Being neutral about Brexit

20th February 2016

I used to be a Eurosceptic and in large part I remain one; I am now just as wary of the bullshit from Westminster and Whitehall as I ever was of the bullshit from Brussels.

There is a lot for a small “l” liberal to dislike about the European Union.

Whatever “internationalist” credentials it has, they are off-set by its protectionalism against the rest of the world.  Its decision-making and policy-making have no transparency, and nobody seems ever responsible for anything. There is nothing “democratic” in any meaningful sense about any part of the EU which has genuine power. [**]

And, as I set out in the New Statesman in 2012, the EU has the habit of taking the credit for what has been achieved by other international arrangements, such as NATO and the ECHR.

It has always seemed strange that the big “l” and big “d” Liberal Democrats ever found anything liberal or democratic about the EU.  Perhaps it is all behind the scenes (which rather defeats the point).

But those (supposedly) in favour of UK “sovereignty” are often full of bullshit as well.

The current prime minister promotes the sovereignty of parliament whilst, in practice, encouraging departments to push through as much legislation as possible (and certainly not just EU-related legislation) as statutory instruments and other secondary legislation, which will rarely have any proper scrutiny.

In the UK, especially in England, most legislation is executive-driven, and at speed; the parliamentary stages are as much ceremonial window-dressing as the royal assent.  Even legislation which affects fundamental rights is just forced through, and only then if officials cannot get away without legislating.

And it is next-to-impossible to shift the public policy of any government department. Whoever wins the general election, the same senior civil servants (and those who influence them and have access to them) remain.  Things rarely change, as ministers come and go.

It is all an illiberal and undemocratic mess.

The only sensible response, it seems to me, is to strengthen the rights of the individual against the “state” – whether it be domestic or EU – both in being able to challenge decisions and laws in the courts, and to have access to a transparent policy-making process.

And so it is difficult to care ultimately about Brexit.  Both sides are alarmist, and both can pick out the weak spots in the other side’s positions whilst being blind to their own.

This is why this blog is neutral – as long as UK remains part of NATO and the ECHR.

It is not that I don’t know or care about UK and EU law and policy – I follow it all carefully and even advise on both domestic and EU law. I just cannot see what real difference the result will be from a liberal perspective. The illiberal – and undemocratic – misuses of public power will remain.

And to those in favour of Brexit who say ‘at least it will be “our” politicians who will make the decisions, and we can turn them out’, I reluctantly reply that this may be mere sentimentality. One can wish this is true, but sadly it is not.

In practice, policy-making and law-making in Whitehall and Westminster is just as illiberal – and undemocratic – as it is in Brussels and, if you take liberalism seriously, there is nothing to choose between them.


To get alerts for my new posts at Jack of Kent and the FT, and anywhere else, please submit your email address in the “Subscribe” box at the top of this page.

**An earlier version of this post made a statement about the EU’s accounts not being signed-off by auditors; I have been told this is a “zombie fact” and so I have deleted it whilst I look at it again.

24 thoughts on “Being neutral about Brexit”

  1. The reason why politicians circumvent democracy is because they can and the reason they can is because people no longer know who makes the laws and how they are made. Much of this is down to the EU which has muddied the waters about lines of power. Also the fourth estate has been dreadful at explaining how the EU plays a role. They have just focused on stupid rules about bananas and the like. Once out the waters would clear and the non-functioning of democracy would become plainer.

  2. I’m afraid that, unusually, I can’t agree with you. Firstly the EU: our problem has always been that we have not properly engaged. Whining from the wings gives us no influence and this government is notable for both whining and having no influence. We could still be fully engaged and holding the Franco-German axis to account.

    Ultimately I think we have to stay in for one simple reason: Europe is our main trading partner. Currently we have some say in the terms and conditions of this trade. Outside we would have practically none. Just ask Norway about this.

    Domestically you are also wrong and I’m surprised that you missed the obvious problem, Government circumventing Parliament. With whips, patronage and corrupt enticements from the City we have seen Parliament weakened and undermined for decades. This has been entirely deliberate, especially under governments after 1997. The people need to hold their parliamentary representatives to account so that they in turn hold Government to account. I know this sounds idealistic but the alternatives are far worse.

