1st June 2016

By Peter Droussiotis

In an article published today, Peter Droussiotis, Chairman of the UK-Cyprus Enterprise Council, writing in a personal capacity, explains why he believes that it is in the interests of Britain to be at the heart of a reformed Europe.

peter droussiotisMore than three months after the EU referendum in the United Kingdom was announced by British Prime Minister David Cameron and less than a month before the British people give their verdict and after countless debates, speeches, articles and commentary, there can be no doubt that the Leave campaign has completely run out of steam. Having lost the argument on every substantive issue in this campaign, the Brexiteers’ strategy, if it can be called a strategy at all, can now be distilled down to two words: immigration and immigration.

They have lost the economic argument. They do not even know whether their alternative solution is to be in or outside the single market.

They have lost the security argument.

They have lost the sovereignty argument.

They have lost the peace dividend argument.

They have lost the influence and leverage argument.

They have lost the internal unity of the United Kingdom argument. The truth is that they do not care about the integrity of this union.

According to them, we have to dismiss the views of the Bank of England, the President of the United States, the sitting Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Word Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the G7, 99% of the 350 FTSE companies, HM Treasury, the Institute of Fiscal Studies, every living former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, five former NATO Secretary-Generals, a host of Commonwealth leaders, former heads of MI5 and MI6, the leadership of the official opposition, the Financial Times, and many others.

Yes, we have to ignore all of these authoritative voices and we should listen to the ‘pretender to the throne’ who has been going around uttering inane platitudes about reclaiming Britain’s independence and ‘taking our country back’. As if this country, by virtue of its membership of the EU, has forfeited its sovereignty and independence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Britain has never given up its independence. Whether in relation to foreign policy, economic policy, defence policy, the United Kingdom remains completely sovereign in its affairs. Britain, of course, is not a member of the Eurozone; nor is it within the Schengen area, so it maintains control of its borders.

Membership of the European Union does entail a pooling of sovereignty and sharing of power and resources in certain areas which are inherent in the collaborative nature of the Union. But that is the price we have to pay if we want to take advantage of the single market and to confront transnational problems requiring transnational solutions, whether these relate to geo-strategic challenges, trade, job creation, security and intelligence, public health issues, crime, terrorism, immigration, worker and human rights.

We live in a multipolar world in which leverage and influence are defined by a country’s partnerships and alliances. The contention that isolationism, xenophobia and pulling back from the world is the way forward for a country which has, throughout its history, built its power through building bridges and creating networks is utterly senseless and illogical. Britain maximises its leverage, power and influence as a leader in the European Union by sitting at the table and determining the future of the continent, whose destiny it has always shared. Britain will always have more, not less, influence by being at the heart of Europe and not on its periphery.

The pooling of sovereignty, to the extent that is applies to the United Kingdom, is not a zero sum game. The European Union is built on the principle of quid pro quo and the exchange entailed by this principle in the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union is manifestly in the interests of the former.

Bluntly, it means that Britain is stronger, safer and better off by being a member of the European Union and a leading voice on the continent of which it is an integral part by virtue of geography, economics, politics, history and culture. Not only does the sharing of sovereignty in this instance not detract from the UK’s influence in the word, it actually magnifies it. Contrary to sensationalist falsehoods propagated by the Brexit camp, even in the areas where we have pooled sovereignty with the EU, important decisions are taken unanimously and so the UK holds a veto, for instance in respect of the accession of new countries such as Turkey.

The United Kingdom is a great country and it will survive and eventually thrive even outside the EU. But that is not really the question here. On every measure of success in an interdependent world, the United Kingdom would do better and not worse by being at the forefront of Europe.

The Leave campaign could have made a rational case for Britain’s exit from the EU which would have entailed an admission of the economic pain which the country would suffer upon departure from the Union, as illustrated by countless independent analyses.

But when you have the spectacle of a senior member of the governing party and the Brexiteers’ leading light comparing the European Union to Hitler and the Third Reich and seeking to undermine the intervention of the President of the United States, which was made in good faith, by reference to his half-Kenyan origin, you know that there is something sinister about the motives of those who are bent on cutting the UK adrift from its strategic alliances on the continent.

The European Union is an imperfect institution and the Eurozone is currently failing in its mission. The mismanagement of the Eurozone crisis has affected national economies and worker well-being adversely in many parts of the continent. This, together with the refugee crisis, has led to the rise of extreme populist parties in certain European countries.

