The ethics of a Brexit referendum

The debate over Brexit has been dominated by propaganda. To date, I have had sympathy with the one ethical argument, which has been made most effectively by Mehreen Khan, for leaving the EU. It is shared by many on the left and the right, which suggests some universal ethical validity. The European Union suffers from a ‘democratic deficit’. The Eurocrisis vindicated this perspective compellingly, as the Trioka and ECB exercised appalling institutional overreach and illegitimately intervened in what were rightly national policy areas by threatening financial panic. This has now been well-documented.

It is a great irony, that the nation-state least affected by the Eurocrisis, because it is not a member of the Euro, is the one most determined to leave the EU. It is an additional irony, that a referendum is a legitimate means to exit the Euro – because it is economically life-threatening – but not to leave the EU. Relatively straightforward moral reasoning reveals why.

Who should legitimately rule on an individual’s rights?
Sadly, the debate over EU membership in the UK has been hijacked by charlatans on both sides. There are some voices of reason, but they are hard to hear above the noise. To my knowledge, no one has made the compelling ethical case for remaining in the EU, or more specifically why the referendum lacks true legitimacy, or ethical status. The ethical argument is straightforward and compelling: decisions about rescinding EU citizenship should be made at an individual level, because individuals are more affected by EU membership than the collective and it is extremely hard to contend that a significant number of British citizens are materially harmed by another citizen’s membership. In fact, for the same reason that the whole of Britain did not decide on Scottish membership of the United Kingdom, the whole of Britain should not decide on an individual’s right to travel freely and work in an EU country. This right does not harm any other individual, and it is far greater in significance than any of the alleged threats to the collective. The ethical case is that simple.

First, we need to clarify the nature of moral reasoning, as frequently our understanding of ethics is left to unreliable intuitions. The most basic ethical question in any legitimate process is who has the right to make decisions. Why, for example, do we all agree that Scotland should hold a referendum on its independence, and not the whole of the UK? Or that individual adults have the right to choose whether or not to smoke? Or that local authorities should adjudicate on local planning issues? The ethical principle at work is in fact very simple: those most affected by a law, rule or action, should have the greatest say. Those unaffected by something should be silent. The reason Scotland decides on its independence is because Scots are most affected. It is not because the rest of the UK is not affected, but because those living in Scotland are significantly more affected than others living elsewhere in the UK. Similarly, smoking is rightly banned in many public places, but not in private areas. If your actions affect me, I have rights, if they only affect you, the decision should be yours. One version of this universal ethical principle was articulated in the classic case for liberty by the great British moral philosopher, political theorist, and economist, John Stuart Mill. Mill argued that the individual should have complete autonomy in all areas of their life unless they materially affect the well-being of others.

Ok, so a fundamental principle of moral reasoning is very clear. If something primarily affects the individual, that individual should decide on the course of action. If something affects us collectively, we should decide through collective democratic means. Obviously, the effects have to be significant and equivalent to warrant that those affected to have a say.

So what does moral reasoning imply for Brexit? Staying in the EU, or leaving, can be framed as a choice about citizenship, about rights and freedoms. In fact it should be framed this way because, on reflection, it becomes clear that the greatest effects bear on individual freedoms – the collective effects are relatively trivial. To deal with that latter issue first, whatever perceptions of the potential of EU membership are to impair our collective well-being, the evidence suggests it is trivial. In contrast to Greek membership of the Euro, for example, it is very hard to claim that any of us suffer materially through EU membership: the transfer of money looks relatively trivial. EU regulations are a relatively small share of total UK regulations and it is almost impossible to argue significant collective harm. The same argument applies to immigration. In order to have the right to a vote on restricting another’s liberties – ethically – one must claim harm. The evidence that a signifcant number of Britons have been harmed by EU immigrants, or British citizens working in the EU, is at best debateable, and more likely flatly untrue, and that includes the effects on public resources. Even if the data is incorrect, and there is net harm, only a very small minority of Britons can claim to have been affected, which does not given them moral legitimacy in determining the freedoms of all. To claim otherwise would be analogous to giving alcoholics the right to ban alcohol consumption. In addition, any ethical argument must also take into account the rights, freedoms and well-being of immigrants. In ethics, no one is a second class citizen.

Citizenship and liberty

Currently, we are all citizens of both Britain and the EU. Citizenship is a set of individual rights, it is not nationality. EU citizenship is a legally protected set of rights. Prior to any consideration of the merits of EU membership, an ethical, legitimate and legal discussion should have occurred regarding who should decide on removing those rights? Is it legitimate to put this to a majoritarian vote – ie, a referendum – or should the individual be free to chose? Is this a case of Mill’s Harm principle: if my freedom does you no harm, you should have no say in my right to exercise it.

