For several reasons, I am instinctively in favour — strongly so — of remaining in the EU: I have a French wife and two bilingual children, and I am an academic living in the age of the internet. The result is that my whole outlook is international, and leaving the EU would feel to me like a gigantic step in the wrong direction. But in this post I want to try to set those instincts aside and try to go back to first principles, which doesn’t make it a mathematical post, but does make it somewhat mathematical in spirit. That is why I have chosen as my title the mathematical symbol for “is a member of”, which can also be read (in some contexts) as “in”, and which conveniently looks like an E for Europe too.

I’ll consider three questions: why we need supranational organizations, to what extent we should care about sovereignty, and whether we should focus on the national interest.

The need for supranational organizations

In the abstract, the case for supranational organizations is almost too obvious to be worth making: just as it often benefits individual people to form groups and agree to restrict their behaviour in certain ways, so it can benefit nations to join groups and agree to restrict their behaviour in certain ways.

To see in more detail why this should be, I’ll look at some examples, starting with an example concerning individual people. It has sometimes been suggested that a simple way of dealing with the problem of drugs in sport would be to allow people to use whatever drugs they want. Even with the help of drugs, the Ben Johnsons of this world can’t set world records and win Olympic gold medals unless they are also amazing athletes, so if we allowed drugs, there would still be a great deal of room for human achievement.

There are many arguments against this proposal. A particularly powerful one is that allowing drugs has the effect of making them compulsory: they offer enough of a boost to performance that a drug-free athlete would almost certainly be unable to compete at the highest level if a large proportion of other athletes were taking drugs. Since taking drugs has serious adverse health effects — for instance, it has led to the deaths of several cyclists — it is better if competitors agree to forswear this method of gaining a competitive advantage. But just saying, “I won’t take drugs if you don’t” isn’t enough, since for any individual there will always be a huge temptation to break such an agreement. So one also needs organizations to which athletes belong, with precise rules and elaborate systems of testing.

This example has two features that are characteristic of many cooperative agreements.

  1. It is better for everybody if everybody cooperates than if everybody breaks the agreement.
  2. Whatever everybody else does, any individual will benefit from breaking the agreement (at least in the short term — of course, others may then follow suit).

These are the classic features of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and whenever they occur, there is a case for an enforceable agreement. Such an agreement will leave everybody better off by forcing individuals not to act in their immediate self-interest.

The “individuals” in the Prisoner’s Dilemma need not be people: they can just as easily be countries. Here are a few examples.

Many people think that a country is better off if its workers are decently paid, do not work excessively long hours, and work in a safe environment. (If you are sufficiently right wing, then you may disagree, but that just means that you will need other examples to illustrate the abstract principle.) However, treating workers decently costs money, so if you are a company that is competing with companies from other countries, it is tempting to gain a competitive advantage by paying workers less, making them work longer hours, and cutting back on health and safety measures, which will enable you to reduce the price of your product. More generally, if you are a national government, it is tempting to gain a competitive advantage for your whole country by allowing companies to treat their workers less well. And it may be that that competitive advantage is of net benefit to your country: yes, some workers suffer, but the benefit to the economy in general reduces unemployment, helps your country to build more hospitals, and so on.

In such a situation, it may benefit an individual country to become “the sweatshop of Europe”. If that is the case, then in the absence of a supranational organization that forbids this, there is a pressure on all countries to do it, after which (i) there is no competitive advantage any more and (ii) workers are worse off. Thus, with a supranational organization, all countries are better off.

Another obvious example — so obvious that I won’t dwell on it — is the need to combat climate change. (Again, this will not appeal to a certain sort of right-winger who thinks that climate change is a big socialist conspiracy, but I doubt that many of those read this blog.) The world as a whole will be much better off if we all emit less carbon, but if you hold the behaviour of other countries constant, then whatever one country does to reduce carbon emissions makes less difference to its future interests than the cost of making the reductions. So again we need enforceable supranational agreements.

A third example is corporation tax. One way of attracting foreign investment is to have a low rate of corporation tax. So if countries are left completely free to set their tax rates, there may well be a race to the bottom, with the result that no country ends up benefiting very much from the tax revenue from foreign investors. (There will still be other benefits, such as the resulting employment.) But one can lift this “bottom” if a group of countries agrees to keep corporation taxes above a certain level. Unless that level is so high that it puts off foreign investors from investing anywhere in the group, then the countries in the group will now benefit from additional tax revenue.

Every time I hear a Leave campaigner complain about EU regulation, my first reaction is to wonder whether what they really want is to defect from an agreement that is there to deal with an instance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. And sure enough, they often do. For example, a few days ago the farming minister George Eustice said that leaving the EU would free us from green directives. One of the directives he particularly wants to get rid of is the birds and habitat directive, which costs farmers money because it forces them to protect birds and wildlife habitats. He claims that Britain would introduce its own, better environmental legislation. But without the EU legislation, Britain would have a strong incentive to gain a competitive advantage by making its legislation less strict.

Similarly, a little while ago I heard a fisherman talking about how his livelihood suffered as a result of EU fishing quotas, and how he hoped that Britain would leave the EU and let him fish more. He didn’t put it quite that crudely, but that was basically what he was saying. And yet without quotas, the fishing stock would rapidly decline and that very same fisherman’s livelihood would vanish completely.

Do I trust our government not to succumb to these kinds of agreement-breaking temptations? Of course not. But more to the point, with a supranational body making appropriate legislation, I do not have to.

What is sovereignty and why should one care about it?

Sovereignty is often spoken of as though it is a good thing in itself. Why might that be? Well, if a country is free to do what it wants, then it is free to act in the best interests of its inhabitants, whereas if it is restricted by belonging to a supranational organization, then it loses some of that freedom, and therefore risks no longer being able to act in the best interests of its inhabitants.

However, as I have already explained, there are many situations where an agreement benefits all countries, but an individual country can gain, at least in the short term, by breaking it. In such situations, countries are better off without the freedom to act in the immediate best interests of their citizens, since those same citizens are better off if the agreements do not break down.

If sovereignty is what really matters, then why should it be national sovereignty that is important? Why should I want decisions to be taken at the level of the nation state and not at the level of, say, cities, or continents, or counties, or families? What I feel about it is something like this: I want to have as much influence as possible on the people who are making decisions that affect me, and I want those people to be well informed about my interests and to care about them. That suggests that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level. However, for the reasons rehearsed above, there are often advantages to be gained from taking decisions at a higher level, and those advantages often outweigh the resulting loss of influence I have. For example, I am happy to pay income tax, since there is no realistic more local way to finance much of the country’s infrastructure from which I greatly benefit. Unfortunately I don’t have much influence over the national government, so some of the income tax is spent in ways I disapprove of: for example, a few hundred pounds of what I contribute will probably go towards renewing Trident, which is — in my judgment anyway — a gigantic waste of money. But that loss of influence is part of the bargain: the advantages of paying income tax outweigh the disadvantages.

Thus, what really matters is subsidiarity rather than sovereignty. One used to hear the word “subsidiarity” constantly in the early 1990s, the last time the Conservative Party was ripping itself apart over Europe, but it has been strangely absent from the debate this time round (or if it hasn’t, then I’ve missed it). It is the principle that decisions should be taken at the lowest level that is appropriate. So, for example, measures to combat climate change should be taken at a supranational level, the decision to build a new motorway should be taken at a national level, and the decision to improve the lighting in a back street should be taken at a town-council level.

The principle of subsidiarity has been enshrined in European Union law since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Point 3 of Article 5 of the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 reads as follows.

Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.

The institutions of the Union shall apply the principle of subsidiarity as laid down in the Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. National Parliaments ensure compliance with the principle of subsidiarity in accordance with the procedure set out in that Protocol.

When I hear politicians on the Leave side talk about sovereignty, I am again suspicious. What I hear is, “I want unfettered power.” But unfettered power for the Boris Johnsons of this world is not in my best interests or the best interests of the UK, which is why I shall vote for the fetters.

To what extent does the national interest matter?

All other things being equal, of course the national interest matters, since what is better for my country is, well, better. But all things are not necessarily equal. I don’t for a moment believe that it would be in the UK’s best interests to leave the EU, but just suppose for a moment that it were. That still leaves us with the question of whether it would be in Europe’s best interests.

I am raising that question not in order to answer it (though I think the answer is pretty obvious), but to discuss whether it should be an important consideration. So let me suppose, hypothetically, that leaving the EU would be in the best interests of the UK but would be very much not in the best interests of the rest of Europe. Should I vote for the UK to leave?

If I were an extreme utilitarian, I would argue as follows: the total benefit of the UK leaving the EU is the total benefit to the UK minus the total cost to the rest of the EU; that is negative, so the UK should stay in the EU.

