I had a conversation last night with someone and left them somewhat perplexed. The conversation was over the EU Referendum, a fairly frequent topic at the moment, and which way we were each going to vote. The part of the conversation that puzzled them was when I described myself as a Eurosceptic but also a Remain voter. They couldn’t quite get their head around this and to be fair I would have thought most people would struggle with this. That is because they have been brought to believe that those with raging antipathy towards the EU are Eurosceptic. That is the description applied to anyone with hostility to the EU. I tend to use it in a slightly more nuanced fashion.
Scepticism is more about a questioning attitude rather than antipathy, fear, terror or dread of a thing. I don’t fear the EU, I certainly don’t have any terror or dread of it. I am however sceptical of closer integration I approach the demand for “more Europe” very cautiously with a questioning attitude. Is there an issue to be solved? Is the best way to solve it a EU wide solution? Can a solution be found at the level of the nation state or lower? This strikes me as a healthily sceptical approach. It isn’t hostile to Europe wide solutions but seeks to challenge the need for them. There are issues that face Britain that face nations all the way to the Danube and beyond. Commonly agreed solutions may in certain instances be better than nations coming up with individual solutions that compete and cancel each other out.
The conversation last night was quite a long one and involved me making numerous criticisms of the EU, it’s apparatus, way of doing business and often grandiose sense of its own importance. This puzzled my fellow conversationalist, how could I have so many criticisms and yet be for staying in? Well with a degree of difficulty but not an insuperable one. Yes, I am tempted by the concept of leaving the EU. It is superficially attractive the notion of getting shot of all those niggles that drive everyone mad about the EU. However you cannot separate the downsides from the up, and retain the benefits and dissociate yourself from the costs. If we leave then it is clear that we will lose many of the benefits of membership but not necessarily all of the costs. It depends on how we negotiate our exit. It is far from clear if those advocating an exit even know themselves on what basis they wish to proceed.
The fact is that in all the EU debate the deal that the Prime Minister achieved has been rather sidelined. It is a shame because it is a pretty good deal. It permanently excludes us from the founding principle of “ever closer union”. It guarantees our opt out from the Euro and makes changes to the application of free movement without undermining the concept. It achieved everything the PM set out to, not necessarily in the way he set out, but every bit as good if not better. From the perspective of Britain going forward the deal the Prime Minister negotiated before this referendum means that whilst the rest of Europe can go for deeper integration if they choose, Britain will still be on the train but in the quiet carriage.
My interlocutor last night suggested that that meant that the EU would leave us behind and we would be sat on the margins. A strange view to hold for someone who is a proponent of leaving entirely, but I didn’t feel I wanted to get into that aspect of their argument. As I say the deal gives us a really phenomenal position in Europe, in it playing a full part but not required to go further than we feel comfortable with. The best of both worlds, in Europe but fully masters of our own destiny within it. I think it is a fantastic opportunity for Britain and Europe as it fixes much that is the cause of angst for British voters. Is it perfect? Of course not but you are not going to find perfection on this earth. I think it is a pretty good deal and one that forms a good basis for continuing to be a member of the EU.
So the option we have in 20 days time is between Leave and Remain. If we vote Leave we can be certain of only a very limited number of things. We will certainly lose the benefits of membership of the EU, and we will certainly pay a cost of separating ourselves from an institution that we have been woven into for more than 40 years. What we cannot be certain of is how much of the costs of membership we will no longer bear, it depends on how our exit is negotiated and the future state of trade relations with our former partners. We also cannot be entirely certain what if any benefits will accrue from going it alone. If we vote to Remain then we certainly retain all the benefits of EU membership and certainly reduce some of the costs as specified in the renegotiation. Everything else should remain largely equal with a little uncertainty over how the new deal beds in. I still retain my scepticism about Europe, and will continue to question it after, as I hope, our membership is reaffirmed on the new basis negotiated by the PM.