John O’Hagan: Brexit will not be all bad

Sections of the British establishment have railed against the EU since joining

 

Maybe de Gaulle was right to reject British membership of the EU in the 1960s, on the grounds that Britain was too insular and non-European in outlook.

Britain has been dismissive of the whole EU project from the start. As Philip Stephens of the Financial Times points out, the chancellor of the exchequer of the day dismissed the talks in Messina, Sicily, in 1955 about the formation of the EU as “archaeological diggings . . . in an old Sicilian town”. British diplomacy could easily derail such projects.

Sections of the British establishment have railed against the EU ever since, not least the formation of the euro and the establishment of the Schengen accord. Rather than try to help make a success of these projects they have made the situation worse by never losing an opportunity to herald the demise of both.

Membership of the euro zone has in fact increased in recent years despite its exposure to the worst financial crisis in the developed world since the 1930s.

So here is a potential positive to a Brexit. Progress on so many fronts may more easily take place without such an obstructive and important member of the “family” present.

There are also potential benefits for Ireland as the sole remaining English-speaking country not only in the euro zone but also in the EU. There are worries of course for Irish firms exporting to Britain, but similar fears were expressed when Ireland joined the euro zone without Britain.

The real worry concerns Northern Ireland, but again fears were expressed when Ireland joined the euro zone. The result, it was argued, was the establishment of a form of partition (two currencies) on the island more substantive than that resulting in 1921.

It is very possible that the British government will opt to “seal” its borders with the EU, post Brexit, by treating the island as a whole as de facto an EU country in terms of border checks and controls. This would allow the continued free flow of goods and people on the whole island, perhaps the biggest concern by far for Ireland following a Brexit.

Elusive democracy

In any case, the referendum may not be the end of the issue. The result is advisory, not binding, according to legal experts. It is the British parliament, they argue, that will eventually have to approve and decide on any exit from the EU. And almost 70 per cent of democratically-elected MPs there, it seems, are pro-Remain. Are the wishes of the last British parliamentary election to be overthrown by the wishes of a once-off and highly divisive, personality-driven exercise in direct democracy?

Too often we hear about the “democratic deficit” in EU decision making from people who ignore a similar or greater deficit in their own democracies. For example, Britain has an unelected upper house and, with the first past the post system, the possibility of a government coming to power on the basis of less than 40 per cent of the popular vote.

The civil service in Whitehall is no less bureaucratic than that in Brussels; the task of both administrations is to implement and oversee the policies decided on by democratically-elected politicians.

Pooled decision making is inevitable in such an integrated and interdependent set of countries as those in the EU. “Regaining control” can only happen if all such interdependency is terminated, in relation to movement of goods, services, capital and people (including holiday travel). Even among the most extreme Leave advocates, none are suggesting this. That leaving the EU will “regain control” then is a delusion.

But it is immigration that any current discussion of British membership of the EU must address. Migration of people, be it within Britain, or between Britain and other countries, has to be managed properly to be successful. There is no such thing as an “optimum” population for a region. For example, some services are much better in Dublin than in Dingle, in London than in Lincoln. Why do people continue to migrate to large cities otherwise?

Net migration into Britain in recent years is in fact a reflection of British economic success, especially in terms of ensuring full employment. Germany has had higher net immigration (related to population size), as indeed have Ireland and Spain in many years. And it has been very much to their advantage.

‘Solving’ immigration

There are lessons, though, from the Irish and Spanish experiences. Net immigration can easily turn to net emigration if an economy falters. If Britain votes for Brexit the economy there could enter into the recession that almost all informed economic commentary suggests is likely.

This would “solve” the immigration “problem”. It would indeed be ironic in that situation that, because of Brexit, British workers could not migrate freely to the EU, including Ireland, in search of work.

To end on a positive note, in the last two months there have been more passionately pro-EU articles in the British press than in the previous 20 years. It is the realisation there that despite its many failings, like that of democracy, the EU is better than any viable alternative.

So maybe de Gaulle was wrong after all. Much better that a large and very important member of the European “family” be present for the big decisions to be made to ensure a prosperous and secure future for all.

John O’Hagan is professor of economics at Trinity College Dublin

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