Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Thursday, 26 May 2016

I Quite Like The E.U., Let's Keep It

I don't "heart" the E.U. actually. Neither do I love New York or Prague (though I do love Cardiff) and I rather dislike London and loathe Phoenix. Ghastly place. But this does not mean I don't want any of them to exist, and were it put to the vote I'd actively campaign for all of them to keep existing* - which is pretty much exactly how I feel about the E.U. So, inevitably, here's why I will be voting for Britain to remain in the E.U. despite its many flaws.

* Except possibly Phoenix. If you live in Phoenix, I am sorry for you. If you like living in Phoenix, stop it.


Things I Like About The E.U.

Freedom of Movement


Just look at all the horrors wrought by lack of proper border control. Think of how much better we'd all be with big walls with barbed wire and watchtowers everywhere !
I can go anywhere I want in Europe for whatever reason with nothing but my passport. I don't need a visa or a visa waiver. I compete on equal footing for jobs in different countries with no difficulty imposed on myself or my potential employer because of where I'm from. This is fundamentally a very, very good thing indeed. Instead of harping on about "immigants", we should be dancing about this in the streets. Immigrants are not coming to take your job or your benefits any more than you're coming to take theirs.

The thing I find most revolting and dangerous about the whole Brexit campaign is the way it's given xenophobes and assorted other bigots a racism license. True, their are legitimate concerns about the speed and scale of external migration (and I'll get back to those in the next section), but as far as internal migration within the E.U. goes I have precisely zero respect for the Tory idea that we shouldn't let in poor people or limit benefits even though they're working.

What really winds me up is that xenophobia is currently running rampant just about everywhere. How, exactly, every country seems to think that every other country is full of dangerous criminals/benefit cheats/cheap labour except for themselves is something that makes absolutely no sense. It's like people have never even seen or met a foreigner, or when they have, they complain about their plumber being Polish even while they'll happily pay them to unblock the kitchen sink. If we didn't have the absurdly stupid right wing fascist tabloids lying through their teeth about immigration, no-one naturally would think it's any kind of problem. If immigration posed even a tenth of the threat the Daily Fail thinks it does, the entire Schengen Area would long ago have torn itself into tiny bloody pieces. Britain is not a special snowflake.

Which is not to say, necessarily, that leaving the E.U. would deny us freedom of movement within Europe - that's a whole other issue, which I'll touch on later. I'm simply saying that I support the E.U. because it has made freedom of movement possible.


Human Rights

I have nothing to say that isn't said in the following video.


Trade



I'm not an economist but I do know that selling things is important because it makes people richer. Being able to sell lots of things makes people even richer, or, even better, if lots of people can sell things then lots of people get richer. Hurrah ! And without free trade agreements with the E.U. it's very tough for me, naive as I am, to see how our economy could do anything except suffer pretty badly, no matter what we're paying in membership fees.

UKIP and the like have it that we could resurrect the Commonwealth, an idea which, while nice, looks to be about a century out of date (and why is it that the distant Commonwealth would be any better run than the much closer E.U., anyway ?). Just like their half-baked notions that the Germans are trying to conquer us, as though we were all still in the era of empire building. NEWS FLASH : We're not. Get over the empires, already. The European Union is not a German Empire, and no amount of ranting will ever change that.


Science

Many of the big European research facilities - CERN, ESA, ESO, etc., are not directly run by the E.U. itself, but they are certainly influenced by it.
Pretty much any scientist is going to be pro-E.U. for the very simple reason that it gives us lots and lots of lovely funding. Specifically, we give about £5.4 billion to the research programme but get about £8.8 billion back. And that's just the crude financial numbers, to say nothing of the less quantifiable benefits of freedom of movement - no, you can't form the same kind of collaborations over Skype as you can by visiting people in person - or of course the massive societal and economic benefits enabled by scientific research.

The E.U. is by no means essential for every piece of scientific research that happens in the U.K., and if we left we certainly we not stop making major scientific contributions to the world. Just as with most other aspects of the E.U., in principle we could negotiate for the same sort of collaborations which we already have, which means, inevitably, a protracted period of confusion that will harm research and loss of some of the most highly-skilled workers we have : many researchers depend on E.U. funding and it's tough to see a Brexit as being anything other than disastrous for them. Yes, alright, things may stabilise over the long-term, but it looks very unlikely indeed that it would stabilise at a level equal to what we have now, let alone exceeding it.