However, I am not an extreme utilitarian in that sense: if I were, I would sell my house and give all my money to charities that had been carefully selected (by an organization such as GiveWell) to do the maximum amount of good per pound. My family would suffer, but that suffering would be far outweighed by all the suffering I could relieve with that money. I have no plans to do that, but I am a utilitarian to this extent: such money as I do give to charity, I try to give to charities that are as efficient (in the amount-of-good-per-pound sense) as possible. If somebody asks me to give to a good cause, I am usually reluctant, because I feel it is my moral duty to give the money to an even better cause. (As an example, I once refused to take part in an ice bucket challenge but made a donation to one of GiveWell’s recommended charities instead.)

Thus, the principle I adopt is something like this. There are some people I care about more than others: my family, friends, and colleagues (in the broad sense of people round the world with similar interests) being the most obvious examples. Part of the reason for this is the very selfish one that my own interests are bound up with theirs: we belong to identifiable groups, and if those groups as a whole thrive, then that is very positive for me. So when I am making a decision, I will tend to give a significantly higher weight to people who are closer to me, in the sense of having interests that are aligned with mine.

But once that weighting is taken into account, I basically am a utilitarian. That is, if I’m faced with a choice, then I want to go for the option that maximizes total utility, except that the utility of people closer to me counts for more. Whether or not it should count for more is another question, but it does, and I think it does for most people. (I have oversimplified my position a bit here, but I don’t want to start writing a treatise in moral philosophy.)

So for me the question about national interest boils down to this: do I feel closer to people who are British than I do to people from other European countries?

I certainly feel closer to some British people, but that is not really because of their intrinsic Britishness: it’s just that I have lived in Britain almost all my life, so the people I have got close to I have mostly met here. What’s more there are plenty of non-British Europeans I feel closer to than I do to most British people: my wife and in-laws are a particularly strong example, but I also have far more in common with a random European academic, say, than I do with a random inhabitant of the UK.

So the mere fact that someone is British does not make me care about them more. To take an example, some regions of the UK are significantly less well off than others, and have been for a long time. I would very much like to see those regions regenerated. But I do not see why that should be more important to me than the regeneration of, say, Greece. Similarly, I am no more concerned by the fact that the UK is a net contributor to the EU than I am by the fact that I am a net contributor to the welfare state. (In fact, I’m a lot less concerned by it, since the net contribution is such a small proportion of our GDP that it is almost certainly made up for by the free trade benefits that result.)


I have given three main arguments: that we need supranational organizations to deal with prisoner’s-dilemma-type situations, that subsidiarity is what matters rather than sovereignty, and that one should not make a decision that is based solely on the national interest and that ignores the wider European interest.

One could in theory agree with everything I have written but argue that the EU is not the right way of dealing with problems that have to be dealt with at an international level. I myself certainly don’t think it’s perfect, but it is utterly unrealistic to imagine that if we leave then we will end up with an organization that does the job better.

58 Responses to “∈”

  1. Jason Says:

    I think you can put the argument on a more graph-theoretical footing.

    In organizational analysis there is an obvious tendency to focus on the members as nodes rather than the connections between members. And it’s easy to come up with illustrations from the EU of the problems of becoming a node with connections of a different colour than before: it becomes Ramsey Theory with weights.

    There is a history of strained relations between the UK and Eire, over Northern Ireland, and between the UK and Spain, over Gibraltar. With the UK in the EU, it is in the interests of the EU (as a group) to keep the relations (UK,IE) and (UK,ES) amicable, and thus the multi-modal relations (EU-UK,UK), (EU-IE,IE), (EU-ES,ES) even. If the UK should leave, creating EU’, then the (EU’,UK) relations have less importance, and the UK’s influence over the (EU’)’s positions on Northern Ireland or Gibraltar, or any other interest, is dramatically reduced.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    > it may benefit an individual country to become “the sweatshop of Europe”.

    I’m not sure about this argument. Would Britain really be on the way to becoming “the sweatshop of Europe” without the EU?

    The most significant reforms to employment law — limited working hours, compulsory education, etc. — seem to have been entirely domestic affairs, brought about by British movements such as Chartism rather than membership of a surpranational organization.

    • gowers Says:

      The EU Working Time Directive places limits on the number of hours per day and the number of days per year that people can be required to work. When it was introduced, this was the British reaction.

      After the 1993 Council Negotiations, when the Directive was agreed to after an 11-1 vote, UK Employment Secretary David Hunt said “It is a flagrant abuse of Community rules. It has been brought forward as such simply to allow majority voting – a ploy to smuggle through part of the Social Chapter by the back door. The UK strongly opposes any attempt to tell people that they can no longer work the hours they want.”

      Source: the appropriate Wikipedia page.

    • Jeremy Says:

      Yes, I’m aware of the Working Time Directive.

      But if most of the restrictions on working hours in Britain were brought in without the EU then this doesn’t seem like a very strong argument in favour of EU membership.

  3. davidloeffler Says:

    Jeremy: I think you are responding to a different point than the one that Tim made. A hypothetical country relaxing its labour laws in order to become the “sweatshop of Europe” is just one example of the prisoner’s dilemma situation that exists with supranational agreements. It’s not necessarily the only example. So claiming that the UK’s glorious history would save it from this particular temptation — whether or not that’s true — doesn’t change the wider point. The quote from our farming minister regarding EU green directives is a perfect real-world example of this.

    • Jeremy Says:

      > Jeremy: I think you are responding to a different point than the one that Tim made.

      I don’t think I am! I understand the abstract argument about the prisoner’s dilemma. But it’s reasonable to assume that Tim has given the best available example to convince us that the argument is correct, so it’s worth examining whether that example holds up to scrutiny.

  4. Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya Says:

    You are implicitly assuming that the EU can actually enforce supranational agreements even when it is in the interests of the member states to deviate. But enforcement must be based on coercion and/or popular support and unlike national governments EU may lack either. In that case the EU will collapse under the weight of members trying to free ride on others and the sooner you can get out of the farce the better.

    • Sesh Nadathur Says:

      Your arguments amounts to saying that, because of the unproven risk of some members undesirably free-riding in defiance of the supranational agreement, we must immediately dissolve the supranational agreement and let everybody free-ride without restriction.

  5. kevembuangga Says:

    Trying to use logic to ponder ethical/political problems (in the ancient Greeks tradition) is the road to hell!
    (you’ll probably find out why someday…)

  6. telescoper Says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    A very interesting and well argued case for remaining in the European Union, from eminent mathematician Tim Gowers.

  7. unitedstatesian Says:

    Gowers states “One way of attracting foreign investment is to have a low rate of corporation tax.”

    Yes, but there are subtleties. For example, the way that US taxpayers (including corporations) are “protected” from double-taxation is that

    1) They are assessed tax by the USA on all worldwide income (at least when it comes home).

    2) They are given a foreign tax credit (FTC) for ex-US taxes, collated into several categories.

    Unfortunately for the US international, the strict inequality

    max(a,c) + max(b,d) > max(a+b,c+d)

    then rears its ugly head: This method insures that the US international ends up paying the higher rate (between two countries) of tax in each separate category, so that the total tax may well be larger than he’d pay in either country alone.

    Of course, US corporations have been using various means to get around this inequality, such as never bringing money home and so-called “inversions”.

  8. Gil Kalai Says:

    What a nice title (for a nice cause)!

  9. gb Says:

    Your “sweatshop of Europe” example is very funny when looked at from Southern Europe.

    EU is currently promoting the dismantling of job protection in France, as it gas been the case in Italy before.

    Even if this was not explicitly suggested (which is the case) the single currency system makes it implicitly compulsory to put more pressure on employees, as current account (import/export) imbalances between countries belonging to a fixed change agreement can only be fixed by reducing production costs and internal demand: reducing wages does both…

  10. The demon king Says:

    If you are looking for an argument against the EU (and hence for BREXIT), look no further than this:

  11. Bill Says:

    Uniform supranational regulations do not always work well, because they do not always take into account circumstances within each country. For example, EU countries must contribute a certain percentage of their budget into common fund, and then scientists from across Europe compete for Horizon 2020 research funding. In reality, when poorer countries do not provide sufficient support locally for their researchers, most of that funding goes to scientists from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Scandinavia. For example, in Italy, this system results in a net annual loss of 300 million euros.

    Another example is Grexit last summer. The parallel is not perfect, but this example illustrates how national differences make uniform regulations counterproductive.

    Also, who decides at what level decisions should be taken? When it comes to immigration, for instance, there seems to be a lot of friction between EU and national governments. The kind of regulations you talked about can be agreed upon between groups of civilized countries. They can be part of trade agreements.

    Finally, when supranational (or even national) bureaucrats make rules, they rarely think things through, and the resulting red tape can be quite real. Even university administrations can make life unnecessarily unpleasant for professors.

  12. None Says:

    The need for supra-national organisations does not mean it has to be a single nearly all encompassing group which is difficult to enter and leave.

