Brexit: Control or influence?

Adrian Short · 17 September 2017

Boris Johnson’s £350m a week for the NHS lie is really just part of the whole meta-lie about the EU: that it’s separate from the UK.

The EU is a membership institution. The UK is (still) a member state. The EU isn’t “them”, it’s “us” and our partners. While the EU has 28 member states of which the UK is just one, we’re one of the big three (the others being France, Germany) that have huge influence. So whatever you think about the principle or size of the UK’s EU contribution, it was never something out of our hands and our control.

We should reject the implication that any EU funds (from UK or otherwise) spent outside the UK isn’t to the UK’s benefit. Prosperity and peace in the EU benefits all member states directly and the wider world beyond. It’s the same principle as foreign aid. The UK’s financial contribution to the EU is neither generosity nor theft. It’s part of a rational set of arrangements for mutual benefit.

The paradox of Brexit is that the UK will make the EU weaker economically, politically and culturally without making itself stronger. In a complex interdependent world, there are no zero sum games where money and power can be moved seamlessly from one place to another. The crucial issue in the UK’s relationship with the world (EU included) isn’t direct “control” but influence and impact. We should concern ourselves more with ends not means. For the UK outside the EU to have the same impact as it has within it implies forming or joining a similar union elsewhere. But of course there isn’t one, and if there were, it would have all the same issues, good and bad, as the one we’re leaving. Even assuming that the UK makes an economic success of Brexit, we’re going to rue burning so much goodwill with our 27 neighbours.

Which brings me on to our temporary foreign secretary’s comment that many Remainers supposedly have “genuinely split allegiances” over the EU. Of course, this cuts right across all the hypocritical guff coming out of the govt about a “global Britain” and a “deep and special relationship” with EU. We’re back to the language of “traitors” and “saboteurs”, those cosmopolitan “citizens of nowhere” who quite literally don’t know their place.

The absolute concept of “allegiance” might be useful when you’re fighting a war but it’s not much use for building peace and prosperity. “My country, right or wrong” is a lousy way to get the trust and cooperation of your neighbours so you can work for mutual advantage. Rather than “allegiance”, we all have a complex set of non-mutually-exclusive affinities to other places and peoples besides our country. We might be born outside the UK or have members of our families who were. We might have lived, worked or studied abroad. We might have a fondness for the language and culture of other places, whether we’ve been there or not. We might know actual foreigners. These things don’t suggest disloyalty to our own countries. Rather, they inculcate an expansive view of the common good beyond borders.

In a globalised world, we’ll do much better trying to find the friends beyond our shores than by rooting out the supposed enemies within.