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Leave or Remain? a fundamental asymmetry

Books + Ideas, , — May 2016

I am not yet a British citizen, but as an Australian resident in the country I get to vote in the forthcoming referendum on EU membership. (Unlike European citizens resident in the UK, or British citizens who have been abroad for too long.) So I take the liberty of using "we" in what follows.

The burden of proof

If we have any respect for conservatism at all, the onus has to be on advocates of leaving the European Union to make a case. Leaving the EU would be a drastic change to the UK's position in the world and there needs to be a good reason for undertaking such a leap. This is indeed the reason we are holding a referendum at all, rather than just letting parliament decide — in its gravity, this is a decision on a par with a constitutional amendment in Australia. (Where the burden is explicitly on proponents of change, and where only 8 out of 44 referendums since Federation have passed.)

Arguments that the UK was not a member of the EU for however many thousand years and that that is therefore the "normal" situation are fatuous. It is not yet seventy years since Britain gave up India and ceased to be an Empire, and not a century since there was a significant reduction in its core territorial claims when the Republic of Ireland came into existence. The United Kingdom has been a member of the European Union/Economic Community for the entire lifetime of a majority of Britons currently living.

Uncertainty, Tail Risks, and Optionality

The risks of continuing "as is" within the EU are fairly well understood; in contrast, there are large uncertainties in what leaving would entail. We don't even know what a UK government would attempt to negotiate — proponents of leaving have very different suggestions for this — in terms of trade, migration, finances and so forth, let alone how different partners would respond or what the outcomes would be.

As a result of this, there are significant "long tail" risks to leaving. There are some obviously terrible outcomes that are unlikely but not impossible, and the asymmetry means the greater weight of entirely unforseen risks falls to leaving.

In the event of a decision to remain, the UK would retain the option of leaving, allowing us to make a later decision when we have more information: domestic politics might make a repeat referendum in the short-term unlikely, but it would remain a possibility. In contrast, a decision to leave would be irreversible, at least in the medium-term. And any attempt to rejoin would not be under our control but would be subject to the whims of two dozen other states, so even if successful we would almost certainly end up in a worse position than we currently have.

In my opinion, these arguments carry sufficient weight that anyone uncertain of what to do should vote to remain in the EU. You may want to stop reading now.

Coming from a country with compulsory voting I almost forgot to add this, but refraining from voting is not a sensible response to uncertainty, at least not when major changes are proposed.

Dismal arguments

The quality of the arguments for leaving the EU that I am seeing is just woeful.

The Leave camp is not lacking in numbers of arguments. But, as with creationism and climate science denial, the sheer number of arguments here is actually a sign of weakness. I want one or two really solid arguments, demonstrating that something of significant value will result, with high probability, from leaving; instead I'm seeing hundreds of different arguments, picked on each occasion for rhetorical effect on whoever the current listener is. Some of them are wrong, some of them are weak, some of them are inconsequential, some of them are too vague to evaluate at all, and it's actually really hard to find the ones that have some substance. (This may be just as true of arguments for Remain, but as explained above I'm not looking for an argument to remain, I'm looking for an argument to leave.)

Leaving aside the outright fabrication of numbers, a huge number of the arguments I see for leaving are based on premises that are simply false. Most commonly they conflate membership of the EU with membership of the European Single Market or the Eurozone, adherence to the Schengen Agreement, or membership of the Council of Europe and being a party to the European Convention on Human Rights. But there is also scaremongering over Turkey joining the EU — this is not only several decades away even on the most optimistic timetable, and vetoable by the UK, but getting further away every year — and over threats from Russia that would have been overblown in 1950.

A lot of the arguments are appeals to abstractions with no content: "control over our own destiny", "the right to govern ourselves", sovereignty, and so forth. These arguments are mostly so vague they work just as well as arguments for the UK leaving the United Nations or NATO, or indeed abrogating every foreign treaty it has ever entered into — or as arguments for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, for that matter.

