19 June 2016

Why I've voted to leave the European Union

The EU referendum is the biggest question British voters (myself included) will have to wrestle with in a generation. General elections come and go, but deciding on our EU membership transcends the electoral cycle and normal political allegiances. As a postal voter in New Zealand I've already voted 'Leave', so I thought it’d be helpful to explain why I think membership of the European Union is bad for Britain.

Both sides have have used 'facts' to underline their positions – but in both instances 'facts' are often tosh. The Treasury's claims that households will be poorer if Britain doesn't vote to remain in the EU are nonsense: back in 2010 the Treasury 'predicted' the Government would be in surplus by now, yet here we are after six year of Conservative government still very much in the red. Likewise, Britain pays £350 million a week to Brussels, but it does get some of that back in return investment – the real figure is more like £180 million a week (still an enormous amount of money).

You can use 'facts' to make the case for a vote each way – little wonder people are sick of politicians!

So for me the referendum debate isn't a game of Top Trumps. There isn't an EU referendum statistic that beats another stat, but there are parallels that resonate – and this is what I've based my vote on. The big issues that swayed me are as follows:

1) Accountability – This is one of #VoteLeave's big arguments: the European Commission is responsible for setting a decent chunk of British law (around 30%, depending on who you listen to) yet of the 28 Commissioners only five have any commercial experience – the rest are career politicians, academics, lawyers, and so on. As someone who enjoys election campaigns the idea of people making the rules without being answerable to the country appals me (and yes, I support reform of the House of Lords). The European Parliament is merely an advisory body, and besides – no-one knows what Members of the European Parliament do. Can you even name your MEPs?

Oh – and there’s the small problem of the EU failing to sign off its accounts for almost two decades. It’s estimated that over £5 billion of the annual EU’s budget is lost to fraud. If this was the record of an elected government the politicians would be out of office – but the EU Commissioners are appointed, so they aren’t exactly sweating on this.

2) Eurozone integration – It's clear that the Eurozone will need to consolidate if the Euro is to be viable in the coming decades. Britain – outside the Eurozone – won't be part of this, so regardless of whether we vote 'In' or 'Leave' we'll be on the periphery of the next phase of the EU. Second class European citizens, yet still paying in more than we get out. If the referendum is won by ‘Remain’ then polling suggests it will be by a tiny margin, with debate in the UK and with our European partners dominated in the years ahead by a sense that almost half the population wants out. Let’s pull off the plaster and start building a new relationship with the Eurozone countries, and let them take the necessary steps towards integration that are desperately needed to get their economies back into real growth.

3) Trade – Britain is tied to the EU when negotiating trade agreements. The 'Remain' camp say the EU's size helps during trade negotiations, but this isn't true. As a half-New Zealander I've seen how successive governments in Wellington have been able to secure trade deals with the world's major economies. Smaller is better – which explains why New Zealand has secured trade deals with China, the US, Japan and almost all the major economies in Asia. The larger the block, the more vested interests there are to slow down trade talks – and Europe’s arms are regularly tied by French farmers, Romanian leather manufacturers, and so on. The EU trumpets its deals with Mexico and South Korea (New Zealand has also signed deals with these countries) but on a global level they are small fry. Where is the EU trade deal with China? The US? Brazil? These crucial agreements won’t be signed anytime soon, and that’s a real financial loss for the British economy. 

Put simply, the EU is millstone for the UK's global trade ambitions – disastrous given that we're in the era of the container ship and digital trade.

New Zealand's Free Trade Agreements (2016)

4) Less government – The EU's enormous bureaucratic machine is well known to Britain. 10,000 people working for the EU in Brussels take home more pay than David Cameron. And when all the member states were tightening their belts in recent years it was a major struggle to get the EU to reign in its spending. Totally out of touch – so a vote to leave the EU frees Britain from this awful culture of waste.

5) An outward looking Britain – I’d argue that Britain is the most globally engaged European country. I remember organising a fundraiser at one my local curry houses in Tooting – I'd managed to get a junior minister along, and the owner of the restaurant grabbed him by the lapels and told him the government was stopping him from bringing in the talented chefs he wanted to help his business thrive, while the Italian restaurant up the road had no such barriers to contend with. “How is this fair?” the restaurant owner asked.

Likewise James Dyson wants to bring the best engineers to help make his amazing vacuum cleaners – but the Government's clampdown on non-EU migrants makes this impossible. Not cool. I want Britain to be open to the brightest and best in the world, and I simply note that New Zealand (where my family is from) has a net immigration level three times higher than the UK, yet people are relatively comfortable with this because they know the government has the ultimate say on the numbers, and can match skills to the needs of the labour force. 