    The low tax “race to the bottom” benefits everyone through increased business activity and lower prices. The product price that gives the profit margin necessary for a positive long term return on investment is obviously increased when a proportion of the profit is taken by the government. So an increase in corporation tax just increases the minimal product price. Lower corporation tax means money the government would have got stays in the peoples pockets where they can choose to spend it on what they want, even charity, no doubt making better decisions than lobbied government employees.

    One does not need to think that there is some sort of climate change conspiracy to think that the threat is exaggerated, and the (main) cause may not be down to human released CO2. As a mathematician, did you ever look closely into the hockey stick controversy ? As far as I could determine the critics were correct, and the paper had multiple serious problems. Yet it is still defended by the mainstream climate scientists, at least in public. This and many other events has led me to the expectation that especially in the field of climate science, as Max Planck said, science will progress one funeral at a time.

  13. duffieldjohn Says:

    Gowers, I’m afraid you’ve totally missed the point, which is democracy. The EU is run by an unelected unaccountable self-serving elite who side with the rich-man’s vested interest that is harmful to ordinary citizens. If it was modelled on the same lines as the USA where they even vote for sheriffs and judges, I’m confident we wouldn’t be having a referendum. But the EU is corrupt and dictatorial, not the United States of Europe it ought to be. It has three presidents, and you can’t vote any of them out of office. Don’t forget that Jean-Claude Juncker set up tax-evasion deals for Amazon etc. And don’t forget the lessons of history: when democracy goes out of the window there are no checks and balances, so it always ends in tears. Always.

    • The demon king Says:

      Precisely, duffieldjohn, could not say it better myself!

    • Ivan Says:

      Yes, definitely take a look at the US democracy model, with something like 30% of state government, judge and sheriff candidates running unopposed, many without term limits, others gerrymandered beyond Euclidean geometry. Surely tax-evasion deals for corporations like Amazon or Walmart never happen in these United States of Perfect Democracy.

    • Philipp Nagel (@PhilippNagel) Says:

      Utter nonsense. Broadly speaking the EU consists of four major institutions: The (i) European Commission, the (ii) European Council, the (iii) Council of the European Union and the (iv) European Parliament. Now, let’s have a look on how these institutions and their powers are legitimated.

      The 28 members of the European Commission are directly sent by their respective governments. These governments are democratically legitimated – therefore the 28 members are democratically elected as well. The president of the European Commission is elected by the European Parliament after being proposed by the European Council.

      On one hand the members of the European Parliament are directly elected by the people of Europe. On the other hand the European Council consists of the head of state of each member state (democratically elected), the President of the European Commission (elected by the European Council) and the President of the European Commission (elected by the European Parliament). Therefore the European Parliament and the European Council are democratically legitimated.

      Lastly, the Council of the European Union directly consists of 28 ministers of the member states (one per state). As each meeting has a different topic, different ministers are sent by their national government each time. These ministers are democratically legitimated in their state, therefore the Council of the European Union is democratically legitimated.

      As one can see, the four major EU institutions are either directly or indirectly democratically legitimated.

      The three minor institutions of the European Union, the Court of Justice of the European Union, European Central Bank and the European Court of Auditors are all equally staffed and/or elected by the governments of the 28 member states and therefore democratically legitimated.

      So, please explain how the EU and its power could be described as tyranny.

  14. Charles Says:

    Some undergrad economics can help here.

    1. The theory
    “These are the classic features of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and whenever they occur, there is a case for an enforceable agreement.”

    That there is a case for an enforceable agreement is generally accepted, particularly with the regard to the imposition of tariffs. However the question isn’t whether some agreement is a good idea, but whether it is in a particular country’s interest to leave a the particular existing agreement. I.e. whether, after the enforcement mechanisms in place, it is in the UK’s interest to remain in the EU.

    These ideas have been extensively studied in the example of collusion. It is generally in the interest of members to form a collusive block. But if too little surplus is given to a particular member, or if there is not a punishment mechanism in place after breaking the agreement, then it will be in the interest of that member to leave.

    2. The examples
    The ideas of cooperation discussed in the beginning are about externalities: if one agent does something “bad” then other agents are worse off. That doesn’t apply to labour regulation: relaxed labour regulation in one country doesn’t generally make other countries worse off. Any more than increased productivity in one country makes other countries worse off. The price effects could be to make exporting countries of labour intensive goods worse off and other countries better off, so it’s not generally negative. The ideas of “competitive advantage” here are a common misunderstanding of trade.

    Birds and habitats could be a small externality, only to the extent for example that Germany cares about British birds and habitats.

    Climate change counts as a negative externality, and agreements targeting climate change can help. But international agreements as a whole (trade, peace) have helped to create the economic growth that has led to climate change. So international agreements generally and climate change may not be negatively related.

    • gowers Says:

      Can you explain in more detail what you call a common misunderstanding? If an industry in one country reduces its costs by treating its workers less well, can it not, in principle at least, drive its competitors out of business unless they are ready to follow suit — just as the textile industry is more or less nonexistent in the UK because of cheap labour abroad (not in the EU, but the principle is the same)?

    • Charles Says:

      More plentiful labour abroad causes lower prices of textiles and other labour-intensive goods relative to non-labour-intensive goods. This causes prices of LI goods to fall relative to NLI goods. That causes the UK to shift production from LI to NLI goods. LI firms going out of business and NLI firms coming into business is part of this process. Whether the UK is better or worse off depends on whether it is an exporter or importer of LI goods. If an importer, then the UK can consume more of all goods after the price change; if an importer, then the UK cannot maintain previous consumption. (Assume a marginal change.)

      Generally under peace and trade, countries are affected by other countries’ economies via prices of traded goods, and prefer a higher price ratio of exported goods to imported goods (improved terms of trade). So if one significantly large country becomes better at producing one good, others countries exporting that good will be worse off and importing countries better off. So it’s not a negative externality in general, and in particular there is no general interest in making other countries less productive.

      The effects of reduced labour regulations would depend on the type of regulation: relaxed working time regulations and relaxed health and safety regulations would have very different effects. But the effects on other countries are via output good price ratios.

      Economists would identify the gains from trade as coming from comparative advantage in production and rather than absolute advantages, Ricardo’s observation. (Apparently William Whewell did the first mathematical model of this.) So trade isn’t a way for countries with greater absolute advantage to gain at the expense of other countries, nor are other countries generally worse off if the productive ability of one country is increased – common misunderstandings apparently.

      This all assumes that the countries don’t care how other countries are doing, either positively or negatively.

  15. Danny Yee Says:

    My “meta-argument” for not Leaving (rather than for Remaining) is based on the risk asymmetry:

  16. davidellis2 Says:

    There are some very nice abstract points here, but there are several important issues that undermine the conclusion, in my opinion. (I speak as a former advocate of Remain who has somewhat reluctantly changed his mind.)

    I think the biggest problems with the EU are democratic / consitutional ones, and depending on how much weight one places on issues of democracy versus other issues (e.g. economic ones), it is perfectly possible for a thoroughgoing utilitarian to favour Brexit, as Gowers’ last paragraph tacitly acknowledges.

    1. The democratic problems

    A major problem with the EU is its so-called ‘democratic deficit’. This has two sources: firstly, the EU Commission, which functions as the EU’s executive and proposes legislation on which the European Parliament votes, is unelected. (Instead, Commissioners are nominated by the governments of member states.) By contrast, in the UK, the legislation on which Parliament votes is proposed by the government, which is made up of elected MPs. For many years there has been widespread concern throughout the EU (not just in the UK) that the EU Commission is insufficiently accountable to the EU’s citizens; yet this state of affairs has continued ever since the EU Commission’s creation in the 1950’s. How likely is it to be reformed any time soon?

    The second problem is with the European Parliament: though it is elected, voters throughout the EU are very much disengaged with the process. In 2014, voter turnout for the European Parliament elections was only 43% across the whole of the EU, and only 36% in the UK, compared with 66% in the UK’s 2015 general election. A related problem is the lack of scrutiny of and engagement with the activities of the European Parliament: in a recent survey, only 11% of UK citizens were confident of being able to name at least one of their MEPs, compared to the 52% who could name their Westminster MP. Partly because of this lack of scrutiny and engagement, national governments are sometimes able to use the EU Parliament to bypass national democracy and push through unpopular, illiberal measures at the European level, as was revealed recently in the Independent:

    While I agree with Gowers that it would be disastrous if Boris Johnson were granted unfettered power, Westminster politicians are (with all their faults) subject to a high degree of public and media scrutiny, and must win general elections, which typically have a rather high voter turnout. The same cannot be said for Jean Claude Juncker or even for many MEPs. (I would point to Michael Gove as a more principled Leave campaigner, one who moreover genuinely believes in the cause; Boris Johnson on the other hand was rumoured to have written two speeches, one in favour of ‘Remain’.)

    But perhaps the most serious constitutional problem with the EU is the ‘tyranny of the majority’, and this would remain a problem even if the ‘democratic deficit’ problem was solved.

