Britain’s Ballot

The Dangers of Going it Alone

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Jonathan Hill is Britain's Commissioner to the E.U.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    As the countdown to the British vote on Europe ticks, European Commissoner Jonathan Hill explains why the debate is so vigorous and why Britain should stand by Brussels.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Leaving the European Union would endanger customs-free access to the single European market of 500 million people that has been enormously beneficial to the UK, Lord Hill argues.
    • This referendum is the first time in many years that British people are coming out in defense of the European Union.
    • The at times shrill tone of the Leave campaign sometimes resembles the methods of U.S. candidate Donald Trump, Lord Hill says.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

Jonathan Hill is a former British Conservative Party politician and PR specialist who served as a minister for education under Britain’s coalition government between 2010 and 2015. He was chosen as Britain’s Commissioner to the European Union in 2014, taking on the brief for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union. Originally a euroskeptic, he has now warmed to the E.U. project.

 

Handelsblatt: Lord Hill, with your hand on your heart: How are you going to vote – Leave or Remain?

Jonathan Hill: I will vote to Remain. It’s true I was never a fervent proponent of European integration. When the introduction of the euro was on the table, I was working in Downing Street for the then Prime Minister John Major. At that time, I opposed Great Britain’s joining the monetary union.

And in Brussels have you altered your opinion of the European Union?

Now I am a part of the Brussels system and can see more clearly the advantages the E.U. brings to Great Britain. Our economy is one of the strongest in the world. That’s not only due to our E.U. membership, but it certainly plays a part. Customs-free access to the single European market of 500 million people has been enormously beneficial to us. E.U. membership also makes sense for Great Britain in terms of security and foreign policy. You don’t gain more influence in the world by withdrawing and concentrating on yourself.

What you are saying doesn’t please many British voters at all. As European Commissioner, don’t you sometimes feel a little lonely in your own country?

I’m touched by your compassion. But during this time, I’ve also experienced many good things in Great Britain. The referendum is forcing people for the first time in a long while to defend the European Union. It’s been an eternity since the E.U.’s advantages for Great Britain have been so clearly laid out.

Our impression has been that the E.U. is being increasingly damned …

It’s true that the Leave campaign has sometimes painted things quite black. Claims are being made that Great Britain will be forced to adopt the euro, that Brussels wants a European army or that Turkey will soon become an E.U. member. Of course, none of that is true. But the debate about these issues offers an opportunity to give fundamental thought to the European Union, and that’s a good thing.

The British author J.K. Rowling has accused Brexit advocates of using Nazi methods. Is that also how you see it?

No. The tone of the campaign has sometimes been shrill. Some methods resemble those of Donald Trump. But one can’t claim that the run-up to the referendum has been boring. All citizens of all age groups are interested in it. Millions who otherwise don’t necessarily do so have registered to vote. I believe this is a good thing.

Some (leave campaign) methods resemble those of Donald Trump. But one can't claim that the run-up to the referendum has been boring.

Is the death of the Labor MP Jo Cox having an influence on the referendum? Is it helping the Remain camp?

This horrible crime has brought a moment of silence after all the previous noise. People have remembered the values of our political system, and the tone of the debate has changed. But I tend to doubt that this murder will influence the result of the referendum. We British are sometimes accused of being irritatingly unemotional. In the end, people will decide quite pragmatically what is best for their family, their job.

Is all the necessary information available to the voters? The Leave campaign has said very little about what can actually be expected to happen after a Brexit.

Precisely, that is their biggest weakness. These people have been waiting for this sort of referendum for a quarter of a century. Now when it is finally coming, they lack the rational arguments regarding Great Britain’s future outside the E.U. I view this as an irony of history: Up to now in Great Britain, the pro-Europeans were always considered to be irrational dreamers who refused to ask themselves critical questions – now it’s suddenly the reverse. The pro-Europeans are the skeptical realists, and the advocates of leaving the E.U. are the dreamers without a clear idea of the alternatives to the E.U. In the end, that doesn’t appeal to voters. The British aren’t particularly fond of visions.

 

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Great Britain has always put the brakes on European integration. Couldn’t its departure ultimately mean that the rest of the E.U. would move faster towards political union?

I don’t believe that a British exit would boost E.U. integration. There is no unanimous opinion in this regard among the member countries and at the top echelons of E.U. institutions. The president of the European Council Donald Tusk, for example, has expressed quite nuanced views on the matter.

What would a Brexit mean for London’s City?

I have visited London, Manchester and other British banking and stock-exchange centers in recent weeks and warned about the consequences of leaving the E.U. It could very well be that banks and investment funds transfer activities and jobs to Frankfurt or Paris.

The Conservative Party, to which you belong, is deeply divided about the issue of Europe. Many observers are asking themselves whether the Tories will be able to survive all this. What is your opinion?

I’m not worried at all. The Tories have already survived many challenges. The British Conservatives and the Labor Party are the oldest democratic parties in the world, although our demise has often been predicted. Controversies such as the process currently underway are often over-interpreted. What is more, we are dealing with an issue that other parties in other E.U. countries are also addressing.

And how does your personal future look if Great Britain leaves the E.U.? How long will you remain European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union?

I’ll say something about that at the appropriate time. Ask me the question again on Friday morning.

 

Ruth Berschens heads Handelsblatt’s Brussels office, leading coverage of European policy. She conducted the interview together with three E.U. correspondents from European newspapers. To contact the author: berschens@handelsblatt.com

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