Blanket freedom of movement has seen wages stagnate, and zero hours contracts are being promoted under EU Flexible Labour Market rules. Millions of Britons are being undercut by workers who are happy to share rooms and send their pay packets home to to their families in countries where the cost of living is substantially lower. High levels of immigration have also pushed up the cost of housing, both in terms of rent, and the overall cost of property – and put enormous pressure to build on yet more of the British countryside.

Migrants should be celebrated, but the EU's open-door freedom of movement means this often isn't the case.

The perceived lack of control on immigration is utterly toxic for politics in the UK – particularly when politicians shut down anyone who disagrees by calling them ‘bigoted’. But it’s also toxic for anyone coming to the UK and bringing their skills to help make the country a better place to be.

As a sovereign nation Britain can adopt an immigration policy in line with the population's wishes. Current polling suggests freedom of movement agreements with countries like New Zealand, Australia and Canada would be popular, but we could extend these to Poland, the Netherlands, and so on – if that was judged to be in Britain's interest.

6) Progressive values – The 'In' camp suggest Brexit will lead to a bonfire of worker's rights, and so on. This simply isn't true – important UK legislation like the Equal Pay Act came into force before Britain joined the (then) EEC, and British values are based on 800 years of common law, Magna Carta, parliamentary democracy, and so on. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, Britain was one of a handful of European countries during the early 1940s that remained open and tolerant, while much of Europe was up in flames. All of which predated the EU. The Labour Leave campaign has a lot to say about how the EU is bad news for the progressive agenda

A Brexit vote won't suddenly turn the country into a Nigel Farage theme park. Blighty will still be home to generous, tolerant people who want a country that's open to the world. New Zealand is a modern, progressive country – and we’ve done this without being EU members. What is so inherently wrong in Britain that you need to be in the EU to remain ‘decent’? It’s a nonsense argument.

7) Security – Supposedly the crowning triumph of the European Union is a lack of war on the Continent since 1945. This is nonsense, of course – it is NATO that has secured peace since 1945, and regardless of next Thursday's vote the UK will still be one of its leading members. Britain will also remain in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network – it’s the most powerful intelligence organisation in the world (with the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Our European partners rely on intelligence we pass onto them, so any suggestion that we may be punished if we leave the EU is utterly ridiculous.

Field Marshal Guthrie’s recent endorsement of the Leave campaign pointed to the importance of building relationships with reliable allies that are willing to act. Lord Guthrie felt German attitudes to Croatia during the 1990s Balkan crisis created a sort of paralysis that led to the unnecessary loss of thousands of lives. “To get 28 people sitting round a table being decisive is very, very difficult. If you have a European Army, you will find that lots of those taking part will see it as a way of getting a seat at the top table as cheaply as they possibly can. Then they can actually do less, and the equipment programmes and the size of the forces suffer. When it comes to leading, you want a very clear chain of command, capable of making quick decisions.”

The 'EU gives us peace' argument also overlooks the war currently raging between Russia and the Ukraine. The latter would love to join the EU, but this is impossible given its corrupt public sector is wholly incapable of administering government in a manner acceptable to EU members. Ukraine remains outside the EU, and won't be joining for a generation. The EU in its current form is focused on government, rather than trade, and that's deeply destabilising for countries around Europe's periphery that are decades away from having the sort of administration capabilities that would enable them to join the EU. Greece's government is barely able to administer EU law – and look where they are now.

The Times (Feb 3rd, 2016)
8) EU reform is impossible – Brussels desperately needs to drive a genuine reform agenda, given that the Euro has destroyed the Greek economy (it hasn't been great for Spain or Italy either) and with the far right currently surging upwards in the polls across Germany, Austria, Poland, and so on. These are fully-blown fascist parties, by the way, the likes of which we haven't seen in the UK – yet.

But David Cameron's failure to secure meaningful concessions demonstrated just how incapable of reform the EU, and the idea that by staying in Europe we'll bring about change is naive. Besides, what do you think the EU will look like in two decades time? Will it even exist? Will Greece have finally been booted out? Will the 'passport free' Schengen Zone have been wound up? And will the Eurozone have integrated its tax system to try and make the single currency work? A vote to remain in Europe is a huge political gamble, but all the more so when the EU's leadership has demonstrated time after time its unwillingness to cast a critical eye on itself.

So that's why I've voted to leave the EU.

I'm optimistic about Britain's future – there's not a smidgeon of 'Little Englander' in me – and a vote to leave the EU will mean a Britain that is more progressive, tolerant, and prosperous than at the moment. If the likes of Dyson and JCB want Britain out of the EU, then I’ll listen to them any day over the faceless bankers and career politicians like George Osborne. It won’t be an easy transition, but likewise it won’t be the disaster some on the ‘In’ camp have suggested. Leaving the EU is a decision that will benefit Britain and Europe for decades to come – and will allow us to re-engage with the world.

Please Vote Leave on Thursday.

First published on my Facebook page on June 19th, 2016