Wednesday, 2 March 2016

BREXIT.......what to do, what to do????

So Mr. Cameron has completed his discussions with the other EU leaders and against the odds come up with a working agreement that he is happy to put before the British people.  The green lights have come on and the countdown to the promised EU Membership Referendum has started.  Oh, what fun the next few months are going to be!  By the time we all trek off to the voting boxes (or I and my fellow ex-pats send our choice by post or e-mail or however it works – forgive the vagueness here, this is my first time) I’m sure we will all be heartily sick of it.  The thought of smug Tories, raging Labourites of various shades of Red, and vacuous buffoons like Farage and his Little Englander chums regaling us with their conflicting and no doubt ill thought out and hugely exaggerated views every day for the next four months fills me with despair.  Thank God the vote is set for 23 June – I will need a couple of weeks’ summer holiday to get over it all.  How our trans-Atlantic friends can stand the long drawn-out process of electing a new President is beyond me.

But there is no doubt the decision to be taken is perhaps the most important one since we voted to join the EEC (as it was then) all those years ago.  It will affect our country’s future direction, for good or ill, apparently forever, and thus the futures of our children and our children’s children.  Unless, of course some bright spark Prime Minister in ten or fifteen years’ time decides it was all a mistake and wants to go back in again (assuming the EU in some shape or form still exists then) and holds another Referendum to reverse the decisions taken in this one.  Oh, the pressures we face!  It’s getting to me already – I really should go and lie down for a while…….

But, to paraphrase Joe Strummer, should we stay or should we go?

Of one thing I am sure (and it’s probably the only thing at the moment): our decision will end up being based on a whole tissue of misinterpretation and misrepresentation – right now I won’t use the term lies - of a whole range of issues, some of which may even be relevant.  I know every time we face a General Election we do that, given there is no such thing as an Honest Politician, but in those cases we at least get an opportunity to undo the result relatively quickly (from a matter weeks, in case of extreme Governmental incompetence, up to a maximum of 5 years under current legislation).  But in this vote, according the Prime Minister the result is binding “forever”.  Perhaps he should check the meaning of that word in the dictionary before he saddles us all with that sort of choice – “forever” is a hell of long time!  I’m sure when Lenin won the Revolution and began his life’s calling of spreading Communism to the masses he believed the resulting Soviet Empire would last forever, rather than less than a (longish) lifetime.   Even Adolf set a mere 10,000 year limit on the Third Reich.

He should take care with how his case for Staying In is presented, too, and ensure that those leading the Out campaign are equally diligent.  The last time something of this (relative) magnitude was put before the House it was Mr. Blair’s call to support the US in their war in Iraq.  At the time, he based his support on a raft of evidence, provided by the CIA and apparently validated by our Security Services, concerning Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction and a willingness on the tyrant’s behalf to use the things against The West.  Having read various memoirs on the subject, including his own “A Life”, that of George Bush (“Decision Points”) and a separate biography of Blair, I’m satisfied that at the time of its presentation the evidence was credible and both Blair and Bush and their respective Cabinets and advisors genuinely believed in it and took their decisions accordingly.  As things turned out the intelligence was not so much flawed as largely fictional, and both men are widely despised as War Criminals (whatever they are).  Now I’m not suggesting that Cameron and co will be considered War Criminals based on the EU Referendum result (current events in Libya and Syria in particular notwithstanding), merely that History is not always kind to a politician who shows well-meaning incompetence at key decision making moments.  So if he has any interest in leaving a positive legacy (I’m sure he does – as do all politicians) then he needs to ensure he doesn’t tarnish it by misleading the electorate on such a major issue.  Frankly, I don’t have a lot of hope, given statements so far about the agreement from last week’s Brussels summit “changing the EU” – it does nothing of the sort, and as Michael Gove (another irritant) rightly pointed out it will not do so until it is ratified by the parliaments of all the member states and incorporated into the various EU treaties.  I can’t see that happening any time soon as there are still too many contentious issues that have been glossed over by everyone.  It seems the misinformation has started on Day One of the campaign.

So what exactly are the issues?  The future of Britain for sure, but also that of the EU and other member states.  Let’s take a look at some of them, and for what it’s worth, I’ll try and sum up my own views on each one.  Remember: this is a purely personal view as of today’s date and hence subject to revision between now and The Day.

