If I had been able to vote in the now enormously controversial referendum in the United Kingdom last week I suspect I would have voted in favour of leaving the European Union. And, like many who actually did vote for “Brexit”, I might have been regretting that choice shortly afterward.
As a traveller, I have enjoyed the easy movement between European countries. It is so much more pleasant than passing back and forth to the US. But I have also heard and read about the negatives of the union. In Italy, we heard of dramatic rises in prices when the euro was adopted, and obviously some countries have thrived while others haven’t. And tales of endless regulation and bureaucracy in attempts to create equal access to goods and services have often been stunning. It isn’t hard to appreciate why so many have not found the European Union (EU) experience a positive one.
On the other hand, though, the joining of so many independent states under a single umbrella has certainly avoided conflicts leading to war, which was a big selling point among those who remembered, or learned from, previous world wars. I think that most citizens of countries like the U.K., France and Belgium have long ceased to see Germany and Italy as enemies.
My own concerns about the EU are pretty much the same as those who campaigned for Britain to leave it. International trade agreements, including Canada’s own participation in NAFTA, have eroded and even devastated some economic sectors, including our own manufacturing base. Really, who doesn’t share a concern that we have been complicit in giving away jobs to other countries where larger numbers will work for less and in poorer conditions? All you have to do is watch the steady stream of transport trucks hauling raw logs and live cattle south through Rykerts and Kingsgate to get a glimpse of how willingly we have given away Canadian jobs under trade agreements. For every person who benefits there are likely several who have taken a beating.
In the United Kingdom, with recent governments having bought into austerity measures promoted by Germany and the International Monetary Fund, there has been growing dissatisfaction that decisions being made are not necessarily in the best interests of the country’s own citizens. Of even more concern has been the loss of control over immigration. The freedom of movement guaranteed throughout the EU’s 28 member countries has resulted in large numbers of refugees swarming into countries where they aren’t necessarily a good fit.
The fear of even more competition for jobs coming from immigrants who might not have the same financial expectations is legitimate. And it is simply too easy to dismiss as racism or bigotry, always a temptation when concerns about immigration are voiced.
An editorial in the Economist caught my attention this week as it tried to analyze what might come out of the largely unanticipated vote to leave the EU (keep in mind that the referendum has no legal standing, although any government that might want to ignore it would be playing with fire). The Economist’s general view is evident in column’s headline: “A Tragic Split”. The subhead reads “How to Minimize the Damage of Britain’s Senseless, Self-inflicted Blow.”
“The leave side promised supporters both a thriving economy and control over immigration,” it says. “But Britons cannot have that outcome just by voting for it. If they want access to the EU’s single market and to enjoy the wealth it brings, they will have to accept free movement of people. If Britain rejects free movement, it will have to pay the price of being excluded from the single market. The country must pick between curbing migration and maximizing wealth.”
The magazine chastises the naivety of a voting public that wants to eat its cake and have it too. And it points out a concerning fact, that the votes cast by the younger and older generations show a dramatic split in their desires. Voters 18-24 years of age want to stay in the EU in almost identical proportion to the plus-60s who want to leave.
It’s that last disparity that would have me ruing my leave vote. A young Brit commented in the New York Times on the weekend that the same generation that has run up spectacular debt rates and taken Britain into the EU has now voted to leave the union, which would threaten to take away young people’s present option to look for work in 27 nearby countries. The comment was cogent and bitter.
As a senior (by many definitions) I sense that my generation errs in not acknowledging the needs of younger generations. We have sold out their job opportunities in our enthusiasm for cheaper imported goods, and now in Britain my generation has voted to further restrict their opportunities. Shame on us.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.