In fewer than 24 hours, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will have decided whether or not to stay in the European Union. The consequences of this decision are likely to have significant ramifications not just obviously for the relationship between Britain and the European Union but also for Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world and Europe’s relationship with the rest of the world. Here, I want to offer a few perspectives on the Brexit debate from across the Irish Sea.
Pete Buchar, who is a third-year undergraduate in European Social and Political Studies at University College London, believes the economic case for Remain is clear. He says: “The main economic reason is to do with uncertainty and the fact that the British pound will likely plunge, making life for British citizens a lot harder due to the interconnectivity of the world. Because of the weaker pound, everything will seem more expensive and the quality of life for British people will be lower.”
Pete, who has studied abroad at Humboldt University, is also concerned about the uncertainty that will occur in the event of Brexit and the impacts on foreign direct investment. “If Britain votes to leave the EU, no one will really know what that means: if it’ll be a European trading partner, if it’ll be part of the European Economic Area like for example Norway or Iceland, or if there’ll be some sort of autonomy within Europe,” he adds. “So there are many different scenarios and each will have a slightly different outcome for the British people. Uncertainty will rule Britain’s markets and that will have a negative impact on Britain’s economy.”
John McKeane, a lecturer in French at the University of Reading, equally believes that the economic arguments are compelling. He says: “People’s lives, jobs, mortgages, prices in shops, all sorts of things are at stake. France is a major trading partner so French is still very influential for that reason. Having had a bit of experience working in Europe, I think it is a really important thing for British society to be part of that bigger conversation.”
He is adamant that young voters should go to the polls in droves. “Young people might want to get jobs with the sorts of companies that may think about moving out of the UK if we leave. I cannot think how many options there are available in NGOs, business and journalism and so on that would be cut off from them,” he says. “At the beginning of my career, I had not had that much exposure to what goes on in Europe and the opportunities available for young Europeans.”
Pete is from the Czech Republic but educated in Britain and sees parallels between British and Czech frustrations with the EU. In fact Brexit could set a precedent for Czexit, which has become a serious political issue. “Many Czech people and politicians do not like Brussels telling them what to do about immigrants and refugees,” he continues. “The politicians in Brussels are trying to create a system where everyone would put in their little share of help and many Czech citizens are totally against this. As a postcommunist and sometimes quite racist culture, they are not willing to accept refugees.”
Like Pete, Victor Mound studies at UCL and acknowledges his bias towards Europe: his mother is German, he grew up in Italy and can speak three languages. Victor, who studies EU law, believes people do not appreciate enough the benefits of being part of the larger union. “If you are upset with your government, your last port of call is your government. We have judicial review in Britain, but now you can go to the EU and they can strike down decisions in your national court,” he says. “This is a huge benefit, because you have multiple countries coming together. Though you might not like the fact that it’s an external body, it’s not subject to as much bias as with the five-year cycles you get in your own country. The EU gives a certain degree of stability that you wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Victor says the undemocratic elements within the EU are a virtue rather than a weakness. “I like the technocracy you get in the EU because you have people who are highly qualified for the assessments they’re making, highly qualified at writing policy, rather than people who may not have the specialist experience or have the time to properly consider the issues at hand,” he explains.
Pete also believes there is an intrinsic democratic deficit in the EU but for a different reason. Smaller countries such as the Czech Republic will inevitably get a smaller say in the European Council. But he cautions: “On the other hand, if you adopt a British approach to the EU in which you assert your own identity, it’s difficult for other countries to take you seriously. With time you can develop a better position, I think that’s possible. But being Eurosceptic and so openly Eurosceptic definitely doesn’t help.”
In contrast to the others, Matt Burnett does not feel particularly European and is convinced that Britain will be better off outside the EU. “I think the EU is institutionally flawed, corrupt and wasteful and MEPs’ private expenses are one example of this,” he complains. “I don’t see a very bright future for the EU, mainly because of the future of the Euro zone, so I think it would be wise to leave now.”
Matt, who is a parliamentary researcher at the Scottish Parliament, is not particularly worried about the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum in the event that Britain decides to leave. “Given the polls, I think that the Scottish electorate have little appetite for another referendum, and the ‘yes’ vote is as low as it has been in recent years,” he says. “So Brexit would put the SNP in a tricky situation where they would be pressured to call another referendum but would be unlikely to win. I think this would put the issue to bed.”
According to John, the sovereignty argument is probably the Brexiteers’ strongest, but he questions how far the European situation is much less democratic than a Britain with a House of Lords and a civil service. “We should make our own laws – I agree,” he concedes. “But let’s be certain that this ‘we’ is not defined by fearful, ignorant nationalism.”
However Matt is concerned that the EU is tilted towards the other extreme: in the direction of greater integration and more power for the EU as well as more spending. “If you don’t think the UK should head in that direction, now is your chance to leave,” he says. “It will be a long while before we have that opportunity again.”
But Victor does not believe ever closer integration will actually become a reality. “I don’t think the countries within the EU would rather have an ever closer union,” he continues. “Germany, which loves the economic benefits, still wants its own individuality as a country. I think the idea of being melded into the United States of the EU is just fearmongering and ridiculous. The EU actually has policies and departments that are designed to protect culture. It’s not as if it is a blanket, one-size-fits-all body.”
In fact Victor and Matt both agree that the media have done a bad job of informing voters about the issues. “The British media have an agenda and are leaving out so many of the details in terms of what legal protections you have in the EU,” says Victor. “The technicalities of how the EU functions are never actually explained to people. ”
For his part, Matt is disappointed the Leave campaign did not bring in more robust claims which were stronger than the infamous assertion that British citizens pay £350 million a week to the EU. “Having researched the issue myself, I think there are many legitimate reasons to leave the EU, but I don’t think they have been communicated well to the public,” he adds.
John, who is also a translator, takes his pro-European cue from the French philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. He published a book on the scholar, who comes from the emblematically European city of Strasbourg. “For him, Europe is a way of bypassing nationalism,” he explains. “French arrogance can be restrained by German music and metaphysics. German puritanism can be restrained by Polish pragmatism. And so on. Seeing Europe as a unified ‘them’ just doesn’t stand up to analysis.”
Matt respects voters’ decision to put ‘Remain’ on their ballot papers but would prefer they return that respect to Leave campaigners rather than tarring them with a negative image. He says: “I can certainly understand why you would vote to Remain: ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.’ I just have a greater appetite for risk and I think leaving is a risk worth taking.”