Tuesday 14 June 2016

EU and ME

Well I’ve posted off my vote and I want to remain in the EU. To be honest it was never a difficult decision to make for me. I’m not a huge fan of the EU, I don’t like the way Greece was bullied, I don’t like the austerity heaped on the poorer European countries, I think there is too much corruption and I think far too many of the policy decisions are driven by political vanity rather than common sense.

Fortunately, this referendum isn’t about how perfect the EU is, it’s about where we see ourselves in the future; a small island or part of something much bigger. This idea of us turning our backs on our neighbours and pretending that we’re somehow different from the rest of Europe is just an anathema to me. I feel European, I always have felt that way. I like being British, I like being English and I like being a Northerner but none of these diminish, for me at least, the sense of being European. I guess you don’t have to be in the EU to feel like that but I really can’t see any point in leaving.

From the outset I thought this entire referendum was just a huge waste of money. Hundreds of millions of pounds, that we’re always being told we don’t have, just being poured down the drain in order to pander to the political vanities of the Right Wing of the Tory party. I assumed it would be a parade of half-truths and bare faced lies from the start but I didn’t expect it to be quite this bad.

The standard of debate didn’t fall into the gutter, it started in the gutter and has just been an exercise in muck-raking and made-up-bollocks ever since. I feel sorry for those people who are truly undecided because getting to the truth has been almost impossible.

A classic example of this was the 350 million quid a week to the EU. We never send that amount to the EU and the people posting it as ’the truth’ knew that. This of course didn’t stop them continuing to post it. Why? Well, mainly it’s because they know that a lie repeated often enough becomes believable to an awful lot of people.

What really annoys me about this figure isn’t that it’s not true, it’s that it is thoroughly misleading. Government expenditure always involves enormous figures, so they always sound frightening, so politicians always use them to their own ends. Apparently, this enormous sum equates to 0.5% of our GDP. To bring this closer to home, if you earn £500 a week, you would be paying out the princely sum of £2.50 a week to be in the EU! In terms of our country's income it’s peanuts, but apparently we’re going to pay for everything from this money; the NHS will be saved, our schools will flourish and all our fishermen will get new boats. It’s nonsense and the people spouting it know it’s nonsense.

The other problem I have with this money is why people object so much to us paying it. Everyone in the EU pays into the EU coffers based on how wealthy they are. That only seems fair to me. Even countries that are not in the EU pay into it; Norway, Switzerland etc. all pay for the privilege of trading tariff-free within the EU. I can’t see a problem with this. I pay to run a monthly advert in one of our local newspapers. By coincidence the amount we pay is roughly 0.5% of our turn-over. I can’t be certain that we get value for money from this advert. Maybe we’re wasting our money. If we stopped the advert would we really notice any drop in trade? To be honest I really don’t know. Am I going to stop the advert? Of course not. It’s a trifling sum of money and if we get just one job from it it’s paid for itself for the entire year. That’s how I see this money we pay into the EU. Maybe we aren’t getting value for money but we do get access to the world’s biggest market. Surely that’s worth something all by itself? And as people keep pointing out, we’re the 5th richest country on this planet. So being in the EU and paying this money out is patently not doing us much harm!

The other side of this payment issue links to the migration problem, which seems to get a lot of people down. The idea of the EU expansion was to bring our poorer neighbours into the fold. Rather than have illegal immigrants pouring over the borders every five minutes and our neighbours turning back to Russia or just falling into turmoil, the EU decided to bring them into the fold, so to speak, and help them become wealthy like us. Yes, we’d have to spend a fair bit and yes we’d have legal immigration rather than illegal immigration but over the longer term it would all work out for the better and, once the new members were wealthy, the migration would slow right down to sensible levels. Sounds great, eh? Alas, it doesn’t seem to be working out so well.

The biggest problem with immigration is that it seems to be a call to arms for every right wing twat in the country. I have no problem with people disliking the idea of immigration. I have no problem with people disliking the way it changes their towns and cities. I have no problem with people fearing for their jobs. Where I have a problem is when people start calling all migrants, scum, rapists, murderers etc. I really did think that that kind of mindless racism and xenophobia was on the wane but, if Facebook is anything to go by, it’s getting worse and worse by the day. I called a bloke out recently for saying that all immigrants are rapists and before I knew it I was being accused by the Brexiteers of “using the racist card like all my kind do” WTF? I didn’t even know I had a ‘kind’. We seem to be turning into a frothing mass of xenophobes the longer this ‘debate’ goes on. Sadly, history would suggest that when that particular cat is let out of the bag it doesn’t go away quickly and it has been known to cause ‘a bit of friction’ in the past. I hope that’s not going to be the case but it’s not a side of the British personality I like to see.