A primary concern in Britain is border security.  The popular view is that we aren’t safe all the time it is possible for a terrorist to disguise himself as a refugee, catch a rubber dinghy from Turkey to Greece, then make his way overland through the Schengen area all the way to Calais and then hop on the train to London, all on a false passport, with no visa requirements to hold him up. I’m not sure I follow the logic in this argument.  For a start, any self-respecting terrorist savvy enough to obtain a hooky passport for the trip would also be ready and willing to get a forged visa for the UK as well, and catch a flight from somewhere.  Why run the risk of drowning in the Aegean Sea or something?  There has been a flourishing market for false passports and travel visas for as long as the documents have existed, so I see no reason to suggest that leaving the EU will make Britain more secure from this sort of thing – quite the reverse, in fact.

Police forces across the EU are bound to share passenger lists, passport and visa details, particularly those suspected of being less than 100% genuine, and British police and border controls receive and use them on a daily basis.  It is possible that leaving the EU may disrupt the flow of that information reaching Britain – the (British) head of Europol has said as much and highlighted the potential damage such a delay might cause, suggesting at the same time that an Exit may make Britain less rather than more secure.  He should know, and I would suggest his view carries more weight than, say, that of Mr. Farage.

The Schengen Agreement is also a popular complaint of the Out campaigners, since it provides free movement of people across EU borders.  The case of the Paris bomber who apparently made his way to Europe on a false passport via Greece as a refugee and then was free to travel across France and Belgium putting his deadly plan into operation, is often used to validate how dangerous and outdated the Agreement  is.  On mainland Europe there may be some validity in that, but since Britain is an island that is NOT part of Schengen it seems to me irrelevant.  Fly into Heathrow or Stansted or any other UK airport from any EU country and the line for Border Control is as long for EU and British passport holders as it is for those from other countries.  So the border controls are already in place in Britain, and will not change with an Exit.  Granted, there are no visa requirements for EU passport holders, but the passports themselves are still checked diligently so this is NOT a Schengen problem.

The argument seems to go that if Britain leaves the EU then new visa rules will be applied to all citizens entering the country, regardless of whether a EU or other passport is held.  If you a) ignore the forged visa possibility,  b) are satisfied that the Foreign Office will be able to manage the increased demand (having reduced staffing levels significantly over the past few years) and c) the Government is prepared to foot the bill for the systems improvements and new staff and premises to handle that demand quickly, then it might work.  Costs would of course be recovered up to a point by passing it along to visa applicants, but setting the whole thing up is not going to happen overnight.  Remember too that if we start insisting on visas for people travelling from the EU then EU countries will in turn insist on UK visitors having valid visas before travelling to them.  Again, do-able, but it will undoubtedly impact on the travel industry, increase holiday costs for the average British family who wants to vacation in Spain or somewhere, and adversely affect British industry since export costs and those of travelling to do business in the EU will also increase. 

It is also unclear exactly how such a change would affect the million or so ex-pats (including yours truly) carrying British passports but living in another EU country.  In my own case, although English I now call Poland my home, and my kids have British passports (as well as Polish – they hold dual nationality).  So if I travel from Warsaw to say Luton airport to visit my family, I will presumably not need a UK visa as I’m a UK citizen.  However when I return home I will need a Polish entry visa.  If I bring my wife and kids, then my wife will need a UK entry visa, since she holds a Polish passport, but will presumably not need a Polish visa when we go home, and my kids can come into the UK, without a visa, on their British passports, and back into Poland, again without a visa, on their Polish passports.    It’s a relatively small thing, but one that membership of the EU prevents – and again, that Schengen bugbear is totally irrelevant.

If safety could be guaranteed, 100%, by these measure then the additional costs and inconvenience may well be considered worthwhile.  But it seems to me there can be no such guarantee.  So, as a reason to vote for an Exit, I don’t see the case of improved security proven at all.

Closely linked to border security is the major issue of immigration.  This is not a new thing for Britain, which has been welcoming migrants for over a hundred years.  Well, perhaps “welcoming” is not the right word – let’s try “admitting” instead.  For a country itself founded on migration – the Norse, Saxons, Romans and Normans all came here at times to mix with the existing Britons and Picts, so we were very much a melting pot even before modern times – our attitude to foreigners is sometimes hard to understand.  Since Victoria’s reign we have accepted large numbers of Irish, of West Indians, of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and of Ugandan Asians.   The link in all these is our much vaunted (or vilified, depending on your viewpoint) Colonial Past.  As the Empire broke up and the vast swathes of pink disappeared from globes and atlases in British schools, so our former subjects followed their former masters – how I hate those terms! – back to Britain in the hope of finding a better life.  And most of them eventually did, becoming UK citizens, finding jobs, opening businesses and enriching both the British culture and its Exchequer.

