June 21, 2016 6:47 p.m. ET
In voting Thursday on whether to leave the European Union, the British people face perhaps the most momentous decision since Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century so he could marry as he pleased. Though lust is not the motivation this time, there are other similarities. The Catholic Church five centuries ago was run by an unelected supranational elite, answerable to its own courts, living in luxury at the expense of ordinary people, and with powers to impose its one-size-fits-all rules despite the wishes of national governments. We were right to leave.
The European Union is quite unlike any of today’s international organizations and has never been emulated elsewhere. Britain has no desire to withdraw from NATO, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the Council of Europe or, for that matter, the Olympics. These bodies are agreements between governments. The EU is a supranational government run in a fundamentally undemocratic, indeed antidemocratic, way. It has four presidents, none of them elected. Power to initiate legislation rests entirely with an unelected commission. Its court can overrule our Parliament.
This was deliberate. In the mid-20th century, French and German politicians, with bad memories of brief and chaotic democratic interludes between autocracies, designed a way to ensure that power would shift gradually to a technocratic elite. Britain’s history of democracy is happier. Long ago we had a “glorious revolution” to establish the principle that laws cannot be passed or taxes raised except by the consent of the people as represented in Parliament.
A centrally planned, regional customs union—though not one run with a colonial mind-set, chaotic accounts, a bureaucratic surplus and a democratic deficit—might have made some sense in the 1950s. That was before container shipping, budget airlines, the internet and the collapse of tariffs under the World Trade Organization made it as easy to do business with Australia and China as with France and Germany. But today, Britain—the most outward-facing of the major European economies—will thrive if it leaves. Europe’s GDP has only just staggered back up to where it was before the 2008 financial crisis.
This is because the EU’s obsession with harmonization (of currency and rules) frustrates innovation. Using as an excuse the precautionary principle or the need to get 28 countries to agree, the EU gets in the way of the new. “Technological progress is often hindered or almost impossible in Europe,” says Markus Beyrer, director general of BusinessEurope, a confederation of industry groups. Consequently, we’ve been left behind in digital technology: There are no digital giants in Europe to rival Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook.
The EU is also against free trade. It says it isn’t, but its actions speak louder. The EU has an external tariff that deters African farmers from exporting their produce to us, helping to perpetuate poverty there, while raising prices in Europe. The EU confiscated Britain’s right to sign trade agreements—though we were the nation that pioneered the idea of unilateral free trade in the 1840s. All the trade agreements that the EU has signed are smaller, as measured by the trading partners’ GDP, than the agreements made by Chile, Singapore or Switzerland. Those the EU has signed usually exclude services, Britain’s strongest sector, and are more about regulations to suit big companies than the dismantling of barriers.
MORE ON BREXIT
- Review & Outlook: Britain and Europe’s Fate
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- Podcast: A Deep Dive Into the Brexit Debate
- John Browne: A Vote to Leave Europe Means a Lesser Britain
Even worse than in Westminster or Washington, the corridors of Brussels are crawling with lobbyists for big companies, big banks and big environmental pressure groups seeking rules that work as barriers to entry for smaller firms and newer ideas. The Volkswagen emissions scandal came from a big company bullying the EU into rules that suited it and poisoned us. The anti-vaping rules in the latest Tobacco Products Directive, which will slow the decline of smoking, came from lobbying by big pharmaceutical companies trying to defend the market share of their nicotine patches and gums. The de facto ban on genetically modified organisms is at the behest of big green groups, many of which receive huge grants from Brussels.
In a fine speech in 2013, David Cameron, the British prime minister, called for fundamental reform, but this year he settled for far more modest demands in a travesty of a “renegotiation.” He has since campaigned for a vote to Remain, making increasingly implausible claims about the wars, depressions and plagues of Egypt that will follow if the world’s fifth-biggest economy tries to survive in a world where Norway, Switzerland, Japan and Singapore seem to manage fine. His latest claim is that the leaders of Islamic State would welcome Brexit, for which he has adduced no evidence. George Osborne, his chancellor of the exchequer, has bizarrely promised a punitive budget of tax rises and spending cuts to deepen any recession after our departure.
The most striking feature of the campaign is that nobody on the Remain side is prepared to make a positive case for the European Union and its further integration. By contrast, the Leave campaigners, led by Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, and Michael Gove, the justice secretary, talk of Britain’s escaping a regional backwater and getting into the global mainstream, while remaining an ally and friend of Europe. I shall be voting Leave.
Mr. Ridley is a columnist for the Times (U.K.) and a member of the House of Lords.