Magazine article The Spectator

Vote 'In' for Freedom!

Magazine article The Spectator

Vote 'In' for Freedom!

Article excerpt

'Out' campaigners picture leaving the EU as a liberation. It wouldn't be

One of the most appealing arguments for Brexit is that it will make British citizens freer than they are now. The greatness of Great Britain lies, after all, in its long history of relative freedom. But now, so the proponents of Brexit like to claim, Britain is shackled by the tyranny of the EU, as though 'Brussels' were some alien dictatorship in which Britain plays no part.

Columnists huff that Britain is now just a colony of this 'foreign superpower'. That the EU exists as a superpower would come as news to most people in Brussels -- and everywhere else. The European Union has no army and no joint foreign policy, and cannot be described as a state, federal or otherwise. The closest thing it has to a government would be the European Commission combined with the European Council, where national government leaders haggle over and decide on EU laws and policies. Britain is a major player in both institutions. Odd colony.

It is not a loathing of foreigners that necessarily inspires the anti-EU arguments. Indeed Brexit's brightest star, Boris Johnson, likes to express his fondness for Brussels and European culture. In the past, he has even voiced his support for British membership of the EU (when he wasn't spreading rumours about EU bureaucrats wanting to ban bent bananas and square strawberries). Now he sees a 'great and glorious' future for Britain outside the EU and urges his fellow citizens to 'vote for freedom'.

But few concepts, except democracy perhaps, are as fuzzy and as often abused as freedom. The question is freedom from what, or to do what? In the US, promoters of so-called state rights and the right to carry weapons depict themselves as freedom-fighters -- freedom from the interfering federal government that deprived southern states of their right to slavery and now supposedly 'wants to take our guns away'.

No doubt there are unsavoury elements in the Brexit campaign as well. But let us consider instead the more respectable arguments. For Brexiteers, freedom is often linked to parliamentary sovereignty. A proud nation should be free to make its own laws, without meddling from foreign institutions, such as the European Commission or the European Council. This argument seems persuasive. The commission does indeed propose all kinds of laws and directives, which have to be approved by the council, and voted on in the EU parliament. Some of these laws might be better left to national governments. But again, Britain has considerable clout in the institutions that shape them. If Britain wants to retain access to the single European market from the outside, it would still have to abide by EU laws and regulations, but without any influence on their creation. The sense of freedom regained might turn out to be no more than an illusion.

What about human rights, another familiar bugbear of the Brexiteers? Britain was one of the founders of the European Court of Human Rights in 1959. These rights were established by the European Convention on Human Rights, signed by Britain and much influenced by British jurists. Citizens can lodge complaints against member states if they feel their rights have been breached. Most complaints are against the Russian government, very few against the British. …

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