    1. I think you are doing Norway an immense disservice and swallowing these myths whole. It is very much involved in the regulatory process at a global level, it adopts around 21% of all EU law, when the EU adopts standards – which Norway has already had an opportunity to influence – into legislation, EEA countries like Norway are involved in the consultation process, and they have a right of reservations. Which they exercised in the case of the Postal Directive and in recent dispute over oil and gas regulation.

      As a means of securing a soft landing, protecting the economy and alleviating risk, it ain’t half bad.

  3. I agree with much of this analysis of the governance aspects of brexit (although I’m a bit more positive about the chances of Westminster reform than Brussels reform). I’m similarly unconvinced by the trade arguments re brexit, because businesses buy from wherever is cheapest. If the doom and gloom merchants are right why isn’t China a trade backwater and Switzerland an economic wasteland? That leaves the financial argument, and that’s the one that sways me towards brexit. EU membership costs us a large sum (again much argued about, but there seems to be broad agreement that it’s somewhere in the range of tens of billions per annum) and I think we’d get better value for money if Westminster spent that money elsewhere.

  4. ‘Eurosceptic’ is a very odd label, when you think about it. Just about everyone is sceptical about the EU, apart from the very small group of Euro-idealists – people who believe passionately in a federal Europe and are willing to bet on the EU eventually getting us there. Most self-described Eurosceptics would be better labelled UK-idealists – and most people with any sense are sceptical about their ideals, too.

    I’m surprised that you think NATO membership is fundamental, though. As far as I’m concerned, the end of the Cold War should have been a signal for NATO to fold its tents, not to expand to include most of the Warsaw Pact. For internationalism we’ve got the UN – and if that won’t do the job, that may suggest looking again at the job we want doing.

  5. You are quite right lamenting the lack of transparency and accountability in the EU but just remind yourself if this is a EU specific problem or not. You are actually answering this question later on, and so we have to ask ourselves whether the debate about exit or not is held over unimportant, marginal issues, and whether there is another, unspoken and neglected element to the debate. It reminds me of a couple squabbling over a divorce because they can’t agree whether to go to Waitrose or Sainsbury’s.
    As a German living in Britain for over 25 years now it strikes me that British people have no sense of the historical context the EU is founded on. There hardly is a European country in history that had not been invaded by neighbours, divided, carved up, devastated, ruined and humiliated at least once during every generation of our forebears. I have dozens of ancestors who lost their lives in wars, my grandfather was killed in the first, my father badly wounded in the second, they went through famine, genocide (as victims and perpetrators) and displacement. The EU was born out of a collective conscience that we must, we can change this happening again and it is this what we must fight for. Britain has suffered and contributed immensely in the two World Wars but unfortunately this seems not to have had the same effect on the national psyche as it had in continental Europe. Her attitude to the world remains largely that of the lamented shopkeeper’s mentality, ‘what’s in it for me?’ Britain looks at the EU as a trading place, and does horse trading, unable to look beyond the counter top. Continentals look on confused.

    1. In the past Germany has sought to dominate Europe by force. Twice they tried and twice the British and others had to stop them. Now they are doing it under the flag of the EU. Look what Merkel has done to Greece, Italy, European immigration policy. As a German you should realise that the whole point of the EU was to control Germany. From the Coal and Steel act on. Why should the British want to be part of this. If the Germans want to start another war we will be dragged in. Being in the EU will not change this.

      1. Of course one of the reasons Germany felt the need to try and dominate Europe by force was that it had missed out on building empire elsewhere in the world – which the UK hadn’t.

        Britain and Germany are far more alike than either country is like the French. To my mind it is the binding together of Britain and Germany that is Europe’s great value. On balance I’m in because Farage and various Tories scare me a lot more than Merkel and Juncker.

  6. The referendum does not mean a thing, as if we vote to come out, when 1st April 2017 (April Fool’s Day) arrives next year and knowing how slow the EU and UK government operates, the referendum will fail on two counts.

    1. By 1 April 2017, the new rules kick-in that we signed up to a few years ago and things become very muddy in the waters to move forward on a Brexit and where for the UK to leave becomes far more difficult indeed.
    2. After April Fool’s Day 2017, the EU can extract far more draconian conditions on the UK’s exit and make it so financially restrictive to exit, that we could not, even if we wished. In other words using financial blackmail that would be akin to international economic terrorism.

