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.
- It is better for everybody if everybody cooperates than if everybody breaks the agreement.
- 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.