We cannot run away from these facts. But another Europe is possible. If the European project proves to be a failure, it will be overthrown by the people because, unlike the Third Reich or the USSR, to which it has also been compared, the European Union derives its legitimacy from the democracies of Europe. The British people will contribute to this by their decision on 23rd June - that is why we are having a democratic referendum.

That would never have been possible in the Third Reich or the USSR. Of course, the Eurozone is a challenge; of course, it needs to be reformed, changed, transformed; that is not an argument for saying that you should bring the entire edifice of this project down. That would be nihilism, pure and simple. I know of no political institution anywhere in the world, national or international, that is not capable of improvement. The United Kingdom is certainly imperfect too. Does it mean that the only answer is to dismantle it?

Worker well-being was not perfect before the Eurozone and before the EU; the capitalist system goes through regular crises, euro or no euro. The refugee crisis is not the creation of the EU. If anything, that is a crisis brought about by actions taken by the USA, under George W Bush, and the Blair administration in relation to Iraq which eventually led to what we are witnessing today. In fact, if the EU had more coherent foreign policies, we might have been spared this crisis. Less Europe will make such misguided actions more likely, not less likely. A Europe and a UK with less influence and leverage will exacerbate the challenges to the continent and our way of life.

The Brexiteers’ last remaining card is immigration wrapped up in misguided patriotism. We have it on good authority though that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’. The Leave campaign’s refuge is people’s anger about immigration. We cannot sweep this under the carpet. The free movement of people across the European Union has meant net increasing inflows of migrants from other, less affluent, EU countries into the United Kingdom.

But the contention that Britain will be overwhelmed by EU migrants is just not cogent. For the last 8 years, we have witnessed the most intractable financial and economic crisis across the continent with deep recession and historically high levels of unemployment in Italy, Spain, Greece and other EU countries. But even though we have been at the summit of economic stagnation with the loss of millions of jobs in many European countries, this has not been followed by unmanageable immigration into the United Kingdom. Immigration is an issue that needs to be addressed by thoughtful policies across the European Union but the Leave campaign’s focus on the challenges associated with this, simply plays to people’s prejudices and completely disregards the many economic and other benefits to the country of such immigration.

The historic truth is that the United Kingdom is blessed because of its immigrants, not despite of them. What would the country’s NHS, its universities and academia, its financial sector, the biggest sector of the country’s economy, its science base, its research and development capability, its sports, its Arts and, frankly, the intellectual capital that makes this country what it is today, be without its immigrants? To say nothing of the UK’s rich diversity and the immense cultural contribution of the country’s many ethnic groups to the beautiful mosaic that is Britain today.

By the same token, the free movement of people across the EU equally gives British people the freedom to live, work, study and retire anywhere in the EU, which so many take advantage of, whether it’s pensioners retiring to Cyprus or Spain, or students avoiding £9,000 per year university fees to study in Sweden or Germany, as many are doing.

If your mind is not made up by anything I have written above, then maybe you should listen to the views of my teenage daughters. My 19 year old, now at University, completely unprompted by me, has made the case very forcefully that she does not wish to be a member of a lost generation plagued by the uncertainty and instability which she perceives would follow Brexit, even if that were only for 5, 6 or 7 years, possibly the most important in her life in terms of career chances and development. Similarly, my younger 17 year old daughter, together with her best friend, both without the vote, complained furiously that a 70 or 80 year old , for example, with the right to vote, should be able to decide their long-term future, a future in which, by virtue of their age, they have no say. Their take is that Britain’s natural place is in Europe, that their future is European. I was struck by their instinct to look outwards, not inwards, and to consider it virtually unnatural that Britain would want to leave the continent to which it so obviously belongs.

But, as I am quite a bit older, I turn to history and the lessons we have learned from it. The notion that this great country which defines so much of what is Europe today, having made an absolutely decisive contribution to the liberation of the continent from the scourge of fascism, should withdraw into a self-created shell, on the outskirts of Europe, is absurd. The great Winston Churchill would be turning in his grave. As would, almost certainly, Margaret Thatcher. Both of them had vision and courage and, notwithstanding their deep love for this country, were guided by principles greater than narrow nationalism.

Peter Droussiotis is Chairman of the UK-Cyprus Enterprise Council and Chairman of PGD Strategy Limited, a corporate finance and strategy consulting firm. He writes in a personal capacity.

This article was first published in the online version of the Cyprus Mail.

© Peter Droussiotis