The televised duels between UKIP’s Nigel Farage and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg are the latest chapter in the debate over Britain’s membership of the European Union. Libertarians (alongside right wingers and populists) may welcome the Euroskeptic Farage’s apparent victories in the debates, along with the rise of UKIP. I think, however, that we should be more cautious.
UK libertarians tend, by default, to view the EU with mistrust and antipathy. Not only is it undemocratic and highly centralised, but also it is responsible for various nonsensical and cumbersome restrictions on liberty and markets. The tragicomedic trajectory of the Euro does not help.
There is plenty of sense in Margaret Thatcher’s concerns about the EU: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
This sentiment, combined with conservative and nationalist concerns about self-determination, immigration, and multiculturalism, underpins the right’s issues with Europe (and, incidentally, neatly sums up UK conservatism).
However, libertarians (and free marketeers) should remember that the EU is not entirely a negative force. Ironically, it is the conservative complaints about Europe that illustrate the benefits of the EU.
One of the key aims and functions of the EU is to allow free movement of goods and people across borders. As a libertarian, I think this is brilliant – and the EU deserves full credit for facilitating increased trade and freedom of movement.
Asides from the obvious and massive economic benefits this brings, migration and trade are inherently positive phenomena. Borders are artificial restrictions imposed by states. They deserve minimal respect at best.
Complaints that “they took our jobs” also have little merit. One should have sympathy for individuals who lose their jobs, but that’s it. If someone is willing to provide a better service at a lower cost than you are, then they deserve the job more than you do. The fact that you happened to be born in this country is irrelevant and does not grant you extra rights.
Likewise, although there are limits, multiculturalism is largely a force for good. A vibrant and varied society is preferable to a monotonous and staid one. Whilst relativism and ghettoizing essentialism (whether ethnic or cultural) are unjustifiable, pluralism and tolerance are necessary for a liberal society.
Personally, I love being able to experience different cultural practises, and picking and choosing which of these I like, rather than being limited to a single holistic package. Immigration creates possibilities for new and varied experiences and encounters not just with other cultures, but, more importantly, with other individuals.
Asides from these more elusive issues, hard facts also challenge the anti-immigration narrative. It is a myth that immigrants are bad for the economy. In fact, the opposite is clearly the case. Immigrants are workers, tax payers, and consumers who aid the economy accordingly. Concerns about the welfare state are also misplaced. Immigrants are significantly less likely to be on benefits than indigenous Britons.
Furthermore, open borders come as a package – there are many British citizens living in other EU countries. Pulling out of the EU would put their position at risk (could they be deported?). More importantly, it would reduce the possibility for frequent and spontaneous movement to and from the rest of the EU. And, of course, this is tightly connected with the UK’s economy. Migrants, whether coming to or going out of the UK, move for a reason.
As for trade, it is true that the EU is a mixed bag. On the one hand, “fortress Europe” is responsible for some of the worst instances of rich world protectionism. And, ideally, trade should be about allowing consumers to freely select the best products, rather than governments drawing up complicated and rigged trade agreements.
However, trade within Europe is certainly much higher because of the EU’s single market. Of course, an “independent” UK could certainly engage in various trade arrangements. There is, though, no guarantee of this. Every major party has had their bullshit “British jobs for British workers” moment. UKIP in particular appear to be flirting dangerously with protectionism.
Likewise, following an acrimonious split, the rest of the EU may not be inclined towards rational trade deals with the UK. At the very least, new trade deals would have to be drawn up separately. Indeed, even if the UK were to have a Swiss-type arrangement (in the trade zone, but outside EU jurisdiction), this would be less than ideal. Essentially, the UK would be subject to trading according to EU rules, without being able to influence what the rules are.
Looking beyond the UK’s own immediate self-interest, Britain has a very important role to play within the EU. Although the idea has been insufficiently explored, we could play an active role championing economic liberalism and free trade. Rather than sniping from the side-lines, the UK could actively engage in EU decision-making and push the liberal agenda.
We could prioritise democratisation and increased transparency, whilst attacking protectionist policies (like the horrific Common Agricultural Policy). Vetoes, and complete withdrawal, will not change or stop the negative aspects of the EU. If anything, the absence of the UK could make things even worse.
Euroskepticism is starting to look increasingly like the states-rights agenda in the US. It legitimately challenges the undemocratic nature of blanket decisions made by a distant bureaucracy. And, a lot of the time, it rails against unnecessary regulations and impositions.
However, automatically adopting this stance over every issue leads to very un-libertarian conclusions. Whilst Human Rights legislation can sometimes miss the mark, surely libertarians should welcome a good portion of it? Should we really be complaining about giving prisoners the right to vote? Likewise, though it cannot be called free trade, multilateral state-led trade deals are better than nothing.
If a smaller, more local form of authority wants to “democratically” impose an illiberal agenda (banning gay marriage or restricting free movement of labour, for instance) and a larger, more distant bureaucracy wants to overrule this to protect minority rights, I feel that our concerns over means have to be trumped by our concerns with ends.
This does not mean that libertarians should be pro-Europe in an unqualified sense. There is a lot wrong with the EU. And, perhaps, on balance the UK would better off out than in. A referendum is definitely needed. But, the issue is not one-sided. And whilst pulling out of the EU may seem attractive, we need to be aware of some very significant consequences that libertarians may find unpalatable.