Europe: Good and bad arguments

The European referendum is off to a cracking start, but as is often the case, there are some fairly bad arguments out there, on both sides. This is a first attempt to winnow out which are the good arguments – that is, arguments with some justification – from the bad ones.  I’ll try to revise this as the case develops.

Good arguments to REMAIN

(and what I see as the counter-arguments)

Good arguments to LEAVE

(and what I see as the counter-arguments)

The EU makes it possible to control things which are beyond the scope of national governments – including the environment, trade, multi-national corporations.

True, but the EU’s track record on international regulation has not been good – often because of obstruction by the British.

THE EU has a ‘democratic deficit’; it is remote from the people it serves.

More than half-true – but in the UK, the same is true of almost every tier of government, including local government.  Democracy is an argument for more engagement in the decisions that affect us, not for withdrawal from those decisions.

The EU has defined and raised  minimum standards across Europe, e.g. on the environment, transport, water quality.  Without it, standards will fall.

No counter-argument.


In some fields the EU has promoted a ‘race to the bottom’, undermining citizens’ rights.  Examples include the rules on public services and the bar on living wage contracts.

In any federal system there will be decisions that member states might disagree with.  The test is whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Europe is also a social project which makes life better for its citizens, for example through travel, residence abroad (more than 2 million Britons live in other European countries) and social protection.

There has long been a consistent political majority against ‘Social Europe’ and the project has stalled for many years.

Some shockingly bad decisions by the ECJ (e.g. Rüffert v Niedersachsen, 2008 C‑346/06) have revealed a structural weakness – there is no obvious way to revise and correct defective federal laws without revisions of the treaties.

This could also be seen as an argument for extending the powers of the EU to facilitate federal legislation.

The EU has created rights for its citizens across Europe, such as rights for workers, for women and in consumer protection.   Without it, rights will be eroded.

This is largely true, but the counter-argument is the ‘race to the bottom’: the EU has also undermined significant rights, such as the enforceability of collective wage agreements.

The free movement of people within the EU has been chaotic.  The principle has been undermined by the combination of enlargement and the abandonment of basic planning and population management to cope with social change.

This is a problem of free markets.  Social and economic development depend on establishing a common framework, not on laissez-faire.

The EU is the UK’s largest trading partner and UK industry and finance will have to comply with its conditions to maintain access.

No counter-argument.  If the UK becomes, like Norway, only a member of the EEA, it will also have to accept free mobility of labour.


The EU’s handling of the Greek crisis reveals a deep malaise –  narrow financial interest,  some bad behaviour on both sides of the argument, bullying of the weaker party and a disregard for the welfare of European citizens.

Without regulation and agreed procedures, the bullying will get worse.  This is an argument for stronger regulation and clearer rules, not for leaving.

Britain’s economy depends heavily on the provision of services to other countries and many of those  services (especially finance) could as effectively be provided elsewhere.  Leaving threatens an economic catastrophe for Britain which the IMF has warned could engulf the world economy.

The counter arguments are weak.  The defence that Britain is too big to be allowed to fail is naive, as is the emphasis on the size of the economy, which is based on book values.

Bad arguments to REMAIN

(with counter-arguments)

Bad arguments to LEAVE

(with counter-arguments)

The EU has brought peace to Europe.

True, but it doesn’t follow that the UK’s presence is central to that.

The EU undermines national sovereignty.

Sovereignty is all about the authority to make laws – rules of recognition, change and adjudication.  The EU safeguards  the rule of law throughout Europe.  

The EU wants to be a superstate.

The EU aims to develop the rule of law at a different level from the nation state.  Many British politicians don’t understand that other governments don’t work the way they do: most have shared competence at different levels of government.  Other federations are not centralised.

The EU promotes liberal markets.

The EU is wedded to a model of ‘structural adjustment’ that has been discredited in other international organisations.  European markets stand in need of regulation and consideration of the consequences of collective actions.

The EU stops the UK from controlling its borders.

The UK cannot expect in a  modern, open, connected society to govern EU or non-EU migration at the frontier.   In most European countries, migration isn’t mainly controlled at the border: it’s controlled through employment, access to housing and services.

 The USA wants Britain to remain as a conduit for furthering US interests.

It’s difficult to see what’s in this for the UK or for Europe.

Leaving means that the UK will be able to act as it wishes and negotiate arrangements in its own interests.

It won’t.

The UK can make the EU better through positive engagement.

The UK has often  made the EU worse.


The EU has promoted trade rules which exclude or  disadvantage developing countries.

This is a fair criticism of policy, but it is an argument for changing that policy rather than for leaving.

The EU is stopping the government doing what it would otherwise do over issues like human rights and workers’ rights.

There is a confusion here between the EU and the European Court of Human rights: but in so far as this is true, it is an excellent reason to remain.


I have previously made my own position clear: I identify myself as a European. A vote to leave would be a vote to deprive me, and anyone else who votes for Europe, of our rights as European citizens.  I will vote to remain.

2 thoughts on “Europe: Good and bad arguments”

  1. Phil Pilkington has a different reason than you have given for remaining. he is bending toward remaining because friends of his in the UK who came here from European countries for a better life will be subjected to the meat grinder of customs were the UK to exit the EU. This is a personal rather than structural reason for staying, and you concentrated on the latter, and nothing wrong with that. Just noting.

    1. There is a broader general issue here: what happens to 2.2 million people from the UK living in the rest of Europe, and 2.3 million people from the rest of Europe living in the UK? It seems hard to imagine that any future arrangement would not work, like the arrangements with Australia or the USA, on the basis of continuing and frequent exchange of people: but after more than forty years, the UK is more deeply integrated with European culture and European ways of life, and families are more closely intertwined, than many realise.

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