Jean and Peter Watts are a retired professional couple who live in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Before that they lived for some years in rural France. Both, I feel sure they would not object to my revealing, are Liberal Democrats; as such, perhaps unsurprisingly, they favour remaining within the EU.
Like most potential voters in the upcoming In-or-Out referendum, they are angered and frustrated at what Channel 4 news presenter and commentator Jon Snow rightly described as a “positively poisonous” campaign.
In essence, the European Union, which claims to be a group of democratic countries attempting to work alongside each other, has now become a fierce battleground in the direct firing line of some vicious rhetoric from both the pro-Leavers and the pro-Remainers. The biggest scare story has been the idea that war will somehow result from the departure of the U.K. And others from the EU; the most abhorrent and offensive was the EU being compared to, of all things, Hitler and Nazism.
So Jean and Peter decided, like decent people do, not to leave the debating platform to the snarling Borises, Corbyns, Goves and Camerons but to attempt to present the arguments in as unemotional and politically warlike a fashion as possible.
They emailed all the friends on their joint contacts list with their (admittedly pro-EU but nonetheless objective) comments on the main aspects of the debate and invited discussion. This was their initial, explanatory message:
BECAUSE of laziness/decrepitude, we are not knocking on doors about the EU. Instead, we have put together a three-part personal contribution to the debate. Part One covers the main issues raised by the Leavers; Part Two will do likewise for the Remainers. Part Three will look at the underlying drivers.
We shall be as fair as we can, but beware! We were ‘Europeans’ long ago: Peter in 1960, five years before becoming a Liberal, let alone a LibDem; Jean started even earlier.
Peter’s driver was a lecturer in international law lambasting ”the pernicious doctrine of national sovereignty”. Jean’s was the war: her horror at the number of nations which were dragged in drew her towards European integration in principle. Our attempt to be ‘fair’ will be explained in the final paper.
The stimulus for this initiative results from an eight-day round of visits to friends in France from which we are newly-returned. The Brits we met, part of the 1-2 million of the diaspora living in continental EU, were worried, some to the point of applying for French citizenship. The non-Brits were puzzled by the apparent desire to quit the EU. All asked us for explanations.
What follows in Part One forms the basis of Jean and Peter’s attempt to deal with the issues.
Part 1: Reasons for Leaving
1. Undemocratic. Although the Commission President, Council and Parliament are elected (which is more than any other international body can say) there is less direct democratic control in the EU than some would wish. We would argue that it was prevented by Euro-sceptics and national sovereignty pedlars and it is equally fair to note that developing greater democratic control has not been easy in the UK, either.
2. Bureaucratic. Indeed, merging 28 sets of national regulations meant lots of new rules (especially when catering for ‘exemptions’ for the UK and others) but still fewer rules than the 28 sets added together!
Cutting is not easy; for instance, despite Chancellor George Osborne’s 2010 promise to cut the UK’s 12,000 pages of tax regulations there are now believed to be 17,000 pages.
3. Super-State. Undoubtedly an eventual aspiration for some in the EU. Meanwhile some states have agreed greater integration in particular fields, with others opting out. Incidentally, even Osborne wants greater integration within the Eurozone to make it work better. Good enough for Them but not, apparently, appropriate for Us.
4. The EU is a Mess. Which, by implication, the UK isn’t. “A mess” is perhaps partly excusable given that a major member country has been semi-detached for years, constantly seeking ‘exemptions’. Makes collaborating on common problems tricky.
5. Take Back Control. We have indeed given up some control over various matters. We have done for centuries, every time we made a treaty. Some control we regain in time, preferably by rational negotiation; on many matters we retain control, hence our recent benefits cuts for immigrants. Similarly, we would have had control had we wished to provide timely and adequate extra education, health and housing in areas ‘swamped’ by migrant workers.
6. We Want our Money Back. We do indeed pay more to the EU budget than we get back directly (although not the £350million per week more, as so many claim). As one of the richer member countries, we should. It’s a bit like paying UK taxes so that, for instance, the disabled get extra help. Should we not be part of a wider civilised society and contribute to the common good? Or do we remain a selfish one on our own?
7. We’ll Stand on our own Two Feet. Quite right too. We mustn’t sponge off others, draining poorer countries of their skilled workers (doctors, nurses. Mind you, we personally have found some advantages to marriage and, for instance, to working with colleagues. Even North Korea sometimes tries to work with China.
8. It’s all about Big Business, not us. Admittedly, this issue comes from only some of the Leavers. We have some sympathy with the sentiment, even though many of our best friends are in business. The UK has taken some steps to check some excesses by Big Business: Google, for example, being made to pay (a small part of) its fair share of UK tax, and some of the British tax havens having been opened up (slightly). If we stay in the EU, we might be able to teach them a thing or two.
But wait! Hasn’t The EU managed to impose huge fines on Microsoft? Given the way we British value open-mindedness, we might actually learn a thing or two from them.
TOMORROW: Reasons to Remain