Most important decisions taken at popular level about political direction are about the image of a future we want, rather than a secure prediction about what it will be like. This is why, unless there is major discontent on the economic front, perspectives on issues that speak to emotions such as safety and security, justice in society, and access to sustainable ways of organising our lives for today’s and future generations, from education to health and the environment are important for campaigns. The UK debate on the future of the country within or outside the EU is no different.
The Remain campaign started with one of the most solid foundations you could wish for. The European project, with all of the flaws of the EU bureaucracy, has delivered great dividends with on an unbeaten run of more than 70 years of peace. It has built this story on an expanding and, given the differences and divisions in Europe, extraordinarily magnanimous vision of mutual solidarity and ideals of equality. The vast majority of its common funds and policy initiatives were and are dedicated to the regeneration and support of people in society, regions and countries most in need, including some neglected by national governments, while ensuring the stability of the whole. This has enabled other central government spending of governments in the UK and elsewhere to be dedicated to other key areas of public goods including health and education. The common social, employment, safety, health and environmental standards benefit those that have least bargaining power in their national societies. The EU offers a vast and calculable open access market for all things and services the UK wants to export and freely trade in. The EU is a market for innovative high-end products and services, not sweatshops and low grade industry. Its peoples produce goods and work under standards that are the envy of most workers around the world.
The Leave campaign offers in contrast a combination of negative assessment of the EU’s contribution to the development of the UK, and the sugar-rush excitement of the positively unknown prospects of growth in trade and engagement with what in many ways is put forward as the New World: the emerging economies such as China, India, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa and others, as well as the more known but certainly very munificent powers such as in the North American Free Trade Area. It suggests that individual deals with new trading partners will be concluded swiftly and to a greater advantage for the the UK. EU inertia is counted on to maintain important elements of a relationship with the EU, such as the access to the single market for capital, goods, services and UK citizens (but not for people seeking to come into the UK). On a wide range of areas of national spending the Leave campaign suggests that the savings of costs in EU contributions will enable higher investment for instance in health care or education. The campaign proposes that by removing the UK from the EU, it will be able to control immigration in ways that would be more conducive to the UK than they are portrayed to be at present.
With all general reluctance to intervene in a UK debate about the future international relations of the country, virtually every international commentator, international public and private not-for-profit institutions, as well as many international corporate businesses have argued the case for a continued membership of the UK in the EU. The main two arguments are first, that the economic benefits of being part of the EU outweigh any suggested savings on contributions many times over. Second, and perhaps more important, the shared assessment is that a free-for-all globalisation has been a driver for rising inequalities, globally as well as within many countries, rich and poor.
The proposition of the Leave campaign is greater national gain based on even further unfettered trade in high-yield goods and services and the ability for a country such as the UK to negotiate its position better on its own. It is doubtful whether this will work in company of strongly self-interest driven nations that outsize the UK today or tomorrow significantly, such as India, China, Russia and the USA. This is no cosy Commonwealth Club which somehow accepts a British lead. The reality is that successfully developing opportunities in such highly competitive settings mainly works for those in any society with the means to capitalise privately on the opportunities of the global market. Those with limited personal capital and bargaining power, which are the majority of people in Britain and the world over, are inevitably even more exposed to the swings of the global market in such a ‘new deal’.
Few countries have experienced full liberalisation of relationships and transfer of capital, goods and services to be a recipe for building national cohesion and prosperity for all. In a world of more and more interconnected lives and futures, mutual solidarity and support as part of globalisation is what is needed more than ever. Globalisation has the potential for benefitting the many if more efforts are made to integrate decision-making in ways that involve the many and looks at the sustainability of their lives and futures. This demands functioning and democratically accountable global and regional institutions, and a commitment to compromise and shaping futures together. So the effort has to go towards reform of these institutions, not towards disengagement from them or even their abolition. A vision of a future which relies solely on the power of those who can shape it, will inevitably favour prosperity for the few. What kind of world are we modelling?