Let’s apply Mill’s universal criteria. We can reframe the choice to leave or remain as a choice between the status quo – we are all both British and European citizens – and an alternative view, where we lose EU citizenship and all become only British. Assume for illustrative purposes that you advocate that we all become British, and I want us to remain British and Europeans. Who is morally entitled to make this decision? To answer this we have to consider the effects. I want to remain a European citizen because I want have the freedom to travel without restriction and to work elsewhere in Europe. I want my children to have the freedom to study in Europe with the same rights as other European citizens. None of this affects you. You are not harmed by me working abroad or my children studying in Europe. So you should not have a say in my decision. Similarly, by choosing to forgo european citrizenship, you are harming yourself and not me, so I should have no say in your decision.

The ethical conclusion is very clear: those who want to rescind EU citizenship should be free to do so, but it is patently immoral for them to impose this on others. The referendum should absolutely be overruled and individuals should be free to choose.

This ethical conclusion holds, without even debating immigration, how much Britain’s pays the EU, the regulation of bananas, taking back control, the ECJ, or trade deals with Singapore. Why? Because they are in fact trivial relative to the impairment of individual liberty an enforced removal of European citizenship implies. Consider immigration, we can debate the effects of immigration on economic growth and the provision of public services, but it is extremely difficult to argue that most British people’s liberty, rights or interests are significantly impaired by immigration. Indeed, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens living abroad are clearly the groups most affected. Ethically, they should therefore have a greater say than the rest of the population, and yet in the case of non-British, EU citizens living in the UK (other than the Irish), were denied a vote.

What is remarkable is how the British right – a traditional defender of individual liberties – has now become an advocate of a draconian infringement of individual freedom and rights.

The ethical solution at the current juncture is not a second referendum, but to allow individuals in Britain to choose their citizenship. Those who wish to rescind the freedoms and rights available through EU membership should be free to do so. No one should be encourage to impose their preferences on others when their interests are not materially affected.

The obvious counter to this is that it is an impractical proposal. How can those who want to rescind EU citizenship, and the rights and freedoms it comes with, do so while others remain British and EU citizens. This does not require legislative change at all. What does forgoing EU citizenship entail at an individual level? If you stay in the UK, there is virtually no consequence. The share of your taxes going to the EU is trivial. No one is compelling you to travel to EU, educate your children there, or work there. Protecting people from not exercising liberties from which they would benefit is not something societies – for rather obvious reasons – have seen the need to do.

The ethical conclusion in unavoidable: the referendum was, and remains, illegitimate and unethical. Brexit is, and should remain, an individual’s choice.

Acknowledgements: all views and errors are mine entirely! But thanks to the following discussants for their feedback: Paddy Boyle, James Hanham, Nick Lloyd, Corinne Sawers, Gina Lonergan and Marc Beckenstrater.

About The Author

Eric Lonergan is a macro hedge fund manager, economist, and writer. His most recent book is Supercharge Me, co-authored with Corinne Sawers. He is also author of the international bestseller, Angrynomics, co-written with Mark Blyth, and published by Agenda. It was listed on the Financial Times must reads for Summer 2020. Prior to Angrynomics, he has written Money (2nd ed) published by Routledge. He has written for Foreign AffairsThe Financial Times, and The Economist. He also advises governments and policymakers. He first advocated expanding the tools of central banks to including cash transfers to households in the Financial Times in 2002. In December 2008, he advocated the policy as the most efficient way out of recession post-financial crisis, contributing to a growing debate over the need for ‘helicopter money’.

5 Responses

  1. Effem

    I think the analysis changes once you’ve already held a referendum. What’s at stake is whether an individual has a say in national policy. Once they’ve promised they do, and have made the effort to exercise it, it strikes me as immoral to then rescind that power. It’s not about citizenship anymore, it’s about whether the state values you enough to be honest with you.

    • Toni

      This subject seems to emerge, most of the time. So, better not to have referendums then, because once there had been a referendum already?
      A case of a posteriori, not hindsight bias. True, an awful lot has been learned after the referendum (e.g. who would have thought about the Irish border pre-referendum?), so the case under debate has changed significantly.
      The ethical considerations are to the point, and from an individuals’ perspective, Brexit is a tragedy for many, too many people, in fact, totally innocent bystanders. Collateral damage.

    • Toni

      This subject seems to emerge, most of the time. So, better not to have referendums then, because once there had been a referendum already?
      A case of a posteriori, not hindsight bias. True, an awful lot has been learned after the referendum (e.g. who would have thought about the Irish border pre-referendum?), so the case under debate has changed significantly.
      The ethical considerations are to the point, and from an individuals’ perspective, Brexit is a tragedy for many, too many people, in fact, totally innocent bystanders. Collateral damage.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

* Checkbox GDPR is required


I agree