Politics is seldom binary. Here are some thoughts on how we Remainers can overcome some of our less common opponents…
The political arguments put forward by the average Brexiteer are not, in themselves, something I lose any sleep over. Ill-informed rhetoric against immigration is swiftly dealt with by scrutinising the factual evidence, and concerns over the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget can be soothed by putting this expenditure of less than 0.5% of the country’s GDP in context. Of course, such peoples’ determination to tear the UK out of the EU on the basis of such flawed logic is deeply troubling, but I can honestly say that I have never been faced with even the remote possibility that they might actually have a valid point.
Recently, however, I have chanced upon a far more challenging political faction – the left-wing, often liberal, opponents of the EU, nicknamed by some (and, for brevity, by me) as “Lexiters”. They are few in number and, consequently, attract little media attention, but their reasons for voting Leave are at first glance disturbing indeed to a pro-European liberal like myself. I would be lying if I said that they hadn’t made me doubt, for the briefest and most horrible of moments, whether I was on the right side. Conversely, it is not an exaggeration to say that this article, intended to reason against them, is by far the most difficult I’ve written.
The “Lexit” argument, as I understand it, breaks down into six key areas:
- Lack of democracy
- Corruption of senior EU figures
- Austerity imposed on Greece
- External trade tariffs amounting to market protectionism
- Institutionally racist exclusion of Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo from membership
- A “fortress Europe” system that is inhumane towards refugees
The first four points come from anecdotal evidence. The final two were put across in a very disturbing article I was recently made aware of, in which the author accused the EU of being “more racist than Trump.”
But don’t worry, fellow Remainers. I have not, nor am I about to, switch sides. Here are my counter-arguments against the Lexiters…
- The EU’s system of government is more democratic than that of the UK.
Here I defer to the Young European Movement, an anti-Brexit campaign group who addressed the question of the EU’s apparent “democratic deficit” more comprehensively than I ever could.
As if all this were not enough, President Juncker even called for the Commission to be “directly elected in the future” during this year’s State of the Union speech.
Democracy in Europe would no doubt be further improved by a higher turnout in European elections. Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is made difficult to achieve in the UK because of the lack of media coverage such elections receive. In other words, it appears that the right-wing media that spreads the idea of a “democratic deficit” in the EU is, with tragic irony, actively contributing towards creating one.
2. I’m not aware of any major cases of corruption in the EU.
Time for some famous last words: My information on this may be incomplete.
It will come as no surprise that, for the sake of my own sanity, I don’t actively seek out news that casts Europe in a damning light. We are, however, living in a time when criticism of the EU in the British media is absolutely rife and despite that, I’m not aware of any major cases of EU corruption. By contrast, I am very aware of the recent sexual misconduct scandal in Westminster, as I was aware of the MP’s expenses scandal a few years ago, even though it happened before I developed any interest in politics.
That said, I don’t doubt that there must, by law of averages, be some corruption in Brussels. No parliament is corruption-free. But wanting to leave the EU to escape a few isolated (and, from my perspective, hypothetical) corruption incidents seems a very drastic solution.
3. The EU was not the cause of Greece’s problems.
Economics may not be my strong suit, but I do understand that the Greek financial crisis a few years ago was largely due to a widespread culture of unchallenged tax avoidance for which Greece, not Europe, was to blame. The EU then rescued Greece with a large-scale financial bail-out which, for the sake of the other EU members, could not come without stringent conditions, including the requirement for austerity to balance the books.
Since then, there has been a widespread scapegoating of the EU for Greece’s inevitable austerity. In a recent poll, Greece was one of only three EU member states in which fewer than 50% of the population considered EU membership to have been beneficial. The key fact remains, however, that without the EU’s intervention, Greece would almost certainly have gone completely bankrupt.
4. EU “protectionism” is not the evil Brexiteers make it out to be.
Brexiteers overwhelmingly seem to believe that Brits should “buy British”. Many of their arguments as to why are perfectly reasonable ones; such shopping habits support the British economy and reduce importing, hence giving an environmental benefit. But I am more than slightly confused as to why they then vilify the EU for employing measures to encourage the equivalent – Europeans “buying European”. EU laws and tariffs encourage member states to support each other economically, and this mutual help is also a vital lifeline to develop the very deprived countries of Eastern Europe.
Brexiteers love to hold up “free trade” as some kind of panacea that could “free” Britain from dependence on EU trade, resulting in a much stronger Brexit negotiating hand. They have, however, failed to consider the wide range of potential ethical problems this could bring. For example, more trade with Africa and Asia without being “bound” by EU workers’ rights laws may well mean more unwitting support for unethical businesses that subject employees to inhumane “sweat shop” conditions.
