The United Kingdom’s plebiscite to leave the European Union has the “cosmopolitan” Left in hysterics. It is as if their tribe is experiencing a true existential crisis, like a ban on microbreweries or “Hamilton” failing to win a Tony award.
But “Brexit” will likely lead to a better democracy for future generations of Britons despite the short-run economic costs. For that reason, the new government should honor the voters’ wish and pursue an agreement whereby the United Kingdom exits the EU, maintaining a policy of free trade and some elements of free movement, and reclaims its ability to self-govern.
The best rationale for Brexit was and is on the grounds of sovereignty. Parliament outsources much of its own power to Brussels by virtue of membership. The EU, itself, describes “pooling sovereignty” whereby “Member States delegate some of their decision-making powers to” Brussels. The magnitude of this centralization is difficult to measure, but clearly significant.
One study found the EU has written 65 percent of UK laws, a statistic that would shock most Americans. Even David Cameron conceded that around 13 percent of UK laws were foreign-born, and the same study Cameron relies on finds the EU wrote half of UK laws with “significant economic impact.” The House of Commons Library says the real number might be anywhere from 15 percent to 55 percent.
This arrangement means Parliament cannot veto EU laws or create competing ones on many matters of industry, labor, family, immigration, and trade, among others. Even if the UK polity desires it, Britons cannot import most varieties of genetically modified foodstuffs, reduce tariffs on African farmers, or make a trade pact with the United States. If the UK wanted to give workers the freedom to choose higher-pay jobs with longer hours, less vacation, more risk, or fewer benefits, the EU will stop it. Parliament cannot cut its value-added tax below 15 percent, reduce its costly renewable energy standard, or allow Britons to buy the preferred types of vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, or toasters thanks to the EU. The list goes on.
Most (in)famously, member states must accept nearly unlimited migration of EU citizens. That means all member states implicitly adopt the external immigration policy of the most lenient EU nation, because once a state nationalizes an immigrant, all grant him free rein. This arrangement robs Parliament of ability to regulate immigration flows to solve discrete problems and protect taxpayers, public safety, and British culture.
Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts
In the age of Rotherham, Molenbeek, Cologne, and Paris, voters deserve responsive governments. With Libyan, Syrian, and Iraqi civil wars on the doorstep of Italy and the Balkans, respectively, the need for greater scrutiny is especially acute. Britons are not best-served by European leaders (including their own) who blindly push for Turkey’s membership, which shares a border with Syria and Iraq!
Presently, Parliament cannot implement a points-based system for immigration from elsewhere in Europe, like Canada or Australia, to maximize cultural and economic assimilation of new Britons. Hell, the EU even denied the UK the right to delay immigrants’ eligibility for welfare benefits by four years, and only agreed to concessions after much haggling from Cameron! The image of a democratically elected premier of one of the world’s great powers forced to go hat-in-hand to some European bureaucrat for the right to return money to the British taxpayer is scandalous.
All the laws imposed on member states are too numerous for one person to explain or even comprehend, and thus muddy the entire debate. Many EU laws are trivial, many are good, and many are bad. But together they cause death by a thousand paper cuts.
First, all these thousands of regulations, many of which might seem reasonable on their own, add up in cost to the UK’s economy in a way that is nearly impossible to quantify on the whole. Second, the sprawling rules cannot adequately be tracked and scrutinized by even the most informed polity. Generally speaking, big and centralized government is bad for democracy for these reasons, but this problem is compounded when the bureaucracy making these decisions represents other nations far different than your own.
Do We Trust Voters or Bureaucrats More?
Successful political unions have legitimacy, practicality, and buy-in. The European is lacking all categories, even if it has many good qualities. Free trade within Europe lifts incomes across the continent and reduces protection for the politically connected. Free migration can also have positive effects on productivity, but carries costs in democracies with large welfare states and across clashing cultures. Finally, the aforementioned coordination of domestic economic regulations can actually improve the political economy of many Europe’s more corrupt or socialist (but I repeat myself) states.
Ultimately, the question is whether the British voter can be trusted to govern her country better than the EU bureaucrat. I, for one, rather trust the citizens of the country that invented modern capitalism and constitutional government (although they never bothered to write it down!) to keep themselves free and prosperous. I trust the voters that have opted for the third-freest economy in the EU. I trust the only liberal European nation that had the will and capacity to resist the Axis powers in WWII. And I trust one of the only European polities with an historic aversion to both communism and fascism.
It’s no surprise the UK has been outvoted in European parliament and the EU Council more than any other member state in recent years. Der Spiegel described well Britain’s exceptional character in Europe: “[Brits] have an inner independence that we Germans lack, in addition to myriad anti-authoritarian, defiant tendencies.” To preserve Britain qua Britain—a relatively free, prosperous, and unique nation—it should free itself from the EU as it is.
The United Kingdom’s Exceptionalism
Some of these reasons might sound a trite, but they are specific and conditional. A nation without the same qualities as the UK has better reason to remain. If I were a Frenchman, I might oppose a “Frexit” on grounds that some economic policy making should be outsourced from the nation’s socialist voters. Same for Portugal, Spain, and Italy, with their large welfare states and inflexible labor laws (Euro issues notwithstanding). Most Eastern European states should probably also remain on grounds of integrating with and learning from the liberal West.
Each case is different and membership will have its own merits and demerits. But the UK is exceptional compared to continental Europe and so governance of daily life should be devolved from Brussels to Westminster (and to localities and, ultimately, to individuals, families and communities).
Remember, all this could have been avoided if not for EU mission creep over decades. When Britons overwhelmingly voted 2-to-1 to remain in the European Community in 1975, they were no more cosmopolitan than today. What changed since then was the nature and ambition of the international project, then the European Economic Community, focused primarily on a common market and free movement of goods.
The European Community has grown unencumbered from a mostly intergovernmental project to a mostly supranational one in the 41 years since the first referendum. When Cameron went to Brussels to negotiate concessions for Britain’s commitment in February, he was sent back home with little to show. Four months later, Britons called the EU’s bluff. The body has squandered its legitimacy.
Far from being an open and shut case, the Brexit question is complex and opaque, and both sides should concede that. The biggest costs will likely be the immediate disruption of some investment due to economic uncertainty and the potential costs from altering preexisting trade, financial, regulatory, and immigration arrangements. The Leave camp should not deny the true risks and trade-offs. Overall, however, the best thing for British democracy, and eventually growth, is greater self-government, localism, and liberty.
The new premier, whoever she may be, must approach the Article 50 negotiations with earnestness and strike a deal to remain an open economic and diplomatic partner with Europe for generations to come.