It wasn’t always easy.  The signs in boarding house windows that read “No Blacks, no dogs and No Irish” were a reality in major cities like London and Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool.  But the migrants continued to come, continued to strive for betterment and got there in the end.  Turn the clock forward to the 80s and 90s and a new flood of immigrants arrived, this time from Europe, the Americas and the Far East.  Many of them were very much temporary – moving into a booming City of London and service industries that were replacing a failing and contracting industrial base in Thatcher’s and latterly Blair’s Britain.  They were more welcome, because the majority of them had money to spend and jobs to do, and in any case weren’t going to be around forever.  
Then we come to the first decade of the 21st century, the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe, the expansion on the EU with countries like Slovakia and Poland and Hungary and the Baltic states joining.  Here the waters muddy, because contrary to popular opinion, then and now, none of these countries joined the EU for government handouts, but for increased security (who can blame them after 50 years of Soviet domination, courtesy of an ill-thought out and dishonourable post-war settlement) and the opportunity for a better life.  The signs on the boarding house windows changed to “No Poles”, “No Serbs”, “No Kossovans”…….and so on.  

Now the focus is on the migration crisis that is gripping the entire EU (and arguably the world, if you consider the illegals struggling and dying to get from poor central American countries to the US, or from Laos and Vietnam and Bangladesh to Australia, to be part of the same mass migration).  The vast majority of them are refugees, fleeing wars in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya (can you see the link there?  Wars started by US and UK/EU coalitions with no post-war plan envisaged or even considered that left those countries without structure or leadership, at the mercy of terrorist groups or power hungry violent militias) or penniless and often starving sub-Saharan Africans seeking a better life than they have in their poverty stricken homelands.  

I know and understand the arguments about Britain being a small country without room for huge numbers of migrants, but I find the media portrayal of  these poor souls as spongers and terrorists and bringing the whole problem on themselves frankly offensive.  They did not start the wars they are fleeing from.  It’s not their fault that when their various Colonial rulers, whether British or French, German or Belgian, left it was again done swiftly, without ceremony and little preparation, nor is the climate change that is turning their countries arid.  I believe from a purely humanitarian perspective Europe needs to do what it can, and Britain, whether In or Out, has the same obligation.  Agreeing to take a couple of thousand refugees, but ONLY from internment camps in Syria (as the Government is so proud of doing) will make no difference to the problem at all and frankly is an insult to EU countries of a similar size (like the Netherlands and Denmark) who are being more pro-active in their support.

It seems to me that leaving the EU will make no difference whatever to the UK’s immigration policy as it doesn’t actually have one worthy of the name.  

The economy is a different matter.  The In camp continually preach the virtues of being part of the EU, “the biggest single market in the world” – one assumes that is after China, India and the US? - , a market that amounts to getting on for half Britain’s overseas trade.   Clearly, there are huge advantages in the lack of tariffs and the free movement of goods and people thanks to the much maligned Schengen Area.  Even the single currency, for all its faults, makes the trade and travel much easier and yes, profitable.  Meanwhile, the Out camp points to various EU rules and restrictions (the good old “red tape”) that can hold back smaller businesses and insist that it would be better to be free outside the EU to negotiate own trade agreements.

Well.  At a guess, we’re talking about having to negotiate, simultaneously, at least 50 such agreements.  Does anyone seriously believe this is something that could be done quickly, say within the 12 months or so it would probably take to negotiate and realise the EU exit?  What if the vote says Out on 23 June – when do we actually become Out?  Immediately? By the end of the month?  By Christmas?  No-one really knows.  Is part of the package that existing EU Trade Agreements will remain in force until such time as their multitudinous replacements have been signed?  I haven’t seen anything to that effect, and I’m not at all sure that would be acceptable to the other 27 States.  With that level of uncertainty, how easy will it really be to negotiate anything?  What guarantees (that are worth anything at all) can Britain actually give?  What assets do we have that could be pledged, without completely bankrupting the country?  

Can anyone explain to me why the stock markets or the pound would NOT plunge to record lows in the event of an Out vote (which would plunge the nation into a period of uncertainty with no clear limit) when all markets love certainty?  And why such a plunge would be a good thing for Britain?  George Osborne actually said something sensible the other day (a rare occurrence) when he agreed with the IMF and G20 that leaving the EU would probably cause a global economic shock – not a good thing, given it’s hardly recovered from the last one caused by the Lehman collapse.   Factor in the problems in the Chinese economy and the (increasing) prospect of a Trump Presidency and we could all be in a world of woe come Christmas.  