The Brexiters have it will be easy to re-negotiate all of the benefits we get from the E.U. while we simultaneously snub our noses at it. The rest of the world appears to be saying, "duuuh, if only there was some established organisation you could enter to get those benefits !". Even if it's possible in principle to do all these things without being in the E.U., that looks neither likely nor easy.


Peace in Europe



For most of the last 2,000 years the various tribes and nations of Europe were getting along quite happily kicking the shit out of each other as a pleasant way to while away an afternoon, or indeed the odd century or so. It was all good clean fun : an invasion here, a massacre there... just normal, high-spirited youthful exuberance, really. Then, as with most children's games, things eventually got out of hand - things were said, mistakes were made, a bunch of people got brutally slaughtered.  At which point there was finally a collective agreement that we'd stop beating the crap out of each other and try sharing resources instead.

The E.U. is not the sole or underlying drive for peace in Europe, nor has it prevented war entirely. As usual, there's little point in asking whether the E.U. has ushered in a utopia, because it hasn't - the E.U. is a political union, not Miss Universe and/or a magical wizard.

The right question to ask is whether or not it has made things better than not having it at all, to which the answer can only be hell yes. No E.U. member has ever gone to war with another E.U. member. It's of course true that correlation does not equal causation, but it's also true that causation does usually give rise to a correlation. That is, peace in Europe is one of the primary goals of the E.U., so it's reasonable to suppose that there really is a connection. The aim and the method are one and the same : greater economic integration. Given that parts of Europe remain unstable even now, if the E.U. didn't exist it would surely be necessary to invent it.

Which is not to say that the method of achieving and maintaining peace has been perfect - far from it. More on that soon.


Things That I Do Not Like About The E.U.

Both the "remain" and "leave" Brexit campaigns seem replete with Nirvana fallacies : if we leave/stay we will bring forth the apocalypse; the E.U. doesn't do things absolutely perfectly therefore it's not worth having; leaving the E.U. would somehow solve a bunch of unrelated problems; staying in the E.U. would prevent WWIII and make everyone more attractive to the opposite sex, that sort of thing. In an effort to escape this ridiculous posturing - which only hurts both sides, here's what I don't like about the E.U. and why I think the problems would be best placed by us staying in.


The Euro


It's not really the currency I hate, despite its unbelievably boring name that puts SpaceShipOne to shame. Or even the tedious and dull banknote designs. Money is part of culture, but not a terribly important one, so while losing the pound might be a bit of a shame, it wouldn't be as bad as losing Eurovision and nowhere near the usual "end of civilization" claptrap that William Hague and his muppety friends once claimed.

... and yet, the Euro, or more accurately the fiscal policies (or lack thereof) behind it have undeniably been a dismal failure. It's nice to be able to use the same currency anywhere, and no doubt this is good for businesses. But it seems to have done little or nothing to avert the last major financial crisis, and, far worse, the austerity policies being imposed on Greece largely at the behest of the Germans smack of the very worst aspects that anti-E.U. campaigners like to shout about so much.

Britain should not join the Euro. It should probably never join the Euro without some massive reforms of the entire system. Yes, Greece was probably at least partially responsible for its own mess, but the level of cuts demanded are absurd. Closer economic integration may be good for ensuring peace, but there's no particular reason that requires the level of having the same currency, and it certainly isn't supposed to be wealthy countries punishing smaller ones. That is the antithesis of what the E.U. is supposed to be about*.

* Of course the situation isn't that simple, since Germany paid a huge amount of the bailout money and is perfectly entitled to be quite cross about the whole thing. They've also taken on far more of the refugees than any other European county. Germany may be punishing Greece, but it's hardly as though it's a case of German fat cats trying to feather their nests or some other mixed metaphor.