Yes, immigration is a problem but I can’t see how walking away from the EU will solve it, after all it’s not our unique problem. The problems in Syria are the world’s problems and they won’t go away because we try to ignore them. The issue with EU migrants is a problem shared by the whole of the EU. The Spanish get pissed off by a million OAP Brits coming over and buying up their coast line, pushing up house prices and filling up their hospitals. The Germans have more problems with migrants than we have. The Polish government has the opposite problem. Every year their best and brightest up-sticks and head off to the big cities of western Europe seeking fame and fortune. The current system doesn’t work well for anyone and most of Europe is fed up with it but instead of trying to form a consensus and work it out with all the other countries in the EU - and most of them are just as keen as us to sort it out - we would rather have a temper tantrum, shoot ourselves in the foot, and then attempt to walk/hobble away.

I wouldn’t mind so much if there weren’t consequences from walking away but there are. The first is this particularly nasty rise in casual racism. Whilst it’s only the likes of the BNP screaming bollocks people steer clear but once it becomes more mainstream, everyone seems to think they can join in. It really is quite shameful.

The other consequence of walking away rather than dealing with the problem is that it’s likely to follow us anyway. The EU always insists on free-movement of people in return for tariff-free trade. Ask Switzerland, they turned down a deal with the EU in 1992 because they didn’t want the free movement of people.

The EU sold more to them than they sold to the EU, so they figured they could play the waiting game. In 2008, after a decade of recession, they finally gave up and accepted the free-movement of people. They then voted against it in 2014 because they thought they disliked foreigners more than they liked the trade – in fairness, they did get A LOT of foreigners moving over there. Again, they thought the EU would back down, again they haven’t and now they’re realising that they might actually like money more than they dislike foreigners after all and so will probably have another vote soon and the polls suggest they’ll accept the EU’s conditions, yet again.

Yes, yes, yes. We’re not Switzerland… except when we think it’s good for our argument to be like Switzerland, in which case we are like Switzerland.

I also can’t see how the Calais issue is going to improve if we leave. We currently have an agreement with the French that they will maintain control of the non-EU migrants on their side of the channel in return for us paying towards the cost of that work. If we leave the French might want to carry on with the arrangement but, bearing in mind that they get nothing out of it, I’d be surprised if they do. I doubt they’ll hand the refugees a map and a boat but I wouldn’t put it past them to encourage them along their way with tales of cheap Fish and Chips floating in a sea of mushy peas and glorious renditions of the “White Cliffs of Dover”.

I suspect that you really only have two choices with migrants; either you spend a lot of money to make their country so nice that they want to stay, or you spend that self same money on building higher and higher walls, both physical and metaphorical. As I said, the EU idea behind the Union’s expansion was that we would bring these poorer European countries into the fold; make them like us and everyone would be happier. Personally, I think, given time, this will work. I also think they didn’t really think through the issue with mass migration. I’m quite used to being surrounded by foreigners and yet I still found it a bit shocking when I went to Boston a few months ago only to find the town buzzing but buzzing with people speaking Polish and Lithuanian. I imagine it’s come as a real shock to the locals, who only ever had themselves and a field full of potatoes to talk to in the past.

My biggest issue with leaving is the economics. We got through the worst part of the recession by the skin of our teeth and I really don’t want to go through that again. I know, Farage and Boris keep saying it will all be fine but then they both have millions in the bank and can afford to spend the next 4 years lying on a Caribbean beach and knocking back Bacardi. I on the other hand have a mortgage and a business to run.

I just can’t see how leaving wouldn’t be a huge hit to our economy. Firstly, we have an enormous level of debt. We owe various nations and investors almost 1.5 trillion quid. That’s the most money we have ever owed anyone, ever! And, under the wise governance of Mr Osbourne, it’s just going up and up with each passing year.