    The general problem of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ is ancient and well-known: it is possible even in a smoothly-functioning democracy, for a majority to consistently oppress a minority. This is a particular risk when there is a lack of empathy and shared identity between voters in the same polity, and this is unfortunately the case in the EU, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

    A particularly egregious example of ‘tyranny of the majority’ within the EU is the incredibly harsh austerity package imposed last year on Greece (in defiance of the result of the June 2015 referendum there, of course). According to many (perhaps most) academic economists, this degree of austerity is likely to cripple Greece’s economic recovery in the long-term. Paul Krugman even speculated that the deal imposed on the Greek government by the Troika (the IMF, the EU Commission and the European Central Bank) was designed to topple the Syriza government – see e.g.

    Austerity was imposed on Greece largely at the behest of the German government, in an effort to recoup as much of their taxpayers’ money as possible, in the short term. (Though it remains to be seen whether they will actually be able to recoup less in the long term as a result of the austerity!) The imposition of austerity was strongly supported by German voters. And bear in mind Germany has hitherto been one of the more altruistic EU member states.

    How is the UK at risk from the ‘tyranny of the majority’ within the EU? Well, since the Treaty of Lisbon, decisions in the EU in over 30 important policy areas are now taken by QMV (qualified majority voting) within the European Council, and this allows groups of nations in a minority to be consistently outvoted. This is a particular problem for the UK in the long run, because the UK (a majority of both its voters and its politicians) has a fundamentally different vision for the future of the EU, than many mainland Europeans, who want a much greater degree of political integration Some even envisage (eventually) a federation of states along the lines of the US. This raises the possibility that the UK government will be gradually pressured (by a majority of other member states) to accept more and more political integration, against the wishes of a majority of its citizens. And many UK citizens are wary of this, not just paranoid UKIP types, but e.g. Cambridge-educated lawyers of my acquaintance! If it seems implausible, bear in mind that the Treaty of Lisbon was drawn up partly in order to adopt measures in the proposed European Constitution, which had been rejected by referenda in France and Holland. (The French and Dutch constitutions did not mandate referenda on treaties, only on a constitution!) See for example

    To give an example of one prominent ‘federalist’, Matteo Renzi, who is regarded as a pretty mainstream politician in Italy, repeated in 2014 the call for a ‘United States of Europe’ –

    I cannot imagine many UK citizens being supportive of such a vision. Some of my German and Italian colleagues declare themselves quite willing to see the end of the nation-state in Europe. This ‘hard-core federalist’ agenda may or may not have noble motivations, but there is an undeniable danger in going too far with it: a world with many nation-states may well be safer on average (averaging over both time and ‘space’, i.e. people) than a world with very few. If a government ‘goes wrong’ in one county, one can move to another; this is less easy if there are too few independent nation-states.

    I admit that the creation of a federal European state along the lines of the US is very unlikely to happen in the short-term or the medium-term, if only because of the current impasse between Germany and France on how to achieve further fiscal and political integration (with Germany demanding joint fiscal rules to guarantee restraint before the issuing of joint Eurozone debt, and France demanding the latter before the former, in the name of ‘solidarity’). But further political integration in the short term is very much on the agenda, as illustrated by the following quotes from leading EU politicians:

    Jean Claude Junker (President of the EU Commission): ‘The Five Presidents’ Report includes a full agenda of work for the years to come, and I want us to move swiftly on all fronts – economic, financial, fiscal and political Union.’ (September 2015)

    Jose Manuel Barroso (President of the EU Commission, 2004-14): ‘A political union needs to be our political horizon.’ (September 2013)

    Guy Verhofstadt MEP (leader of the ALDE Group): ‘We must dare to take an even more radical leap: a leap towards a fully-fledged European nationality.’ (October 2012)

    Angela Merkel: ‘We need more Europe, we need not only a monetary union, but we also need a so-called fiscal union, in other words more joint budget policy, And we need most of all a political union – that means we need to gradually give competencies to Europe and give Europe control.’ (June 2012)

    Hitherto, the UK has often acted as a break on political integration within the EU, to the frustration of many EU politicians (and voters). This was eloquently articulated by the French politician Dominique Riquet, who argued on this basis that the UK should leave:

    In this respect, both the UK and the rest of the EU might be better off in the long run, after a Brexit; it would leave the other EU states free and unshackled to pursue their more federalist vision, and it would leave the UK free from the risk of being pressured into further political integration.

    Needless to say, democratic issues are an extremely important utilitarian consideration: citizens who feel their views are being ignored or overridden, are typically not very happy about this! Or, as John Duffield put it more succinctly, ‘when democracy goes out of the window… it always ends in tears.’

    2. The principle of subsidiarity – its limited applicability

    The democratic / constitutional problems outlined above would be less serious, if the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ Gowers describes, was widely applicable. But the EU’s principle of free movement of people, goods, services and capital (between member states), means that the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ does not apply, or is not applied, in many of the most important areas of civil life, both technically and in practice. For example, employment law (there is a huge amount of important EU legislation on this), immigration and asylum, human rights, justice, crime prevention, privacy, consumer rights, and of course external trade and foreign and security policy. It should be noted that the UK has an opt-out/opt-in agreement in some of these areas (e.g. immigration, asylum, justice and crime prevention), under which it can withdraw from the decision-making process, but if it does participate, it has to abide by the outcome of a ‘qualified majority vote’. See

    for more details.

    The ‘principle of subsidiarity’ did not protect Greece from crippling austerity (the issue was indeed a supranational one, though the main country affected was Greece, from a utilitarian perspective.) Also, some recent high-profile EU legislation highlights the very limited definition of ‘subsidiarity’ the EU works with. The cap on bankers’ bonuses, which mainly just affects the City of London, seems at first sight to be a particularly flagrant violation of subsidiarity: in simple terms, it interferes directly with the amount of money employers/shareholders are permitted to pay their employees as a reward for their performance. It was of course defended by the European Court of Justice, on the grounds that banks pose a particular risk to the financial stability of the EU, but on these kinds of legal grounds, almost anything could be said to fall outside the scope of ‘subsidiarity’, in today’s highly interconnected world. Though I don’t necessarily want to go into the rights and wrongs of the bonus cap, the Bank of England argued that the bonus cap actually drove up bankers’ basic salaries, and this may undermine the post-crisis efforts of financial institutions to tie renumeration to long-term performance.

    The prisoner’s dilemma, the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, and international treaties

    One is left with the question of how to achieve the desired degree of international cooperation, in the aftermath of a Brexit. The ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ situations Gowers describes, do indeed demonstrate the desirability of international agreements/treaties, but these can and have been made (and adhered to), without the participants belonging to EU-style organisations. Further, if they are to be of much use, they must often involve nations from outside the EU, such as the US and China, especially in the given cases of climate change, corporation tax and overfishing in the North Sea.

    Of course, for these to work, there needs to be a ‘penalty for reneging’ on the treaty. Such a penalty, however, is not contingent on belonging to an EU-style organisation. It can involve agreed sanctions (financial and otherwise) from other participants in the treaty, but even this is unnecessary. Because in fact, there is an extremely potent ‘natural’ penalty for reneging: namely, the unwillingness of other nation states to trust you in the future if you renege! And indeed, experiments simulating the ‘iterated prisoner’s dilemma’ in human populations have consistently found that ‘cooperative’ strategies are adopted by a majority of participants, and that these consistently outperform ‘greedy’ ones. (Axelrod famously tested a range of strategies against one another in computer simulations, and found the same thing.) This has been used to explain the evolution of cooperative behavior in both animal and human populations, see e.g. Axelrod’s ‘The Evolution of Cooperation’.) Mathematically, in the ‘infinitely repeated prisoner’s dilemma’ where future payoffs are not discounted too much, cooperative strategies are ‘stable’. Of course, the ‘iterated prisoner’s dilemma’ is much closer to the situation in international relations, than the one-round version.

    International cooperation is surely not contingent on ‘pooling sovereignty’ to the extent of having shared governmental structures with the powers of the European Parliament or the European Commission, with all the attendant democratic and constitutional problems this has (and which I discussed above). It can be achieved via other supranational organizations structures such as the UN or the OAS. Do we think the nation-states of South America or North America should have a common parliament and executive with similar powers to the EU’s, in order to achieve the desired level of cooperation? Should the US and Canada have such shared structures, for example? I humbly submit that this would be deeply unpopular on both sides of the border!

