Many supporters of Leave have challenged me to explain in what situations I would advocate exit. This is a good question: someone who was truly an EU fanatic would presumably see no situations in which leaving was best for Britain. I see plenty of situations in which leaving would be best for Britain, the differences that I firmly predict they will not arise any time soon. If they do arise I will be comfortable campaigning for a new referendum and vote to Leave.
(If I did so I would also push for the out campaign to have a much more comprehensive explanation of how they would safeguard the economy from Brexit fallout, but that is another story.)
The first threat, beloved of Eurosceptics, is Britain being forced into the euro currency. Even before David Cameron’s renegotiation this spring, this was impossible. There is no way the EU could force a new currency on Britain, either in terms of diplomatic pressure or EU law. We already had an opt out. From the British perspective, euro currency has been such a disaster that is impossible to see even a very pro-EU Labour government supporting joining in the next 15 years.
The second threat is an EU army being built with mandatory inclusion of British forces, without the express consent of the British government. A combined fear is that this force would be used in interventions without the British wielding a veto. Both of these futures are completely preposterous. Were an EU army ever to exist, it would rely almost entirely on French and British military assets, and they would always be able to stop action taking place. As it is, Britain has a veto on the creation of such an army or force, and is unlikely to approve of its creation any time soon. Recent policy has been to pursue bilateral cooperation with France, as seen in Libya.
A new treaty that saw centralising powers for the euro currency area and a reduction in the veto powers of individual member states would be worrying, and I would hope to look over it in a lot of detail. I like to think that the greater attention we have been paying to EU thanks to this referendum means that we would also scrutinise future treaties properly. A new treaty in itself would not be reason to Leave the EU, especially since we would have a referendum on accepting that treaty (see below). However, if the treaty was in some way forced on Britain (something I cannot imagine happening) then that probably would be grounds to Leave.
The EU accepting Turkish membership over a British veto, or ignoring the British veto in other important matters such as taxation, external trade policy, or changes to migration law, would be grounds for divorce. This would be the case even if I approve of the changes themselves. My hypothetical scenario is simply that if the EU overrode what was clearly a veto in the Lisbon Treaty, then the system would be broken beyond acceptable limits. Note: this is not what happened in Greece, Portugal or Ireland. Those states were forced to accept troika rules in return for bailouts, i.e. they were creditor requirements, they were not strictly speaking requirements of the EU treaties. (Of course, this does not mean I remotely approved of the handling of the euro crisis.)
Voters who fear that any of the above could happen with the expressed okay of the British government undermine their own arguments. Because Britain can, and probably would, veto any of those developments, it stands to reason that if it approved them, that approval would be an expression of British sovereignty. It would be just the same as, after Brexit, a British government choosing to grant free movement to the people of Turkey unilaterally, or to join an EU army from the outside, or to join the euro from the outside.
Of course, all these things are unlikely in the near term. Inasmuch as they are likely, I am comforted by the referendum lock in UK law, which means that Britain would have another referendum on any of these issues. We would have a vote on the creation of an EU army. We would have a vote on joining the euro. We would have a vote on any new treaty.
I’m amazed the Remain campaign hasn’t made more of this referendum lock, which means that any transfer of powers to Brussels in the future must be a plebiscite decision. This effectively means that the threat of “ever closer union” is blunted, since Britain cannot be pushed into deeper integration without public approval.
As a woolly sort of lefty, I suppose I would also be concerned that the EU would constrain the ability of the left-wing government to fulfil its program. This has often been overstated: the EU does not stop states nationalising industries, and there are ways to give struggling industries stated or procurement support that Britain simply does not explore. (I’m not sure I would want them to but the point is that the EU does not stop them.) I suppose another situation in which I would advocate Brexit, then, is one in which the EU constrains a radical social democratic or socialist agenda. This is quite hard to imagine really, since Britain is quite far to the right of most Scandinavian and many continental or Eastern European states. In a scenario in which the EU and left this platform clearly did clash, then I suspect another referendum would be very likely and may well pass since the government of the day would be supporting it: and would have a clear agenda (and possibly a manifesto mandate) for doing so. This would avoid many of the pitfalls centre and left wing commentators have identified in the Vote Leave campaign.
I oppose the mantra that this vote is necessarily once in a generation. If you believe in accountable parliamentary sovereignty and the strengths of the Westminster system, as many in Vote Leave do, then you should be confident that if the EU gets really bad, bad enough for me and other active Remain campaigners to consider leaving, the British government will be forced to offer a new referendum. If it does not, it may face a vote of no confidence or be voted out at the next general election.
Contrary to the claims of Leave supporters, the EU is not a prison or empire. Nations do not tend to join empires by their own governments’ initiative. Nations do not tend to choose to remain in empires by the ballot. There are very few prisons which include in the Prison Rules a clear article explaining how a prisoner can vote himself out of the prison. This is precisely what the Lisbon Treaty does in Article 50.
The mere fact that the EU has a mechanism for countries leaving it without recourse to arms shows it is far less evil than its critics would claim. Its critics see it as a prison mainly because of the last 40 years the British people have supported governments which themselves support membership. We are not prisoners because we never saw it as a prison.