Editor’s Note: In a mere six days, British citizens will vote in a referendum to decide whether their country will remain a part of the European Union. Last night, in the first of a two-part series, economics correspondent Paul Solman spoke with those in favor of exiting the European Union. In tonight’s Making Sen$e report, he covers the economic case for remaining.
While reporting in Oxford, England, Paul spoke to Helena Kennedy, a leading barrister and an expert in human rights law, civil liberties and constitutional issues. She’s also a member of the House of Lords and the head of Mansfield College at Oxford, and she’s in favor of staying in the European Union not only for economic reasons but for legal and labor reasons as well. Read that conversation below, and tune in to tonight’s Making Sen$e report for more on the topic. The following text has been edited for clarity and length.
— Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor
Paul Solman: To the extent that Scotland has sovereignty, it has been restrained. I gather that Scotland couldn’t put in a liquor tax because of Britain’s membership in the EU.
Helena Kennedy: Well, Scotland wanted to increase the tax on alcohol, because alcoholism and excessive drinking is a real problem in Scotland. And so there was a period when they thought one of the ways that you can deal with that is to price it out of people’s reach. But they found that they were up against a brick wall, because there are certain limits on the range within you can tax. And to do something above that range was going to create problems with regard to obligations in Europe. And so it is one of those problems that to an American may seem very strange, because of course having state distinctiveness is an important right in the United States. But you try to have norms across borders so that you don’t run into problems making the markets all work.
And you know I’m pushing for the same sort of thing with regard to the tax system. I want some greater sort of evenness across the tax system. We can’t have Starbucks coming in and saying they have paid their British taxes over in some other part of Europe where it’s going to be a much cheaper deal for them. In a world that is globalized and where you can choose where you pay your taxes, I want arrangements made across nations. And that’s one of the things that Europe allows us to do. It allows us to think creatively about the ways we should be collaborating.
Paul Solman: So the objective is equalization, but rational equalization.
Helena Kennedy: But it’s not true equalization. It’s within bands. It’s never rigidly saying that this is the tax that you have to impose, but it’s simply saying that you can’t go too hugely outside of the bands so that you skewer the market.
Despite having had that problem with the liquor tax, Scotland is incredibly pro being part of the European Union. And it may be that there is sort of a greater sense of history with Europe. France and Scotland particularly had very strong ties. And they certainly feel that they have benefited from being part of the European Union. They will vote to stay in. And so, too, will other bits of the United Kingdom.
Paul Solman: So the Scots did have their sovereignty somewhat restricted, but they are still in favor of staying rather than leaving?
Helena Kennedy: Listen, there is a kind of fiction around the business of sovereignty, and it’s very interesting that it’s the English who are busily talking about sovereignty and claiming that this shouldn’t have been done to Scotland, when the Scots in fact don’t seem to have minded it too much at all. Most nations have to surrender elements of sovereignty; as soon as they sign up to a treaty, they’re saying we are going to conform to this for the benefits that come with it. And it usually involves some kind of limitation on your own kind of swaggering decision-making that is only in your own interest. Working collaboratively with other nations usually brings benefits in the end that are greater than the restrictions that come with restraining sovereignty. So you have to make those balances. Peace and justice is the other thing. We sometimes forget that this union has been responsible for making sure that Europe keeps good relations, and in my mind, that is worth tinkering a little bit with sovereignty.
Paul Solman: But doesn’t it restrict the U.K.’s ability, to make deals with, say, former Commonwealth countries?
Helena Kennedy: Well, in fact, there’s no doubt I would make criticism of some of the things that I think Europe has done in relation to the Commonwealth.
I’m someone who’s in favor of staying in the European Union, but I’m not without my criticisms of it. My criticisms are very different from that of the Brexiteers, the people who want to leave. We actually do an unfairness to the Commonwealth; they often don’t get to sell their goods easily, because we have kind of created a cabal to do it together. It’s very hard for them to reach markets with some of the things they produce.
I don’t accept the argument that we would somehow reach greater markets. We do great deals with China, with whole parts of the world, and we are made stronger by the fact that we are part of a block, and China knows that by entering into deals with us, it will open gates into other parts of Europe. And vice verse: gates into other markets are opened to us by our being in the European Union.
Paul Solman: Well, the Brexiteers who I talked to who are undergraduates here, definitely made the point that by being part of this trading cabal, as you put it, other countries are being excluded. They mentioned developing countries like India, but they also mentioned Australia and New Zealand.
Helena Kennedy: What is being recognized in globalization is that being the sole operator, far from giving you this swaggering independence and freedom, actually makes you low on the list of people that nations want to do business with. They want to do business with bigger blocks, and a tiny, wee country like the U.K., isn’t going to figure very well in all of that, but if you are part of something bigger — doing deals with the U.K. means also doing deals with the whole of Europe – that actually takes us into markets that we would probably not be able to access with the greatest of ease.
Paul Solman: So what are the great advantages of being in the European Union?
Helena Kennedy: For me, it’s more than economic union. For me, it’s about belonging to a part of the world that I feel we have great links and history with, and I think that culturally we are enriched by those associations.
The other thing about it is that I really do believe that it’s about raising of standards. During the period of Thatcherism, we saw a huge attack upon the trade unions. And British Trade Unionism has been absolutely emasculated. But the interesting thing is that many of the protections in employment that we still have, have been maintained because we are part of the European Union structure. There are certain social chapter elements, which many, of course, of the right-wing Brexiteers don’t like. But they’ve given us better maternity leave, paternity leave, rights for fathers to have time off and limitations on the hours people are expected to work. Those things have been part of our obligation, because we are part of the European Union. And that benefits workers in Britain considerably.
Paul Solman: But immigration does drive down wages if it’s lower income people competing with lower income people.
Helena Kennedy: Yes, but your answer to that would be: Are we going to see a return to trade unions? Are we going to see a return to the things that kept wages higher? And I don’t see that happening under the group of people who are vociferously wanting to pull us out. I don’t think that workers’ wages are going to be increased by the people who are leading this fray to come out.
It’s often not acknowledged enough that a lot of good things have come from our belonging to this union of nations. And some of it has to do with human rights and with law. Increasingly, European law is invested with human rights standards, and that’s incredibly important, and it also sets standards for the whole of Europe.
Paul Solman: But wasn’t that initiated in large part by the U.K.?
Helena Kennedy: Absolutely in the early days, but it’s forgotten by the Brexiteers. The other thing is that we collaborate with Europe on has to do with security. I’m a lawyer, and we have a thing called the Euro warrant, and it makes it much easier, for example, to deal with trafficking in drugs, trafficking in arms and trafficking in people, because we can arrest people who flee this jurisdiction and get them brought back with much greater ease than would be possible if we weren’t part of this collaboration.
People think that it is always going to be as before — just without us having to play by the rules. Don’t kid yourself. That’s not going to happen. When people say, “I want a divorce, we’re all going to do this in a nice, civilized way,” we always know that once they start talking money and all of that, it becomes a rather different story, and it starts getting a bit uglier. And all I can say is that I don’t think it’s going to be the easy journey that the Brexiteers imagine, which is, “We’ll just come out and carry on as before,” because a lot of the good stuff and the good will, will not be there.
Paul Solman: Is there any argument that you’re sympathetic to with respect to leaving?
Helena Kennedy: I’m sympathetic to the need for reform in the European Union. I think it is overly bureaucratic. I think that it isn’t sufficiently transparent and democratic. I have many of the criticisms that the Brexiteers have, but I think that the answer to that is to reform it better. The answer to undemocratic protests is to democratize them. I think we should have much closer links with Parliaments in the nation states.