To ‘Brexit’ or not to ‘Brexit’

Guest post is by Dr Anna Notaro, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee

Britain’s conflicting relationship with the European Union is nothing new; however over the past few months the prospect of ‘Brexit’ – shorthand for British exit from the EU – has become an increasingly realistic possibility. Cataclysmic change might be a longue durée historical process, and yet sometimes the unthinkable turns into the inevitable at such a fast pace that one is left with a sense of incredulity mixed with self-reproach and impotence. However, it is exactly at times like this that the case must be put with the greatest decisiveness: Britain’s place is in the EU.

One has to acknowledge of course that the EU has been a source of frustration even for those most favourably disposed towards it – and I’m not alluding to a certain unhealthy interest in the shape of cucumbers, or a more justifiable interference with our household appliances. The EU has long been perceived as a detached and bureaucratic entity whose inner workings are based on treaties (see the Maastricht Treaty of 1992) signed when the internet had not yet changed the world. For national governments to divert internal political disquiet towards EU inefficiencies was an open goal not to be missed. This is clearly the case with immigration at times of economic difficulties. In terms of popular support, the political drive to leave the EU is largely based on stirring up public concerns about immigrants abusing social benefits, ‘swamping the country’ and driving down wages. Over the past year we have witnessed an escalation of UK government’s rhetoric, from the disgraceful ‘returns’ pilot scheme for illegal immigrants, to threats of curbing freedom of movement within the EU.

On the face of it one might have expected a formidable reaction on the part of UK universities, one which would have explained to the general public the reasons why the European project and immigration are in the nation’s best interests. Unfortunately universities, somewhat weakened by the efforts to justify their own existence in a context of fierce (inter)national competition, have responded by taking the balance sheet approach alone. They have correctly pointed out that the immigration crackdown could badly affect the international student vibrant market. The President of Universities UK and members of the Universities UK board have written an open letter published in The Times – a 194 word reminder that ‘universities are national assets which contribute £73 billion to the economy’. Similar economic arguments have been further expanded in the Universities UK blog. Most recently a study by UCL migration economists Dustmann and Frattini (ironically non-British themselves), which concluded that between 2001 and 2011 EU migrants made a net positive contribution of £20bn was negatively reported in the media.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the universities’ reaction has been typical of the way the EU is seen from London (the perspective is slightly different from Scotland), where few understand the driving force behind ‘Europe’ and most think only in terms of free trade and practical, commercial results. No letter to The Times (such a quintessentially British, ‘olden days’ manner to address a 21st century problem) can fix this; what is required is a reminder of the ideal value of transnational knowledge, such as the excellent work carried out at CERN, the recent landing of a European spacecraft on a comet, and the framework that allows thousands of students on the Erasmus programme to acquire memories and experiences which last a lifetime. Universities cannot expect to capture the public’s imagination by listing crude figures alone; the economic evidence is not sufficient, they should be tapping into the more spiritual, idealistic aspects which lie behind any human endeavour. They should articulate a collective vision which puts a premium on collaboration and solidarity. The risks of pulling out of Europe are far greater than establishing a ‘relationship with Brussels on the same level as Botswana’s’; rather Brexit would be a sad example of cognitive dissonance for a country proudly keen to remember the sacrifice of the fallen in the two world wars.

For all its faults in its current form, the ‘European project’ stems from a desire for reconciliation between European nations, shaped and defended by people from very different backgrounds who had experienced the horrors of nationalism. What we are confronted with in Europe today is no military war of course, but a resurgence of nationalist sentiments and emotions (see Marine Le Pen’s defence of the nation state in this recent interview, or UKIP’s ‘Little England’ pronouncements. This is a battle of ideas and it is incumbent upon universities to expose past delusions as well as the pitfalls of new ideological siren songs.

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7 Comments on “To ‘Brexit’ or not to ‘Brexit’”

  1. The future of the European Union is an important one, and it is good to see a spirited defence of the EU as an open and democratic association of nations. Yet if we are to debate the EU’s future, we need to appreciate that many Europeans do not see it as part of their collective future. And we also need to understand why they hold these views, rather than parodying them or frightening them with talk of Britain as a new Botswana.

    And cards on the table: I voted ‘Yes’ in Scotland’s referendum, and am minded to do the same in any referendum on Europe. In general I believe that government should take place close to those whom it most affects, and that it should be accountable. The EU – like the UK – fails both tests.

    It’s hard to argue that the EU is accountable. Most of its key decisions are taken by the Commission and its organs, which are entirely unelected; or by the Council of Ministers and its subordinate bodies, which in theory are only indirectly accountable and in practice are barely accountable at all. It isn’t surprising if the default procedure of these bodies, if faced with a difficulty, is sleight-of-hand – like the legal manoeuvre of defining higher education as a branch of vocational training in order to legitimate the EC’s development of policies for the sector.

    And key decisions are rarely transparent. The best example of this is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which is currently being negotiated by the EC and USA, in secret. What we know about TTIP comes largely from unauthorised leaks and stubbornly pursued Freedom of Information requests. And what we know is that TTIP will have dramatic consequences for everyday life.

