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.