Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Breakup Brewing?

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
—Thomas Jefferson, writing to James Madison from Paris on January 30, 1787
My coffee is cold. I blame the European Union.

Does that make me some kind of weird, fringe anti-government whacko? Nah, I’m just someone who loves my coffee (all those years in Seattle, you know) and who gets tired of having to remember to keep turning on the coffee machine to keep the coffee hot or, alternatively, having to keep microwaving my cold cup of coffee.

What does the EU have to do with my coffee maker? It’s kind of a symbolic thing. You see, I bought a new coffee machine a couple of months ago, and this one behaves differently from the ones I had before. My previous drip coffee maker, once it had made the coffee, would keep it warm on a hot plate that shut off automatically after a couple of hours. The new one shuts off after 30 minutes. Maybe I should drink my coffee faster, but it always seems as though the coffee is barely ready before it has already gone tepid. Every time I go looking for a refill, I find the pot has gone lukewarm if not downright cold. So I am using the microwave more these days.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, this is a #firstworldproblem of non-major proportions. Compared with all the planet’s much bigger issues, it is definitely not worth complaining about. It is just an annoyance. So why am I bringing it up at all? Because it is a concrete (albeit minor) example of why a lot of people living in the European Union have a certain level of negative feeling about it. You see, the time limit on my coffee maker is because of an EU rule. Someone or a group of someones in Brussels decided for some reason that coffee makers should not keep coffee warm longer than a half-hour. And that this was important enough to put into a legal directive affecting the citizens of 28 countries. Perhaps there is a very good reason for this. Maybe there was a spate of tragic accidents, which I somehow have managed not to read or hear about, in which glass coffee pots shattered because they ran dry sitting on top of hot plates that refused to turn off soon enough. Maybe whole buildings have gone up in smoke because of those stubborn coffee warmers. I do not doubt that there is a reason and that the reason seemed perfectly good to the bureaucrats in Belgium.

Here’s the rub. If this rule had been passed by bureaucrats in Dublin, then at least I could contact my local representative in Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament). One of the advantages of living in a small country is that it is incredibly easy to get in touch with your national representative. And maybe it would make a difference and maybe it would not, but at least I would have had my say. As it happens, though, if I were to ring up, say, Éamon Ó Cuív (one of the TDs who represents me) to give out about my coffee maker, I would probably get a recitation of how terrible it is but what can you do? The decision was made in Brussels, not Dublin. Sorry.

Here is another example. You know that little checkbox you have to click every time you visit a new website? The one with the link to a page full of legal information that you never click on (let alone read) but it says something about cookies and privacy? Everyone who publishes a web site—from the biggest corporation down to the humblest blogger who builds his or her own website, e.g. me—has to make their site ask that question and receive a response because the EU decided it was in consumers’ interests and, if there is even a chance that someone in the EU will look at your website, you better make sure your website asks the question or risk having the wrath of the EU bureaucracy come looking for you.

The dirty little secret is that the political class loves the EU precisely because its rule-making is so remote and anonymous. It gets the local parliamentarians off the hook. This is why so many politicians in so many different political parties in so many different countries have come out against Brexit—shorthand for the referendum to be held on Thursday, which is meant to decide the question of whether the United Kingdom should remain or leave the EU. When citizens complain about controversial or annoying rules, the response is often a shrug of the shoulders and a “What can you do? It’s those bureaucrats in Brussels.”

In addition to the political class, you know who really wants Britain to stay in the EU? The investor class. Last week when the polls suggested the Leave side would win, London stocks and pound sterling tanked. When the polls shifted after the horrific murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by a crazy man, those measures surged on the positive side.

Is the EU anti-democratic? Well, every time a country votes the “wrong” way on an EU treaty (Denmark on the Maastricht Treaty, Ireland on the Nice Treaty), the electorate is always required to vote on it again—until it finally gets it right. So there is a bit of a sense that the role of voters is mainly to act as a rubber stamp. If Britons vote in two days to leave the EU, I suspect the referendum will end up getting a do-over.

To be sure, there are extremely valid reasons for people to want to be part of the EU. Businesses like the convenience and relative simplicity of working within a tightly knit trading bloc and using a common currency. (The UK has never joined the euro and still uses pound sterling.) Travelers like going through shorter immigration queues since an EU passport guarantees automatic entry to all EU countries. And some people, remembering back to two devastating world wars in the past century, feel that political and economic integration is the best hedge against armed conflict.

Personally, I am at odds with myself on the question. As someone who believes that free trade and travel are necessary for personal liberty, I think the EU is great. As someone who believes that, in the interest of individual rights, the best government is the one closest and most answerable to you, I sometimes find the EU scary.

People who prefer to leave the EU see it as a trading bloc that did not know where to stop and has gradually turned into a super-state, inexorably overwhelming individual countries’ perogatives. In no area is this feeling stronger than in immigration. Many Britons feel their country has lost control of its borders. This is technically true when it comes to citizens and residents of other EU countries, as they have the right to live and work in Britain. It does not really apply to the hordes of refugees currently flooding into Europe, as the UK is not part of Europe’s Schengen Treaty zone in which entry into one country is tantamount to entry to all. This is why sprawling refugee camps have amassed around Calais. It is the last stop on the way to Britain, and non-EU citizens must have a visa.

That last point raises an interesting question. Why are those migrants so desperate to get into the UK anyway? After all, they are already in the Schengen zone and can travel unimpeded within 26 European countries. Why huddle in miserable camps, waiting for a chance to cross one more border? Here are some possible reasons. Perhaps they have friends or family in the UK and know they will have a community of support there. Maybe they speak English but not French or German. Or maybe, just maybe, Britain’s relatively strong economy and standard of living is a factor.

In the end, if there is a viable reason for the UK to leave the EU, it will have more to do with the economy than with immigration. In hindsight, Britain’s decision not to join the euro looks like it was probably the right one. Despite all the (at times hysterical) predictions of disaster for Britain if it goes it alone, it looks more and more, economically, as though the EU really needs the UK more than the other way around.

Whatever way the Brits end up voting, let’s hope that they approach this important decision wide awake and sober. They will want to ponder it seriously over a good hot cup of tea—or maybe over a good stiff cold cup of coffee.

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