Brexiteers don't understand the EU, but their misunderstanding can shed light on the two faces of the trading bloc and political framework.
A lot of people don’t really understand the EU, which was always going to make a referendum on the UK’s membership, like Brexit, something of a problem.
Opposition to the EU can come in broadly two different forms. First, you have the small-government advocates who are anti-immigration and pro-free market. This is generally the right-wing approach that can reflect a contradiction since they often claim to be libertarian, but want to legislate against immigration and anything else on their agenda.
Second, you have what is sometimes called the Lexit approach, which is a leftist economic opposition to the EU. This is somewhat contradictory because advocates argue against the neoliberal economic tendencies of the EU whilst being broadly in support of much of the legislation that the EU produces.
These contradictions from both sides reflect the dichotomy sewn into the very fabric of the EU.
I publicly debated Brexit twice. The first time (unfortunately not recorded), I was on a three-person panel against three Brexiteers, one of whom was a leftist economist (the other two were much more ardently right-wing). My second debate, recorded here, was against someone who took a position that the EU was the epitome of neoliberal economic ideals (I will explain this concept later), and that this was a bad thing and so we should be against the EU.
Those economically leftist positions were broadly correct. And I told those advocates as much, but they also symbolize the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the EU.
Let me explain by reference to two comments in response to a recent article I wrote on Brexit.
Geoff Benson observed:
Just as an anecdotal example of why we are so much worse off, I recently ordered a motorcycle jacket from a distributor in Germany. I could buy the jacket in the UK for £600 but the German company was selling it for just over £500 at the conversion rate then applicable. I actually didn’t initially realise I was ordering from Germany (I think it was deliberately disguised), but when I did notice I decided to continue anyway and see what happened. The jacket was delivered very efficiently to a local delivery company, but the delivery was withheld until I paid £178 in customs duty, VAT, and administration. So much for all the assurances of lower prices and improved efficiency!
To which American anti-EU advocate commenter skl replied:
“the delivery was withheld until I paid £178 in customs duty, VAT, and administration.”
You seem upset about having to pay your fair share.
This last comment doesn’t say too much but, added with other things he has said in the past, helps to build a picture of the EU that we see from right-wingers that is very common. This misunderstanding is perhaps exemplified by another similar commenter:
Discussing the economic aspects of Brexit is thoroughly meaningless: the EU is not an economic union. It is a purely political organisation, and its leaders has always been carefully hiding its political goal. But it is easy to understand if we look at the history of Europe at sufficiently long time scale. It is simply another attempt to restore the empire of Charlemagne.
What is particularly interesting about people like this and their opposition to the EU is that they obsess over immigration but don’t realize that it is part of the four pillars of the single market, known as the “four freedoms.” Considering that they are so pro-freedom, pro-small government, so anti-legislation, so pro-free market, it is bizarre that such people are so brazenly anti-EU. The single market is actually a neoliberal economic ideal. The four freedoms are the free movement of four things: goods, capital, services, and people.
These were neoliberalist ideals where neoliberalism can be understood as a 20th-century resurgence of free-market capitalist ideals.
The UK enjoyed having these freedoms as part of the trading bloc of the EU, before Brexit removed these freedoms, thus making everything economically less viable and more expensive.
This is the neoliberal basis of the EU, an idea and ideal that right-wingers often choose to ignore: The European Single Market (the Internal or Common Market). Wikipedia details some of the history of this development:
One of the core objectives of the European Economic Community (EEC) on its establishment in 1957 was the development of a common market offering free movement of goods, service, people and capital. Free movement of goods was established in principle through the customs union between its then-six member states.
However, the EEC struggled to enforce a single market due to the absence of strong decision-making structures. Because of protectionist attitudes, it was difficult to replace intangible barriers with mutually recognized standards and common regulations.
In the 1980s, when the economy of the EEC began to lag behind the rest of the developed world, Margaret Thatcher sent Arthur Cockfield, Baron Cockfield, to the Delors Commission to take the initiative to attempt to relaunch the common market. Cockfield wrote and published a White Paper in 1985 identifying 300 measures to be addressed in order to complete a single market. The White Paper was well received and led to the adoption of the Single European Act, a treaty which reformed the decision-making mechanisms of the EEC and set a deadline of 31 December 1992 for the completion of a single market. In the end, it was launched on 1 January 1993.
Notice the involvement of arch-free-marketeer Margaret Thatcher. This iconic neoliberal conservative was a fan of, and driving force in, the economic free-trade bloc.
This is the neoliberal basis of the EU.
In my second debate with David Warden, Chairman of Dorset Humanists, who attacked the EU on the grounds of its neoliberal foundations (with reference to economists like Freidrich Hayek and Milton Friedman), I agreed that this economic ideal existed in the DNA of the EU. Sure.
However (and this is a big however), this is where the contradictions come in. You cannot, as Warden did in the debate, claim that the EU is some big-government authoritarian structure that introduces reams of legislation, whilst at the same time argue it is a free-marketeer’s idealistic dream!
But I suppose you can if you accept that the EU is a walking contradiction!
What happens is that right-wing Brexiteers claim the EU is one of these sides of Janus’s face, whilst Lexiteers claim it is the other. But the truth is, it is both.
On the one hand, the EU wants its member states to have these neoliberal freedoms to make it an internally anti-protectionist bloc (while maintaining protectionism to the world outside), but on the other hand, it wants decent moral legislation on the climate, human rights, and in plenty of other dimensions.
This contradiction almost certainly comes about because of the recognition that the free market cannot arbitrate for morality. See my piece “On Free Market Economics: History, Morality and Background.”
I think Brexiteers clearly lose the economic argument. There is no way that leaving the biggest trading bloc in the world, imposing tariffs on most of your exports and imports (while trying to attract non-EU inward investment), is going to end economically well. This has become a case of cutting off our island-shaped nose to spite our collective face.
For Brexiteers, it’s the reality that only one side of the face shows, and this side overwhelms the other side. But, instead of recognizing this second side (the neoliberal one), they paint a caricature of it, disinforming others or misinforming themselves.
In the end, the picture painted of the EU is one of a gargantuan authoritarian gargoyle, perhaps akin to a Communist dictatorship, that corrals its members into adhering to irrelevant rules and regulations.
But that is a gross misrepresentation of what it is.
The question is, given that so many members of the British public don’t really understand what the EU is, does the EU?