In two weeks time, Britain will vote on whether or not it will leave the European Union, a major decision which could have wide reaching ramifications. Even though as an Irish citizen I cannot vote, the decision will have a large impact on both Ireland and myself. Leaving aside the specifics of Brexit (whether Britain could still have access to the common market and whether it would still be bound by EU regulations) and political ironies (the same people who opposed Scottish independence are making essentially the same agreement in support of leaving the EU) I think it’s worthwhile to discuss the EU as an institution in general and consider whether it is beneficial or not.
One of the major elements of the EU is the common market, where all member states can freely export and import goods from each other. Now economists disagree on pretty much everything, but free trade is one of the very few areas where they agree. Almost all economists agree that free trade (especially among countries at the same stage of development) is beneficial for everyone and warn that leaving the EU would damage the economy. Ireland followed a protectionist course until the 1960s, with pretty disastrous results, we are simply too small to produce all our goods ourselves. Trade has been a major part of the economic boom we had in the 90’s and access to European market was a major reason for this.
More controversial than the free movement of goods, is the free movement of people. In fact, a lot of the opposition to the EU is due to anti-immigrant sentiment. There is a lot of opposition to immigration among people who believe that every job an immigrant has, means one less job for a native person. However, economists agree that immigration is at worst neutral and possibly even positive for the economy. Immigrants aren’t just workers, they are also customers and increase the demand for labour by buying houses, clothes, food etc. They often have skills lacking in their new country and the average immigrant is more highly educated than the average native British person.
The need for the EU became especially apparent during the refugee crisis. This is a crisis that no one country can solve alone but must be solved through collective action. If each country goes alone and tries to avoid the problem, we end up with countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Greece (which is already in a crisis) being overwhelmed by refugees, while the countries with the resources to deal with the crisis do nothing. These refugees are not just a statistic, they are people who deserve the same chance at life as the rest of us. They are fleeing war and poverty and should not be left to rot in a desert camp. The best way to deal with the crisis is if each country takes a proportionate share of refugees so that they get a better life while the governments are not overwhelmed.
This compassionate policy has been viciously opposed by many far right nationalists across Europe. There are many fear mongers who claim that the refugees will bankrupt the country and destroy European culture. There is a disturbing rise in bigotry, as anyone with a different religion or culture is seen as primitive and incapable of living in a modern European society. Many people are opting for a selfish nationalism, that demands their government should only look after their own people if even that means abandoning others to starvation or grinding poverty. The rise of the New Fascists has made the need for co-operation and tolerance even more pressing.
While peace can easily be taken for granted nowadays, before the EU was established, another European war seemed inevitable. The EU has done major work in bringing countries together and has been so successful that war between Britain, France or Germany has gone from a constant fact of European history, to completely unthinkable. The EU is also a major barrier against a Fascist takeover of a European government (which is part of the reason why they are so anti-EU). A dictatorship or mass suppression of human rights is completely unthinkable in modern Europe because there is no way the EU would allow it. Any government that tried such a thing would be continually blocked and sanctioned by its neighbours until it could no longer function.
After all, the EU is more than just an economic agreement, it is also an institution to promote European co-operation. The EU has done more than anything else to build a common European identity and bring people together. Now tolerance might seem an obvious or even clichéd point, but I know many people who consider Germans to be heartless, Greeks lazy, Romanians untrustworthy etc. Most people in Ireland and Britain refer to Europe as if it was another continent and think of other Europeans as foreign and incomprehensible. The EU has done enormous work to build bridges between people and show that we are all equal. I personally have benefited massive from partaking in the European Voluntary Service and many of my friends speak very highly of the Erasmus programme. Removing this would leave to a more closed minded world where people were more isolated and suspicious of each other.
People often forget the important role the EU has played on social issues. Before Ireland joined the EU in 1973, married women could not work in the public sector and many other businesses. It was due to EU pressure and directives that women won the right to equal pay and protection against discrimination. Homosexuality was decriminalised due to a court case in the European Court of Human Rights taken by David Norris. To this day, the EU is putting pressure on the Irish government in regards to its shameful stance abortion and won’t let them simply sweep the problem under the rug (or export it to other countries). This is certainly a controversial aspect of the EU, with conservatives seeing it as unwarranted meddling, but it is welcome to see an institution willing to stand up for human rights even if the government will not.
The EU has also do a lot to redistribute wealth throughout the EU by tackling poverty in undeveloped regions. Of course, just as rich people don’t like taxes, rich countries don’t like this wealth redistribution either, but it would be extremely hypocritical for Ireland to complain after receiving major funding for decades (which arguably was a factor behind the Celtic Tiger). Not only is this good for combating inequality, but it also contributes to the increased long term prosperity for all of Europe.
Now all of this doesn’t mean that the EU is perfect and without flaws. It can be overly bureaucratic, lack transparency and be too supportive of free markets. However, we would be much worse off if each country went its own way and thought only of its own interests. A few weeks ago, I visited the European Youth Event at the parliament in Strasburg, an event where thousands of young people from all over Europe mixed together. For the first time, I really felt European and took delight from diversity of people co-operating together. The EU certainly has its flaws, but it would be a grave mistake to lose this co-operation.