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The Financial Times’ editorial stance to remain in the European Union is no secret. So when Merryn Somerset Webb, respected FT Money columnist and editor-in-chief of MoneyWeek wrote a piece last week entitled, “Why UK investors should back Brexit”, our readers scrambled into the comment box in droves. We received more than 300 comments and tweets — let’s call them “energetic” in tone. One reader actually mailed Somerset Webb a euro in protest.
Roughly three-quarters of those moved to comment disagreed with Somerset Webb’s argument that UK investors should be in favour of quitting the EU. This isn’t surprising — comments on FT articles so far have proved to be a case of “opposites attract” with pro-EU columns often providing a treasure trove of pro-Brexit comments. Our readers are more likely to respond to an article when they disagree with it.
One commenter, You can call me Al, took issue with Somerset Webb’s first point that Europe is a real land mass, but the EU is a construct created by humans to make sense of their world — and that it was a much weaker imagined community than the culturally united countries within it.
“Europe isn’t ‘real’ either. It’s just an identifier for a chunk of landmass that saw some particularly savage fighting until some rather wiser heads concluded that economic and political co-operation might offer a better way forward. My grandfather spent his 18th birthday in a trench in France trying to kill the Germans who were trying to kill him. My kids spent their late teens having fun in Berlin and on the beaches of France and Spain. I’m confident that economic and political stability on the continent that I call home is best served by remaining.”
Many readers also disagreed with Somerset Webb’s argument that a Brexit would keep the UK united, as the risk of reapplying for EU membership after leaving would discourage Scottish voters from voting for sovereignty. Active commenter francobollo wrote:
“I was dead against the break-up of the union when the Scots voted before and relieved that it was turned down. But if the UK leaves the EU then it would be in Scotland’s interests to rejoin the EU. Scotland needs capital for development, and it would get this within the EU, which is a large market in balance with the rest of the world. It wouldn’t get the capital from the UK, because capital will be leaving the country, not coming in post-Brexit. If the UK left the EU, I for one would support Scotland leaving the UK, and, having a bit of Scots blood, might even think about moving there.”
MeetingHisTrafalgar agreed with Somerset Webb’s third point, that it is easier to measure potential loss than potential gain when evaluating the risks of leaving.
“The crux of the matter is the third point — the economy. I accept the point that hard forecasts/estimates about gains are difficult to pinpoint. My complaint is that flat assertions that exiting or remaining would make little difference are not good enough. Where are the economic opportunities just waiting to be seized once we throw off ‘the dead hand of Brussels’?”
Readers felt particularly strongly about Somerset Webb’s point that “as things stand, our PM has to ask about 27 other people before he can make minor changes to our welfare system”. Commenter ICD responded:
“I don’t think so. Member states have all sorts of different welfare state systems. Surely the difficulty was that we were not treating everyone in the EU the same. We wanted to make an anti-EU immigrant regulation, which goes against a principle of the club we joined. A bit like saying to the members of a club that has a no children rule, ‘Mind if I bring my children along?’”
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Commenter Sadducee, however, highlighted Somerset Webb’s larger argument about the EU’s democratic deficit — that it lacks democratic legitimacy.
“Democracy is surely about having the power to hold legislators to account, and periodically to have the opportunity to throw them out if we don’t like what they do. The mechanisms of the EU do not allow for this. On the contrary, EU lawmaking processes are opaque, unaccountable (to national electorates) and tainted with a whiff of corruption through lobbying and backroom deals.”
Ultimately, it seems, many FT readers will vote Leave come June. Commenter JES spurred a long debate about whether the Stay camp is overreacting.
“A lot of the argument put forward above appears to rest on a shaky claim that Britain alone does not have anything to offer the EU, Europe or the world. I find this idea that the world would suddenly isolate its fifth-largest economy, because we left some little club, to be a fallacy . . . My money says Britain votes to leave. There is a great furore, lots of name calling and prophesying. Then everybody puts their adult hats back on, comes to the table and negotiates a proper trade agreement that allows everybody else to go on as normal. Or as close to normal as is possible with Britain as a non member.”
In response, commenter Gustavinberlin agreed — up to a point.
“Accepting JES’s point that Brexit, if it happened, would not bring about tariff barriers or restrictions in trade — and I agree, that would be an unlikely and extreme scenario that isn’t in anyone’s interests — there is still every reason to think that it would bring about other lasting damage. In times like these, dialogue and co-operation matter — among other things, there is a refugee crisis — and by leaving, we would throw away the political capital and goodwill which Britain at present takes for granted as a partner in dialogue.”
Here’s a response from Merryn Somerset Webb herself:
First, thank you for all your responses. Lots of you have also sent me direct emails. I will try and respond to as many of those as time allows at some point, but I’m afraid that it is unlikely that everyone will get a reply. Many excellent points have been made in the comments section and it is clear that there is a very good case to be made on both sides. The Scottish referendum was much easier to comment on. The economic case for leaving was non-existent: anyone who voted “yes” and has looked at the latest figures on the Scottish economy should be going out to kiss a few “no” voters this week. So voting to leave was purely a matter of emotion.
The EU referendum is different. As some of you have pointed out, there really are serious matters of sovereignty and democracy here. These can’t just be brushed under the carpet with mutterings about how we have more influence in than out: to me, Cameron’s “deal” shows that we have almost no influence within the EU at all — even when we are using our last and supposedly most powerful negotiating card (the threat to leave). We are also of course the nation that is most often in the losing minority in decisions, which suggests two things — first that the EU is doing a lot of things we would prefer it didn’t, and second that there isn’t much the UK can do about it.
It is also true that, unlike with Scotland, the economic case really isn’t clear: competent and respectable economists can (and do) argue both sides (as could I, if I felt like it). The best we can say then is that leaving the EU would in the short term give us a nasty dose of volatility (as, by the way could many other things — the election of a Labour government, for example); that in the medium term it could raise or cut GDP by a couple of percentage points; and that in the longer term anything could happen. Saying anything else is to think you have a better crystal ball than the rest of us (or to be pretending you do in order to protect your vested interests one way or another).
Brexit is very unlikely to bring economic catastrophe in itself. What it might do — as I say at the end of the original column — is help out the small and medium companies that much of our economy depends on. As Vote Leave point out, only 6 per cent of UK companies do business with the EU, but 100 per cent of British companies have to comply with EU regulations. Only the very biggest can afford to endlessly lobby to make those regulations suit them. That’s anti-competitive. If you believe in free markets and in the miraculous effects of real competition on long term growth, you may think that some good will come of it not happening.
As always at the FT, when you talk, we listen. We will continue to read, reflect upon and share your thoughts throughout the EU referendum debate.
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