So why aren’t we in the sort of shit that Spain, Italy and Portugal etc. are in? They are having to pay huge levels of interest on their debt, so why aren’t we? Well, as far as I can make out, it’s because the money has to be invested somewhere and, whilst we’re not the greatest economy, we’re a lot more stable than a lot of others…. Or at least we are at the moment! I really don’t care if being ‘free’ of the EU works for us in the longer term, I doubt it will but it might, I don’t know. But in the short term just the uncertainty by itself is going to cause utter fucking chaos. Boris and Farage and the likes will be reaping it in by playing the markets but the ordinary citizen is going to get absolutely hammered.

When it comes to money I also can’t understand this “We’re the 5th largest economy” argument. It’s a fact that gets trundled out on numerous occasions but I can’t see why we’d want to leave the EU just because we’re loaded? We’ve been in the bloody thing for over 40 years, if the EU is so terrible, how come we’re still the 5th largest economy in the world? Surely, what with all that red tape and bureaucracy that they complain about, we’d have tumbled down the charts years ago?
So how have we manged to survive the EU? Did we pull this off by some sleight of hand, some battle against all the odds? Well if that was the case surely the Germans wouldn’t be the 4th largest economy in the world - and yet they are. Well maybe they too managed to somehow circumvent the evil bureaucrats of Brussels. But hold on, the French are the world’s 6th largest economy… and the Italians are 8th, the Spanish 12th, the Netherlands 14th. How have all these nations managed to make themselves so rich when they are all shackled to this terrible, bureaucratic and horribly inefficient EU? This makes no sense! The terrible, unworkable, EU. The EU that’s going nowhere. The EU ridden by bureaucracy has all these huge, wealthy economies in it? And, they are all still growing!

I read a piece yesterday saying that we need to free ourselves of the EU because it is going down-hill. Instead we should be trading with the emerging nations (BRICS); Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Have any of these people actually looked at these economies recently? Yes, China is doing well, although not as well as many had hoped but as for the rest? Go and have a look, most of them are as stable as Farage after 7 pints of Hobgoblin!

Meanwhile, we have some of the richest nations in the world on our doorstep and we’re talking of walking away from them because… Well why? Because it costs too much? It doesn’t and it never has done. Because of migrants? That issue is a World and EU wide one and is best dealt with by the UN and the EU as a whole. Because it’s holding us back? It’s the richest trading bloc on the bloody planet for God’s sake! It’s filled with red tape! So that’s why Denmark is ranked as the 3rd easiest country in the world to do business in and we’re the 6th? The USA by the way is 7th and those lovely BRIC countries we want to trade with? Well they are 116th, 51st, 130th, 84th and 73rd respectively, so best of luck with that one.

Ar yes, but the EU is undemocratic! Oh right. Let’s have a look at that one.

A condition of joining the EU is that you can demonstrate that you are a democratic nation. Quite how the hell we managed to get in is beyond me because we, on the face of it at least, are the least democratic nation in Europe. Ok, a few other European countries have a hereditary Head of State, although most have no official power – ours, on paper at least, is very powerful but just opts not to use it – but no other European country has anything as remotely feudal as our own House of Lords.

I’d believe the people who go on and on about EU democracy if they’d ever shown any inclination whatsoever to sort out our own deficiencies in that area but they haven’t. When you do push them on it they point out that our system works, which in a way is right, and is also a good argument for the EU’s deficiencies, since they too work quite well.

The big problem with democracy is that it only works if people vote. In the last EU election 35% of people in the UK eligible to vote actually bothered to. The sheer audacity of people to complain about democracy when they can’t even be bothered to tick a box, fold a piece of paper and pop it into two envelopes! Ok, you also have to lick the envelopes and I guess for some folks spittle doesn't come cheap, but if you can’t be arsed to at least use the postal vote then you have no right to moan about a lack of democracy.

The big ‘democracy’ criticism is always about the EU Commissioners. They are not directly elected, rather, every 5 years, each nation within the EU gets to nominate a commissioner, with the Commission President being directly elected by the European parliament – the people we can’t be arsed to vote for. There is a call for the commissioners to be voted for directly by the electorate of each nation but the problem with this, aside from the fact that hardly anyone will bother to vote, is that commissioners get assigned a portfolio – Transport, environment, agriculture etc. So, if you want your nation to have a bit more power within the EU you put forward an expert in one of the more important areas. If he or she is deemed to be the best qualified for that role they get that important portfolio – I dare say a fair bit of horse-trading takes place here.

