The Brexit debate: no matter what, don’t mention the war!

There is something deeply troubling about how the debate about the UK’s EU referendum is unfolding. Deeply troubling and, dare I say, a little bit disgusting. Most opinion articles/interventions that I could find will start along the lines of “the UK is facing a decision of historic proportions…” and then completely forget the matter, preferring to discuss why voting yes or no will make you (the public) richer and happier in the foreseeable future.

Copyright: see notes and further reading.

Copyright: see notes and further reading.

Typically, whether the author favours the in or out camp usually matters very little, the framing is usually the same (with exceptions, of course): “you should vote X, because X makes economic sense”. This “economic sense” (I can’t emphasise the scare quotes enough) may be described either in the short/medium term (typically by the Remain side) or medium/long-term (favoured a little more often by the Leave camp). From my perspective, both approaches are blatantly misleading, they qualify more as misinformation than anything else.
I am of course aware that I have exactly zero chances of influencing how the debate is framed, but I will try nevertheless: my aim is to highlight why the choice that Britain is facing is of historic proportions, show that they are far-reaching and ominous, and finally highlight how this more holistic framing helps making an informed decision. That is: looking at the big picture makes picking a side much less a matter of taste/guessing/gut-feeling and much more a consequence of our generic world view and inclinations.

Having said this, an important disclaimer: I’m Italian, an EU citizen, I live and work in the UK and have no wish to leave. This makes my opinion naturally influenced by a relatively significant conflict of interest: I do wish my personal and professional life not to be threatened by a victory of the leave side. Furthermore, my world view and inclinations clearly point in the same direction: I think the remain option is very obviously the best one, furthermore, I refuse to believe that Britain as a whole will fail to recognise what’s best. Thus, be warned: what follows is an opinion, coloured by the sort of biases that grip all of us.

Self interest is about much more than GDP.

When deciding whether to participate in any activity, it’s clearly useful to know what the purpose of such activity is. In the case of the Brexit referendum, this basic rule of decision-making seems to be almost forgotten: most of the debate revolves around whether the UK will prosper more from within or without the EU. The fact that the EU has bigger aims, and treats prosperity as an important goal as well as an instrumental tool is, perhaps conveniently, brushed aside. As a result, we read lots of statements, boldly declaring that UK will clearly benefit from leaving, counterbalanced by the opposite view, also declared to be obviously true. This can’t be, the truth is that very little is obvious and much is unknown. Specifically, the only thing we can forecast with relative confidence is that if the UK will vote to leave it will enter a period of uncertainty and turmoil, as a consequence, the short-term outcome will almost certainly mark a net loss in economic development. After this initial period, if we are to believe that both camps base their claims on some element of truth, the logic conclusion is that nobody knows whether the UK will gain or suffer. It’s as simple as that: the clear proliferation of opposite and irreconcilable forecasts, all claiming to be obviously true, should suggest that in fact, no one can tell without reasonable doubt what the consequences of either options will be.

For this reason, the debate as I’m experiencing it is both deeply flawed and depressing. The, most common approach, shared as a sort of implicit agreement by both camps is that Britons should vote for the option that strengthens the UK economy. This approach is wrong, as it rests on false/questionable assumptions such as:

  1. A strong local economy is the most important factor. Self-interested voters needn’t think about anything else.
  2. Direct economic self-interest (even if not tied to the national economy) is the most important motivation for picking a side: one doesn’t need to be concerned with the long-term global consequences of whatever Britain will choose.
  3. Finally, as hinted above, the approach assumes that it is possible to reliably predict which option will maximise wealth creation in Britain.

All three assumptions look blatantly false to my eyes: the first point is weak, because a strong economy may or may not in itself be good news for the overall population. We all know that the global trend is towards wealth accumulation in the hands of an ever more restricted super-rich elite, we can probably agree that a strong economy will certainly favour these elites, but it is not clear if it will help raising the standard of living of the population at large (let alone the lower layers and the disenfranchised). The second assumption is trickier: given the current concerns on the planetary scale, my take is that one should, besides direct economic outcomes, consider also questions about geo-politics (will a vote for Brexit produce a more or less stable world? Will far-right nationalistic movements around the world benefit or suffer as a consequence? What does ISIS prefer us to vote? Would it favour or diminish Putin’s influence on the political world?), global economy (What will happen to the remaining EU economies? Will globalisation work in the interest of a wider or narrower range of people?) and ecology (Will it become easier or harder to coordinate efforts against global warming?) – ignoring this sort of questions looks inherently narrow-minded, bordering on wilful ignorance. The third assumption is just wrong: the consequences of Britain’s choice will certainly have a wide range of effects (certainly on other EU member states and EU policies, but it’s hard to deny that the ripples will propagate further than that). Thus, anyone who tells us that they already know how things will pan out in the medium/long-term is either delusional, a wilful liar, or blessed with supernatural powers.

