Friday, 17 May 2013

A Sceptical European

I've been thinking a bit lately about the debate about the EU referendum.
My impression, for what it's worth is that the Labour and Liberal leaders are at a something of a disadvantage in the debate because, frankly, it's not terribly important either to them or their constituents, but they can't say that. On the whole I suspect, like me, they'd rather stay in but it's not exactly top of the agenda. But if they say it like that they'll be accused of being weak on Europe or whatever, and they can't have that, because the other side - UKIP and some of the Tories, are just so absolutely and completely incensed by the subject.

A lot of what I hear on the subject is economics - whether we'd be better off as a nation in or out, but I don't think that's the point. I really don't think it's about economics. For those of us who do feel at all strongly about Europe it's more a deep intuitive or instinctive reaction, both to the idea of being European, and to being British (or English). The people I know best actually sort of like the idea of being part of Europe. It makes us feel just a bit more cosmopolitan and sophisticated and broad-minded. We like the idea of being able to move freely about this huge area with it's languages and histories and cultures and to feel comfortable there and share in it. The Eurosceptics on the other hand (you'll have to excuse this if it seems like a caricature - I don't know many and find them hard to relate to. I'll try and be as even-handed as possible) have this deep commitment and loyalty above all to being British (or English). Our history and independent place in the world strikes some deep chord in them and merely being a part of Europe, they feel, dilutes or undermines that. To us Europhiles that feels a bit arrogant and insular, while to them, we look a bit effete and utopian. Does that seem fair? Eurosceptics don't necessarily dislike foreigners, but they do like them in their place.

The economics is vague to say the least. I'm no economist and I have to take the experts' word for it. My impression, not only about this, but about all the economic debates going on (most obviously how to deal with the financial crisis) is that you invariably have two equally well qualified, equally intelligent and equally convincing pundits coming out with two equally convincing but opposing arguments and offering two opposite plans of action (generally more public spending or less public spending). I suppose it might be like the climate change debate where the overwhelming consensus is for man-made climate change but the BBC just have to get a contrarian in for balance, but I don't think so. I liken it to my days of studying ecology.

Economics, like ecology (and psychology too) is what's known by some as a 'soft science'. That doesn't mean it's just so woolly that anyone can say anything they like and get away with it. It means that the factors involved are so many and varied that it is almost impossible to fully understand what's really going on, let alone make predictions. You can do statistics and try to work out some probabilities and trends, but that's about it. As ecologists we had to be extremely circumspect in our pronouncements. If you ask an ecologist to predict what will happen if, for example, you release a foreign species into the wild, or wipe out large numbers of a native species (badgers for example) most ecologists would be extremely chary of making any sort of prediction at all. And so it is with economists, except they have to make predictions. It's their job. And being in the businesses they are (finance and politics most obviously, where perception and confidence are everything) they have to sound like they know what they are talking about.
My impressions about listening to economists was confirmed by what I take to be the one reliable source of Truth available to the average layman on this kind of thing, that is More Or Less - a Radio 4 programme (backed by the Open University) about the use and abuse of statistics. They told us last week that in fact nobody really knows whether the UK (or England) would be better or worse off out of the EU. There are so many different factors to take into account. I take it from that that there's probably not a lot in it. Hence my feeling about The Opposition being relatively unmoved by the issue (compared to, say, unemployment, the NHS, or the tax evasion). It probably doesn't make that much difference.

Of course there are other reasons for being sceptical about Europe, and in some respects I share this scepticism. You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to be worrying about the implications of Big Government. It's bad enough having to be being ruled by our own local government, but the European version is much larger and at least seems a lot more remote and a lot less easy to influence. Eurosceptics point to the waste and corruption, and what about all those idiotic regulations 'handed down from Brussels' (square bananas etc)? I suppose my first thought is to wonder if our own government is any better. I'm sure you could make up an equally ridiculous list of judgements passed by any government. This is one thing I definitely take issue with Eurosceptics over. They do seem to assume that without Brussels, the British government on its own would handle things so much better. Perhaps it's part of the pro European mindset I outlined at the beginning that I doubt this, but I suspect that even Eurosceptics would have to concede that the British government leaves a lot to be desired. 'They might be incompetent' they might say, 'but they're our incompetents.'
I think there's more to it than this though, because I think we pro-Europeans actually quite like European legislation, even if a lot of it is no better than our own government manages. We like the fact that when environmental issues, or human rights or employment law for example, come up, we're more likely to hear the kind of  things we like from Brussels or Strasburg than from London (which doesn't seem to be interested in anything but economics). And of course, those are exactly the kinds of things the Torys and UKIP don't want to hear so that's another reason for ditching the EU in their book. Too much woolly lefty thinking.

If I have one real concern about how the EU is run it is this perceived lack of democracy. This is certainly partly our fault. We do get to vote in European elections but most of us don't take much of an interest. I don't know who my MEP is or what he/she stands for. I should find out. But ok, maybe the EU should be more democratic. Fair enough. But again, this is not what the Eurosceptic wants to hear. I'm not saying the EU is perfect (how ludicrous would that be?) but I deep down I think it's basically a good idea, so my plan of action, as a member of the opposition (after I'd dealt with all the other, more pressing issues) would be to make it better. But the Eurosceptic won't have that. The EU is rotten to the core. It was a bad idea from the start. There is no point in trying to fix it.
So anyway, in the referendum, should it ever happen, I'll be voting to stay in.