    It is worth bearing in mind that currently, TTIP covers post-secondary education. Universities may not worry overmuch about democracy and transparency, but they are likely to howl if higher education funding is thrown open to all comers.

    These are not accidental features of the EU but are built into its structures and procedures. To use the current cliché, they are in its DNA. And they prompt me to ask why the EU’s strongest supporters never call for greater powers for the European Parliament, a body whose role has hitherto been largely symbolic. Presumably they recognise the extraordinary potential for problems of a democratically accountable EU – yet is this not itself an indictment of the European project as currently conceived?

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      John, thanks for your comments. I share some of your concerns particularly the ones regarding transparency in the matter of the TTIP and not just. While I agree that any government should be accountable, I don’t think that geographical proximity is as important in the 21st century as it used to or the sine qua non for good government. Also, I don’t thnk it is accurate to argue that the EU’s strongest supporters never call for greater powers for the European Parliament, since it is exactly the opposite, besides no EU parliament will ever be fully representative of the European people until the principle of subsidiarity (as established in the Treaty of EU will be redefined and superseded, as some have argued.
      Just this morning I came across this very interesting article “Between Federation and Disintegration: Can Europe redefine Itself?” an interesting discussion about the need for current political structures to be truly democratic and turn into a multi layered “Europe of Regions”. This might be of particular interest from a ‘Scottish’ perspective.

  2. V.H Says:

    In the past, and regardless of the highfalutin rhetoric, our belief in the EEC/EU was based on profound self interest. And since the GATT’s most of those trading ‘carrots’ that kept people in place are removed leaving only ‘sticks’ of varying degrees of irritation.
    The UKiP and Tory grouse about migration and transfers has been an aspect of the EEC from the beginning. The Germans bitched about monies going from the Ruhr to Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg. While Turin begrudged every Lira that traveled south of Bobbio. Both using the same rhetoric we heard lately from German new outlets about Greece
    There has always been a centrifugal force trying to sunder the Union, equally there’s been nutters determined to recreate some sort of unitary state.
    To my mind the swings from left to right and back again work against the cohesion of the whole. Each of the States has a different date to change their governments. And each State is at a different place within the economic cycle. On top of that you have as now, right of center governments putting in place one of their own in the middle of EU policy making. But nothing is more certain than the overall tilt within the individual States will be left long before the end of the Juncker commission in 2019.

    • Minor correction, Vincent. Since the 1970s at least the internal flow of money in Germany has been from Bavaria and Baden Württemberg to the Ruhr, rather than the other way round. The centres of growth have been in the south.

  3. Eddie Says:

    ” Yet if we are to debate the EU’s future, we need to appreciate that many Europeans do not see it as part of their collective future. And we also need to understand why they hold these views, rather than parodying them or frightening them with talk of Britain as a new Botswana”

    Well put it. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    “In general I believe that government should take place close to those whom it most affects, and that it should be accountable. The EU – like the UK – fails both tests”

    Agree with you.

    I profoundly disagree with this unbalanced artcle. Well the UCL’s research taken with a large spoonful of salt with those pronouncements of Labour and LibDempoliticians that non-EU students contribute about £9 billions per year to the UK economy.

    I have worked closely with Brussels, and I do not think that being within the EU is alone is advantageous for scientific research- this is from my personal experience of being involved in their expert panels on Framework Programmes. In fact EU countries collaborate much better with countries like USA, Canada and indeed with South American countries without being shackled by a plethora of EU regulations. .

    It is not surprisng that any one who disagrees with the EU agenda as we see it today is branded as a nationalist -one could see how nationalists those in the continent are when it comes to the so called consesus approach, for example, in pressuring the award of Framework Programmeresearch grants in committee stages( will be the same case in regards to Horizon 2020).

    • Eddie Says:

      I should add, the biggest research project in recent years-the Human Genome Project was undertaken by researchers around the globe, collaborating with each other with the support of national governments.

  4. Ken Says:

    If it is a battle for ideas, should you not try at least to understand ideas rather than dismissing it as UKIP’s ‘Little England’ pronouncements and asking universities to expose those past delusions. By doing so you are already attempting to define and control the debate within you own parameters.

    The EU is not, has never been and never intended to be “an open and democratic association of nations” but is an embryonic form of a nation itself. A nation in the respect that it controls the power of final authority in all things and the member states can only act independently in areas allowed and defined by the central government. In the same manner that local government is only allowed to work within central government guidelines. (Please note I said “EMBRYONIC” so please pleas do not attempt to point to those now few areas where autonomy is still present within the system, unless you can also show without doubt that, that autonomy is absolutely sacrosanct against EU mission creep.

    The battle for ideas is not one about old national views standing against the EU as an open and democratic association of nations. But rather the idea of a smaller nation state with demotic control of government, against a bigger nation state that was understood from the start simply could not be built within a democratic system. It is about democracy against an anti-democratic movement that is already showing a penchant to create and support confrontation that could eventually lead to war, exactly that which it claims to be about preventing.

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