This week, in a weekly team meeting at work, I asked my colleagues for their views.  I should add my team is multi-national, with people from India, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Luxembourg.  All agreed that Britain leaving the EU would be bad for Britain and bad for the EU, and would much rather the Union remained.  From an economic perspective, too, I have no argument with them and can see no viable or convincing reason for an Out vote.

Finally, there is the somewhat nebulous issue of sovereignty and the Out camp’s belief that in some way Britain will reclaim it by leaving the EU.  What is exactly meant by that is not clear to me at all.  My on-line Collins English Dictionary defines it thus:
(plural) -ties
  1. supreme and unrestricted power, as of a state
  1. the position, dominion, or authority of a sovereign
  1. an independent state
Now, I can’t actually see how membership of the EU has, in Britain’s case, negated any of that, nor how being Out strengthens it in any way.  In terms of taxation, defence of the realm, security and policing, Health care, welfare and education, for instance, the UK Government is in full control, thus satisfying point 1.  Where required, it co-operates with governments elsewhere, both within the EU and without, on matters of security and trade but this seems to me no bad thing and certainly nothing to cry over.  Britain remains a monarchy, and the last time I looked we still had Queen Elizabeth II on the throne with an heir, an heir to the heir, and an heir to the heir to the heir, so point 2 is fully covered and unless there is a revolution will be for years to come.  And being a member of the EU has not changed Britain’s status as an independent state – but then nor has membership of the UN, NATO, the WTO, G20 or any other inter-governmental body or forum.

So , in my view, we have another red herring, and another case of the Out view unproven.

There is perhaps one thing that does need to be considered as part of this discussion that, as far as I can see, has so far been rather ignored, and that is what other Europeans think of we Brits – in fact what the rest of the world thinks of us.  I have seen a number of comments that being out of the EU will enable Britain to “regain” or “strengthen its rightful place in the world”.  But what exactly is that?

Geographically speaking, Britain is a small group of islands just to the West of the European land mass. No more and no less.  Nothing remotely special.  It is separated from mainland Europe by the Channel and the North Sea, and has been for thousands of years (at least until the Channel Tunnel was finally opened 20 years or so ago).  As I said earlier, its island nature has led to a succession of invasions over many centuries, with varying degrees of success, so its people are essentially of mixed race – something that our friendly neighbourhood BNP or UKIP followers may find difficult to swallow.  

In past times, that offshore status has proved the spur for Britons to set sail and open trade routes across the world – that Empire everyone keeps harping on about.  Yes indeed, we had an Empire that spanned the globe, carved out by the sweat on the brow of our brave merchant sailors, and lubricated by the blood of the conquered.  Remember, it was not a peacefully built Empire – empires rarely come about without bloodshed, and the British Empire was no different to any other.  

Like all Empires, it came to an end.  From Edwardian times, perhaps from the end of World War Part One, it began to creak, and at the end of World War Part Two it collapsed.  India was hurriedly partitioned and became independent, Canada and Australia in turn strengthened their own independence but with continued allegiance to the Queen, African and West Indians members declared independence, became republics or separate states and went their own way.  The Empire shrunk to a Commonwealth of small island dependencies, bolstered by Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  So effectively, from around 1950 Britain ceased to be a major world power and has retained its seat at the top table in world affairs largely thanks to its permanent leading roles in NATO and the UN by courtesy of being on the winning side in the War.

Arguably, even that is tarnished by a foreign policy performance that, from at least the mid-1930s and Chamberlain’s note waving “Peace in our time” statement after meeting Hitler in Munich, has been less than impressive.  We declared war on Germany in 1939 in support of an invaded Poland, and then did little over the next six months or so while Poland was systematically dismembered by first Germany and then Russia too, after the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  The thousands of Polish soldiers and airmen who eventually found their way to Britain, often after extremely difficult and courageous journeys, were treated first with suspicion, then with thanks (after the RAF’s Polish crewed 303 Squadron’s stellar performance in the Battle of Britain), then used as cannon fodder at Arnhem and Monte Cassino, and finally betrayed by a refusal to allow any representation in 1947’s Victory Parade in London, lest it offend Stalin.  Throughout this time, its Government-in-Exile had been promised support and no border changes after the end of the War, and Allied support for the Home Army.  What happened?  The Home Army was left to its own devices during 1944’s Warsaw Uprising after D-Day, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian deaths and a city reduced to rubble, and at Yalta the whole of Eastern Europe (not only Poland but Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States) happily signed over by Churchill and Roosevelt to Stalin’s clutches and 50 years of Soviet brutality and domination. 

