Monday, 27 June 2016
There is an inherent risk in trying to evaluate any moment of historic import so soon after the fact. Only the passage of time will truly determine the full impact of the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union, but even at this early stage the sheer gravity of the situation is becoming clear: both institutions face a very real existential threat in the coming years.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has resigned. The Pound Sterling has fallen to its weakest value in thirty years in the largest single-day drop for decades. The markets have crashed, jobs are already being taken out of London, and the complete break up of one of the world's oldest and most historically significant nations, as well as the most successful supranational entity in all of human history, may be on the cards. This is just the first day after the vote.
Credit outlook downgrades, the Calais Jungle moving to the UK, the Leave campaign admitting it can't follow through on any of its promises? That's day two. The Shadow Cabinet resigning, protests all over the UK and calls for a constitutional crisis? Day three. Yes, it appears all the "scaremongering" predictions that Brexit voters were so keen to ignore are indeed coming to pass. Two days and the country is already in turmoil, unfortunately we're not done yet, not by a long shot. "Project Fear" is starting to look more like "Project Understatement of the Century". It's too late to go back and change that now, all we can do is look at what lies ahead.
The Fall of the European Union
When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, what's going to happen? The EU needs the economic strength of the UK, and the UK needs access to the single market. The obvious mutually beneficial answer is to strike some kind of a sweetheart deal along the lines of the agreements that currently stand with Switzerland and Norway.
The danger the precedent that this would set in Europe. The UK is not alone in euroscepticism at the moment, and if they manage to withdraw and strike a deal that allows them to retain most of the benefits of membership without the commitment, then why in the world wouldn't the likes of the Netherlands or France try to do the same? A successful Brexit could start a domino effect that in all probability would result in the devolution of several of the EU's most developed nations, a setback from which the Union can not possibly recover. There is no easy answer to this. If the EU gives the UK what they want, the EU will face a serious existential threat. Yet if they make an example of them, the economic consequences for both entities could be dire which might plunge all of Europe into recession. The question is whether a balanced solution can be found.
But even if the EU doesn't completely unravel, which it could well do, the fact still remains that one of its core members has left. Europe is divided again for the first time in decades. Whatever happens from here on out, the dream of a united Europe, that so many have fought for through history, is broken.
The Fall of the United Kingdom
Already calls are being made for a second vote on Scottish Independence. Scotland voted emphatically to stay within the EU. That they are being forced to leave anyway by Westminster confirms all the worst fears of the Scottish Independence movement. I used to be a passionate advocate of Scotland remaining in the UK, but now even I would support their independence. It is not right that a whole nation of people should have so little right to self-determination that so consequential a result as leaving the EU can be forced upon them in spite of near unanimous opposition. This is the opportunity that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have been waiting for, the single greatest chance Scotland will ever have for independence, they will certainly try to take it.
It's the same story with Northern Ireland, who voted resoundingly to stay in the EU, but now face having their will overridden by the English. The Irish situation is even more perilous since leaving the EU will necessitate a hard land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, a move that is certain to provoke old tensions between the two. This is a major problem. Decades of work, of violence and suffering, a hard fought and hard won peace between the Unionists and Republicans, it could all be about to be undone by Brexit. Irish reunification talks are now set to reopen, paving the way for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join ROI in order to remain a part of the EU.
Might that even not be the end of it? What of Gibraltar, who voted 95% to stay in the EU? There has even been talk of London independence! After all, London essentially props up the rest of the UK with its huge amount of tax revenue, and now as thanks the rest of the UK has voted to trash London's economy, and are forcing that result upon them against the will of 75% of London voters. Why give away all that revenue to a country that clearly doesn't care about London's interests?
This vote has left the UK more divided than it has ever been, as whole regions find themselves being dragged out of the EU against their will. It looks increasingly inevitable that, at a minimum, both Northern Ireland and Scotland will seek independence referenda in the coming years. If this happens, Scotland will almost certainly vote to leave the UK, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if Northern Ireland followed suit. London meanwhile looks set to seek special status to allow separate ties with the EU.
I would simply ask the Brexit supporters this: if Scotland and Northern Ireland break away from your newly "independent" UK, effectively bringing an end to the Kingdom, was it all still worth it?
The End of the UK's economic Golden Age
Even putting aside the very real threat of geopolitical fracturing of the UK, what of the economy? Barely two days later and the markets are crashing, the currency is worthless, jobs are leaving, and our credit outlook has been downgraded. Is this all an overreaction, or is there more still to come?
Unfortunately this is rolling out exactly as predicted by the much maligned "experts". There is nothing irrational about it, the UK is a much less attractive prospect for investment than it was a few days ago, and that will have dire consequences for everyone in this country.