Could we dismantle the Euro without dismantling the otherwise reasonably effective apparatus of the E.U. itself ? I have no idea if that would even be a good idea, let alone possible. But if we want to influence European economic policy - which we surely do - it seems to me that the best place to do that is from inside the E.U. Or as Yes Minister put it :



Impotence


Specifically, political impotence when it comes to foreign policy. Europe is still reeling from the financial crisis and is now being hit by a huge influx of refugees, which are not being settled in proportion to the existing population. This is not the economic-based internal freedom of movement the E.U. was designed to facilitate, it is a sudden, sharp, external shock. Few individual countries are designed to deal with this, and it plays right into the hands of the racist nutcases who've been singing the same dreary song about any and all ethnic groups for years.

If you're one of those, "it's not racist to discriminate against a religion" types, you can fuck off. I've run out of patience for that nonsense. Walk down any street in Cardiff and tell me that "their" values are incompatible with "ours". But that doesn't mean there can't or won't be a cultural shock - assimilation takes time, as does developing the infrastructure needed to cope with a sudden increase in the population. Long term, of course more people necessitate more jobs, but you can't just bring in a million people who've lost their homes and expect everything to be a magical paradise five minutes later.

The E.U.'s failure has been twofold. First, it has allowed the refugees to settle in numbers which are massively disproportional to the local populations. Secondly, and much more seriously, it has chosen to decisively respond to the crisis at the source by whistling a jaunty tune. The problem is that the E.U., contrary to the xenophobic lobby, is not a latter-day Roman Empire. It doesn't have all that many consistent, enforced domestic policies, much less any sort of coherent foreign policy, despite the attempts to create a European army. Still, the tightrope the E.U. has to walk is between becoming a tyranny by majority and unable to act at all.

Leaving the E.U. won't stop the refugee crisis. Staying in the E.U. won't stop it either, but if we do want to persuade other countries to help - and that can mean anything from military aggression to co-ordinated aid efforts - we're far better to do that if we stay inside. Oh, if only there was a country with experience of managing affairs on a global scale that could step up and lend a hand !


Bureaucracy



While many of the stories of horrendously meddlesome over-regulation from the E.U. bureaucrats are simply myth, and many are exaggerations, there's enough truth there that the organisation needs a good periodic kick up the backside. For instance, the E.U. really does have regulations that describe bananas by how curved they are, but it does not ban them if they're the wrong shape. It had plans to use multiple labels for yoghurt, but it was never planning to stop people calling it yoghurt. And the switch to the metric system is only partially due to the E.U., and I don't know about you but I have yet to see miles being replaced with kilometres or pints with litres. Finally, a weird Czech pickled sausage is (I'm told) banned under E.U. laws but everyone took as much notice of that as they did about the world championship bellydancing contest.

In less turbulent times, such silliness is at worse a nuisance. During crises, it makes the organization seem pointless. It's great that roaming charges are being abolished, but this decision to benefit the lives ordinary citizens rather than corporations looks somewhat unusual. That the E.U. even considered abolishing freedom of panorama is not a good sign, even though the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of keeping it, while the decision on net neutrality appear to be a case of, "if you can't convince, then confuse".

What the E.U. needs right now is a major political success - setting out a better policy for Greek debt, a policy to stem the flow of refugees through action at the source, that sort of thing. Day-to-day regulations are all well and good, but somewhat petty in the current political climate.


Image Problem



Which way is the train going ? Are you sure ? Look again. No-one seems to have much of a clue what the point of the E.U. is either. Or they do, but everyone else thinks it should be something different. It's not that the E.U. merely isn't projecting a vision, it's that it doesn't even have one. That is its strength - most of the time, it isn't trying to ride roughshod over national concerns, and its weakness - no-one can easily say what the blasted thing is for. It simultaneously appears to be a sort of pro-state yet not a state, overbearing yet ineffectual. The result is that the only people in Britain who care about the E.U. are the ones who hate it, hence most of our MEPS are members of UKIP. This is going to be a big problem if there's a low voter turnout at the referendum.

