Brexit is about more than economics


Last week The Birmingham Brief  looked at Boris Johnson’s comments on President Obama’s intervention in the Brexit debate. Johnson’s comments about Obama’s background have received much critical attention, but one unlikely to cause the shift towards the Leave campaign that some of the polls suggest. The politics of Brexit are also important. Obama and the US have their own economic and strategic interests at stake in keeping the EU together.

Politics versus Economics

It’s almost trite to say that the economics of Brexit are complicated and uncertain, and the remain side are aware that their advocacy of the ‘status quo’ is a potential trump card that causes problems for the Leave camp. Equally, the Remain side know they have a weakness on the politics of the EU, even supporters of Britain remaining in the EU often seek to remind their audience that the EU has problems and requires reform.  The result is a tendency to argue past each other, with one side highlighting the supposed economic advantages of EU membership, whilst downplaying the political costs, or promising to fight from the inside to make the EU more to our liking- a notion that has been floating about for decades.

On the other side, there is the argument that the disputed economic benefits of membership are insufficient to justify the political costs in terms of sovereignty and democratic accountability. They argue there is no status quo given the uncertainty about the need for further integration to make the Euro work better, and challenges facing the EU.  

Economic arguments alone are not enough

 There is no single ‘official’ economic document for Brexit, and the already difficult task of producing one is further compounded by the number of groups campaigning to leave.  It would be nice to think that we can have a rational economic debate about Brexit to decide the referendum, but despite The Government predicting a 6.2% loss to GDP by 2030 the Leave camp is still holding its own, because it’s not just about economics.

There are individual economists who argue for Brexit, and the challenge now is for the economists to come together to produce a detailed document to reinforce this view.

However the forecasts are not all bad for Brexit. Open Europe forecast’s that Brexit will most likely result in something between a 0.8% loss in GDP to a 0.6% gain in GDP by 2030.  Despite this, does anyone believe the figures floating around?

The Treasury, like many forecasting bodies struggles to produce an accurate forecast for the coming months, which might explain the scepticism towards a prediction for 2030. A case for independence produced by the Scottish Government barely survived a few months before being undermined by the collapse in oil prices.  The economic situation in 2030 is uncertain and distant, the political arguments are current and more palpable.

The politics is important

As soon as this is spoken, the cry goes up that the Brexiteers don’t care about peoples’ livelihoods or there is a resort to ad hominem attacks of xenophobia and an obsession with issues like immigration. Whilst this is untrue, it is understandable as each side again seeks to highlight the issues they think most in salient in supporting their position and the remain camp see their arguments failing to produce a significant polling lead.  

There is scarcely a need to go over what some believe to be the EU’s democratic deficit, lack of transparency and accountability culminating in an ideological objection to supranationalism. It is not wrong to object to Britain’s membership of the EU on political grounds, just as the ideology of those who believe that supranationalism is required to tackle political problems should be debated, not hidden behind speculative economic forecasts. For many and varied historical reasons, Britain has rarely had an easy relationship with the EU, and some of us can only see this worsening, with Britain becoming more alienated as EU political integration continues despite Britain’s continued resistance and a vague pledge of being exempted from ever closer union.

There is nothing wrong with believing that those who govern us should know something of how we live, be accessible and accountable to the people they govern. Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, as Cymbeline puts it, perhaps Britain ‘Will not endure his yoke; and for ourself To show less sovereignty than they, must needs, appear unkinglike’.

Dr Anthony Hopkins

Teaching Fellow

Department of Political Science and International Studies

University of Birmingham