In other words, the most common, almost universally accepted criteria of choice (“what option will leave Britain better off?”) is flawed and should be rejected. The reasons are simple: even if we interpret “better off” as a direct measure of GDP, we can’t tell with decent confidence and accuracy what will happen in either case. Furthermore, I am sure that most voters are actually concerned with much more than GDP alone: questions as “would I be better off?” should also be part of the equation, but also “would the world be better off?” should be considered, at the very least because what happens around Britain certainly influences what happens therein, for better or worse.

Be as it may, even if we accept to broaden our view, we have made little progress: we still don’t know what criteria should guide the choice.

Know your history, fool!

To start looking for better criteria, knowing what is the purpose of the EU would help, but curiously, it is very hard to find  information about it, even the EU official pages seem quite happy to gloss over irrelevant details such as why we even talk about political integration, monetary union, and the like. Let me be perfectly clear: voting for leaving can make sense, but it implies that you either don’t want to achieve the aims of the EU or that you have reasons to believe these aims will not be achieved anyway. However, the common discourse seems to ignore such overall aims, and if one ignores them, voting either way doesn’t make much sense: it would be a vote cast for irrelevant or secondary reasons.

Understanding the overall aims of the EU institutions, and understanding the instruments it utilises to reach such aims, should certainly help. It would also allow us to ask some crucial questions: are such aims worthy? Are they achievable? Are the current institutions actually working towards such aims?

So, what is the EU for? I’ll quote a certain Winston Churchill:

[T]here is no reason why we should not succeed in achieving our aims and establishing the structure of this united Europe whose moral concepts will be able to win the respect and recognition of mankind, and whose physical strength will be such that no one will dare to hold up its peaceful journey towards the future.

Oh, the aim is to establish the structure of a united Europe, a process seen as a peaceful journey. If this wasn’t clear enough for you, I’ll borrow some more words from the Schuman Declaration:

By pooling basic industrial production and setting-up a new High Authority whose decisions will be binding on France, Germany and other member countries, these proposals will bring to reality the first solid groundwork for a European Federation vital to the preservation of world peace.

[Before anyone thinks I’m cherry picking: both quotes come from the very beginnings of the EU project and are indisputably linked to the foundation of the institutions of the EU, namely the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community and of the European Economic Community shortly after. More documentation on Churchill’s reasons to promote the European project are here.]

These two quotes allow to put aims and tools in the proper order: the aim is no less than world peace, while the EU as a whole, and in particular the single market and the pooling of productive and economic interests are tools towards this aim. I’ll summarise the whole idea in my own words and provide some further reading at the bottom of this post.

First and foremost, it should go without saying that conflict, any conflict, requires a distinction between two or more actors. You simply can’t have a fight if there is only one actor. Thus, nationalism and national borders act as war enablers: they frequently are a precondition for war. If we could eliminate them, we would make war much more difficult (at the very least). Fine, but how could we? The problem here is that eliminating borders by means of brute force doesn’t work: national identities aren’t erased, and can even be enhanced as a justified reaction to what would count as forceful imposition. Furthermore, democracy in itself doesn’t help: elected representatives inherently draw their legitimacy from their own internal electorate, they can only represent and work in the interest of their own constituency (at best). Thus, to wilfully create a political-economic institution with the mission of working towards pacifying the world by gradually dissolving national institutions, one has to find other instruments. Coercion and democracy would both fall short. You may disagree with the alternative tool of choice, but nevertheless, the choice that was made (and which influences the shape and operation of the EU today) was the economy. It’s simple and ingenious at the same time: prosperity, even if understood only as wealth generation, isn’t a zero-sum game. Cooperation and trade act as wealth multipliers: they allow all/most players to benefit, not necessarily in equal measure, but that’s a secondary concern. Thus, by favouring cooperation, integration of economic interests and trade links, the non-zero-sum nature of the game is highlighted, and in turn, this allows to gradually erode the otherwise instinctive distinction between us and them. If I need your coal to make steel and can then sell you a car made with your coal, my steel and someone else’s rubber, I would have no interest in destroying your ability to extract coal and you will have even less to gain from destroying my car-factories. Clear? (Naturally, there is more to this idea, please see links in the Further Reading section.)

