It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call Brexit among the most divisive political votes in history. Whether Brexit will be positive or negative for the UK still divides the opinions of most of the 70 million inhabitants of the UK. The main consensus amongst progressives is that Brexit will mostly be negative; both politically, socially and most importantly, economically. But then why did more than half of the UK vote in favour of it? In this article I intend to explore some of the main underlying points in favour of Brexit, and evaluate the grounds for their support.
One of the most salient arguments brought forward by Brexit supporters is the bureaucratic nature of the European Parliament. Supporters believe that Brexit would return power to the government, and by association, the British people. This idea appears particularly unfounded as all ministers of the European Union are elected from their respective national government. The United Kingdom itself hold regional elections to decide it’s MEPs, however, that isn’t to say these elected MEPs won’t act in the interests of their home country or even the local communities that elected them. In 2015, many of the elected MEPs for the UK, notably those of the United Kingdom Independence Party, refrained from adhering to parliamentary conduct in protest at the European Union. However, this issue isn’t unique to the European Union and has existed virtually as long as democratic institutions have.
The ability to take control of laws and policy
One of the main requirements of being a member state in the Eurozone (the free, single-market of the European Union that allows the free movement of goods and people across Europe) is to adhere to the European Court of Justice. The European Court of Justice is the main law-making entity in Europe and ensures that all EU countries abide by the laws set down by the European Union. Currently, it is comprised of one judge from each EU member state and 11 advocates for the Union itself. The main argument of pro-Brexit politicians is that the European Court of Justice takes away the ability for the UK government to manage its own laws and gives power to the EU and away from UK citizens.
Whilst this is true to some extent, the European Court of Justice also provides several opportunities for UK citizens to control the UK government through the Court. The most notable example of this is through the European Court of Human Rights, which forms a Court of law above the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court, that theoretically each EU member state must adhere to the ruling of. The European Court of Human Rights provides another avenue for citizens who think the government, or justice system, has wronged them to seek legal help.
However, the usefulness of the European Court of Human Rights in managing the UK government is itself questionable. The UK government has failed to adhere to guidelines and rulings made by the Court. The most prolific example of this came in the decision in 2003 to introduce the Imprisonment for Public Protection Sentences (also known as indeterminate prison sentences), which allowed judges to instil no fixed term limits when convicting criminals to be imprisoned if they are deemed to be violent or a danger to the public, even for crimes that would originally only confer a 1-2 year sentence. While the UK government did abolish the handing out of Indeterminate Prison Sentences in 2012 after a European Court of Human Rights ruling that it was in breach of human rights, the abolition didn’t comply with the recommendations to revoke the current indeterminate sentences handed to over 3,500 prisoners in the UK who were currently serving no fixed prison sentence term. To this day several hundred IPP prisoners are still trapped in custody, some for crimes that would otherwise have seen them walking free decades earlier.
Our continued place in the European Single-Market would ensure that we were still required to adhere to all laws created by the European Court of Justice, however without having a UK-representative on the Court itself. This means any deal involving membership of the single-market would result in still having to abide by EU law.
Trade and the Membership Fee
In 2016, the year following the Brexit vote, the UK paid over £13 billion to the European Union for membership, a tariff that must be paid by all member states. While this is considerably less than the ‘£250 million a week’ fee ,famously mentions by the Vote-leave ‘Battle Bus’ during the vote, it is still a considerable fraction of UK GDP.
We must however consider that a sizeable number of this is given back to the UK, of around £4.5 billion each year. This is mostly given in the form of grants to research projects, and the UK’s many tourist attractions and national landmarks. The biggest recipient of the money in terms of geographical areas of the UK is Cornwall, due its huge international tourism spots.
The case for a financial reason to leave the EU is also further complicated by how it is almost completely impossible to even estimate the amount of money the UK makes each year from free-trade, free-movement, and other various services discounted by EU membership, such as a relaxation to the Rules of Origin restrictions relaxed on products within the EU. This has been hotly contested by lobbyists, policymakers and analysts since long before the Brexit vote, possibly even since the UK has been in the European Union itself. The lack of consensus and ambiguities on what exactly makes the UK the most money from being a member of the EU makes this point one of the most difficult to disrepute.
Whether trade would be better or worse off without the European Union is also a very hotly contested topic. Brexit supporters argue that the European Union decides the trade regulations and partners for its members, denying the UK the ability to manage its own trade and determine its own trade partners. Yet this argument fails to understand the very reason why the European Union was created in such a way in the first place. The European Union was designed to have the single market to ensure European Countries would have larger bargaining power with the new world-superpowers seen rising in the far-east and the United States. These large powers are forced to do business with the entirety of Europe, as opposed to being able to strong-arm smaller and economically weak individual European countries (such as the tactics employed by the Trump Administration in recent years with Mexico and Canada) into deals that would only benefit the larger powers.
As argued by Brexiteers, the United Kingdom, boasting the 5th largest world economy, can gather the economic power needed to ensure fair trade deals are made with other superpowers, most notably by gaining the backing of the United States through a ‘special relationship’ that favours US-UK trade. But yet again, this argument is too simplistic when compared to reality. It is true that the UK has the 5th largest GDP of any country in the world, but the relative difference in GDP between the UK and the two largest economies, China and the United States, is immense. The International monetary fund found in 2017 that the United States had a national GDP 10 times higher than the UK.
This is also further complicated by the role the United Kingdom plays as the only fully English-Speaking country to reside in the European Union. The United Kingdom is often regarded as the ‘gateway to Europe’, and has developed a vast financial economy off the ability for the United States and far Eastern investment firms and banks to do business in the UK and make use of its easy access to the Single-Market.
It is questionable whether the UK would be able to sufficiently make use of its economy to stand on its own feet without the need of the European Union. There may also be a legacy of nostalgia towards the days of the old British Empire and the United Kingdom’s ability to stand as a world power. The reality is the UK has yet to prove such a feat is possible after so many years sheltered in the Single-Market.
Immigration is by far the most contentious issue in the Brexit debate. There is a general assumption that the Pro-Brexit argument in terms of immigration, is that the free movement of workers between European countries has contributed to a huge rise in low-skilled migrants into the UK. This argument was somewhat hijacked during the Brexit vote considering the Migrant Crisis, where there was a flood of refugees from conflicts with Islamic State and the Syrian Civil war moving across the Mediterranean and into the European Union through Italy. Another issue backing the immigration argument for Brexit is that the flood of migrant workers from countries that give lower salaries for the same jobs (such as Eastern European countries that often make use of their lower economies to provide less pay for low-skilled and skilled workers), move to the United Kingdom and take the jobs of UK nationals.
According to data from the office of national statistics for September 2018, there are currently 2.25 million non-UK EU nationals, compared to 1.24 million non-UK nationals from outside the EU working in the United Kingdom. However, only 881,000 of the EU nationals working in the UK are from Eastern European countries, and the number of Eastern European Migrants in the UK has been steadily decreasing since September 2016, where it peaked at just over 1 million workers. The United Kingdom has seen relatively steady increases in the number of UK nationals working in the UK over recent years.
Another issue, particularly around the ‘Migrant Crisis’, is that even though part of the argument in favour of Brexit included discussion on whether the European Union would force the United Kingdom to ‘share the load’ of refugees from the Middle East, the agreement to bring refugees into the UK wasn’t decided by the EU, but instead by a joint agreement between France and the UK. In that situation, the United Kingdom did have control over its borders and instead chose to let migrants in. A further issue with the Immigrant Brexit argument is that leaving the European Union might make it more difficult for the United Kingdom to deport illegal immigrants, as currently, EU law allows for quick deportation of illegal immigrants either to other European Union countries, or countries close to the European Union.
Similarly, under directive 2004/38 of the European Union, specifically article 28, member-states do have a certain amount of discretion to avoid the abuse of freedom of movement, notably to ‘guard against the abuse of rights or from fraud’ to ‘adopt necessary measures’ which can include deportation. EU law already allows for migrants who abuse the freedom of movement to be sent back to their home country.
Brexit will fundamentally change the United Kingdom, in terms of its economic make-up, its ability to control policy, it’s government’s accountability, and the United Kingdom’s place on the world stage. Whether this change will be overall positive, negative or could even be considered as anything beyond ‘complicated’ is a topic that will be debated for many decades to come. The arguments in favour of Brexit, while mostly being simplistic in their depiction of very complex political and financial situations, do reflect genuine dissatisfaction with the United Kingdom, neoliberal policies and institutions such as the European Union.