    3. Utilitarian problems with EU policies

    It should be mentioned that some EU policies have caused a major reduction in (worldwide) ‘utility’. In the Balkan crisis, perhaps the most serious foreign policy test the EU has faced, it failed miserably to prevent war and genocide, and in fact was instrumental in arguing for a UN arms embargo which prevented Bosnians from properly defending themselves against Karadzic’s marauding Bosnian Serb forces. Ultimately, the US and NATO were required to bring about an end to the conflict. Having said that, the EU’s post-conflict intervention has been a (mixed) success. See for example

    Click to access evidence-stefan-wolff-rodt-bosnia-and-herzegovina-and-macedonia.pdf

    Another example is the Common Agricultural Policy, which accounts for about 40% of the EU’s annual budget. Major effects of the CAP have been to subsidize farming in areas of the EU where it would otherwise be unprofitable, to keep food prices in the EU artificially high, to subsidize exports to outside the EU, and to impose high tariffs on imports from outside the EU. This has led to a net loss for EU citizens (for an indication of this, the OECD estimated in 2004 that state support for farming in OECD countries costs the average family of four $1000 per year), and the CAP has long been criticized for harming producers in the developing world (through tariffs and ‘export dumping’), and hence stalling development there.

    EU incentives for farmers to protect the environment have been welcome. But surely it is also in the UK’s (‘selfish’) national interest to protect our environment? I fail to see George Eustice’s problem with the protection of birds and wildlife habitats! Our agriculture cannot be ‘genuinely’ competitive (without subsidies) anyway. Were we to exit the EU, a sensible UK government would continue to subsidize farmers but to a lesser extent, prioritizing environmental protection over production to a much greater extent that the EU currently does.

    4. The economy, and freedom of movement

    I began by saying I thought it was perfectly possible for a thoroughgoing utilitarian to come down on either side of the debate, depending mainly on how heavily they weight the democratic problems of staying, versus the costs of leaving. To my mind, two of the most important costs of a Brexit would be the economic cost (both to the UK and to the rest of the EU), and the restriction on freedom of movement (again, for both parties).

    Almost certainly, in the event of a Brexit, there would be a short-term economic cost to the UK (and probably a smaller cost per capita to the rest of the EU), though I would hope and expect that a trade and immigration deal fairly advantageous to both sides, could be worked out before too long, and that a desire to ‘punish’ the UK for leaving, and to disincentivize other exits, would not trump the common interests of both sides. There would also be a cost to those who (like myself) support freedom of movement for EU and UK citizens throughout the EU and the UK; in the short term, this freedom would certainly be reduced, though I don’t completely despair of winning the democratic argument within the UK for a high degree of openness to skilled workers from the EU. On the other hand, after a Brexit, the UK government would find it far politically easier to lift our extremely harsh restrictions on skilled workers from outside the EU. While I am personally in favour of a very high degree of openness to immigration from the rest of the EU, it does raise problems for our democracy (and cause widespread disenchantment therewith) when 77% of UK citizens view immigration as ‘too high’ (according to Oxford’s Migration Observatory) and yet the UK government cannot legally do anything to limit immigration from the EU.

    To conclude a rather long comment, I plan to vote for Brexit, mainly due to the EU’s democratic and constitutional problems, but with a heavy heart, mainly due to the likely impact on the economy and freedom of movement.

    • BenFairbairn1 Says:

      1. The anti-democratic argument is over-subscribed somewhat. To say that “Commissioners are nominated by the governments of member states” means they are not appointed by democratic means is a little odd after all, how are the governments of member states chosen (indeed what is the point of choosing them, if not to take decisions like who should be our representative in the commission for us)? Since most aspects of our national government are merely appointed in such a manner including most (but by no mean all – we still have 92 hereditary peers and 26 Lords Spiritual) of its upper house along with many subsidiary bodies like select committees all of which (including our elected officials) are answerable to a completely undemocratic monarch. I think taking some sovereignty away from a body as undemocratic as the British government in favour of the EU is almost a good idea in light of this.
      I agree that the 11% figure is worrying, but only in the sense that the 52% figure is worrying and is more of a symptom of the growing disengagement with politics that has emerged throughout the west in recent decades as electoral participation has been in decline. In particular, it’s not a specifically EU-related problem. Not to mention the fact that by this argument almost every form of local authority should be disbanded – who can name *any* of their local councillors? More to the point not being able to name something is almost good – you tend to notice things when they go wrong and not notice them if they’re quietly sitting in the background doing their job (most people can probably name the current health secretary, but not most other members of the cabinet – why do you think that is?)
      It seems odd to argue about the lack of media scrutiny – there’s really only one country’s press that’s particularly concerned with Westminster politics, but 28 countries’ media care about the EU’s politics.
      It also seems odd argue about the tyranny of the majority from the UK’s perspective when we’re the second largest economy in the EU and the third largest member by population. This is especially strange given how much EU law we have actively pushed forward and been in favour of: in one estimate from the LSE, Britain sided with the majority in 87% of EU votes.
      Besides, many smaller members benefit from the UK being in the EU in this respect: without our membership the only other sizable economy to counteract German dominance if France, the next biggest player (by PPP GDP) being Italy whose economy is only just-over half the size of Germany’s and most other members being considerably smaller than this. Our membership significantly dilutes Germany’s power and yet only slightly dilutes that of countries like Malta, Cyprus and Estonia simply by dint of them having little to start with.

      Arguing that international treaties can be perfectly good substitutes for being a member of an EU-style body sounds awfully like arguing that we can get a perfectly good deal with the EU post Brexit akin to the relationships countries like Switzerland, Norway and Canada have. It is, however, foolish to think that the UK will get a good deal from the EU post-Brexit since the EU has a *huge* incentive to give us an awful deal for the simple reason that unlike countries like Switzerland, Norway and Canada we will have the property that will have actively spurned the EU by leaving. If the EU is seen to be giving us a good deal than that will send the clear signal that leaving the EU is easy and survivable and will bolster anti-EU groupss of almost every member of the union potentially leading ultimately to its complete disbandment. The counterargument commonly put forward is that we buy more from them than they sell to us, but this a pittance compared to the threat to their own existence that losing one of its largest members with minimal consequences may trigger. You may also argue that Greenland got off pretty lightly when they left (gaining home-rule from Denmark, rather than formally departing the EU, per se), but then the population of Greenland is roughly that of Leeds and their economy is essentially built entirely on fishing. Even then, their full agreement with the EU took 3 years to hack-out! Canada’s agreement has taken 7 years to negotiate *so far* and will still leave Canada subject to tariffs the likes of which will inevitably hit us too following Brexit. And even then such a deal would almost certainly not free-us from being subject to the very EU rules that encourage many Brexiteers to vote that way.
      Moreover you ask “Do we think the nation-states of South America or North America should have a common parliament and executive with similar powers to the EU’s, in order to achieve the desired level of cooperation? Should the US and Canada have such shared structures, for example? I humbly submit that this would be deeply unpopular on both sides of the border!” I think you’ll find that the creation of the EU stimulated the creation of numerous trade blocs all over the globe, many of which do indeed come equipped with regional intergovernmental organizations.

      3. You argue that the EU policies are not very utilitarian and indeed many proved to fare less-well than hoped for. But this simply reflects the fact you can’t expect any body to get everything right all of the time and indeed the CAP is an excellent example of this. It’s still somewhat silly to maintain that post-war food shortages are a problem (the very reason for creating the CAP in the first place) but the fact that the CAP has been significantly parred back compared to how bad it got in the 1970s shows how much the EU can be reformed, can learn from its mistakes and correct problems like policies proving to be less utilitarian than hoped.

      In short, our choice is being subject to EU rules, regulations and red tape or being subject to EU rules, regulations and red *and actually having a say in what those are*. Britain can, and has, been a great force for good in the EU, but that will be significantly harder if we are not in it. The EU is far from perfect, but at present it’s the best framework there is far instilling cooperation with our immediate neighbours and replacing this arrangement with a mystery unknown feels awfully like taking a huge risk when there is very little need to do so.

    • Jeremy Says:

      This is quite misinformed, I’m afraid.

      > Since most aspects of our national government are merely appointed in such a manner including most … of its upper house

      The upper house isn’t part of the government. The distinction between government and parliament is rather an essential one, and worth learning about.

      > It also seems odd argue about the tyranny of the majority from the UK’s perspective when we’re the second largest economy in the EU and the third largest member by population.

      No, it’s not odd at all. The largest subset can still be a small minority of the whole, and that’s exactly the case here: the UK population is well under 10% of the EU population.

      As to the suggestion that the EU will take revenge on any country that leaves the union, that may be true (although it doesn’t paint the EU in a very positive light if so), but I don’t think it’s likely to work very well as a way of persuading people to vote for remaining.

    • davidellis2 Says:

      Ben: this doesn’t really address my concerns. As Jeremy says, having an executive which is appointed rather than elected is a much bigger problem than having an upper house (e.g. the House of Lords) which is appointed rather than elected. The House of Lords only occasionally proposes legislation; its main function is to deliberate and amend, whereas the European Commission really does propose a lot of important legislation; it ‘sets the political agenda’ to a much greater extent than the House of Lords does.

      The 87% figure isn’t very informative. The statistic is that the UK sided with the majority on 87% of those decisions taken by the European Council, which came to a vote. But the European Council usually tries to avoid putting things to a vote, instead hammering out ‘compromises’ that all the members eventually agree to support. If a member state is in a minority and will clearly lose a vote, they will often just accept a compromise proposed (or ‘imposed’) by the majority, as the best they can get. (Though Cameron did, in the end, stick his neck out and register a ‘protest vote’ against Jean Claude Juncker’s nomination as Commission President, joined only by Hungary.) Moreover, some decisions are much more important than others, and not all of them pertain to further political integration, which is the matter I’m most concerned about in regard to the UK suffering from ‘tyranny of the majority’, so the 87% figure may not be much comfort. Surely the experience of Greece should also give us pause for thought. Finally, the Economist is strongly in favour of Remain, and ‘cherry-picked’ the 87% figure from an article which emphasizes rather strongly the fact that from 2009-15, the UK was on the losing side of votes in the European Council more than twice as often as any other member state:

      Regarding other international trade blocs, they don’t have anything like the same degree of political integration as the EU, neither is further political integration on the agenda to the extent that it is in the EU.

      My point about international treaties was that they can be a very good substitute for belonging to an EU-style organization, not that they always will be a good substitute. I would hope that their trading interests would prevent other EU states from imposing too punitive a deal on a post-Brexit UK, but this is certainly an unknown.

    • BenFairbairn1 Says:

      No, I’m sorry if we’re discuss the mechanisms behind the making of UK and EU law the House of Lords is an integral part of that process and simply dismissing the relevance on the grounds of a technicality in the distinction between parliament and government is simply wrong. On the basis of membership, the Lords:Commons ratio is 802:650 whilst the EU Commision:European parliament is 28:751. When you take into account that peers in Lords can and frequently do remain in place for literally decades whilst commissioners rarely last longer than a few years subject to the whims of the democratically elected governments of member states (having your job depend on the outcome of an election is an awfully strange property for something so “undemocratic” to have). Whilst the commission can propose whatever compromise it likes (and it also seems strange to object to compromises) the European Parliament can block all of it if it so chooses. It really does seem a little odd to think of the British establishment as being more democratic than its EU counterparts. If people choose to not vote in elections, then that is their democratic right to do so and, again, you can hardly blame the EU for that.
      Whilst you can accuse me of cherry picking a statistic from an article that’s a biased source, you can hardly claim that newspapers like the Independent are remaining perfectly neutral on the issue and it’s hardly worse than coming out with decontextualized quotes like much of your original post did. If you did the same thing to Boris Johnson you can easily make him look pro-EU.
      Moreover, citing the situation in Greece is akin to pointing an outlier and calling it the norm. All events surrounding the 2008 economic downtown and its consequences, of which the Greek sovereign debt crisis was just one small part, are off just about every scale imaginable and as such exemplify almost nothing. Besides, much of the Greek problem stemmed from Greek bureaucrats lying both to the Greek people and the EU can hardly be blamed for that. Moreover are you really saying that the IMF is part of the EU? The IMF is, after all, one third of the troika much hated by the Greeks. Not to mention the fact that if you lent somebody a large sum of money to sort a problem out, you would want some say in how it was used too.
      Again, you’re argument seems to be that the EU has many problems in how it conducts itself. Yes, it is far from perfect, but there is a little we can do about that from the side-lines -if we are ever going have a chance of making it better, and given its geographical proximity it is very much in our interests to do that, then it is far easier to achieve this from the inside than outside.

    • applicative Says:

      > It really does seem a little odd to think of the British establishment as being more democratic than its EU counterparts.

      Here’s how it works in the UK:
      * When there’s a general election each party publishes a manifesto.
      * People choose which party manifesto they like best and vote for the candidates of that party.
      * Any party with enough successful candidates to have an absolute majority forms a government
      * The government introduces laws to implement the manifesto commitments.

      So there’s a clear, traceable cause-and-effect relationship between votes and laws.

      Suppose I want to use my vote to have some influence on which new EU laws are introduced. How should I do that?

    • Lepuslapis Says:

      David, I hope that you realise that much of your argument hinges on the assumption that it is somehow desirable for an international body to be “democratic”. Since certain events in Germany in 1933 were essentially the results of a democratic process, I consider that to be an extremely naive assumption. Albert Camus considers that “le vice le plus désespérant est celui de l’ignorance qui croit tout savoir et qui s’autorise alors à tuer” (La Peste). Now, owing to the Dunning-Kruger effect and the structure of our education system, the people who end up being bureaucrats of supranational bodies are more likely to be somewhat competent at what they are doing, and therefore hopefully less ignorant and more self-doubting. If the lack of democratic accountability is the price we have to pay for this, than I am happy to pay that price.

      Applicative, it is similarly naive to think that “people choose which party manifesto they like best” (and, since I am a something of a cynic, I’m not even mentioning “the government introduces laws to implement the manifesto commitments”). A large number of people simply vote for the party that the tabloids tell them to vote for, since they are unable to form any rational thought of their own.

      But then again, all of this is not my area of expertise, and so I would love to proved wrong and see that there are more than “faint glimmers of civilisation left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.”

    • davidellis2 Says:

      Lepuslapis – I think it’s a misreading of history to regard Hitler’s rise of power (or rather, seizure of power) a result of democracy. Weimar democracy was crucially undermined by chancellors Bruning, von Papen and Schleicher ruling by presidential decree to bypass the ‘dysfunctional’ Reichstag, and in the end it was President Hindenburg who unilaterally appointed Hitler as Chancellor, on the urging of his confidant von Papen (who at that point was out of power)! The Nazis then of course proceeded to remove the institutions of democracy. One can’t read very much into the result of the 1938 ‘plebiscite’ on Nazi rule: if you are in fear of your life it may well affect the way you vote. Amartya Sen has argued powerfully that democratic governments, with all their faults, precipitate serious disasters, e.g. famines, less often than unaccountable ones: it is easier for a small group of bureaucrats to overlook an important issue, than it is for a majority of the electorate to overlook it. Another point in favour of national democracy: since uninformed voters often vote randomly, the well-informed minority often have the deciding power. Since WWII, the democracies of the West have largely avoided causing misery to their own populations, but not unfortunately to other populations – and this is partly why I think it’s dangerous to have democracy at an EU level, while citizens of one country identify so little with citizens of another.

    • Lepuslapis Says:

      David -Thanks for your reply.

      I concede that Hitler’s rise to power is something of a chicken-and-egg problem: he rose to power because of the failings of his predecessors. But how did those attain power?

      Your point about the democracies of Western Europe avoiding causing misery to their own populations illustrates I think that Amartya Sen’s argument best applies to comparatively small countries. I think it is revealing that it is usually the Nordic countries, with populations of about 5 to 10 million people, that top happiness surveys. (I guess smaller democracies are intrinsically dependent on their larger neighbours.) Finally, the electorate need not express their opinion through the ballot paper: to quote Blackadder, “These are volatile times, Your Highness. [T]here are tremendous rumblings in Prussia – although that might have something to do with the sausages.”

      Further, I do not think that the uninformed majority vote randomly, certainly not in countries where the tabloid press is similarly strong to the tabloid press in the UK – a quick check on circulation numbers of tabloid newspapers (data from wikipedia) shows that the right-wing papers have a much larger circulation. There are also recent analyses like “Misperceiving Bullshit as Profound Is Associated with Favorable Views of Cruz, Rubio, Trump and Conservatism” ( And depending on how large you think this minority is, a small bias of that ilk will decide the outcome of elections.

    • Olof Sisask Says:

      In terms of elected vs appointed, isn’t it technically the case that the UK prime minister is not elected by the public? Is this seen as a major problem?

    • davidellis2 Says:

      Olof – the UK Prime Minister is an MP, so must personally win an election (albeit not a national one), giving some degree of personal accountability.

    • davidellis2 Says:

      lepuslapis – you’re right, there were many reasons for Hitler’s being able to seize power. I should add that in the last ‘free’ elections held in Weimar Germany, in November 1932, the Nazis gained 33% of the popular vote, down from 37% in July. (There are arguments over how ‘free’ the 1932 elections were, given the high levels of voter intimidation by Nazi thugs and paramilitaries.) Amartya Sen originally used his argument in the context of India, which experienced 14 severe famines under the Raj (the last being the Bengal Famine in 1943, in which about 3 million died), but none after Independence. My comment just above about ‘why I think it’s dangerous to have democracy at an EU level, while citizens of one country identify so little with citizens of another’ is misleading, see my original post for a proper explanation.

    • Olof Says:

      David — I see, it seems to be a convention that the prime minister must be an elected MP. Still, I guess the point is that they are elected as MP only by a small fraction of the electorate, and then for the supremely important role of PM they are appointed (by the general population’s MPs).

      It seems to me that they are held more accountable in their role as PM by the fact that they can be removed by the MPs that that the general population elected than by the fact that they are an MP. Having both levels of accountability doesn’t seem bad, of course.

      I suppose something similar applies to the cabinet, except that members of the house of lords can serve there too. These ought to be quite important in setting the political agenda.

      applicative — it sounds like the sensible thing there would be for the parties to include EU policies in their manifestos.

    • applicative Says:

      > applicative — it sounds like the sensible thing there would be for the parties to include EU policies in their manifestos.

      The UK party manifestos describe the laws and policies which the parties promise to implement if they win a majority of seats and form a government.

      It’s simply not possible for a UK party to win a majority of seats in the EU parliament or to form an EU government, so there’s no point in including EU laws or policies in their manifestos.

  17. Gavin Smith Says:

    You cover the common EU regulation (employment, environment, taxation), but another question is spending. Is the spending that the EU does, mainly on agricultural subsidies and “regional spending” good? Not only could that money be spent on other things (and I mean throughout the whole of Europe, not just the British contribution), but the physical resources that the money is spent on (e.g. land, labour) would be used differently. Simply, the EU spending restructures the European economy, and it spends a lot, so you would expect the economy to be restructured a lot too.

  18. anonymous Says:

    One more input:

  19. Johan Richter Says:

    I hope you stay. There are clearly both pros and cons to leaving but I think the benefits of the common market and security cooperation outweigh the disadvantages. For me the meta-point that the desire to leave is largely driven by nationalism is important. If that is needed to make leaving popular, than maybe the argument on the merits is not that good.

    I can’t see the case for labor market regulations being a prisoners’ dilemma, however. This is somewhat separate from how right wing you are. I can see a possible motivation for some labor market regulation on paternalistic grounds or to counteract market power but it does not strike me as something that is of international concern.


  20. GG Says:

    Yes indeed, we need ‘supranational organizations’, but supranational organizations that care more about the underlying nations than the organization itself.

  21. Peter Gerdes Says:

    I’m wondering if you can provide a source for your claims about cyclist deaths as a result of performance enhancing drugs. t was my understanding, that while steroids, HGH etc.. are often used dangerously by body builders, high school athletes etc.. at the professional level they were actually used fairly safely despite the vastly greater risks posed by covert use.

    Besides, we don’t seem to think that a mild level of danger for extreme performance is objectionable and I don’t see you complaining about steep ski slopes, fast race cars etc.. despite probably posing comparable or greater risk than open usage or performance enhancers. Strangely, we seem to fixate on small risks from performance enhancing drugs while ignoring the evident serious toll high performance sports takes on participants. Other sports may not have footballs (or soccer’s) head trauma but all the joint injuries and repetitive motion injuries are nothing to be laughed at not to mention the cost in time, education etc.. etc.. often born by children too young to consider the options.

    Unlike steep slopes or sharp ice skates letting athletes use performance enhancing drugs would offer a substantial benefit to mankind funneling money and attention into medical research that would throw light on some of the biggest health problems of our age (metabolism, musculature, diabetes). Athletes are the very best group for testing. They are physically healthy minimizing their risk of fatal or debilitating reactions, they are constantly surrounded by medical and couching personal to catch problematic side-effects, administer medications and explain the risks/benefits. Best of all effects that would be hard to see in even massive studies may be clearly visible in measures of athlete performance.

    Not to mention the fact that enhanced athletes would be crazy awesome. I don’t want to see someone perform at peak human potential. I want to see a gymnast with preternatural balance, superhuman reflexes and extreme strength

    At this point everyone seems to retreat back to some kind of fairness worry. That somehow it would be unfair to those who didn’t want to use performance enhancers. As if sports weren’t already unfair (like all of life) to those born without natural ability. As it won’t be long now before we start seeing athletes engineered to have the genes we see naturally but rarely in our best performers. Will it be unfair because some athletes got lucky (DNA lottery) and others got lucky (parents with foresight)?

    As we’ve already seen in track and field the idea that sport is only for the few unassisted winners of the DNA lotto will collide head on into our belief in inclusivity. Not only will there be more prosthetics that offer an advantage a decision will have to be made about all sorts of medical devices, e.g., what about a pacemaker that deliberately lowers heart rate for marksmenship. Don’t even think about post-hormone therapy trans people yet first what do you do about men/women who have had their testicles/ovaries removed? Do they get the human average hormone level, the level they had before removal, the average for athletes at their level.

    Right now the system is every bit as unfair as it could be with arbitrary rulings, covert drug use and practices like blood packing that favor rich countries. It is also way less fun to watch, more depressing, probably more dangerous than open use and fails to provide any benefit to the human race. How is this even a question?

    • Pete Says:

      Drugs probably are being used relatively safely these days: putting enough into your body to endanger yourself (at least in the immediate future) will cause you to fail a health test and be prohibited from riding, even if not a doping test. In the past, this most likely wasn’t the case (late 80s/90s) though as far as I know nothing was ever proved. Sometimes young people do die of heart attacks naturally, and it’s hard to be sure that the cyclists who were taking EPO and died of heart attacks (Draaijer, for example) wouldn’t have had heart attacks without the EPO. On the other hand, the potential mechanism there is clear: we know EPO causes thickened blood and lower heart rate, and that these make it more likely for clots to form in the bloodstream.

      As to open drug use, the argument against this is simple enough. We can be pretty sure that doing enough drugs will kill people. If we allow some amount of doping, then the same people who today covertly take drugs will covertly exceed the limits, which can only make matters worse. If we don’t place any restrictions, then the same people will try to tread the fine line between maximum performance and killing themselves before winning the race (you’ll easily find with Google studies suggesting a fair fraction of elite athletes would take a drug guaranteed to kill them in 10 years if it would guarantee major wins beforehand). What would you suggest a doctor should do in that situation? Refuse to get involved and let the athlete self-medicate? Or join in and accept responsibility for the occasional accident? Or report someone likely to attempt suicide, which currently a doctor would be required to do in most places?

  22. Gerhard Gentzen (@gentzen1975) Says:

    I agree with your general arguments, but the EU is not the organization you desire. For me, the EU is: austerity from 2008 (with Krugman, I believe this was a terrible idea); the disgraceful treatment of Greece (and other “debtor” countries such as Portugal, Ireland and the rest); the failure to put any of the bankers in gaol; the appallingly cynical stalling and subsequent non-solution to the migrant crisis etc. etc.

    You mention the working time directive, and problems such as climate change and corporation tax. The working time directive is optional, and so it is unsurprising that pretty much everyone I know in UK academia (and the NHS and most other places) is working extremely long hours. The EU response to climate change is less than nothing: we have wasted vast amounts of money, and precious time, on non-solutions (again!) that pander to the European elites view of the world (Windmills look nice and pleasant! Sustainable, green etc etc, but unfortunately not a solution to the problem). And as for corporation tax, tax evasion etc. … well… the corporations are running rings around us and what is the EU response? We can just introduce more legislation of course (and on no account must we ever prosecute any bankers for any misdeeds).

    That is just the last 10 years. Can you tell me what positive things the EU has done in the last 10 years?

    You say that “it is utterly unrealistic to imagine that if we leave then we will end up with an organization that does the job better” but this is not clear: there are major countries (US, China, India, Australia etc.) who might well seek to co-operate under a supra-national organization to address some of the challenges we are facing. I don’t see why the geographic proximity of the mainland European countries should be a good basis for an organization to tackle our global problems.

  23. Alessandra Cabassi Says:

    Reblogged this on Alessandra Cabassi.

  24. Māris Ozols Says:

    I also happen to have a French wife and to hold similar views as you do. It is heart wrenching to see what had just happened because it will surely affect me, my family, and my colleagues. Unfortunately I had no chance but just watch it all unfold — even though I am from EU and have lived in UK for a few years, I am not a British citizen and hence could not vote…

  25. anonymous Says:

    > I have oversimplified my position a bit here, but I don’t want to start writing a treatise in moral philosophy

    That’s a tragedy, really. I think it would very much be worth reading.

    Thank you for revealing the common structure (i.e. the prisoner’s dilemma) of such agreements to those of us that didn’t immediately see it (in hindsight, good math often seems so obvious).

    The case has occasionally been made that Germany is currently a sweatshop of Europe at least in comparison to some of its immediate neighbours like France: With an ever-growing sector of temporary/lent work, late retirement and very low wages in jobs that do not require a qualification (e.g. working the fields), Germany is making it very hard for a country like France to maintain its desirably worker-friendly status. If France eventually gives in, both German and French workers will end up losing.

    (To those who can read German — I’m afraid I could not find a translation) I can also recommend this slightly dated piece:,a0004.idx,0

  26. 月旦 V | Fight with Infinity Says:

    […] 6月,两位Fields奖得主(是的,又是Gowers和Tao!)接连对公共事务发声:Gowers呼吁英国人选择留在EU——此后公投的结果已是众所周知。Tao则将枪口对准了美国总统候选人Donald Trump. 他的post引发了巨大的争议。 这让我想起von Neumann的隽语: […]

  27. Jeremy Polmear Says:

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this analysis, but I do not think our current situation leads necessarily to these conclusions.

