X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week. If you receive it, you’ll also find your subscriber number at the top of our weekly highlights email.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.spectator.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050. If you’ve only just subscribed, you may not yet have been issued with a subscriber number. In this case you can use the temporary web ID number, included in your email order confirmation.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

If you have any difficulties creating an account or logging in please take a look at our FAQs page.

Features

Why leaving the EU wouldn’t make Britain any more free

Sovereignty is not absolute, inside the union or outside it. And we have more clout as we are

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

One of the most appealing arguments for Brexit is that it will make British citizens freer than they are now. The greatness of Great Britain lies, after all, in its long history of relative freedom. But now, so the proponents of Brexit like to claim, Britain is shackled by the tyranny of the EU, as though ‘Brussels’ were some alien dictatorship in which Britain plays no part.

Columnists huff that Britain is now just a colony of this ‘foreign superpower’. That the EU exists as a superpower would come as news to most people in Brussels — and everywhere else. The European Union has no army and no joint foreign policy, and cannot be described as a state, federal or otherwise. The closest thing it has to a government would be the European Commission combined with the European Council, where national government leaders haggle over and decide on EU laws and policies. Britain is a major player in both institutions. Odd colony.

It is not a loathing of foreigners that necessarily inspires the anti-EU arguments. Indeed Brexit’s brightest star, Boris Johnson, likes to express his fondness for Brussels and European culture. In the past, he has even voiced his support for British membership of the EU (when he wasn’t spreading rumours about EU bureaucrats wanting to ban bent bananas and square strawberries). Now he sees a ‘great and glorious’ future for Britain outside the EU and urges his fellow citizens to ‘vote for freedom’.

But few concepts, except democracy perhaps, are as fuzzy and as often abused as freedom. The question is freedom from what, or to do what? In the US, promoters of so-called state rights and the right to carry weapons depict themselves as freedom-fighters — freedom from the interfering federal government that deprived southern states of their right to slavery and now supposedly ‘wants to take our guns away’.


No doubt there are unsavoury elements in the Brexit campaign as well. But let us consider instead the more respectable arguments. For Brexiteers, freedom is often linked to parliamentary sovereignty. A proud nation should be free to make its own laws, without meddling from foreign institutions, such as the European Commission or the European Council. This argument seems persuasive. The commission does indeed propose all kinds of laws and directives, which have to be approved by the council, and voted on in the EU parliament. Some of these laws might be better left to national governments. But again, Britain has considerable clout in the institutions that shape them. If Britain wants to retain access to the single European market from the outside, it would still have to abide by EU laws and regulations, but without any influence on their creation. The sense of freedom regained might turn out to be no more than an illusion.

What about human rights, another familiar bugbear of the Brexiteers? Britain was one of the founders of the European Court of Human Rights in 1959. These rights were established by the European Convention on Human Rights, signed by Britain and much influenced by British jurists. Citizens can lodge complaints against member states if they feel their rights have been breached. Most complaints are against the Russian government, very few against the British. Even though this court is not formally a EU institution, anti-EU campaigners in Britain see it as an intolerable assault on national sovereignty. Would British citizens be freer without their government being bound to international agreements on human rights? Would it enhance their freedom not to be able to sue their own government in a European court? I’m not persuaded.

Britain is a great trading nation. Brexiteers like to claim that the UK, once released from the shackles of Brussels, will again be free to trade with the whole world. There is, however, nothing to prevent Britain from trading with non-EU nations now. Germany has far more business in China than Britain has. To be sure, Britain could try to establish new trade agreements with non-European countries. But it seems foolish to give up Britain’s current status; being in Brussels but outside the eurozone is the best of all worlds, at least for the time being. I’m not convinced that Britain would be in a stronger position if it left the EU altogether. The US has already indicated that it would not make special trade deals with Britain alone.

Perhaps the most emotive argument for leaving concerns immigration. Here, too, the word freedom is relative. Freedom of movement in the EU is one of the fundamental rights of all EU citizens, including the British, even though Britain does not share the open borders of the Schengen zone. A British builder, or scholar, or artist, or businessman, does not need a special permit to live in Paris, Barcelona or Berlin. But that is one freedom the Brexiteers would wish to curtail. True, outside the EU, Britain might have more liberty to stop Polish builders or Romanian nurses from settling here. I say ‘might’ because Norway must let in migrants from EU countries as a price for trading in the single market. But would less freedom to move around Europe really enhance the freedom of British citizens?

So why would so many British people, or perhaps more accurately English people, wish to leave the EU? Some of it has to do with an insular frame of mind. Why are Spanish, Dutch, French or German soccer players, happy to play for clubs all over Europe while few English players follow their example? Some of it is political: left-wing Brexiteers see the EU as a capitalist cabal, while right-wing Brexiteers see leftish foreign busybodies sticking their noses into British business.

I don’t want Britain to leave, because I think the deeply flawed EU is in considerable trouble and Britain can do more good, for itself and for Europe, inside the EU than out. I would feel less comfortable in a Franco-German Europe. Or forget the ‘Franco-’ part: there is absolutely no reason any more to be beastly to the Germans, but few people, even Germans themselves, want to be dominated by Berlin.

The EU needs its Atlanticist western seaboard, and not as a sour outlier, wallowing in memories of faded pomp and circumstance. Inside the EU, Britain can balance the continental powers and use its liberal traditions for the common good. Outside, perhaps cut loose by a far more pro-European Scotland, England will survive, but with markedly less sway. And if freedom means more than being left alone, there will be less of that as well.

Ian Buruma is the author of Voltaire’s Coconuts, or Anglomania in Europe.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close