Sunday, May 26, 2019


Yesterday was good. It started with the news that a Polish friend had been given her British citizenship. She is incredibly proud to be British as well as Polish. And I was proud for her too. She came over with little English, worked hard, learnt the language, took courses, and ended up doing a degree in her second language. She got a first and now works in animal care.

My day was routine. I'm in Greece. I spent the morning digging up the bamboo that invades from the plot next to the garden. Then I treated myself to fresh fish for lunch with a tsipouro, overlooking a beautiful calm sea. After I fed the cats, I settled down to watch the Rugby League Magic Weekend, which I can here because of new EU regulations.

Two instances of simple happiness. Both the product of our right, as European citizens, of freedom of movement.

Yet people are now insisting that they will take that right away from us. Without it, my Polish friend would not have become a proud British citizen. She wouldn't have been able to follow her dreams. And for me, I have two citizenships too. I am British and a citizen of the European Union. I value my European citizenship. Three years ago, people voted to strip me of it against my will. I am upset about that, but nothing like as distressed as I am about the possible loss of my freedom of movement. It will stop me coming and going to Greece as I please, and I will lose the automatic right to live here. I will have legal limits on the time I can spend in my own house. I will face many extra costs, bureaucratic obstacles and restrictions. Also, depending on agreements, it may even be illegal for me to bring back my homemade marmalade. And for what? There are no benefits for anybody. If Brexit happens, I will be distraught.

In the great sum of things, these are small issues, just a couple of individuals, pretty lucky ones at that. And I know that when people voted leave, they didn't think that they were voting against brilliant people becoming new British citizens or to spoil the last years of my life, but that's what they were doing. It's part of the problem with the debate. We heard the word 'immigration' in the abstract, not the phrase, 'people we know.'

The really big confusion between abstraction and reality comes from the rhetorical use of the term 'sovereignty.' That the UK is a sovereign nation state is a simple fact. It is beyond debate. What Brexiters are doing is conflating sovereignty with power. We are sovereign but our power is necessarily constrained. It is limited by our voluntary decisions taken as a sovereign state to enter into agreements, treaties, and international organisations. It is restricted by the power of others to enforce their interests. Power is always constrained. Sovereignty gives us the ability to choose how. We have chosen to limit our power in some areas by becoming members of the EU. We did it because it was in our interest to join. One of the reasons that we haven't left, despite moving Article 50, is because we can't handle the consequences of doing so. That is why Leavers insist that there are none, when there are plenty, and they are profoundly damaging.

Now let's look at realities. Do you really want the British state to have unconstrained power? Do you want it to 'take back control' without restriction? The people who don't want their power to be restricted are dictators, imperialists, fascists, and the like. Human progress has been based on restraining the powerful. The EU was conceived as an institutional framework for constraining German power, democracy puts a check on the power of ruling groups, and rights protect individuals and minority groups from oppression. Brexiters have sold the idea that taking rights away from us, thereby increasing the power of our rulers, is to our benefit. This is a bizarre confidence trick that any snake oil salesman would be proud of.

The other paradox is that if we leave the EU, the only power that would increase is the power of the government over the people. The government's external power will diminish as much of it – both strategically and economically – is dependent on the greater strength EU membership brings. We will be weaker as well as poorer.

I have another suggestion, self-serving though it is. How about not doing it? Maybe we should keep our rights, rights that make people happy, rights that I rely on. Because once we start giving rights away, it turns the clock of progress backwards. Let's stay in the EU. Revoke Article 50. Let's choose to be happy.

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