May, 2016

Opinion

Considering The UK's Referendum On The EU From An American Perspective

I do not know what choice the British people will make in their 23 June, 2016 referendum on whether to remain in the European Union or to, as the saying goes, Brexit. And certainly as an American, I wouldn’t presume to tell even my personal friends in Great Britain how they ought to vote.

Yet watching the debate unfold with American eyes and hearing the arguments through American ears has been fascinating. Almost all of the people in the produce industry that I have spoken to have argued to stay in the European Union. This is not surprising; unlike most people, they have direct personal connections to the Continent. Many have farms and businesses across the EU, and so the sundering of relations on the present terms raises doubts and questions.  In general, business can tolerate good policies or bad policies, but uncertainty in the business environment is always a big negative.

Yet this direct connection to commerce on the Continent is not common among the vast army of Her Majesty’s subjects. And so it is not surprising that the citizens might think differently.

For an American raised on tales of Elizabethan glory, it is hard to think of the debate as in synch with the history of the country. I remember memorising as a schoolboy Queen Elizabeth I’s famous Speech to the Troops at Tilbury:

Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.

I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field….

This notion that England was distinct, special and would be defended against those who would change it, is deeply engrained in my memory. Indeed, to an American, the whole European project is an odd one to even think the UK got involved.

The Germans carry with them the weight of the unspeakable, and so that they would want to subsume their identity in some larger enterprise makes perfect sense. The French have always yearned for glory.  But Force de Frappe or not, its population is small and French influence in the world is declining, not increasing.

There was a time when French was the, well, lingua franca; today that is most certainly English. Indeed, when Charles de Gaulle himself gave his famous press conference rejecting the notion of Great Britain joining the Common Market, a big part of the press conference was devoted to the General expounding on the urgent need to increase the French population. He also highlighted among the reasons the UK ought not to enter the Common Market, that the UK had a tradition of importing inexpensive food from around the world, whereas half the purpose of the Common Market was to be protectionist against the rest of the world and thus raise the incomes of French farmers. For France, the way to glory was for it to be influential, even dominant, in a larger Europe.

Self-governance

But neither France nor Germany ever saw their glory in governance, and in this sense, although the British could open their markets and engage in free trade, the European imperative of “ever closer union” and the gradual transition of more and more governmental functions to Brussels seems to an American to diminish Great Britain in a way it does not diminish, say, France.

After all, whereas France is on its Fifth Republic, England is the Mother of all Parliaments, the home of the Magna Carta or, more completely, the Magna Carta Libertatum – The Great Charter of the Liberties.  

Yet sometimes it appears this history and this legacy is better appreciated in America than in Great Britain. Isn’t it somewhat odd that the Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede was erected by the American Bar Association?!

This whole history of self-governance seems at stake. When a constitution consolidating power in Brussels was voted down in two EU countries in 2005, it did not kill the proposal. EU politicians cancelled the remaining referenda and manipulated the same terms through other means. The European Court of Justice has taken to acting like the Supreme Court in America, acting as if it is acceptable to overrule the democratically created laws of free countries, including the UK.

What seems most odd about the debate is that the Remain forces seem to barely have a good word to say about the European Union. The whole argument rests on a claim that the UK will do better economically within the EU than outside it. That probably is true, at least in the short run, but it is hard to know in the long term, as answers to crucial questions – such as what kind of economic arrangements can be made with the EU -- won’t be known until after the decision to exit is made. 

It is also unclear what alternatives may develop later, such as a Liberty Free Trade Zone, say with the US, Canada, South Africa, Israel, India, South Korea, Chile, Singapore, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Maybe that, combined with some sort of agreement with the EU, could lead to more trade with the UK than exists now. 

Of course, most crucial is what the UK’s own policies would be.  Michael Gove MP, considered perhaps the most impressive member of the British Parliament, at least in American conservative circles, explained his support for the Brexit movement, in part, by explaining that UK ministers were hamstrung by European regulations:

It is hard to overstate the degree to which the EU is a constraint on ministers' ability to do the things they were elected to do, or to use their judgment about the right course of action for the people of this country. I have long had concerns about our membership of the EU, but the experience of Government has only deepened my conviction that we need change. Every single day, every single minister is told: 'Yes Minister, I understand, but I'm afraid that's against EU rules'. I know it. My colleagues in government know it. And the British people ought to know it too: your government is not, ultimately, in control in hundreds of areas that matter.

