Harry Elliot

published 12 June 2016

Harry Elliot '18 is a John Locke Institute alumnus and Editor-in-Chief of the Stanford Review.

The Freedom of Brexit 


British politics is dominated by fierce debate over whether the UK should leave the European Union, an institution that started as a common market for coal and steel but has now morphed into a political and legislative body. A crucial argument advanced by those in favour of leaving is that Brits will have more autonomy over their domestic policy. Indeed, it is regularly deployed as a political trump card; even if you are not amenable to UKIP’s anti-immigrant sentiment, contends Nigel Farage, the UK should have the right to decide for itself what the appropriate level of immigration might be.


The basic contention – that we should always maximise individual freedom and defer policy to smaller units – clearly has bounds. If it were Eurosceptics’ serious contention that nobody should have decisions made for them by a higher power to which they did not themselves consent, they would be anarchists, oppositional to any and all attempts to centralise power. Instead, they merely support the violence and oppression that the state necessarily wields being deployed at the national, not European, level. Given that people’s freedom will always be constrained, therefore, two prescient questions remain. First, what do we actually mean by ‘autonomy’, and second, will Britain gain more or less of it outside the EU?


Freedom is clearly about more than just choice. A sweatshop worker can choose between substandard employment standards and low pay, or unemployment and starvation, but few would consider that choice either consensual or ‘free’. As a result, it seems two separate conditions define autonomy. First, one must have multiple options, all of which seem tenable choices to the impartial observer; second, one must have the ability to select between those options based solely on the costs and benefits that accrue from each. Free-market competition – perhaps the seminal example of autonomy – operates in exactly this way.


Given this framing of what defines an autonomous choice, it is necessary next to establish what Brexit offers both in terms of options, and in terms of choice between those options. On the former issue, it is unclear what specific benefit can be added to Britain’s options, since most Eurosceptic argumentation discusses ways in which Britain could remain a power on the world stage outside the EU. The only real concrete benefit is the opportunity cost of the millions of pounds we currently send to Brussels, which could be reallocated to other domestic priorities. However, given that Britain would presumably have to spend money renegotiating trade deals – and that those deals might not be as favourable with a Europe that we spurned by rejecting their renegotiated offer – this extra optionality seems small in nature.


What choices, on the other hand, do we lose from departing the EU? Most obviously, cooperation on economic and national security issues across Europe that allows people, goods and capital to flow easily across the English channel. The response from sceptics, that we could get our own deals, has three flaws. First, we might not be able to influence those deals; other countries in the European Economic Community find themselves held hostage to agreements on which they do not have a democratic vote, putting Britain in a worse place. Second, even if we could get free-trade agreements, only within the supranational structure of the EU can British financial institutions obtain harmonised business agreements that allow them to trade throughout Europe. Without this harmonisation, banks may well move to Frankfurt, giving Britain a substantially worse set of economic options to choose from without the cash cow of the City of London. Third, even assuming both these issues can be ironed out, the negotiation process will create time and uncertainty that restricts investment into the UK.


It thus seems clear that Eurosceptics must be able to claim substantial benefits in choice to be able to mitigate against the adverse impact leaving the EU might have on the options open to us. Here, however, they have a strong case. Being within the EU binds us to a vast realm of policy over which we have relatively little say and which we cannot veto, from electrical regulations to taxes on cosmetic products. The sceptics might therefore contend that, even if the choices left are worse in the aggregate, the fact we have individual opt-out rights protects us from Brussels’ worst abuses of power.


If this is the real ‘autonomy’ contention that sceptics should be making, it is striking that so few of them have done so. The tradeoffs being discussed are very real, insofar as opting out of all EU legislation puts us in a worse overall position. To justify this sacrifice, it is not enough to say that we would have choice; we also need a clear justification for the alternative policy route proposed, given that the set of policies we have are diminished by exiting the EU. Thus, it is insufficient for Farage to say that the UK could pursue whichever immigration policy it likes. He needs to justify why diversifying to allow more immigrants from outside the EU, and fewer Europeans, would be better, or (more likely) explain why the door to England should be closed altogether.


This article does not take a position on either side of the Brexit debate; I am personally conflicted, and will likely vote on a coin-toss. But given that the most commonly-cited argument for leaving revolves around freedom, it is important to separate freedom of choice from having access to those choices in the first place. To justify the importance of autonomy, Eurosceptics need either to explain why Britain would have more options outside of the EU, or to explain why their specific choice set outweighs the generally greater options granted by staying in. Thus far, they have failed to do either.

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