Not content with that, the strident (and, yes, justified) demands for a Jewish homeland were then met, after a now unpublicised terrorist campaign by the likes of Menachim Begin and others, by British administered Palestine being forcibly cleared to make way for the modern state of Israel, thus giving rise to a running sore that exists to this day and is arguably worse than ever, given events in nearby Syria, Iraq and Lebanon over the past 20 years or so.  Factor in a bloody retreat from Malaysia and Kenya, an ill-judged adventure against Egypt over the Suez Canal (all the 1950s) and the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 10 years so (and I nearly forgot, and the Balkans in the 90s) and we have little to be proud of, in my view.

What all this has left is a strong anti-British feeling across much of the world, feelings that the average British tourist in Spain or Portugal or the Greek islands, or further afield in the Far East or India, seems blissfully unaware of.  But it is there, and every drunk throwing up in the gutter in Benidorm or Zante, or scrapping in the backstreets of Prague or Amsterdam, merely adds to the dislike.  

So demands for “special treatment” by Mr. Cameron (amongst other Prime Ministers at the EU’s negotiating tables since Margaret Thatcher’s time) are not well received, and never will be.  To the rest of the EU, Britain simply does not deserve any special treatment.  The various rebates that have been grudgingly conceded, whilst welcome to us and trumpeted as successes by our House, are resented by the rest of our partners (I use that word advisedly: the EEC, the EU, call it what you will, is essentially a partnership but one that we tend to treat with contempt).   Many, perhaps most, Europeans, whether politicians or the man in the street, would happily let us go – except that to do so may well prompt others to follow and lead to a break-up of the entire structure, to their own detriment.  

The EU was created, lest we forget, at a time when the Cold War was raging and Russia (or the USSR, whichever you prefer) was considered an imminent security threat, and when much of the continent, including Britain, was still struggling to recover from the War’s ravages while the US continued to bankrupt us by its insistence on repayment of its war loans and assistance.  Clubbing together, initially as a fairly loose bloc, together with NATO membership, seemed like a good way to provide security and strengthen economies by sharing the costs.  As this happened, we remained aloof, outside the club, looking down our collective noses, secure in the knowledge that we didn’t need any help.  Successive recessions under barely competent Labour administrations eventually forced our membership, but our belief was that, as The major power (that superiority complex again) we could change Europe more to our way of thinking. 

It hasn’t worked like that, of course.  The European dream has become one of closer integration, sharing common fiscal policies, common justice systems, common defence structures and so on – a genuine European superstate.   The euro is the first tangible result of that dream.  Of course, we held our hands up in horror, said “oh no chaps, this isn’t for us at all, thank you very much”, stayed firmly outside the single currency (rightly in my opinion, but more because the convergence criteria were all wrong and no thought had been given to how diverging and fundamentally different economies could be managed without complete consolidation at a political level – something that will never happen) and demanded a major say in Europe’s budget and trade control mechanisms anyway.  Again, Europe shrugged its collective shoulders, said ok – and proceeded to ignore us while all the time pretending not to.  And continuing to expand its membership by opening its arms to welcome small nations like Malta and Cyprus and bigger Eastern Europeans like Poland and Hungary – all of whom continue to be much more receptive to the European Ideal than we are. 

The result of course is that as the EU has expanded, what influence we might once have had there has been slowly eroded, to the point that we are considered not much more than an irritant.  So cutting any deals with individual nations on better terms than we already enjoy (if that’s the right term) as part of the Union when we are outside on our own seems highly unlikely.   Our place in the world is simply not as high or as important as most British people seem to think, so to rely on it as a reason to leave the EU seems to be the wrong approach.

So to summarize…… 

In my view, right now, there is nothing to suggest to me that Britain voting to leave EU on 23rd June would be a good idea for either Britain or the EU itself.   The arguments on the Out side just do not convince (that said, those of the In camp are not much better).  In this case it seems to me the status quo of remaining in the EU will provide British citizens and our descendants with a better standard of living, better prospects in the future and stronger security than taking the risk of leaving and attempting to go it alone in a world that often seems to be driving itself to destruction.  We are a small nation nowadays, not a major power, and as such need the support of our peers in so many different areas in order to survive, let alone flourish.

As an Englishman, I wish that were not so.  My heart say Leave, but my Head shouts Stay.