To be more precise, the goal of the E.U. to foster peace by greater economic interdependency is clear enough. The devil's in the details. Is this to be a pax Europa, "they make a wilderness and call it peace", with all aspects of life subject to bureaucratic regulation ? Just how far is this interdependency supposed to go ? Is the aim to dissolve national sovereignty, regulate it, or should the whole thing be strictly limited to economics ? Will we have a United States of Europe or just a European financial bloc ? How can you expect people to endorse something if they don't even know what it is they're supposed to be endorsing ?

Few in Britain - myself included - are keen on the idea of "ever closer union". Maybe that will happen on a timescale of many decades, but it isn't something you can foist on people next Tuesday. It can only happen of its own inevitability through a shared spirit of European identity. We don't have that yet. We're not even close.


Conclusion



The E.U. is not Star Trek's United Federation of Planets. Nor is it a modern day Empire or a regime of any kind. It's as flawed and as necessary as any other modern political institution, and while people often complain very loudly about whoever's in power, few of them ever want to actually bring down Parliament itself. Political problems are generally solved through evolution, not revolution - reform the system, don't trash it. Perhaps the one good thing about this silly referendum is that it might force the E.U. to realise that major reforms are urgently needed.

There are many serious problems and failures of the E.U., but it's also had many successes. In my opinion, the right way to address those problems is not to leave but to stay in in order to sort them out. We cannot ignore this massive economic entity on our doorstop, nor do we have a snowball's chance in hell of somehow having more influence outside it than from within - it's not as though we can go out and re-take India, for heaven's sake. Just about every single other country and major political figure on the planet - with the exception of Donald Drumpf - is telling us this. Could this not simply be because this is blindingly obvious ?

This man thinks we should leave the E.U. Call me crazy, but I question his sage political wisdom.
Were we to leave the E.U., I doubt we would sink into total obscurity or suffer the Ten Plagues of Egypt as many campaigners seem to think. But I see no way in which we would not be diminished. Instead of bitching about the problems of the E.U. management, we should be more actively involved in running the thing. None of the problems are insurmountable without a bit of clear leadership. Achieving leadership that everyone respects (doesn't matter who's actually in charge), that's the tricky part.

Finally, while there are many uncertainties, there are two things I think we can be reasonably confident about if we did leave. First, Scotland would almost certainly leave the U.K., because Scotland loves the E.U. That would inevitably weaken both Scotland and the remaining U.K. nations. Secondly, it's at least plausible that the loss of the English economy would weaken the E.U. considerably, and fears of a precipitating the break-up of the whole thing do not look so far-fetched given current crises. Leaving the E.U. looks likely to hurt a lot more people than it would in any way help - yes, those people are foreigners, but so bloody what.

And perhaps that's what the message and goal of the E.U. should be about - help. Not running a state or merely running Corporation Europe, but helping wherever it's requested and required. Can't get a job in your own country ? Have some European investment to improve the situation, or, move to another country. Need to build a particle accelerator but don't have a few billion Euros to spare ? Pool your resources. Suffering from oppressive governments ? Call in the ECHR.

It isn't easy. Mistakes will be made. It just looks to me that, now that's we're in, that it's going to be a lot easier to stay in the E.U. than trying to do all this on our own. We could do it on our own, but what would be the point ? We already have a system for European economic and political co-operation, and while it may not be the greatest political institution ever conceived, it certainly isn't the worst. So let's stay and utilise its benefits, exploit it, work with it, and ultimately, improve it. Let's help each other, not divide and rule or cower in isolation. Even if the E.U. dissolves, the European nations will still be a thing. Ignoring them won't make them go away.


2 comments:

  1. Here here.

    My own story in support of burocracy, short version: In 1998 I (Argentine) moved to Germany as a postdoc. My partner (Italian) came with me. Without a job, she was not granted a permit of stay, on the grounds that she didn't have means to support herself. After explanations, they suggested I declared her as my employee, for which I could pay her. Outraged, we wrote (early days of email) to the European Comission in Brussels. Few days later they wrote back saying that, after analyzing the case, we were right. Did we want them to start legal actions against the German government? We did! Couple of weeks later the Foreigners Office in our city called us to go and get her permit of stay. Ta-da!

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    1. Great example !! People so easily forget that laws are there for a reason. Positive stories never make the news.

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