Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Reasons to stay in the European Union, #4: you will probably be poorer if we leave


So now we're down to some of the business end of this European Union referendum campaign. To be perfectly honest, amidst all the claim and counter-claim, we would much rather be hitting the beach right now. In just a few weeks, we're all going to break up and head for our holidays. Can't wait. But for now, there's some serious - indeed generation-defining - questions to be asked. This week's is very simple: if you vote for the 'Leave' side in this plebiscite, how much poorer do you think you're going to get, and how much punishment are you willing to take?

We've already put three cases before you, urging you if you are a United Kingdom voter to cast a vote for 'Remain' on 23 June. The first is that Britain's trade deal with the EU is likely to be worse than the full access to the Single Market that we enjoy now, something that the tortuous history of our 1960s and 1970s negotiations to try to get in bears out more than any theorising now. The second argument that persuades us, at least, is the absolute nonsense pumped out by the 'Leave' camp, now parading around like a government-in-waiting, from their £350m-a-week claim to the idea that leaving would 'save the National Health Service'. Then, last week, we thirdly followed this up with a foreign policy question: do you really want to vote 'Leave', and do exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing, urging you to do, all the better to let him lay down terms to Europe's East and South-East? Well, excuse us if we don't grasp eagerly at a rubbish trade deal, a new load of not-so-honest rulers and more Russian influence in London, the Baltics and Syria. It doesn't really sound very appetising when you put it like that, does it?

This week we're going to focus on you: to the threat Brexit poses to your own personal bank balance and your own standard of living. Leave seem to be making progress at the moment, in pretty much the most favourable circumstances they could ever hope for - as stories grow of an absurdly over-hyped migrant 'crisis' in the Channel, and migrant data is published which makes the Government's efforts to limit numbers look not only doomed to failure, but shifty and manipulative. Leave is definitely having some success with the simple case that 'public services need more money, we give money to the EU, let's keep it and use it here'.

This is almost entirely disingenuous nonsense, as almost every reputable economist in the country could tell you. Experienced politicians such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove know that the economy will almost certainly shrink on a British exit from the European Union. They know the tax base will be smaller, and there will therefore be less money for public services, not more money. Austerity will go on longer, and the NHS and our housing and transport systems will be longer and harder squeezed than they would be on present presumptions. They are engaged in nothing more than a cynical smash-and-grab raid on older Labour voters, alienated from their 'own' party of many years standing by its trek away from their values and ideas, and an attempt to tell them that Brexit is in their interests. It isn't.

The British economy has enormous strengths, as this blog has noted again and again. Aerospace. Financial services. Computing. Film and television. Education. Tourism. Gaming. All of them are live, active areas of innovation, employment and foreign earnings. In the end, whatever happens, we will be okay - barring enormous shocks inside the Chinese economy, or American banking system, that we probably can't do much about. After 2020 (or thereabouts), the UK's growth path may be back on trend. But it's that 'after 2020' that, in the end, is classic wish-fulfillment for people who can afford an economic shock, and can just lie low for the rest of the Parliament until growth comes again. Many voters sense this, and get annoyed at Brexiteers' insouciance when it comes to any recession that we've brought on ourselves - one of the reasons why 'Remain' is still the favourite in this contest (for now). Anyone who hasn't got enough leeway to get through the next few years? Well, that's the price of 'freedom' - a national 'freedom' that never has existed, does not exist now, and will certainly never exist in the regionalist, interconnected, networked world of overlapping trade blocs, jurisdictions and authorities.

Start with this: a British 'Leave' will be a severe blow to confidence. Foreign Direct Investment will fall. Sterling will plunge, at least initially. Domestic spending will dry up. There is very little doubt of this. There is pretty much no modelling that suggests that this isn't true. Then we will be on to a protracted and very difficult set of negotiations, which (let's be frank about it) we doubt that Whitehall and Westminster have the institutional memory and intellectual power even to conduct, let alone to bring to a successful conclusion. It will be a total car crash. There will be two years between the moment we pull the trigger on telling the EU that we're leaving, and the actual moment of exit: there may be many more before we get to anything like a trade settlement worthy of the name. It took tiny Greenland, by the way, three years to leave - when all the negotiations were focused on the fishing industry alone. The UK, a country more than a hundred times bigger, will need to tear itself away from the economic mooring it has made itself for more than forty years, and start all over again from scratch - as the World Trade Organisation has recently made clear - even in terms of its trade with the rest of the world. If you think that growth will carry on unimpeded during all that, you need a lie down in a darkened room and some iced water.

In the meantime, all the Government's energies will be bent in that direction. Want energy market reform? New power capacity? Labour market re-equipment and a new, bolder apprenticeship system? Bigger infrastructure projects? Regional innovation, city lending, novel forms of local public-private innovation? You'll get none of it. You'll just get Boris Johnson saving around bits of paper as he huffs and puffs his way between London, Brussels and Strasbourg, fiddling with bits of lint in his pockets. He won't worry: he's made a fortune from 'book' sales and journalism. He'll still be rich. You'll be poorer. He'll drink champagne. You'll feel like drinking hemlock.

Look: it's this simple. If you have savings, if you have property, if you have a house which is your main source of savings value and security, if you have any exposure to a falling pound, if your job relies on trade with the other EU states, than 'Leave' probably will make you poorer. Don't want to listen to the International Monetary Fund, the Confederation of British Industry, the Bank of England, the Trades Union Congress, the President of the United States, the Prime Ministers of Canada, Australia, New Zealand? Try something a bit closer to home. Although a bit annoyed at the way his words have been pressed into use by the 'Remain' camp, Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert.com fame, will 'probably' vote to say in the EU 'on the balance of probabilities' - hardly a glowing endorsement, but from the most trusted personal finance expert in the country, something of a coup for 'Remain'.

It's your choice. It really is. But let us add our puny voice to the din: a vote for 'Leave' means that you will - for a while - be quite likely to be wreaking economic damage on your own country, and on yourself. You may well get poorer. Potentially, a lot poorer.

It's possible that the overwhelming balance of economists' views is wrong (they were more divided on the Euro, but a majority still favoured Britain joining). They are - sometimes - subject to groupthink. The precision of the Remain camp's warnings probably are overdone, as the prominent Remainer (and ex-Trade Secretary) Vince Cable accepts. You could gamble on all that. You could defy all these many, many warnings. You could leap in the dark. It might be that the pound's falls on bad news for 'Remain', and rises on good tidings, for 'Leave', won't be replicated in the early hours of 24 June if the Outers do win the day. It could always be the case that there won't be a large house price adjustment as confidence and certainty flood out of the UK (and into just about nowhere else). But not, we would advise on each and every one of these counts, very likely.

Ask yourself this: for yourself, for your family, for your children, why would you take the risk?

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