But by leaving the EU we can take control. Indeed we can show the rest of Europe the way to flourish. Instead of grumbling and complaining about the things we can't change and growing resentful and bitter, we can shape an optimistic, forward-looking and genuinely internationalist alternative to the path the EU is going down. We can show leadership. Like the Americans who declared their independence and never looked back, we can become an exemplar of what an inclusive, open and innovative democracy can achieve....

If the UK is able to do things on its own that are precluded by the EU, it is quite possible that these rules could lead to greater prosperity. Yet one wonders if prosperity is the point at all. More than a half-decade ago, I wrote a piece that spoke to the question of the legitimacy of nationhood:

The larger question, though, is whether a nation is any more than a geographic entity. If some Parisian Rip Van Winkle wakes up one distant morning and finds himself in a nation that speaks Arabic, where the people are Muslim, food is by law halal and the government follows Sharia law, is that fellow still, in any meaningful sense, in France? Is it simple racism for, say, the Dutch to want their nation to stay Dutch -- not just in terms of geography -- in terms of language, food, religion, government, architecture and all the things that make up a culture? 

The great challenge of the debate, at least as heard from America, is that the Leave forces are hesitant to lean too much on abstract concepts such as self-governance as their argument. They also fear being identified as racist or ruffians when discussing immigration. So they wind up attacking EU regulations on petty matters such as that the EU requires bananas to be free from “abnormal curvature of the fingers” – these regulations are silly, and intrusive – but surely not enough to encourage the people to make dramatic changes such as leaving the EU.

Freedom of movement

Intrinsic to the EU is the free movement of not just goods, but of people. And when people one way or another get into Europe, they want to learn not French or German, they want to learn English, and so getting into the UK is a priority.

So far, the UK has been somewhat protected from too many refugees by the so-called Dublin rule that requires refugees register in the first country they enter in Europe. But that rule seems unlikely to stand. Even if it does, once refugees are legal in another EU country, they travel freely.  Besides the issue is not just refugees, the completely legal movement of people, from say Poland, poses challenges not because they are bad people but because, in a democracy, immigrants get to become citizens and they get to vote. This allows them to change the country.

To an American, the question thus becomes this: Will allowing free movement of people into the UK allow for Great Britain to remain British? And isn’t that something of value? Something worth sustaining?

Traditionally, American politicians have felt that having Britain in the EU was a plus for America, and that Britain could favorably influence these councils. But that is not as clear any more. The UK joined a six-country block; today there are 28 countries and the UK’s influence is unclear.

Most Americans recoiled at President Obama going to the UK and interfering with a UK matter, especially saying things about trade agreements etc. -- things he will have no influence over as an ex-president. We also find it odd that the prime minister thinks it a wise policy to get all these foreign leaders – the Prime Minister of Japan! – to weigh-in. Surely the British will recoil at being told what to do.

The polls show that the Remain forces are in the majority – but we are in a world where anti-establishment forces are ascendant – from Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the US, to the close loss of Norbert Hofer in Austria. And the Remain campaign, viewed from America, consists of parading luminaries around the UK saying that disaster will befall if Brexit wins. It just doesn’t feel like a campaign in alliance with the times.

And polling has often failed, including in the last UK general election, so how much confidence is justified in the polls is unclear. Especially on an issue such as this. We know about “shy Tories” -- Isn’t it very possible that British citizens who wish to keep Great Britain British would be hesitant to say that to pollsters lest they seem illiberal?

Potential produce impact

The specific impact on the produce industry of Brexit is difficult to predict. After all, keeping Britain’s large market open to Spanish and other Continental farmers will be a powerful bargaining chip in any post-Brexit negotiations. But it is likely that one could imagine more American business, as there was before Britain entered the common market.

It is three years now since we launched The London Produce Show and Conference, and in that time I’ve come to have what I think of as a good number of real friends throughout the UK. I’ve dined at their homes, stayed in their country cottages on their farms and raised a pint or two. And I have to say I have come to love the country and the people who inhabit it.

And now those people, my friends, must make a momentous decision, and I think of Churchill speaking at Harrow School: “Never give in --- never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Solomon prayed that the Lord should grant him an “understanding heart” and the Lord granted the prayer “Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself.” So I hope the great people of Great Britain, heir to the noblest tradition of English-speaking peoples, will make their decision generously and shall be granted the wisdom to discern the best course.

The London Produce Show and Conference takes place on June 8-10 at the Grosvenor House hotel, Park Lane. Register here.

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