    For the law is on the EU’s side and they will certainly use it to threaten and keep Britain paying in £55 million a day, less our EU repayments of around £9.75 million a day, giving a nett contribution to the EU of over £45 million a day – in other words, political blackmail. Margaret Thatcher would turn in her grave and Ted Heath, well that’s another story. The whole thing is just one BIG CON and Cameron knows this. If he does not, he is not fit to be PM or representing the people, not even his own voters. Does the deceit of the EU get any higher as the EU purveys this constantly? I would say the deceit will become far greater if anything.

    Our only hope is that the people eventually see through this utter madness and the true reality of things that our successive politicians have signed the British people up to. We live in utter hope. –

  7. Your analysis on the illiberalism of both the UK and European systems of governance is of course sound. But it is odd to suggest this is the only thing one should care about, or that liberalism only prescribes certain constitutional structures.

    The EU has a number of successes in areas of economics and social policy reform. It also has a number of failures. But these don’t seem to factor into your assessment of whether Brexit would change anything when they should. If you believe that our economic and social policies would not change overall on leaving then neutrality makes sense. But I highly doubt that is the case and I believe focusing exclusively on constitutional issues is problematic.

    1. This is expressly a “liberal” blog about law and policy – if I can’t emphasise the liberalism or otherwise of law and policy on this blog, where can !?

      1. You’re quite right about their being little asymmetry in the illiberality of the UK and the EU.

        Both I put down to parliaments that are servile to governments rather than something intrinsic to “British” as opposed to “EU” sovereignty. “Our” politicians (in Westminster) are no more democratic than “our” politicians (in the EU).

        The broader issue is what to do about it?

        Our Parliament, the EU Parliament, should take control. It has the power, were it to use it, to effectively control the EU executive.

        That is it’s job and it should do it.

        Our job as citizens is to elect that Parliament: we should elect those who will do that job.

        (And to those who say that their aren’t any candidates who will do that: if the referendum keeps us in then I’m standing next time round!)

  8. This is why this blog is neutral – as long as UK remains part of NATO and the ECHR.

    I believe you should care about the EU in the same way you seem to care about NATO and the ECHR. All of these institutions provide stability and a community amongst nations. The ECHR and the body of law in the EU also help prevent excesses and the ideologies linked to them – mitigating the effects of the government’s flavour of the day.

  9. A gloomy, if realistic, take. I’d be interested in how you would compare the functioning of the ECHR and its governing body – the Council of Europe – in comparison to the EU when it comes to transparency and those other “liberal” yardsticks? (Or perhaps you’ve already addressed that elsewhere?)

  10. I think you missed an aspect of liberalism that is especially relevant here. Non-EU migrants will soon be required to earn over £35,000 or leave. Many have been subject to an increasing array of illiberal measures designed to deter non-EU immigration – the very idea that a citizen cannot marry who they want without the State butting in ought to send shivers down people’s spines. Now, if we leave the EU, there’s a good chance EU migrants will be subject to these onerous rules. I could see a number of friends, people I care deeply about, forced from this country simply because of where they were born. It seems clear to me that the liberal thing to do in such circumstances is to vote Remain, I can do no else, even if I’m skeptical of the amount of power the EU has in certain areas. The liberty of the people I care about is far more important.

  11. We risk straying into dark places if we justify fundamentally “illiberal and undemocratic” political structures because they provide some beneficial social policies.

    The playful title (“Being neutral about Brexit”), in an “expressly ‘liberal’ blog”, seems to invite the reader to decide which of an exclamation (!) mark or a question (?) mark the author deliberately omitted. For as a small ‘l’ liberal, I cannot be neutral over Brexit. I know already how I must vote.

    The discomfort for me arises as a Labour Party member being asked to support remaining part of an “illiberal and undemocratic” institution, whether there is reform or not. I agree with the author of this blog that to get us out of this mess, the “only sensible response … is to strengthen the rights of the individual against the ‘state’ – whether it be domestic or EU.”

    Unlike the author, IANAL, just a person with one vote. I don’t have the alternate possibility of challenging decisions and laws in the courts. Thus I will take the only path open to me and use my vote to leave the EU so that we have only one, not two, states to fight to get the “transparent policy-making process” we so desperately need.

    1. Do you really think that we can improve things more easily by leaving the EU? All the wasted energy involved, plus the reactionary Tories being fully off the leash? Utter delusion!

  12. …And to those in favour of Brexit who say ‘at least it will be “our” politicians who will make the decisions, and we can turn them out’, I reluctantly reply that this may be mere sentimentality. One can wish this is true, but sadly it is not….

    One word – Trump.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *