Should We Stay Or Should We Go?

"The referendum on British membership of the European Union will be decided by the Eurosceptic but risk-averse middle chunk of the electorate"

Oliver Wiseman

The arch-federalist: Jean-Claude Juncker addresses the European Parliament, as Nigel Farage (left) and Federica Mogherini (right) listen (©Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

The referendum on British membership of the European Union will be decided by the Eurosceptic but risk-averse middle chunk of the electorate. If you are one such voter, you will have noticed that so far both campaigns have concentrated their energy on offering cartoonish nightmares about what will happen if you don’t side with them.

Remain’s “Project Fear” has focused on the economic risks of departure and has been backed up by analysis from authoritative sources, including the Treasury (whose “dodgy dossier” is dismantled by Tim Congdon elsewhere this issue), the Bank of England and the IMF, whose managing director, Christine Lagarde, said last month that “credible forecasts” suggest that Brexit will cost the UK as much as 10 per cent of its GDP — which, somewhat implausibly, would make it more economically harmful than the Great Depression or the First World War.

Leave, by contrast, presents an unconvincingly black-and-white choice between chaining ourselves to a continent on its deathbed, forever saddled with debt, mass immigration and terrorism, and moving forward into the sunlit uplands of deregulation, self-sufficiency and growth. The Brexiteers conveniently forget that Brussels is not the only source of red tape; this government hasn’t needed any help in complicating things for business owners and taxpayers.

Whatever side one takes on Brexit, it is hard to argue that a Leave vote on June 23 would be anything short of momentous. But claims and counterclaims about the consequences of that decision have now become a distracting din: the EU ends wars! The EU starts wars! Brexit will give you cancer! Brussels will privatise the NHS! While it would be folly to ignore the consequences of the decision Britain makes, there is a strong case for focusing on what we are really being asked in this referendum: where do we want decisions that affect us to be made?

For committed campaigners on either side, it is generally this central question that motivates them. Ask an advocate of the European project to make the case for the EU to you and he will tell you that supranational challenges — climate change and terrorism, for example — need to be tackled at a supranational level. For Eurosceptics, EU competences give power to an institution with what they see to be a considerable democratic deficit that constrains elected national governments. In the statement explaining his decision to back “Leave”, Michael Gove wrote: “It is hard to overstate the degree to which the EU is a constraint on ministers’ ability to do the things they were elected to do, or to use their judgment about the right course of action for the people of this country. I have long had concerns about our membership of the EU but the experience of government has only deepened my conviction that we need to change. Every single day, every single minister is told: ‘Yes, Minister, I understand, but I’m afraid it’s against EU rules.’ I know it. My colleagues know it. And the British people ought to know it too: your government is not, ultimately, in control of hundreds of areas that matter.”

Focusing on the constitutional dimension of the decision has the added benefit of being comparatively speculation-free. It’s all there in the Treaty of Lisbon. Article 2B codifies the Union’s “exclusive competence” — or law-making power — over “customs union; the establishing of the competition rules necessary for the functioning of the internal market; monetary policy for the Member States whose currency is the euro; the conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy; common commercial policy.” Article 2C gives the Union shared competences with member states over the internal market; social policy; economic, social and territorial cohesion; agriculture and fisheries, excluding the conservation of marine biological resources; the environment; consumer protection; transport; trans-European networks; energy; freedom, security and justice; and common safety concerns in public health matters.

These wide-ranging powers are theoretically limited by the idea of subsidiarity, which states that wherever possible decisions should be taken at a national level. Former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has described subsidiarity as “not a technical concept” but “a fundamental democratic principle”. It may be a democratic principle but there is little evidence of it in action. A UK government review of the balance of competences between the EU and the UK quoted Professor Derrick Wyatt QC’s assessment that “neither subsidiarity nor proportionality has acted as an effective brake on the exercise by the EU institutions of their extensive law-making powers.” Even European Commission President and arch-federalist Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament: “Our speeches last longer than our efforts to make real headway in reducing red tape, and to ensure that the European Commission — and the European Union — concerns itself with the really major European issues instead of interfering from all angles in every detail of people’s lives.”

Lord Denning’s famous assessment of the Treaty of Rome — it is like “an incoming tide. It flows into the estuaries and up the river. It cannot be held back” — has aged well. It is as true and more relevant some 42 years later.

There is a lot voters cannot be sure of when they vote on June 23. No one can say for certain what the long-term impact will be on our economy or our society. My advice is as follows: ignore the scare stories and hyperbole, whichever side they come from, and ask yourself the central question: how do you want to be governed?

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