Two things have changed since I read the Hugo Dixon book. One is that the whole Greek shituation has hit the fan, to the point where even left-leaning EU sympathisers have started to say stuff like “if this is the way the EU treats its members, then I don’t want anything to do with it.” The other big alteration, at least in my mind, is that the Tory government have started to bring in so many irritating, let’s-turn-back-the-clock-and-party-like-it’s-1983 Thatcheresque policies, that frankly “whether the UK is in the EU or not” has started to seem like a lesser concern; the major one being more “is the Tory party starting to turn the UK into the USA?” – and I don’t mean the fast food, Coca-Cola, big cars, highways, roadhouse bar’n’grill Americana parts. I mean all the bad bits. Paying for healthcare, practically non-exisitent welfare state, companies and banks being 100 times more powerful than the government; and the publicly funded broadcaster being painfully quaint and weak, primarily educational and ultra left-wing.

I’m tempted to spend this whole post fulminating on this very topic – and in fact I might devote a future one to it (you can hardly wait) – but I did actually manage to struggle through David Charter’s Europe: In Or Out? so I’d better briefly give it its due.

This book differs from The In/Out Question in many ways, and the two tomes have many minor similarities: both are written in English, both have titles possessing the words “In” and “Out”, both have blue covers with some kind of graphic representation of the EU flag mingling with a totem of United Kingdomness, both are – on reflection – mind-meltingly boring. But the two major things they have in common are more telling. They both suffer from a woeful, although inevitable, focus on economics and statistics. If this was 1974, or even 1985, when the body up for discussion was the European Economic Community, you’d expect nothing more. But the whole point of this wretched debate is that it’s the EU. A union, in lots of different ways; primarily, I would venture, of people. So where are the people? In both books? Where is the boss of a firm in Hemel Hempstead who is really jolly glad he’s employing so many super-reliable Polish people? Where is the unemployed man in Sunderland who is cross that he’s been pipped to the post in his latest job application by a mother of two from Hungary? Where is the Liverpudlian who’s having a lovely time working in Stuttgart, or the retired estate agent living quite a nice life in Malaga? Where is the Italian citizen who’s been living in the UK since 2005, working professionally, who wonders what the fuck’s going to happen if Britain severs its ties? Oh, there are a couple of token examples – a cheesemaker from Somerset who benefits from the EU’s trade deal with (unexpectedly) South Korea – but there is a distinct lack of anything resembling a “human story”, if you’ll pardon the hideous expression.

So, to put it bluntly, what worries me is that most people in this country don’t really give a shit about the human story. A perfectly nice family in Leicestershire or Cheshire who actually aren’t friends with any EU citizens living in Britain probably don’t really care about anything but the economics of the thing. I guess these books are for them. Hugo Dixon of course is undoubtedly pro – to a somewhat bewildering degree, even for an EU supporter like me – but the largely skeptical David Charter has written a book over which hangs something of a fog of depression. He never really comes out and says “we should leave” outright, but what he does fill us with is gloom at the workings of the current EU setup. Some bits admittedly do seem absurd – the money-wasting, environment-punishing shuttling of the European Parliament to and from Strasbourg and Brussels, for example – but Charter relentlessly points out the system’s shortcomings without, as Hugo Dixon does, suggesting improvements. It’s an altogether meatier book, with firmer, more satisfying writing, but I guess we’re not really in it for the writing. The final paragraph is a bit chilling and sums up a large portion of my fears about the situation, so here it is:

Without the prospect of a better EU, there is no answer to the attractions of Brexit. Returning to sovereign control over domestic affairs, Britain will survive outside the EU despite the upheaval of leaving. The question is whether it will thrive. Paradoxically, one of the conditions of a successful divorce is the goodwill of the other partner. This book has highlighted the wide range of shared interests between European nations and shown that some measure of compromise is inevitable. No perfect formula exists for the complete jigsaw of continental cooperation and Britain has much to lose from an acrimonious breakdown in relations with the European Union, in or out.

I rather wish that this notion would be mentioned more in the British press, whether from a pro- or an against-EU media source.

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One of the first things I thought I should do is read some books. Problem is, the most recent ones are published last year, and for good reason, I suppose, as the closer to the general election they were published, the sooner the books would be rendered obsolete. I guess the two books I picked are already kind of redundant, but I’m reading them anyway just to get thinking. I finished the first one last night.

Hugo Dixon is clearly quite a learned chap – a prominent financial journalist who was at the FT for a decade – and he probably knocked off this small reader over a wet weekend. Despite being called The In/Out Question it is essentially one long “in” argument, although Dixon does list extensive improvements he would make to the current system, none of which I expect would be as easily achievable as he suggests. He likes the single market, he likes the idea of the EU ratcheting up its competitive edge, he likes free movement between countries, he thinks it’s crucial for the EU (with the UK firmly included) to be a single, strong front in the face of huge growing markets like China; he acknowledges that Brussels can meddle too much and that red tape could be “cut” (a slightly awkward clash of idioms) and he hates the Common Agricultural Policy. His points are well-organised with plenty of statistics to back them up, but the writing is slightly flat and unpersuasive; I wonder whether this book would manage to turn any eurosceptic’s opinion around.

The other problem with the book is that it’s almost wholly economically focused. There are hardly any cultural points for good or ill, and the few which squeeze in are a bit perfunctory: when discussing how we as a country are culturally getting closer to the EU, the best proof he can muster is that “we are enjoying more and more continental food – tapas, wine, pasta, Greek yoghurt, you name it.” It could be a line out of a 1970s school textbook.

He also fails to convince us that free movement of people isn’t causing a serious problem in some parts of the UK, with the rather whimsical notion that “the more people experience cross-fertilisation [of cultures], the more people like it”, then going on to discuss how popular foreigners are in London. No shit, Hugo… but what about in Kings Lynn or Lowestoft?

The difficult thing for me is that I agree with most of what he says, and of course I want it all to be true and for everyone else to believe it too. But very little is spoken about “what if we don’t” vote to stay in the EU. One sole paragraph is dedicated to what would happen to UK citizens residing and working in the EU, and EU citizens residing and working in the UK, if we left; although Dixon does give oxygen to a dark concept that the country’s pro-Europe press would do well to bandy around a little more: namely, that we have no way of knowing how the rest of the EU will react to the UK leaving. They would be perfectly within their rights to tighten border controls, turf out Brits, make trading agreements tricky, the works. We have no reason to presume that our erstwhile union partners will simply say, “okay, fair enough, you’ve left, now let’s try and make it as easy as possible for you.” Quite the contrary – it may get decidedly spiky, especially if the UK start to play tough with euro migrants. That eurosceptic Tory MP with his holiday home in the Dordogne may well have to get a visa to visit it, in a worst case scenario – or even pay a hefty tax on it.

In short, The In/Out Question is a quick, worthwhile read if all you want to do is confirm your already pro-EU feelings. But as for convincing eurosceptics, or even swaying those on the fence, the pro-EU brigade are going to have to do a hell of a lot better than this.

Next: Europe: In or Out? by David Charter

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