One of the lines most frequently used, ironically, by the Leave campaign, was that the UK is a rising power, a new economic juggernaut at the centre of global commerce. This is all true; London's, and by extension the UK's economic development in recent years has been astonishing, described as an economic Golden Age for the country. What they evidently failed to realise is that this enviable position is a direct result of the UK's unique position as the world's gateway to Europe. English language, stable, secure country, close cultural and political ties to America, and where American money flows, so flows they money from East Asia and the Middle East.
The UK had found itself in the perfect position to be one of the world's centres for business, but without European access that all goes away, along with the UK's new Golden Age. We had the opportunity to place ourselves at the centre of the global market for a generation to come, and now we've just pissed it away.
David Cameron's big gamble
The ridiculous thing? None of this had to happen. The man who called the referendum, David Cameron, didn't even want it to pass, and never for a moment believed that it would. This was a referendum called as an afterthought, a token gesture to a certain demographic.
Flash back to 2015 general election. David Cameron's Conservative party won an outright majority for the first time, having spent the previous five years in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. At the time this came as a huge shock. None of the polls predicted it, conventional wisdom held that a coalition was an inevitable outcome, with Ed Miliband slightly favoured to be the next Prime Minister.
So in a moment of desperation, faced with the prospect of losing power, or at best having to share power with the nationalist UKIP, David Cameron hatched a scheme, as legend has it while eating at the Chicago Pizza Kitchen at Logan Airport, to bring those nationalists (xenophobes) under the Conservative banner. That plan was the EU referendum. Cameron didn't believe in it, and he certainly didn't think there would be any appeal except to a small demographic. It was a low risk gimmick that promised to boost him a few seats in the next election.
In retrospect, this shortsighted, yet seemingly insignificant powerplay would prove to be the end of his career, and a blunder of historic proportions. There is something almost Shakespearean in the way that Cameron's blind power-lust has led to his own ruin. Barely a year later, he had lost the vote and lost his job. Even worse, he effectively wrote his own legacy. No matter what else he has done during his time as Prime Minister, he will be in the history books as the man who broke the European Union, and maybe the man who broke the United Kingdom, a nation that had survived centuries of conflict and change, two world wars, and now has been undone by a greedy, foolish man eating pizza. Think Neville Chamberlain has it rough in the history books? Just wait.
So what now?
This is the million dollar question. The UK doesn't officially withdraw from the EU until it invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, at which point it will have two years to negotiate its exit. The referendum is only advisory, it does not legally bind the country, so that responsibility will fall to Parliament.
Parliament's ratification is considered to be a formality. For a liberal democracy to reject the popular vote of a referendum would be simply unthinkable and lead to a serious constitutional crisis. Technically it is possible for the left wing parties and a small Tory rebellion to block Brexit, but the outcry would be considerable, and few MPs would be willing to go along with it, even those who want to remain the EU.
Still there are hurdles to cross before that Article gets invoked. First, the terms of Cameron's resignation, which states that he will remain in power until October, and only after that point will his successor move forward on leaving the EU. It shouldn't escape notice that previously Cameron had insisted he would pull the trigger instantly. His delaying tactic might just be one last Hail Mary designed to prevent Brexit. Just look at how the economy has struggled in just a few days; by the time October rolls around, the full catastrophic impact of Brexit will be felt, and public opinion might even be turning the other way. Who would be brave enough to go through with this when it's unpopular and tanking the economy?
Then there's the additional complication of a likely early general election, which Boris Johnson has indicated he would call upon being appointed leader of the Conservative party. If an opposition Government takes charge, who's to say they will stick with the result of a referendum they had nothing to do with? Going further, it's likely we will see EU policy take a central roll on manifestos, perhaps even opening the door to an opposition party taking power with a specific mandate to block Brexit.
So in other words no one knows. No one knows what party will be in charge, what platform they will have been elected on, and what the national conditions at the time will be. It's far from certain even that Brexit will happen. We are entering uncharted territory, and the country has perhaps years of crippling uncertainty to look forward to.
So once again, it is clearly problematic to try and evaluate a moment of historic import so soon after the fact. But David Cameron's unnecessary gamble has just broken the EU, and may yet break the UK, with referenda on Scotland and Northern Ireland sure to follow at a minimum.
The UK's new economic Golden Age appears to be dead in the water just as it was beginning, and will certainly lose its status as the centre of global commerce. Europe is divided once again. We are all entering a long period of sustained uncertainty, and no one knows what the political landscape of the country, or indeed the continent will look like once the dust has settled.
It will surely go down as one of history's legendary moments of over-confidence and folly. That's some legacy Mr. Cameron.