The problem with a democratic election is that we’d either end up sending Joey Essex to represent us in Brussels or each country would end up putting forward people who either have no expertise worthy of the name (Hi Joey) or we have a commission with 20 environmental experts but not a one who can even identify a tractor.

At the moment there is also a call to increase the power of the European Parliament, who currently vote laws in but do not have a role in actually creating legislation – that’s the role of the commissioners. This will probably happen but the downside of that is that it will probably take the EU even longer to pass laws.

All told, whilst far from perfect, it's not actually as undemocratic as people like to make out, certainly not as undemocratic as the UK.

The final argument from the Brexit brigade is that we have lost our sovereignty. Whenever I hear this argument “Rule Britannia” starts playing in my head, no idea why.

The problem with sovereignty – the ability of a people or a nation to rule themselves – is where does it end? We spent most of last year telling the Scots that Scotland being a sovereign state was a daft idea. Why? If it’s so good for the UK, why on earth isn’t it good for Scotland? Or Wales, or Northern Ireland, or the North of England? Where do you stop? Freedom for Tooting?

In reality, absolute sovereignty, in terms of complete control and independence, is a myth. We live in an interconnected world where decisions made in China (to dump cheap steel for example) have massive impacts on the other side of the world – although the UK vetoing EU tariffs on the practise didn’t help. You can beat your drum and wave your flags as much as you like but it doesn’t give you complete control over your country or region.

The closest you can get to real sovereignty is hegemony i.e. to be more powerful than everyone else. The USA tends to get its own way most of the time, China is learning this and starting to throw its own weight around and Russia is once again beating its chest. Fortunately, the EU is no push over itself. As a union of small but rich and relatively powerful states it can stand toe to toe with pretty much any one – although militarily it’s rather weak.

So to me that leaves an obvious choice. Since we can’t stand up against the big world players by ourselves – and stop kidding yourself, we can’t – who do we want to take our lead from? The US? They never seem to actually listen to us and I personally don’t have much faith in their beneficence. China? Er, thanks but no thanks. Russia? Well, maybe China isn’t that bad after all?

The EU, for all its faults, is filled with countries that share most of our core values and beliefs. Yes, we might not get our own way all the time but who does in a union, and why does it really matter? And why do we seem to think we are the only nation with a sense of identity that needs protecting? You seriously think the Germans would just give up their sense of being German? That the French don’t share our sense of individuality and the feeling that we’re better than everyone else? Of course they do, we’re all basically the same. And that’s the point, sovereignty is only a genuine issue if you have a fundamentally different belief system or fundamentally different desires from the rest of the people you share sovereignty with. Whilst the majority of our fellow Europeans want the same things from life as we do – and I believe they do – it’s better to work together and share sovereignty as a powerful EU. Globally, we’re far more likely to get a European vision of the world if the EU is a powerful voice within it and I believe that a European vision of the world is going to be a better place to live, for everyone, than an American, Chinese or Russian world.

That’s not to say that local control is a bad thing, it isn’t, it’s just getting the balance right between what happens in your town, your region, your country and your union. I really don’t buy into this argument that laws passed in Westminster are bound to be better than laws passed in Brussels.

I look at the house of commons and I don’t see ‘us’. I see a bunch of over privileged, public school wankers with whom I have absolutely nothing what so ever in common. I suspect Brussels is the same but with an accent, but this idea that, free from the shackles of Brussels, our MPs would suddenly become half decent and start making laws that actually benefited ordinary citizens is bollocks.

I really don’t care if a law comes from Brussels or Westminster. All I care about is if it’s a good law or a bad law.

Anyway, why am I posting this on a Fatherhood blog? Well because it’s my son who will be affected most by all of this. It’s not that I fear for his well being if we leave, nor that I think European war will break out or that he won’t be able to travel around Europe and make friends with other Europeans. It’s more that I worry about what the UK will become and, without us, what the EU will become. The tone of this entire debate has been largely loathsome and I really don’t like the idea of him growing up with a ‘little-island’ mentality, treating foreigners with disdain and looking at the world only as an opportunity for profit. I hope that won’t be how we become but I can’t help feeling that leaving the EU would be a terribly misguided step in the wrong direction and that my son and his generation will be the ones who end up paying the price.

Boris as PM? Brrrrr!