And then there are the "arguments" (often Daily Mail headlines) which involve matters of such triviality that they are almost laughable. Even if the EU had regulated cabbages or bus sizes in some silly fashion — and when I actually investigate these stories they turn out to be either inventions or the result of taking something completely out of context — that would be so inconsequential as to be irrelevant. (Also, it's not as if Westminster isn't capable of idiotic regulation itself, or perhaps more commonly under-regulation. And, unless you are a mindlessly doctrinaire libertarian, more general arguments about the cost of regulation on business need to take into account the benefits for individuals.)

Free Movement of Workers

I will discuss free movement of workers in a little more detail.

Having passed through the UK skilled migrant process myself, to the point of having Indefinite Leave to Remain, I can only say that it is hostile, unpleasant, expensive and time-consuming, and generally stressful. Making sure that I don't ever have to do that again will be one of the big motivations for taking up British citizenship. And the inflexible operation of the UK's immigration system sometimes involves much worse than anything I have experienced, breaking up families and destroying careers. On top of the personal and human costs, there are also economic costs: in administration and compliance but also in inefficient labour allocation.

Inflicting anything like this system on all the Europeans who want to work in the UK, and having whatever various countries require from non-EU workers inflicted on Britons working in Europe, would do real harm, both to individuals and to economies. Presumably a post-exit UK would attempt to negotiate a closer relationship with various European countries in this area than it has with Australia, in an attempt to alleviate this, but it remains entirely unclear what the UK would want, let alone what it would get. A major argument for leaving the EU is to "restore full control over immigration", which is always kept vague but surely implies imposing some kind of formal control on movement of workers from Europe — and, if getting net migration into the tens of thousands is a goal, a fairly stringently selective one. Even if other European states could be won over to (say) reciprocal agreements that only allowed people earning more than £35,000 a year to move to work, I'm not convinced people in the UK will be at all happy about a system where rich Britons get to move and work freely in Europe but poor people are excluded.

In any event, no one is going to enjoy the extra paperwork involved, except the bureaucrats who will get to negotiate two dozen new agreements and manage the resulting system. (If a post-exit UK negotiated a single agreement on movement of workers with the EU, that would certainly simplify the paperwork. However that would not only require the UK to grant Bulgarians the same status as the Dutch, something some people seem upset about, but would also cover Turks if Turkey joins the EU, which would now be possible without a UK veto...)


  1. The immigration issue is mostly about reversing Blair's decisions regarding Eastern Europe rather than just chipping away at them bit by bit as Cameron is doing. Leaving the EU will accomplish that in one go and it's easier to use the current anti-EU sentiment to do it.

    It's a question of whether you want to live in the independent nation of Great Britain or as part of a totally disfunctional, unaccountable commonwealth.

    Cameron was caught by surprise by anti-EU sentiment, figuring that the economic numbers for trade would out weigh any cultural and nationalist sentiment. It's not that surprising, Europeans have a record of voting against the EU, and Monetary Union whenever, they are actually given a chance to do so.

    In the end people won't vote for anything, so the UK will likely stay in the EU, just like Scotland voted to stay in Great Britain. The EU is economically unsustainable and now in a position where the next financial crisis will polish it off. The UK will leave, or get kicked out for refusing to submit to France and Germany or pay its tab, when that happens.

    The UK will survive as an independant nation (and worlds largest Tax haven). The disruption will be less than the 1970s.

    Comment by David Watford — May 2016
  2. It's a case of making comparisons.

    Outside the EU, Switzerland and Norway come near the top in every measure - economy, standard of living, equality, green issues, democracy, lack of corruption etc. They can only do this because they don't have the EU on their back.

    Another comparison - non-EU Iceland and EU Greece both had economic crises. Iceland pulled itself up, and jailed the bankers, and gone forward in a responsible manner. In contrast, Greece has been jailed BY the bankers - and will now be in debt bondage for decades, and has seen a resurgence of Fascism. People are digging through rubbish for something to eat. This is the EU.

    The EU is also, in effect, a white supremacist organisation. It privileges Europeans above all others.

    For these reasons and more, I cannot support Remain.

    Comment by Lucas Cornish — June 2016

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