Furthermore, preparations for “free trade” with the USA have already caused major concerns, because animal welfare and food safety standards are lower in the USA than in Britain. Not long after the chlorinated chicken scandal, MP’s also voted against recognition of animal sentience – and I strongly suspect fears that American meat might fall short of such standards to be to blame.
And of course, transporting goods to and from far-flung countries such as America, China and Australia as opposed to Britain’s much closer European neighbours is hardly good for the environment.
As I have previously said many times, however, economics is not my primary area of interest. Hence I will give the final word on this economic issue to a quote I’ve previously used, from the Financial Times: “Economists overwhelmingly think leaving the EU is bad for the UK economy.”
5. Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo have not been “singled out”, or unfairly prevented from joining the EU.
According to the BBC, all three of these countries are being considered as possible future EU members. The main reasons they haven’t joined yet are as follows:
- Albania does not meet EU membership standards because of problems with corruption and organised crime.
- Bosnia hasn’t yet applied.
- Kosovo is not unanimously recognised as an independent country.
It’s also worth taking into account that, according to the UN, there are eight other European countries (excluding those with a population less than that of the smallest EU state, Malta) which are not EU members. Furthermore, the EU already allows Albanians and Bosnians to travel visa-free to the Schengen area – hardly a measure consistent with keeping them out for racist reasons.
6. The EU’s failures around refugees are not a valid pro-Brexit argument.
I always write bluntly about my autism, partly because unflinching honesty comes naturally to an autist, but also because of my firm belief that frank discussion of the condition is the first step towards destigmatisation. With this in mind, I can make the following statement: This one nearly broke me.
I’m passionate about the plight of refugees to such an extent that I can be downright hot-headed in their defence. I’ve long-since summarised the choice facing the Western world as this: let them in, or let them die. The anxiety, depression, guilt, psychosis, insomnia and even passive suicidality that I have therefore suffered over the so-called “fortress Europe” issue have been worse than any politically induced mental health problem I’ve had before. Even now, my psychological vulnerability limits my potential research options so, needing to protect myself from scathing Lexiters, I went to a completely impartial source – the fact-checking charity Full Fact.
Sticking with the theme of brutal honesty, I agree that the Western world as a whole has failed refugees – and this includes the EU. Numbers re-settled by the EU have been dismally low, and the defence of Europe’s external borders has been inhumanely heavy-handed. But there are several things that must be said in Europe’s defence.
The idea of the EU’s fortress-like iron grip on its external borders is an exaggeration.
The very existence of large refugee camps in Greece and other EU countries prove this conclusion. Statistics also back it up; 170,000 refugees arrived in the EU by sea this year alone. Furthermore, the EU border agency’s number of staff (about 2,500) is dwarfed by the length of the borders they police – I estimated the total length of the EU’s south and south-east coasts as in excess of 40,000km. That works out as one guard every 10 miles.
Guarding of sea borders must also, like the “refugee deal” with Turkey, be considered in the context that the aforementioned sea crossings both aim to prevent are extremely dangerous – in fact they have claimed over 3,000 lives in 2017.
The EU is a democratic organisation and must represent public opinion – opinion that is often hostile towards refugees.
Fairly ambitious EU plans to resettle refugees have fallen down mostly on the opposition of individual member states. The original relocation target of 160,000, for example, had to be scrapped, chiefly because Hungary refused to accept any refugees at all. This year’s far-right election gains in France, Germany, Austria and Holland have also demonstrated the grotesque extent of the hostility towards all immigrants, including refugees, among the general public in many European countries.
Against such a backdrop, the EU’s only foreseeable alternative to turning away refugees is to force member states to accept them. Although hypothetically possible in the case of many potential recipients (but not, incidentally, the UK), I can only conclude that, under the current climate, forced refugee admissions would be tantamount to political suicide on the EU’s part.
Furthermore, it is well worth noting that Britain also opted out of the EU’s refugee resettlement scheme, making it impossible for the country to claim any moral high ground on the issue.
All this said, however, EU membership does nothing to prevent member states from resettling refugees under their own initiative. Germany serves as a great example of this. But here again, we see the political danger that comes with refugee resettlement. The resultant far-right gains in Germany were significant, even though they occurred despite a lack of evidence that refugees were causing significant problems.
Despite all the difficulties of refugee resettlement, the EU is still trying.
