions of working people employed by Britain’s biggest businesses, little would change except that their government could no longer influence these laws and regulations directly. This involves a loss of "control", not "taking back control".
Certainly, there would be some additional regulatory flexibility on offer if Britain leaves the single market, but OECD analysis shows that, far from being crushed by European regulation, the UK has the second least-regulated product market among industrial countries and the least-regulated labour market in the EU. This means the potential regulatory gains from leaving the EU would be small and would have to be set off against potentially enormous costs.
A favourite phrase of Leave campaigners and tabloids is "dictatorial Brussels". That sounds like something we want to avoid, but what is the reality? The government and British MEPs vote on all EU laws. They are passed jointly by the Council (on which the UK is represented by the government of the day) and the EU Parliament (in which British MEPs sit). An EU law needs both a majority in the Council, representing at least 55% of EU countries and 65% of the EU population, and a majority in the EU Parliament.
The UK has voted against EU laws just 2% of the time since 1999 (although Remain often omits to mention that the UK has voted against EU laws a bit more in recent years). Not only does the UK government vote on all these laws, it has representation and influence in the bodies that come up with and propose these laws at multiple stages, including the EU Commission, the make up of which is approved by the EU Parliament and which must include a commissioner from the UK. When compared to the UN, NATO, WTO, IMF and other international bodies, the EU is considerably more democratic.
The real democratic deficit issue is that, despite its democratic institutions and processes, EU citizens do not tend to identify with the EU, which has manifested in steep falls in turnout in EU elections. As a result, the EU does not enjoy the same legitimacy as national systems. The paradox is that the EU would have to become more like a national government to avoid this problem, precisely the solution that most worries Brexiteers.
There is therefore a trade-off to be made. The likely "freedom dividend" that Brexit would bring is that the UK would not have to go along with the majority of the EU in areas where it disagreed with them, except of course if the UK decided to remain part of the single market, in which case see above. However, given that Britain approved or abstained on 98% of EU laws over the last two decades and would have to continue to do many of the things voters do not like even if it left the EU, there is realistically not that much additional freedom and control on offer.
Many Brexiteers have a different concern: they are worried about what the EU might become, not what it is now. People are worried about the seemingly inexorable slide towards statehood, for instance that Britain might one day be drawn into an EU army. The key point here is that the UK has a say in all of this through the democratic processes identified above, including a veto over any proposed EU army. It is only because we’ve been led to believe that the UK has bent the knee to Brussels that so many voters do not understand the limits on what Brussels can do without our say-so. The reality is that, when it comes to the big topics, Britain will only have to implement the integration that we vote for ourselves.
Furthermore, if the EU were actually to do any of the things Brexiteers say they are worried about, the UK could vote to leave in the future. Whatever Vote Leave say, this referendum is not a once-off. The Scottish referendum was “once-in-a-generation”, apparently, but will likely happen again within the decade if there is a vote for Brexit.
Much of the future integration that is likely to occur in the decades to come will be within the Eurozone, where it is sorely needed in areas like banking regulation. There is little appetite for further integration in the EU more generally, particularly amongst those outside the Euro who are mostly sceptical of the European project’s political dimensions. For British sovereignty to be genuinely threatened, it would need to join the Euro, a thoroughly bad idea that is vanishingly unlikely and would also inevitably be put to a referendum if it were ever to be proposed.
Conversely, a vote to leave is irreversible. The UK will never be allowed to return on the highly favourable terms it currently enjoys, including the hard won rebate and opt-outs that mean the UK contributes the least of all member states as a percentage of Gross National Income.
Standing in school halls and church yards across Britain on Thursday, voters must ask themselves exactly what additional control and freedom they stand to gain by leaving. An honest answer from Vote Leave, and these have been rare as hen’s teeth in this area, would be "It depends, in particular on how much you're willing to pay for it by leaving the single market and, even then, not that much really". We cannot wind back the clock to a pre-globalisation pre-EU Britain without the world's largest market right next door applying rules and regulations that Britain will have to abide by to continue to trade with it. Don't be at all surprised when life after Brexit feels exactly the same as life before Brexit, only poorer and with less control and influence over what will almost certainly remain our most important trading partner.
Both the Leave and Remain campaigns rightly suspended operations following the traumatic tidings from Birstall. I hope it provides a moment of introspection. If ever we needed to pause for breath – to stop, to think – it is now. Amidst all the shouting, and often drowned out by it, are a great many campaigners, journalists and politicians who are decent and respectful, who honour the best traditions of the proud democracy that was assailed on Market Street on Thursday. Mrs Cox was one of them. We would do well to follow her example in the week of campaigning that remains: to talk to one another respectfully; to listen to each other calmly; to rise above the din.
My hope is that out of this cessation of hostilities a debate emerges that is worthy of the momentous question we are being asked to consider. This is the most important decision facing Britain in a generation or more. No less than the Acts of Union is at stake, for the second time in less than two years. So too is the question of the kind of country we wish to become. Something this significant deserves better from the campaigns for and against Brexit. It deserves better from all of us.
This article was written by Andrew Lodder.