March 2016

By James LeGrice of Insight Consulting Group

Ask a Brexit supporter why Britain should leave the European Union and you will get one of a variety of answers. Stemming immigration, cutting red tape on British business, and reasserting Britain’s place on the world stage are amongst the usual answers from the “Leavers” - those campaigning to leave the EU. What you are unlikely to hear are calls for an end to free trade with Europe, or an end to cooperation on common challenges such as terrorism and the refugee crisis.

On these key issues, the Leavers and the “Stayers”, those campaigning against Brexit, generally want the same benefits. Their main differing point is on the structures needed to deliver those benefits. The logical question at the heart of the Brexit debate should therefore be whether or not a supranational government is necessary to achieve what Britain desires from Europe. Yet the Brexit debate rarely centres on that question; neither the Leavers nor the Stayers would benefit if it did. 

The reason lies in the nature of Euroscepticism in Britain, which has deep historical roots. From the Protestant Reformation, to the defeat of Napoleon and later the Third Reich, the British national story of the last five hundred years has largely been a story of resistance against the prevailing powers in Europe.

The geography of Britain as an island country has also created a sense of separateness. Americans may think of Britain as part of Europe and Britons as Europeans, but in Britain these terms are used to refer to Continental Europe. Additionally, as a result of empire, Britons have a stronger cultural affinity with Australia, nine and a half thousand miles away, than with France, which is visible from the south coast of England on a clear day.

The combination of all of these elements is a determinately independent nature in Britain’s dealings with the EU, and a caution against surrendering too much sovereignty to Brussels. This is most apparent in Britain’s resistance to joining the single currency or the Schengen open borders area.

As a result, there is a base level of Euroscepticism even amongst the EU’s most vocal supporters. Stayers tend to preface their defence of EU membership with a criticism of the EU to establish their credentials. In the Prime Minister’s statement following his negotiations with the European Council last February, David Cameron found it necessary to say: “I do not love Brussels. I love Britain.”

As such, the Stayers would find themselves in a weak position if the debate turned to the question of whether a supranational government is necessary. That would require them to defend the principle of handing over sovereignty to an outside entity, which is not a vote-winner for the British public.

Instead, they have focused much of their argument on the potential problems that would emerge during a Brexit, such as devaluation of the pound, an exodus of large businesses to the Continent, and years of economic uncertainty. The essence of the message coming from the Stayers is that the EU isn’t perfect, but it is better than risking the unknown.

However, the question over supranationalism is not one that the Leavers are able to answer strongly either. This is because, for most Britons, it is a purely academic question. Immigration, healthcare and the economy are generally the top three issues concerning British voters. The latest Ipsos Mori poll found that only 20% of Britons consider the EU to be the most important issue facing Britain. And this is the highest level of concern that has been given to the EU in 13 years.

The EU is not a top political priority for Britons because its effect on British life is not obvious across society. The day-to-day benefits of EU membership are apparent to specific groups, such as the City of London financial sector, but not to the general public. Likewise it is select groups, such as fishermen, that experience a clear adverse impact of EU membership.

Britain is not Poland, where EU membership has had a very clear effect on national economic development. And Britain is not Greece, where EU membership has resulted in the imposition of unpopular austerity measures against the will of the national government.

When the Leavers argue that submission to a supranational government is surrendering too much national sovereignty, they usually point to the percentage of UK laws that have been handed down from Brussels – this has been variously estimated at between half and two-thirds of all legislation.

However, when these directives from Brussels are scrutinised, they are rarely strong enough to arouse widespread passion. EU regulation such as the requirement for houses to be built five kilometres away from heathland in order to stop cats from chasing birds may be petty, but they would hardly cause the Boston Tea Party.

This plays to the strength of the Stayers’ argument that Brexit would cause too many problems in return for relatively minor gains. And as a result, the Leavers are frequently criticised for exaggerating the impact of the EU on more concerning issues for voters, such as immigration, in order to arouse passions.

The Brexit debate is therefore unlikely to be settled over the issue of supranationalism, which is unfortunate given that this question is at the heart of the EU’s raison d’etre. Many, including the President of the US, have expressed fears that a Brexit could lead to the break-up of the EU. This is indeed a possibility, as the scepticism that many in Britain have with Brussels is felt across various member states to much stronger degrees. Yet the desires for free trade and European collaboration remain strong. Instead of a break up, a proper debate over the need and role for a supranational government could lead to radical reforms that may produce a more effective and mutually beneficial European alliance. It is a question that should not be avoided.