Sunday, 28 February 2016

Why remaining in the EU or leaving can’t be compared

I woke up yesterday morning with a request from one of my readers. Could you, she asked, prepare a list of the top ten reasons that compare remaining a member of the European Union with leaving?

She added:
“I want to stay, but am aware that I tend to look for articles and opinions that support my decision, and that at the end of the day I am woefully ignorant of the pros and cons of such a complex issue. 
"I like to think of myself as reasonably intelligent and aware, but I'm struggling here. This is too important a decision for people to vote without at least some understanding of what they are voting for.”
I gave this request a lot of thought, but it soon dawned on me that a straightforward comparison between ‘REMAIN’ and ‘LEAVE’ simply isn’t possible. 

That’s because we know what ‘Remain’ in the EU means - it’s the status quo and we've experienced it for decades. But Leave? 

Nobody knows; nobody can say for sure, and the ‘Leavers’ are so uncertain that they can’t even agree with each other. They have launched three different ‘Leave’ campaigns because they have different ideas of what would or should happen after Brexit. 

The point is, however, that even if the Brexiters could agree with each other, none of them can promise to deliver. They are not in power, and even if they were in power, their (different) dreams of Brexit would involve the agreements of many other countries. 

None of the ‘Leavers’ can predict what those other countries might agree, and by all accounts, the negotiations with those countries would take many years to conclude.

Unlike David Cameron, none of the ‘Leavers’ have been whistle-stopping between capital cities and securing a ‘legally binding’ deal with the leaders of other countries to assure our continued relationship with the European Union and the rest of the world. The ‘Leavers’ can’t promise any future deal post-Brexit, let alone a ‘legally binding’ one.

There are lots of lists showing the benefits of 'Remain' that seem credible and evidence-based, because it's what we know as the present and past state of affairs, so it's easy to check. But one of the problems in trying to compile a list of 10 reasons to 'Leave' is that they'd be hypothetical; we simply don’t know what Brexit would mean in reality.

New deals?

Last week, Boris Johnson said he'd prefer Britain to 'Leave' the EU, and then he (a big assumption it'd be him!) would want to negotiate new trade deals with the world's countries. But such negotiations would take a long time, and he doesn't know - nobody knows - how well or badly those negotiations might go. It is all based on hope (and with Boris, possibly some bluster too). 

If you were choosing between two houses to buy and live in, you could make a list of ten good and bad points for each house. But in this referendum, we really cannot have any idea what the 'Leave' house would look like. It's all speculation.

It's for this reason that I feel the referendum is lopsided; we can't really or properly compare one option with the other. It isn't possible to produce a fair and balanced list of ten reasons comparing Britain in or out of the EU. 

So instead, I have prepared a short and simple sample list of what we already benefit from in the EU, and how we simply can’t know for sure if we’d still have those benefits on leaving.

Of course, the list isn't exhaustive – it’s just an outline of some of the advantages of our EU membership. (See my graphic).

Free trade

Top of the list is that it’s only because of EU membership that Britain enjoys full free trading status with all the other member states - representing the world’s most lucrative market place, and by far our most important trading partner. As such, almost 50% of our exports go to the EU. 

The EU has an iron tariff wall against non-members; so would we really want to be on the wrong side of that wall as an ex-member? Even non-European countries that have negotiated ‘free trade’ agreements with the EU don’t enjoy full free trade access to Europe’s internal market, as Britain does now.

Could Britain continue to participate in full free trade if we left the EU? We don’t know for sure, but it’s less likely – unless, like Norway, we were accepted as a member of the associated EEA, but then we would still have to obey the rules of the EU single market (including free movement of people), we would still have to pay an annual contribution to the EU, but we would have no say in those rules or the size of our annual contribution.

A say in Europe

Next on the list is that as a leading member of the EU, we have a say – and votes – on the rules, laws and future direction of our continent, Europe. 

Would we have that as a non-EU member? Well never say never – but no non-EU member has a say or vote in those rules, so I think’s it’s highly unlikely that an exception would be made for Britain. Otherwise, what would be the point of an exclusive club offering exclusive benefits for members?

The right to live, work, study or retire across our continent is also a precious membership benefit that over two million Britons already enjoy. Would that right continue if we left the EU? Nobody really knows, but it’s unlikely. 

The residence and other rights of Britons already living across the rest of Europe, and citizens from the rest of Europe already living in Britain, would also be thrown into doubt and confusion if ‘Leave’ wins the referendum vote.

Free health care whilst travelling on business or holiday in Europe is another cherished benefit of Britain’s EU membership – that would be unlikely to continue on Brexit.

EU protection

EU laws protecting the rights of workers, consumers and travellers are probably among the most important reasons for Britain to remain an EU member. 

For example, 4-weeks paid holiday a year; the 48 hour working week; anti-discrimination law; guaranteed rights for agency workers; guaranteed worker consultation - all of these protections exist because of the EU. 

If we took away the strong armour of EU employment law, workers’ rights would be at the mercy of a Conservative government. Anyone who believes they would then be in safe hands might be in for a rude shock upon Brexit. 

Consumer and traveller protection laws are also arguably much stronger as a result of EU laws than we would have enjoyed under national legislation alone. 

In any event, how can a national government assure safety and protection across an entire continent? The simple fact is that it can’t – it needs the reach of a pan-European intergovernmental organisation to achieve that (albeit with the democratic consensus of member states).

For example, comprehensive passenger compensation when, say, an Icelandic volcano seriously disrupts air travel – such compensation is only possible because of EU law, not national law. 

Abolishing exorbitant mobile-roaming charges across Europe was also only possible because of EU law – no nation state alone could have achieved that. Europe-wide consumer protections, such as when buying products online or by phone, came about because of EU law rather than national law.

Negotiating power

Because the EU is the world’s richest, biggest market-place, and the world’s biggest exporter and importer of manufactured goods and services, it can negotiate the best trade deals with other countries. 

It’s often said that when negotiating, you get better deals if you’re the same size or bigger than your opposite number. The EU is the biggest economy – bigger than the USA, bigger than China, bigger than Japan. It has the muscle to negotiate extremely favourable trading terms with the world’s countries. 

Could Britain, being considerably smaller and less important than the EU, achieve similarly good trade agreements with the world’s countries? It’s unlikely, but in any event, it would take many years to find out after we had left the EU.


There are many collaborations that take place between scientists, doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc, between EU member states that are made much easier and more effective because we’re all in the same club. Could that continue on the same level if Britain left the EU? Who knows..?

And of course, because of agreements and directives agreed between member states, there is considerable Europe-wide sharing of intelligence and practical collaboration in the fields of policing, security, defence and the prevention and combat of crime. 

Could that intense co-operation continue if Britain left the EU? Again, nobody knows – it might, but we can’t guarantee that it would.

As Prime Minister, David Cameron, said last week, “Leaving the EU would be a leap into the dark.” Who can argue with that? On this, at least, Mr Cameron is right.


Other articles by Jon Danzig:


 Readers comments are very welcome, including opinions that oppose mine. Comments need to be on-topic and personal attacks will not be allowed. To read more about the style of debating that I encourage on all my blogs, please read my article: 'Debate, don't hate'

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  1. why can't other EU countries negotiate deals which would disadvantage the UK if we remained in the EU?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Brian. All 28 EU member states - including Britain - have to unanimously agree to any changes. It's highly unlikely that Britain would agree to the other EU member states negotiating a deal that would not be in our interests.

      Our Westminster Parliament has agreed, along with the national Parliaments of all EU member states, and the democratically elected European Parliament, to all the treaty changes.


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