Almost everyone seems to have a clear idea of how they feel about Brexit. Sometimes their reasons are practical; In voters will speak of dire economic consequences and disappearing international influence while Out voters will talk about hampering over-regulation and the difficulty of trading with other economies. Sometimes the reasons are far more ideological. In voters will propound the principles of free movement and unity, while Outers decry the loss of cultural traditions and relentless standardisation in a manner beautifully foreseen in Yes Minister’s ‘British sausage’ episode.
The upshot of all of this is that both camps seem to come from all across the spectrum, and people of almost identical political persuasions have taken opposite positions. The only overall pattern is that virtually everyone knows what they think one way or another.
Such absolute clarity is a curious thing to see in what is one of the most complex and multi-faceted issues to have faced this country. As a child, the concept of a European Union was something that always seemed positive and desirable. A hatred of conflict and a strong sense of optimism about the future, inspired largely by Gene Roddenberry, made the EU look like a solid step towards global unity.
Unfortunately that impression is blown up quite spectacularly when one starts to take an interest in politics. A lifelong love of freedom and general dislike of overbearing authority manifested in a very small-government, almost minarchist, philosophy. Suddenly my embryonic federation had become the ultimate example of over-extended government.
However this is where the beautiful irony comes into play. Readers of my previous article will know that I like to talk about trains, so let’s use the rail industry to illustrate this point. European Directive 91/440/EC requires state railway companies to separate their infrastructure and train operating functions in order to permit private operators to compete on their networks.
This regulation is a godsend to free market advocates. Jeremy Corbyn is campaigning to stay in a European Union that will prevent him from fully renationalising the railways. Irish rail operator Iarnród Éireann had a run-in with the EU over this, the Irish government feeling the small network did not have the size nor passenger numbers to handle competing operators that would abstract revenue from IE.
91/440/EC is an example of countless EU regulations that effectively enforce liberalism. The Telecommunications Framework is another example of EU regulation imposing free market principles on member states, as is the EU’s intervention against Deutsche Post.
On a basic level this seems fairly encouraging. A supranational entity that forces governments to open their monopolised industries to private competition should be a dream come true for a classical liberal. But something isn’t sitting right.
The very existence of a European Commissioner for Competition rings an alarm bell. Not only does a vast amount of EU competition legislation fall completely outside the purview of government, but the European Commission which largely originates these ideas is so far removed from the democratic will of its citizens that the great many who disagree with it from either end of the spectrum have no real recourse to do anything about it within the system.
Although the current Conservative government in the UK has a less than stellar record on liberalism, particularly in the field of privacy, its localism policy is remarkably encouraging. The will of the individual should be the first and last consideration of government.
Government exists to ensure those higher functions of a state, whatever one may consider them to be, are representative of its people. In order for that to work, and to grant the individual the highest possible ability to have their position represented, the size of the group being represented by a political body needs to be reduced, not increased. The EU is effectively the opposite of localism. Instead of enhancing the individual’s voice, the EU drowns it out in a crowd of half a billion others and buries it under layer upon layer of governance.
It is this contrast between the EU’s outwardly liberal policies and the fundamental illiberalism of how it operates in practise that gave me such a headache in deciding a position on Brexit. The railways shouldn’t be nationalised, nor should postal services and telecoms, as a Corbyn government would no doubt deliver if he were to be freed of the EU regulation he once opposed. But neither should his views, distasteful as they may be, have no representation.
This piece started out by saying how In and Out voters come from a mixture of practical and ethical standpoints. This comes down to a question of which of those matters more. Is it the practical consequences of Brexit, or the ethical principles in play, which should decide the question?
My ultimate decision is that the ethical values have to win Out. One can’t fairly advocate a freedom-based society if it denies those who disagree with its ability to advance their vision. Liberal though some of its policies may be, the EU is not a liberal organisation. Europe should be joined in alliance, unified in peace and open to free trade, but that can only happen in a manner which is democratic and respectful of individual self-determination. The EU has a very long way to go before it begins complying with its own liberal principles.