The European Union (EU) in 2016

by Malcolm Mackley

The European Economic Community (EEC) was founded in 1957 and then in 1993 evolved into the EU. Of course the 1939-1945 war was a clear catalyst for much of the initial changes, however the reasons for the UK referendum vote going the way it did are both complex and conflicting.

It is only now that many British people including myself are thinking seriously about the European Community and what it means to the UK and the rest of Europe. I have lived a privileged life with thirty years of it spent as an academic at Cambridge and also a beneficiary of significant European Funding to support a Chemical Engineering Research Group there. Europe as a political and economic entity rarely came into my mind and it was also a rare topic of conversation at Cambridge where I can only guess people were all consumed with our own specific pieces of work and not necessarily looking or discussing the bigger picture. I am sure there are specialists groups in most UK Universities who conduct European studies and high level research, however Europe was not really a subject that was broadly discussed even at the many European Scientific meetings I attended or at college high table in Cambridge. Nationally there was UKIP on the political agenda; but I and I suspect others considered UKIP to be a group of “extremists” with rather extreme views.

The referendum vote to leave the EU came as a shock to everyone in the UK and also to the rest of the EU and world too. From my own group of friends and colleagues the message was complex and sometimes very surprising. Unlike many past political decisions in the UK, the voting did not fall into a “class thing” or a Labour or Conservative Party division. Opinion polls did evidently pick up that the majority of those under 30 years of age voted to remain and the older sector of the voting population voted to leave. Even then no clear message has emerged as to why people voted in the way they did.

Referendums can provide useful yardsticks on how the general populace are thinking, but they can be also be very dangerous if they are used as a final direction of travel. The LibDem/Conservative coalition held a referendum on proportional representation and fortunately from my own point of view this was a comfortable victory for status quo. A more dangerous recent referendum was the question of Scottish Independence. This was a narrow victory again for status quo, however it was a potential warning shot that binding close results can be both dangerous and divisive. The EU referendum was David Cameron’s potential solution to the divisions in the Conservative party in relation to whether the UK should stay or leave the EU. Strategically and stupidly he said that a majority, however small for leaving the EU would mean the UK leaves. Cameron essentially challenged the electorate to vote to exit the EU and a slim majority took up the challenge and voted to go.

The referendum campaign on both sides was very badly handled. On the remain side, “Project fear” was a good description on how many leading remain politicians presented the case. On the leave side, wild statements about how financially we would be better off and how for example “an extra 350 Million pounds would go to the NHS” were clear distortions and untruths. The highly influential BBC tried as it is meant to do, to give a balanced view of politics; however this in itself helped to muddy the water. So we had an unnecessary referendum that is resulting in the UK leaving the EU. At the time of writing this article thereis still much to play for and the final direction is still unclear.

Some of the key points thatalmost certainly resulted in a leave vote were;

  • Immigration. This issue had been brewing for some time. The UK is mostly a multicultural society, however many of the British do like to have some control over who is allowed to work in Britain. The EU edict on the free movement of EU people strained the issue, particularly with the recent expansion of EU countries. The conflicts outside the EU caused further tension as this has resulted in many ethnic Muslims seeking to enter the EU. The UK has been tolerant to Muslims who are prepared to be part of UK society, however increasing extreme Muslin behaviour and a reluctance to engage and become “UK citizens” has caused tension.
  • Sovereignty. The EU bureaucrats have been pushing for ever more central power over each National EU State and this has not resonated with many UK citizens. The economic and political dominance of Germany within the EU is also a concern.
  • European Court. Increasingly the European Court has sort precedent over the UK court and again this has not gone down well.
  • Unelected EU leaders. The European Parliament has never really been taken seriously within the UK. It is perceived as being toothless as it moves back and forth every six month from Brussels to Strasbourg. The EU bureaucrat leaders are unelected by the populace and therefore perceived as being unaccountable to the people they control.

Both the EU and David Cameron had the opportunity before the referendum to address these type of issues; however Cameron either did not make his case forcefully enough or the other EU countries and EU bureaucrats presumably felt it was not necessary to change anything within the EU just to accommodate the wishes of the UK.

At the time of writing this article (October 2016), it is not possible to predict with any accuracy the consequences of the referendum vote. Currently the Conservative Government appear determined to take the UK out of the EU; however there appears to be no visionary politicians on either side of
the “English Channel” able to see and articulate a clear way forward. The shock of the referendum result has now past and people are surprised that “everything feels much the same as before.” So far the pound has decreased in value by about 10% and the stock market has surprisingly moved upward. There is an element of “what happens now” and at the moment, no one knows.

The UK is not alone with EU issues. Switzerland is not a full member of the EU and had a referendum that voted for stricter boarder control. Both Switzerland and the UK are now in situations where their aspirations do not meet the current EU freedom of movement legislation.Trade agreements, boarder movement, EU European Court jurisdiction are all unresolved points that will need to be resolved; almost certainly with some difficulty and presumably compromise on both sides.

National sovereignty and control seem to be at the heart of many of the referendum issues however there is another factor that has destabilised the situation. For the last two thousand years Religion has been at the core of many global disputes and although in the last one hundred years, science has made incredible discoveries about the evolution of the world, deep religious beliefs continue to dominate much of human behaviour. Conflict in the Middle East between Muslims and Jews and different groupings of Muslim beliefs has spilled over to Europe resulting in a dangerous cocktail of conflicting ideologies.

The one certainty we currently have is that no one knows what effect the UK referendum decision to leave the EU will have on the UK itself and the rest of Europe. My only prediction is that it will probably affect the remaining EU countries nearly as much as the UK. I hope in the future the EU will relax its current desire to become “one country” and allow and encourage National identity of EU countries to exist and prosper within a EU federation. This will take 3 far greater courage from politicians and bureaucrats than trying to achieve further central Brussels control; but sadly at present I do not see anyone of influence with the wish to achieve this change in EU direction.

Malcolm Mackley Antibes October 2016

Malcolm Mackley is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineer and Fellow of Robinson College Cambridge