Furthermore, free movement of capital, of people and labour are, once again, instrumental: to see why, take my example. Can I easily think of “us” as a national entity and “them” as another, within the EU range of nationalities? Me personally, given where I live, find it impossible: who would “us” be? The Italian, the British, both, the EU workers in the UK? For me, the whole concept of national identity as a representation of my own private interests makes little practical sense, and like me, it is fading away for all the people who have personally gained from freedom of movement. Furthermore: unregulated immigration can indeed be a problem. As a consequence it becomes in the interest of every member state to make sure living standards are not too unequal across different member states. Thus, the well-being of all member states becomes, at least to some extent (Greece notwithstanding), a positive interest of all other EU members: this again is expected to have the beneficial effect of weakening nationalist interests and fostering greater collaboration.

Interestingly, the plan behind the Euro follows the same blueprint, it is merely geared towards more specific aims: to progress towards an erosion of nationalism, one has to weaken the link between political institutions and national borders/identities. This is a difficult thing to achieve, for a simple reason: it requires (national) politicians to actively seek to give away their own powers, and put them in the hands of a distinct, super-national set of institutions. Since politicians are selfish exactly as all other human beings, it seems unlikely that they will do so just in the name of the common good. As a consequence a special tool is needed. This instrument is the Euro: it promises greater prosperity, but comes with the need of greater coordination (of financial/fiscal policies, at the very least). In this context, the current crisis of the Euro zone is happening exactly according to plan: we are in the phase where it is becoming perfectly clear that the Euro will become (/ is already?) a huge problem unless the members of the Euro zone will stop caring only for their own national interests and will start collaborating more (i.e. work towards a common fiscal policy achieved through the operation of super-national institutions). Once again, economic prosperity is expected (as the inevitable consequence of more collaboration and less destructive competition) and used as a tool to facilitate the creation of a shared, not-forcefully imposed, super-national identity. The overall grand scheme aims at facilitating world peace because, if the EU will succeed, it will become self-evident that the process works.

Right, but does the process work? The truth is that we don’t know for sure. On one side, it has already worked in the sense that war between major western European states has become truly unthinkable (for now). The pull that the EU exerts on near neighbours is also a clear sign of success: the fact that so many states are keen to join directly testifies that the expected domino effect is happening, and also that the tool of choice (economic prosperity) is indeed effective. On the other side, there are problems, and they aren’t small. Prosperity doesn’t grow without worrying bumps, just ask the Greek for confirmation. Furthermore, the legitimacy of the European institutions is becoming more and more questionable (for good reasons!). This is worrying, especially because the reasons to criticise Europe are real and concrete: the downward drive that immigration has on worker wages, the opacity of institutions such as the European Commission, the blind faith in Neo-Liberal economic policies of many important European players and the problems that are being generated by the Euro are real and legitimate worries, they all threaten the overall project. What may happen is that people may ultimately withdraw their support and stop thinking the project could succeed (many have already): unfortunately, this would count as a clear case of self-fulfilling prophecy. The whole project rests on the (very much justified) belief that more cooperation fosters better results than direct or indirect conflict, but if the problems that afflict the EU will start to look insurmountable, the EU will automatically fail. With it, the dream of making the world more peaceful, via careful planning and persuasion, will also die.

What role do you want to play?