Tuesday, 14 June 2016
On the 23rd of June, the UK will vote on whether to remain a part of the European Union or to leave. It is being described as the political event of the decade, and some would argue this is the most important ballot for a generation of Britons. Now, with the polls on a knife-edge, I am pleased to announce that The Ephemeric proudly and without reserve endorses the Remain campaign.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of this whole referendum is the acknowledgement that such a thing would have been simply unimaginable just a few years ago.
Since the formation of the EU, Europe has seen an historically unprecedented era of peace, economic co-operation, and Human development. While the organisation's popularly may have intermittently wavered in the past, the support for our continued participation has not. But now suddenly the toxic cocktail of economic stagnation and the rise of a new wave of Islamic extremism in Europe has created a palpable atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust.
The stage has been set for the most significant revival of reactionary politics since the 1930s; a movement of xenophobes and luddites who thrive on their ability to take advantage of the fearful and vulnerable. Today they are popping up all over the world, Trump in America, Le Pen in France, and now in the Brexit movement at home.
The argument for staying in the EU
Reactionary policy is the political equivalent of trying to get out of a finger trap by pulling harder. For a lot of people it is the natural instinct in a bad situation, but only ends up making things worse. Throughout history it has never been a good idea, and it is no different now. Only the triggers change, in this case the fear of terrorism, economic migration, and eurozone instability. Without regard to the detail of any such issues, for Brexit proponents isolationism simply feels like a shield that will make it all go away. In reality history tells us that it will only exacerbate the situation.
On the other hand the argument for why the UK should remain in the EU is clear and well supported. Most pertinent is the economic benefit that the UK enjoys by being a part of the common market, bolstered by reduced regulation and boundaries to trade, and the completely free movement of workers between member states. This isn't controversial, there is near unanimity among economists that the UK stands to gain more by being a part of the EU. PwC forecasts that leaving the EU would result in years of fewer jobs and reduced household income. Far from scaremongering, this is a conservative estimate, the best case scenario in their forecast.
Now don't get me wrong, you should absolutely not be a sheep and follow what other people say, but even so, when one side (Remain) has Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Richard Branson, Warren Buffet, and a long list of nobel prize winners backing it, and the other (Leave) has Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and George Galloway... well that should really set off alarm bells. I hate to be that guy, but if that's the company you're keeping then maybe it's time to re-evaluate.
But don't just take the word of the nobel prize winners and economists for it, the transformation in the UK since joining the EU in the 1970s is readily apparent; from the sick-man of Europe to one of the world's greatest economic powerhouses, directly brought on by the country's new role as a global hub. London in particular has transformed into one of the world's absolutely premier cities, an icon of stability and western ideals, and the world's gateway into the European market. When investment from all over the world, the US, Asia, the Middle East, moves into Europe, it passes through the UK. This has made the British people among the wealthiest on Earth, and turned the country into the world's greatest soft power.
The Brexit campaigners would have you believe this to be some crazy coincidence, they want us to go backwards to the 1970s when Britain was a struggling alsoran; a domestic economy dependent on the chokehold of the unions and bosses, and an utter irrelevance on the world stage. They want the UK to give up it's current position as a global cornerstone of all industry, the envy of any nation in the world, and sell your future short by retreating into our own shell out of fear.
But there's far more than just the economic reason to stay in the EU. The fact is everyone benefits when we combine our knowledge and resources. This has always been the case throughout Human history in just about any area of development.
Europe leads the world in scientific output, greater than the US, greater than Asia, it is Europe that is driving our future. It's obvious why this is the case; increased collaboration, fewer firewalls between researchers, greater alignment in goals and training. Our scientific community is treated as one, rather than divided into several competing groups. The benefits are clear, this creates jobs in the UK and it moves our society forward.
Then there's the national security benefit of collaboration. The Brexit campaign wants to convince you that working together somehow makes us less safe, but the opposite is undoubtedly true. Intelligence sharing and co-ordination of security efforts has prevented atrocoties throughout the decades. Brexit would have us sever our ties with EU security agencies so that if someone they're concerned about enters our country, we simply won't know about it. Don't forget that the Paris attackers were all EU citizens, without cross border co-ordination we would have no way of telling them apart from any other EU citizen. Does that sound safer? I believe that when it comes to national security, ignorance is not bliss.
These are all very high level factors, but even on the personal, individual level there are benefits to EU membership that we all feel on a daily basis. The ability to travel through Europe without a visa is astonishingly taken for granted, to say nothing of the low cost of intra-European movement. Anyone tempted to vote Leave needs to take a moment to think about whether they really want a trip to France to be as expensive and as administratively difficult as a trip outside the continent.
People also always seem to forget just how much of our civil liberty comes from EU law. The Convention of Human Rights. Clean air, product safety, net neutrality, these are all things given to us by EU legislators, many of whom are Britons elected directly by us.
