I have just written a book about Brexit. (See other page here on the blog.) I have mixed feelings about the EU; it is more an enabler of American geopolitical ambition than people realise. The EU is a flawed organisation that undoubtedly sucks democracy out of the national sphere and out of the purview of natonal publics and media institutions.
It is undoubtedly a lobbyist’s playground, corporate enabler of nation-flattening legislation. But a lot of the legislation it enacts – on, to take random sample, digital privacy issues or car emissions – would have had to have been dealt with by national legislatures anyway, and wouldn’t necessarily have been any less bureaucratic.
And democracy anyway has become a weakened affair with the advance of globalisation and the growth of a global footloose financial industry. I genuinely don’t think the British public minded Brussels that much; I have covered the field for twelve years. The EU per se has simply not been a concern on the doorstep for some years, polls of voter concern show. There was occasional grumbling.
Some sectors, such as the fishermen, were very angry with the EU and had a right to be so. (But counterbalanced by winners from EU grants, such as British scientists.) But the British political class must realise that – keenly as they themselves have felt the displacement from Westminster to Brussels of power – a lot of normal members of the British public feel that Westminster is just as remote for them as the EU.
Rule by Tory Old Etonians or Labour’s graduate sociologists, or by Juncker and his team? What is the difference? The British political class may have found it convenient to shift some of the criticism over the EU referendum vote onto Brussels, when part of the less well off public’s anger has been directed at the way the British elite have used the opportunities of globalisation to empower themselves and their careers; while inequalities in Bolton, Middlesbrough and Oldham have continued to grow.
Even after an 11 year period of Labour rule, inequality levels as measured by the Gini index are still much higher than during the Thatcher period. The Brexit referendum vote was as much a protest against London as it was against Brussels.
The “outers” were people who did not see any tangible benefits of EU membership, didn’t feel that the EU was the smorgasbord of international career opportunity as it may have been for, say, young British engineers. Better educated and younger Brits voted to stay in the EU.
What the British public were annoyed about – and Cameron said so at his post referendum summit in Brussels – was immigration. And here the EU made a huge mistake in not making concessions when Cameron “toured” European capitals last year asking for limits to the rights of EU nationals to reside in the UK. Angela Merkel said no: that part was not negotiable.
But Westminster is not innocent here either: it was the British government that pushed for enlargement to bring as many poor European states from Eastern Europe into the EU family as possible, in order to weaken the Franco-German impetus for closer political union.
These countries had large numbers of people willing to up sticks and emigrate to Britain, to work as fruitpickers in Lincolnshire and waitresses in Bristol – or tech workers in the City. In addition, the Blair government weakened immigration controls from non-European countries in the 1990s to “rub the Tories’ noses in diversity”. The utterly changed demographics of cities like London – less than 50% white British – may be Blair’s most enduring legacy. And the responsibility for that cannot be laid at the EU’s feet.
I feel sorry that it came to this. The tech industry seems gloomy: start-ups always have troubles finding talent, and London’s attractions as a global cultural and academic hub as well as the UK’s EU membership status have meant a wider and deep, pan European talent pool for tech firms to recruit from.
A company called Forward Partners polled a sample of British technology firms, 80 percent of whom said that the most important reason for staying in the EU would be to enable hiring talent from the EU. With the Tory candidates sending mixed messages about the future rights of EU nationals to live in the UK, it can only create uncertainty, both for inward investment and continued flow of skilled EU immigration.
There is also the question of whether Brexit will damage the financial sector, since the City, Britain’s main cash cow and huge employer of engineers, is apparently in danger of losing its right to access the European single market, an access on which its status as European financial capital is dependent.