All this digression, should, if I’m doing it right, help deciding how to cast your vote at the Brexit referendum. How? First: I should have convinced you that in the big picture, the EU should count as a typical example of a problem that is good to have (at the very least).
Second, I should have convinced you that short/medium-term economic self-interest should not be your main criteria. In the short-term, by leaving the EU Britain will almost certainly be somewhat worse off. In the medium-term, it’s anyone’s bet. In the long-term, it depends on whether the EU will survive. If it will, there is little doubt that being amongst the founding members (not a side-adjunct, special-status, “I’m out, but want the benefits” opportunist anomaly) will be advantageous. If, however, the EU will fail, then again, it may be useful to be already out, but one thing is clear: it will be a disaster, perhaps not a catastrophic disaster for an “outside” UK, but nobody with a functioning brain can think that the disappearance of the EU will be a pleasant walk in the park. Thus, one of the questions that I’ve posed above becomes very important: what would be the global consequences of an “Exit” vote? It seems undeniable to me that such a decision will:

  1. Weaken the EU in general and fuel Euro-scepticism in particular. This counts as working towards a self-fulfilling prophecy of generalised misery, and who wants that?
  2. Reduce to zero the chances that Britain may actively help solving the problems that the EU currently faces. They are real problems and it is in everyone’s interest to solve them. [True: there is a chance that a leave vote will force the remaining members to do a better job, I don’t know how likely it is, but it is possible.]
  3. Give a boost to the nationalistic, far-right, Euro-sceptic movements across the whole EU (and beyond). If we want these forces to become even more relevant and shape more policies across the board, then a vote for Brexit sounds like a good plan.

Overall, I do think that it’s possible to vote to leave, and do so coherently, but I also think that the way the debate is unfolding doesn’t clarify what one is actually voting for, when choosing to leave. Let’s see a few examples:

a. If you think that world peace isn’t a worthy aim, or, if you’re OK with war, as long as your own pockets are full. Then sure, voting for Brexit makes perfect sense.
b. If you think that nationalism, fences, barriers and confrontational competition are good things, then the EU clearly isn’t for you. But please have the courtesy of not talking about freedom: if the only freedom that counts is yours and yours alone, it’s not freedom at all.
c. If you think that the whole project is clearly doomed, if, in your opinion, the European project doesn’t have the slimmest chance, then why not? Voting either way will only make a small difference for a little while. We’re doomed anyway!

Of the three coherent options that I can envisage, the last is the only one I can also respect. If you happen to espouse it, I would be interested in hearing the reasons why you think the project is doomed. From where I stand, it seems to me that it all depends on whether we will all work for or against the EU. If enough people will keep working for it, the EU will survive and will deliver its lofty promises.

If you espouse reasons a or b, please go AWAY, I have nothing to discuss with you.

Finally, if you have more coherent options to vote for leaving, please mention them in the comments. All the others, please vote, and Vote “Stay”!


Notes and further reading:

In writing this I’ve carefully avoided stomping on party lines. I could have done otherwise, which would have allowed also to highlight the campaigning efforts that are not afflicted by the narrow vision I criticise here. After consideration, I’ve decided not to take this route, primarily because revising various positive and negative examples (on both sides) would make this essay even longer, and is by itself a different and interesting exercise (it’s also difficult to be exhaustive, so would still risk being accidentally partisan). I apologise for this shortcoming: inevitably I may seem to over-simplify and paint all campaigning efforts with the same brush, which isn’t my intention. My aim is the general, bird’s eye view of the current discourse; I do see some recent improvements, but they are few and far apart.

The EU official websites contain some (notably little, or well hidden) background information: there is a history section, which is naturally well documented and full of facts. However, it contains little in terms of the intellectual history. Well worth a read, nevertheless.

The quotes from Churchill and Robert Schuman come from the Council of Europe about pages.

This brief history (no nonsense, almost only the bare facts) can provide a handy little summary: it also clearly mentions how difficult it is to achieve voluntary integration and how the process is by necessity one which requires imperfect compromises (page 2).
To satisfy the academically minded, here is a good (peer reviewed and OA) article on the EU as an instrument for peace, lots of historical background and plenty of supporting references, in case anyone thought I’m making this up.

Anastasiou, H (2007). The EU as a peace building system: deconstructing nationalism in an era of globalization. International Journal of Peace Studies, 12 (2), 31-50.

The relevant Wikipedia page is naturally packed up with references (there is also a separate page for the monetary union). If you can’t get enough (the well hidden) history pages in the European Commission website provide access to an impressive amount of original documents (fascinating!). Notably, the role of monetary union as a catalyst towards increasing political integration is frequently left “between the lines”. To find official documents which reference the larger scheme, one needs to start digging, see for example the Conference Paper by Otmar Issing (Member of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank), published by the European Central Bank itself (“[The economic and Monetary Union] is a milestone and will, at the same time, be a catalyst for some form of political integration…”).