    Firstly, to take supranational organisations. The case for them is not automatically a yes. The UN, WTO, World Bank, yes; FIFA, maybe; the group of People’s Republics of Eastern Europe after World War II, hmmm. You may say that example is a bit far-fetched, but my point is that you should look at the nature of a supranational organisation before embracing it.

    You talk of Sovereignty, and I’m going to talk of Democracy, and why people might want decision-making to be taken at the level of the nation state. Not necessarily, is what I say; but for a system to work democratically there has to be a perceived link between the citizen and the decision-maker. Having previously lobbied my UK MP successfully, I assumed that the situation was similar with MEPs. I learned the hard way, being fobbed off by a secretary. And now that MEP’s names don’t appear on our ballot papers – only party loyalties – I could not vote this MEP out without crippling the London’s labour vote, which I am neither willing nor able to do. I am not criticizing the MEP here – I’m sure he is a decent man who works hard – I’m criticizing a system that means he doesn’t need to care what I think.

    I also discovered that, as you probably know, the European Parliament is like ours but with no Government present. Imagine how democratic that is! Legislation happens elsewhere, in the European Commission, so our main representative is – what is his name? He’s resigned now anyway, so it doesn’t matter. Again, I’m sure he did the best he could. But democracy it ain’t.

    One characteristic of the EU that I really like, and you mention, is the principle of Subsidiarity. Unfortunately, there is another principle which contradicts it – ‘Ever Closer Union’. When these two clash, guess which wins. Subsidiarity produces a flexible diversity, but that’s not what I see the EU doing.

    Your discussion about the National Interest, and when you make decisions for your own good and when for the greater good is a bit theoretical for me. But I’d like to point out that if you make decisions that are for the greater good, and in the process alienate sections of your own population, you are heading for disaster. Don’t call a referendum whatever you do! And don’t assume, if you are losing support in many countries across the continent, that it’s because people are getting nastier. It may be something you are doing.

  28. CCL Says:

    Oh well, great British democracy has run its course, and those wanting to protect it from the ravages of the EU bureaucrats, and wanting to register disapproval with Tory lack of support to the disadvantaged, have left us completely screwed economically, politically embarrassed, and facing the end of ‘freedom of movement’. This leaves British academics and universities in a terrible position. 16% of our workforce from continental Europe, isn’t it? 6% of students and a large percentage of research funding. Most importantly for me, we are now identified as a small nation that is xenophobic in majority, and preparing to split itself apart. Who will want to study here? Maybe those coming from countries with currencies that are strong against the pound. It would help if student visas were now easier to obtain. Maybe HS2 and the extra Heathrow runway will be put on hold, and the house prices will drop. Those are three good outcomes, but small consolation. I am beginning to sound like Bill Bryson so I will stop.

  29. Karel Says:

    Brexit – Europe’s politicians don’t know their game

    The tragedy of Brexit is that neither the United Kingdom nor, especially, the European Union saw fit to convincingly spell out to the public what the future would look like after the referendum. A credible precommitment, not excluding credible threats, ought to have promoted a cooperative outcome in the game. Instead, the uncertainty drove each of the British peoples to what they believed to be the safest option.

    Brexit is sometimes argued to represent a situation where mutual cooperation is in everyone’s best interests but still the individual players “defect” and go solo. To model such situations, a game called “prisoner’s dilemma” has been conceived. In such a game, two partners-in-crime are interrogated separately. If both cooperate – with each other that is, not with the authorities – they can only be convicted on a lesser charge; if both defect, they face heavy charges; but in case one partner remains silent and the other betrays his partner, the partner ends up in jail for an even longer time whereas the other is released. Cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma simply is not a strong equilibrium, i.e. a player can do better by unilaterally changing strategy. Defection is the dominant strategy. That is not the game you want to play.

    It is implied that the prisoners have no recourse to rewarding or punishing their partner-in-crime after the game has played out. By advertising beforehand an expected penalty for players that defect against cooperators, the prisoner’s dilemma morphs into another game that has been known since Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume as the stag hunt. Two hunters must decide whether to combine their skills to try and hunt down a stag or go it alone and settle for an easier hare. (For those that dislike hunting: Hume gave the example of two rowing a boat; if one does not cooperate, the other rows in vain.)

    Crucially, the stag hunt game has two (pure-strategy) equilibria: the more rewarding stag hunt in the event both cooperate, and the alternative of the hare that is less risky as it does not depend on coordination. The crux is not whether to cooperate is an equilibrium but rather which equilibrium to choose: potential solidarity or perceived safety. Precommitting to a penalty mechanism – ranging from the European Union precluding any cherry-picking to full-out retaliatory measures – allows at least a cooperative equilibrium to arise by transforming the prisoner’s dilemma into a stag hunt. But uncertainty surrounding the willingness to cooperate and the payoff from doing so pushes the hunters to individually settle for the hare. Resolving such uncertainty may in addition nudge them towards the higher-potential stag. We leave it to the reader to identify which is which in brexit country.

    Or maybe brexit is best captured by a game called “battle of the sexes”? Suppose, for argument’s sake, that Britain preferred to leave the Union whereas the continentals would have liked the islanders to remain, but that in any case all of Europe’s politicians wanted to be ‘in the same place’: either the United Kingdom leaves and the European Union reluctantly accomodates the departure, or the United Kingdom remains and puts on a happy face. In either coordination equilibrium only one player is pleased, but both equilibria are preferred to the situation in which a mismatch occurs. How then to avoid the parties choosing different strategies?

    One possible way out is to “refine” the equilibrium concept by means of a randomising device that correlates the parties’ strategies. If both parties decide to flip a coin (say the United Kingdom organises a referendum) and agree beforehand that “heads” means “remain” and “tails” implies “leave,” neither would rationally want to alter his strategy after the referendum for fear of getting stuck in a coordination failure. Which brings us back to the tragedy we started from.

    • Anonymous Says:

      Karel – I can’t agree with you. Appealing as it may be to describe it here, the “stag hunt” is not the game. That’s far too simplistic.

      I think you’d agree that the game actually has multiple hunters, and multiple quarries. The quarry are also hunters, the hunters are quarry. So let’s just call them players.

      Apart from hunting, the players also continuously bet on the state of the game, and the players, sometimes in groups, use tokens which vary in exchange value relative to the tokens used by other players in the game, where the values are established using the history of the game: the historical value of the tokens, as judged by the players; the material and labour resources available to each player in their geographical area; and the aggregate goodwill accorded to the player who controls a given token by the other players. In the past couple of centuries, or, if you like, we can restrict the period to the last fifty years, the activity of betting has become much more important than the hunting.

      I think you’ll agree that this is a much closer description of the game played than your stag hunt.

      I also suggest that you look again at the idea that “Brexit” could have been avoided if the “players” had communicated effectively with their populations. Propaganda, ideology, and marketing can make people believe the earth is flat, smoking clears your larynx so you can sing better, Santa Claus delivers presents to children around the world in a singl night on December 25, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant, and there is eternal life after death. None of these things are true, but millions, hundreds of millions, even billions of human beings believe each of them. If we could find a way to dissuade our fellow human beings from believing nonsense, perhaps we could find a way to assure our survival as a species, on a ball of interstellar soot.

      I’m not very optimistic that this is achievable. Perhaps you can find a way, fast.

  30. Injoon Hyung Says:

    The part that intrigued me the most was your honest and blunt positions that you’ve outlined in the two paragraphs preceding “Conclusion”. Quite dry stuff I have to say, but I can totally understand the positions.
    People in the UK are brought up with an identity of being “British” – e.g. educated about British history, watch British TV, participating in British cultural activities. Obviously the extent of one feeling British would differ from a person to person.
    Unless we are brought up to be Europeans instead of being British, e.g. by exposing ourselves to high school educations in the history of Latvia and watching Dutch TV and listening to Italian music, we would always feel somewhat distant to the Europeans.
    I think that this is the reason why British people find it more reluctant to share sovereignty with other European nations than to share amongst the Brits.

  31. none Says:

    Is this for real? It’s about a proposal by Jeremy Corbyn to free up research done with UK govt funding. Is it getting traction? Does it hit the right issues? I’m in the US so don’t know what’s happening over there. I’m not asking what you think of Corbyn himself (politicians of whatever stripe usually have a mix of good and bad ideas), but just about this particular proposal.

  32. The quest for a dresser – Owen Biesel Says:

    […] But on reflection, maybe discounting the size of the U.S. isn’t such a good idea. Maybe a big country, where precedents are set for many at once and where legislative decisions have an exceptionally wide scope, has an extra responsibility to err on the side of safety. Maybe that’s why small countries should belong to supranational organizations that impose annoying regulations. […]

  33. Jeremy Says:

    Between Brexit and Donald Trump, if you had to choose one to avoid the other, which one would you choose?

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