EU referendum: democracy is not a ‘distraction’

We cannot suspend democratic debate about Europe’s future while watching the political elites bungle the economic crisis.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Topics Politics

When all of Britain’s elitist, unrepresentative and interchangeable political leaders unite behind an issue in the name of ‘the national interest’, it is a sure sign that something is amiss. Exhibit A: the united front presented by Tory prime minister David Cameron, his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg and opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband against the demand for a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. When this unappealing triumvirate is being cheered on by many in the high-minded media, alarm bells should really be ringing.

The official line from the Lib-Con government and the Labour opposition this week, as party leaders sought to marshal their MPs to vote against the parliamentary motion calling for an EU referendum, was that to have a national debate about the UK’s membership of the EU just now would not be in the national interest; it would be ‘a distraction’ from coping with Europe’s desperate economic and financial problems. As Cameron put in on the day of the vote, ‘it’s the wrong time to have this debate’ because ‘we’re in the middle of dealing with a crisis in the Eurozone’. A referendum now would be ‘rash’.

Turn that front-bench consensus on its head. It is precisely because of the parlous state of the Euro economy, and the paucity of solutions being offered by our rulers, that now is exactly the right time to have a major public debate on the future of the UK and Europe. The real ‘distraction’ that the Euro-elites fear today is democracy.

It was often true that the right-wing’s obsession with Europe through the 1990s could be seen as a side-issue of internal Tory power-struggles and, yes, a distraction from more important economic and political problems. Some of the Conservative MPs who rebelled against Cameron and voted for a referendum on Monday night may still be suffering from those old Little Englander delusions. That does not alter the fact that a public debate about where Europe is heading now – which a referendum campaign would surely facilitate – is needed far more urgently than any private deal among the Euro-elites.

Cameron and his opponents/allies insist that a political conflict over the future of the UK and Europe would get in the way of dealing with the economic and financial crisis. That represents an accountant’s view of the world, where democratic debate is seen as a sort of expensive, time-consuming sideshow while the real decisions on what is necessary are taken by Those Who Know: the experts and authorities operating behind closed doors.

But in truth you cannot so easily separate the question of politics from the economic crisis, as if having our democratic say is somehow at odds with their need to fix the financial system. There is a clear two-way relationship at work here, and we are getting screwed both ways.

First, the economic crisis is being exacerbated by the lack of democracy in the EU. As noted here three weeks ago, if there is one thing that worries the Euro-elites even more than their out-of-control finances these days, it is their uncontrollable electorates. From the first, the isolated and unpopular authorities across Europe have treated the financial crisis as a private affair, to be sorted out by central bankers, International Monetary Fund mandarins, EC bureaucrats and government officials at endless meetings and summits without reference to the electorate.

What has all this high-powered skulduggery achieved? Almost nothing. Europe’s governments and its cliques of unelected officials have proved incapable of doing anything of substance, making a rational decision or reaching an agreement. So paralysed do they appear to be that the latest ‘crucial’ meeting of finance ministers did not even happen. Top-level ‘make or break’ meetings have been declared a failure before they even start, with nobody taking charge and key issues dropping off the agenda.

The absence of democratic life and political conflict around our isolated, insulated, irrational rulers has made a bad economic situation far worse. It means that they are under no external pressure from their constituencies to act decisively. It means that there are no alternative strategies being demanded or debated, no seriously awkward questions being asked about what they are (not) doing and why. As a result they are able to bumble on towards the edge of the precipice, assuring one another that all will be well if they can only hold another summit or stick another few zeroes on the end of the fantasy bail-out fund. The absence of democracy from the Euro-crisis threatens to plunge us all into the gloom of a depression.

And that is only half the problem. The second aspect is that the Euro-elites’ bungling attempts to fix their system are further exacerbating the crisis of democratic politics. The consensus which now reaches almost all parts of the European political class, including even our allegedly Euro-sceptic Tory ministers, is that the financial crisis demands more fiscal integration across the Eurozone – which will put greater power in the hands of the European central bankers and EU accountants, none of whom ever have to dirty their hands in the messy business of democratic politics.

As international officials take effective control of under-pressure economies such as Greece, the (unelected) president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, has already boasted that ‘We can now discuss member states’ budgetary plans before national decisions are taken’, allowing the Euro-crats to bypass parliaments and the public and impose their useless plans. The schemes for creating new financial institutions and central powers now being discussed at the Eurozone’s top table could emasculate European democracy further still. You only need to see the outrage with which the Euro-elite greeted the Slovakian parliament’s rejection of the latest Greek bailout plan (how dare these elected representatives actually represent the will of their people!) to see which way the wind of change is blowing.

The result of all this is that, in the midst of the economic crisis, we need a democratic debate about the future of Europe more than ever. Yet we are assured by all the UK party leaders that anything as grubby as a referendum would be an unwanted distraction from their noble efforts to solve the crisis. It is a remarkable testimony to how far the capitalist economy has been de-politicised. From the late nineteenth century through much of the twentieth century, issues to do with how the economy should be organised, how society’s wealth should be produced and distributed, were the great divisive questions of political life. Now major economic matters have effectively been removed from the political agenda to such an extent that the very idea of holding a vote in the EU is seen as being somehow at odds with managing the economy.

There is a pressing need for a public debate not just in the UK but across the EU. A referendum is rarely an ideal vehicle for political change, and no doubt one framed by Tory Euro-sceptics would be in danger of not posing the wider questions we need to discuss. And spiked’s longstanding attitude of being ‘For Europe, Against the EU’ means we do not fit easily into any of the traditional camps.

But the public campaign around a referendum, however it was couched, would at least allow the possibility of forcing open a more democratic debate about the future of Europe. Otherwise we in the UK are not due to be offered a say on anything much until the General Election that Cameron and Clegg have generously timetabled for 2015, when we can choose between all of the fools who united against the ‘distraction’ of democracy this week. And who knows what sort of a desperate mess the increasingly isolated, insulated, unaccountable Euro-elites might have got us into by then?

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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