Even little things like cheap phone usage within Europe. On my plan I can do everything on my phone in Europe that I can do at home, for just £2 for 500mb, or 0.4p for each mb. If I visit America it's at least £6 per mb, I can't do a damn thing without it costing an arm and a leg, essentially rendering me disconnected from the world and lacking services that in this day and age are considered basic amenities. Why do you think there is such a differential in cost? Phone data isn't more expensive the farther it has to travel, it's all about the shared market, which has moved to ban roaming charges in any of its member states.
All of this can be summed up by a very simple idea, that people really are better off unified and working together than split up into antagonistic partisan factions. Whatever nation or culture or religion we come from we are all Human and we have far more in common than not. The course of Human progress has followed a clear trend throughout history, small tribes of people gradually unifying into larger settlements, into towns, cities, countries. No amount of reactionary politics or draconian extremism will reverse that trend.
The argument against staying in the EU
Now let's not delude ourselves into thinking that the EU does not have problems. The economic woes of the Eurozone, driven by the collapse of fringe economies like Greece, are well publicised. And then there are the security issues, particularly now with the recent wave of terrorism in Europe. The problem there is not so much the security in developed nations like France, it's that those nations share open land borders with far less developed countries, whose security capability is clearly not at the same level.
This is the key point of the EU's problems, it has expanded way too quickly. An economic and security unification of the most developed European countries makes perfect sense, but when you expand that unity to much poorer countries on the fringe of western society you essentially entrust your security to them, and you treat them as an economic equal to the more developed nations. This is clearly a nonsense. Don't get me wrong, ideally one day it would be great to have unity between all these different countries, but that clearly isn't feasible at the current stage of development. This is not a problem in concept, it's a problem in execution. It's movement in the right direction, but poorly judged timing.
The question before us then, is whether we over-correct for these mistakes and take a massive step backwards, or actually address these issues so that we can keep moving in the right direction. Clearly massive reform will be needed, temporary economic stratification or more centralised co-ordination of EU-wide security, but that effort will pale in comparison to the negative impact of Brexit, and ultimately leave us on the right side of history.
So the decision we have to make is clear. On the one hand we have the EU, an unprecedented union of nations that has placed the UK at the centre of the economic world, driven forward society from both a scientific and development perspective, and has tangible benefits in our personal lives in terms of free movement, access to information and services abroad, and such easy and affordable access that a trip to the beaches of Barcelona is barely more troublesome than a trip to the countryside.
On the other hand we have scary people doing scary things, who may or may not be able to do even more damage if we leave, and poorer people than us in other countries who require our financial assistance. These are problems to be sure, but to say that abandoning the progress of the past decades along with our modern ideals is an overreaction is putting it very mildly indeed, especially with no reason to believe that it will actually help. And that huge leap of logic comes with more difficult, regulated movement in Europe, extortionately expensive fees, taxes, and phone access, and less demand for British workers who will no longer have access to the shared market.
The fact is there is little, if any benefit to leaving the EU in the short or long term, and the only reason it's gaining such traction all of a sudden is because unscrupulous politicians are taking advantage of you, waving images of dangerous gunman and trying to fool you into believing that leaving the EU will make them go away. To reiterate, the Paris and Brussels attackers were EU citizens, they were not refugees, leaving the EU will do very little to keep them out unless we completely close our borders. This is the 21st Century, you can't just build a wall and shut yourself away from the rest of the World, and quite frankly you wouldn't really want to.
There is nothing new about this movement. There have always been politicians using wedge issues to drive people apart. It turns out it's a very effective way of gaining power; stoke people's fears irrationally to boiling point, then present yourself as the only man who can save them. I am asking you to be smart, to take a step back and see through these games. Don't fall into the same traps that have been tricking ordinary people for generations, rise above that and take self-determination back into your own hands.
As technology and globalisation has continued apace, and human ingenuity shows no sign of reaching a limit, it is increasingly the case that the biggest impediments to progress are the artificial barriers that we erect.
It is not the ultimate goal for us to be divided into squabbling factions, creating artificial hurdles to survival and prosperity. Unity is what has brought us the scientific marvels, the comfort and abundance of the modern age. In the short term, union with Europe has brought us peace, economic prominence, and scientific and social development that far exceeds what could have been achieved had we stayed closed off from the world. When people are unified they can rise above the conflicts that have mired our civilisation for millennia, and truly solve the fundamental problems.
For all its flaws, the EU is arguably the biggest step mankind has yet taken in that direction, and regardless of how the vote this month goes, there is no doubt that society will continue to progress. A Brexit will merely be a blip in history, the real question we face on the ballot is whether we want to be a part of the generation that said 'yes' and pushed society to take those next steps, or if we want to be consigned to the history books as a temporary setback, the fearful last dregs of a darker time.