If you wish to dig in the origin of these ideas (federalism as an antidote to war, an European Federation as a feasible option), and/or are interested on the interplay between this area and the UK left wing parties (a subject which is very much under close scrutiny right now!), a compelling view is offered in Chapter 9 of Ann Oakley’s:
A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, social science and public policy in the twentieth century (2011). London: Bloomsbury Academic. (I’ve played a tiny part in the preparation of the chapter, available for free here.)

Image Credits: the EU flag I’ve used for the featured image was taken by Håkan Dahlström and is available here. Churchill’s foreground comes from the Council of Europe about pages. The cheeky collage is my own.

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Posted in Ethics, Politics
11 comments on “The Brexit debate: no matter what, don’t mention the war!
  1. John says:

    Excellent read! We, in the Netherlands, had our own referendum to deal with (imho the wrong tool at the wrong time to try to make a point), and so I have neglected the Brexit debate a bit. I find your perspective very enlightening. Thanks

  2. Sergio Graziosi says:

    thanks for the kind words! I find the debate here in the UK really depressing, had to vent some of my frustration, I suppose.
    On a wider EU perspective, fixing the many flaws of the current EU institutions should be everyone’s priority, but it seems that most the actors are too busy either appealing to the selfish instincts of their own electorate or playing nice with big finance organisations, so I fear a UK exit will trigger a destructive domino effect. Let’s hope I’m wrong!

    • John says:

      The Ukraine debate in NL was also quite depressing. In the end the unrelenting arguments in these debates always turn out to be underbelly feelings with no factual basis. Objective, complete, and uncoloured information is almost impossible to get. Both sides in the Ukraine debate constructed their arguments on obviously flawed rhetoric making it very difficult to separate the good argument from the bad. Hence informed decision making was almost impossible and underbelly feelings ruled the day in my opinion.

  3. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Sure enough: there is no shortage of depressing debates. The thing of appealing to base instincts is that it ought to be vulnerable: what I’m experimenting with is the idea of accepting “self interest” as the overall principle, but that doing so doesn’t necessarily lead to knee jerk reactions and underbelly reasoning. I’m trying to see whether it’s possible to build persuasive arguments on the basis of “informed and forward looking self interest”. The chances that it will work are slim at best, so that’s a good reason to try ;-).

  4. […] thing is based on the reasoning explained in the original post, if your curiosity is tickled, do check it out! Some parts of the chart below are clickable, hovering over them will make the cursor change and […]

  5. Jochen says:

    A fine piece, Sergio. If more of the debate had been led on this level, maybe we could have escaped today’s sad result. I’d gone to bed yesterday all but convinced it wouldn’t come to this, yet still worrying what the consequences of what could have at best been a very slim pro-EU margin would be long term—at least, that worry’s now been taken from me, I suppose.

    Now, right-wing groups throughout Europe (and beyond) will tout this as a ‘victory for democracy’, when in reality, it was nothing but the basest demagoguery, nothing but scare-mongerers playing to the emotions, especially fears, of the populace.

  6. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Thanks Jochen,
    today I’m afraid I need all the solidarity I can get. A small consolation is still a consolation. Will need to gather some strength and write the obituary for democracy that I’ve been planning. Not sure I understand why I’d do such a thing, but doing something should act as an antidote to paralysing despair.
    I don’t want to find the strength to watch the EU crumble under the weight of self-serving lies, but I guess we’d better prepare, psychologically and practically (do I want the UK citizenship?).
    I don’t have a well informed idea of how Euroscepticism is doing in the various European states, but judging from what I know about Italy, France and the Netherlands I see reasons to worry. Perhaps the damage will be limited and I’ll get to rejoice for being wrong. 😉

  7. Jochen says:

    Yes, it’s a strange day that sees us both entirely on the same side of an issue—and both fervently hoping we’re wrong.

  8. Sergio Graziosi says:

    you made me smile! But let’s not forget that we agree on much more than we usually acknowledge. I like to think we both focus on disagreements because that’s where progress can be made (and/or where the chances of learning something are higher).

  9. […] or to revise his world-view and accept that the EU is a problem that is worth having (see here and here). Depending on his previous actions, Corbyn might find himself already forced to pick the first […]

  10. […] make him a natural Eurosceptic (if we forget tiny details like international cooperation and peacemaking…), and it is likely that it is impossible to make him change his mind on purely theoretical […]

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