Coming back to President Juncker’s State of the Union speech in September, we find hope of a brighter future for refugees in the EU. Alongside promises on border security, he said that the EU should “improve its pathways for legal migration and tackle the inhumane conditions in Libyan reception camps”. Clearly, the EU is not in denial – it accepts that there is much more to be done.
It is a shame, therefore, that the UK is so unwilling to stick around and help…
The only foreseeable way to change the EU’s refugee policy is to stay in the EU.
This whole episode has been something of a wake-up call for me. It’s made me realise that I was losing sight of what it means, or, more accurately, what it does not mean, to be a Remainer; being a Remainer does not mean thinking that the EU is perfect. It simply means believing that things would be better if Brexit were to be stopped. And even in the context of the EU’s refugee failings, I can conclude with confidence that Brexit will not improve the plight of refugees.
The UK government could start planning the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees tomorrow if they were so minded. EU membership would not prevent them from doing so. But to walk away from Europe is to abandon the influence the UK would then have – the power to encourage other member states to do the same. To walk away is to abandon the EU’s refugee policy as a bad job, to accept that things will never get better and, in summary, to abandon refugees.
In the interest of fairness, it must be said that while Brexit will not present opportunities for refugee resettlement, it probably won’t present significant obstacles either – at least in theory. Yet predicting how the plight of refugees will be viewed in post-Brexit Britain brings me to perhaps my most powerful anti-Lexit argument of all…
Thanks to the political demographic of the people who support it, Brexit can never be a vehicle for any kind of liberal, ethical agenda.
If we focus too heavily on the Lexiters, we risk missing the bigger Brexit picture. Lexiter concern for refugees and the non-EU countries of eastern Europe is certainly admirable – but it is definitely not representative of the average Leave voter.
During the referendum campaign, the only mentions of refugees by the Leave side were in the context of promoting Brexit as a way to avoid having to help them. Top Brexiteers revelled in spreading the aforementioned misconception that the EU was about to force Britain to accept more refugees. Who could forget this poster?
(Major respect to the anonymous saboteur on the left here.)
If anyone is still tempted to support the Lexiters, I strongly encourage them to take a long, hard look at what the Brexit vote – the vote that Lexiters support – has “achieved” in regard to tolerance and ethics in Britain so far. Hate crime has risen. EU immigrants are leaving the UK in droves because they no longer feel welcome here. Those that remain live in a state of permanent fear because their most basic rights still haven’t been guaranteed.
More generally, Brexit has come to represent a victory of amoral, selfish, xenophobic nationalism over outward-facing, compassionate, tolerant internationalism. With unfettered anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment now as common as dirt in a country that increasingly cares only for itself and for those who fit the very narrow definition of what it considers “its own people”, a decent effort in refugee resettlement by the UK is now further away than ever – and the Lexiters are in part responsible for all of that.
So don’t worry, Remainers. I’m not going anywhere.
In conclusion, the arguments put forward by Lexiters make no more sense than those that come from the more run-of-the-mill Brexiteer. In many ways, they represent yet another illogical thorn in Remain’s side.
That said, I do have some sympathy for Lexiters as individuals. Like myself, they are not only concerned for vulnerable refugees, but their attitudes towards immigration in general seem to be tolerant, sensible and positive. Misguided though they are on the issue of Europe, it seems irrefutable that their hearts are very much in the right place. What’s more, for a liberal Remainer like myself, there is an upside to the Lexiters:
The Lexiters’ existence proves it conclusively – a vote for Brexit is not necessarily a vote against immigration.
To describe Brexit as in any way democratic is a huge mistake. I outlined why in a previous article and, since this is such an important point to make, seem to have linked to it in almost everything I’ve written since. But observation of the day-to-day rhetoric coming from the government highlights an even bigger mistake – and yet another example of Brexiteers abusing democracy.
After choosing to overlook the many fatal flaws in the “democratic mandate” supposedly given to them by Leave voters, the right-wing Conservative government has gone on to make sweeping assumptions about what Leavers want. In particular, they assume that all Leavers support their ruthless obsession with cutting immigration, heedless of the human cost.
It seems probable to me that most of them do. But with Leave’s majority at the EU referendum already so narrow, it only takes a small minority of Leavers to subscribe to the more liberal Lexit ideology before the effective majority backing the government’s stance goes from unfairly-arrived-at to completely non-existent.
My last word on Lexiters – don’t side with them. But remember them, the next time a far-right sympathiser tries to tell you that Britain voted to get rid of the immigrants.