The non-parochial case against the European Union
It isn’t only Little Englanders who should rage against the undemocratic EU – so should those who care about the continent and its peoples.
Over the past week, there has been the most serious discussion about Britain leaving the European Union since it first joined in 1973, and since the British electorate voted in its only referendum on EU membership, under Harold Wilson’s Labour government, in 1975. This discussion is a good thing, because it really is time we made a collective dash for the exit from the EU.
Following the Queen’s Speech last Wednesday, in which the Lib-Con coalition government set out its legislative programme for the coming year, Conservative backbenchers complained loudly about the lack of progress on the pledge by the prime minister David Cameron to hold an in-or-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. These complaints resulted in a motion being put before the House of Commons last night, expressing ‘regret’ at the failure to include legislation on a referendum in the Queen’s Speech. Over 100 Tory backbenchers, and a sprinkling of MPs from other parties, voted in favour, though the motion was comfortably defeated.
The motion is a bit bizarre. There was never any prospect, when the governing coalition includes the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, of a referendum this side of a General Election. Nonetheless, Cameron has published a draft referendum bill to demonstrate that he is serious about holding such a referendum during the next parliament, should the Conservatives win a parliamentary majority. The move is in part designed to appease his backbenchers, and in part a tactical response to the success of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the recent local elections.
Despite his draft referendum bill, Cameron has been arguing for renegotiation of Britain’s terms of EU membership, not for withdrawal. But high-profile Tory politicians past and present have argued that Britain should pull out. Last week, the former chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson, and the former defence secretary, Michael Portillo, both said they would vote to leave the EU in any future referendum. On Sunday, the current education secretary Michael Gove said in an interview that he would vote to leave the EU if Britain’s terms of membership remained the same by the time of a referendum – a view supported by current defence secretary, Philip Hammond.
There are fewer divisions in the Lib Dems, who unequivocally support EU membership, but there is plenty of debate in the Labour Party. That’s not because the Labour leadership is anti-EU; on the contrary, Labour showed no signs of wishing to leave the EU when it was in government, and it performed all sorts of semantic contortions to avoid delivering a promised referendum on EU treaty changes. Rather, for Labour, like David Cameron, it’s all about tactics – that is, not wishing to appear to be against giving The People a choice about EU membership.
In this furore, the small matter of political principle seems sadly absent. There is no obvious reason why British voters should not be given a choice on whether to stick with the EU or not. Back in 1975, the choice was simply to join a ‘common market’: the European Economic Community. The EU is now both much deeper (in that it controls far more areas of policy), and also much wider (in that it contains three times as many countries), than it was in 1975.
Moreover, there is a particular twist for Britain: this nation shows no sign of wanting to adopt the euro as its currency. And with 17 of the 27 EU member states also members of the Eurozone, and – debt crises notwithstanding – a number of other countries showing a desire to sign up, the future of the EU more broadly will be determined by the need to create institutions capable of managing a single currency. That would leave Britain potentially signing up to many more rules and regulations, or passing more power to EU institutions, in ways that might directly contradict British interests.
There has been some argument about whether Britain would be worse off outside the EU. One argument is that Britain would be effectively forced to adopt many EU regulations while having no say in what those regulations should look like. Another is that being outside the EU would discourage non-European companies from setting up in Britain if they did not have full access to the EU market; instead, they might build that factory or establish that bank HQ somewhere else. One good reason for a referendum would be to have this debate about Britain’s economic future out fully, in public, with the widest possible involvement.
But surely big questions about how we are governed should not be reduced to whether we are slightly better off or slightly worse off? Far more important is the issue of democracy, especially the ability of ordinary people to throw out the politicians who govern them. The history of the EU, particularly in recent years, has been based on shifting responsibility for political decisions away from national governments and towards an increasingly aloof, elitist Brussels bureaucracy. Indeed, in the past few years of economic crisis, the EU and its cheerleaders have extolled the virtues of independent, expert technocrats making tough decisions about economic policy. Voters, it seems, cannot be trusted to do what is necessary – particularly when they have the temerity to vote down EU treaties, as happened in Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands in recent years.
The EU doesn’t only elevate technocrats in the economic sphere. More and more political and social policy is also effectively being guided from Brussels. Consider an opinion piece published in the Guardian this week, by the head of policy at Friends of the Earth UK, Craig Bennett. Bennett argues that the ability of the EU to impose rules and regulations on Britain has improved our health and environment. To be explicit: Bennett thinks it is better that people outside Britain impose these things upon us, even over the heads of our elected representatives. Where a national government might have to balance costs and benefits, and take into consideration the stated desires and priorities of voters, regulations and directives from Brussels can be imposed free from such consequences and accountability. From the point of view of NGOs and lobbyists, this is great news. Why try to change popular opinion when you can simply get the green light from some unelected body of technocrats?
To be anti-EU does not mean being anti-Europe. True, there is a fair degree of parochialism and anti-immigrant sentiment among many of those in Britain who want out. But those of us who believe in having closer ties with Europe and greater freedom of movement across the continent should also be opposed to the EU. Because, thanks to its anti-democratic institutions and its imposition of draconian policies on unwilling citizens, the EU is now doing more harm than good for the cause of creating a sense of European common interest. It might be uniting national elites, allowing them to take refuge from their electorates in the citadels of Brussels, but it is disempowering and even dividing the peoples of Europe – Germans vs Greeks, for example, or enlightened Western Europeans against allegedly backward, racist Hungarians.
Despite the creation of the European Parliament in 1979, there is no meaningful European demos. But the ability to move and trade freely is a good thing – something we could surely retain without the bureaucratic honeypot of the EU’s institutions. It’s time for all Europeans to reimagine how we might live and work together – and Britain marking a sharp exit from the anti-democratic, pseudo-unifying mess that is the EU could be the perfect catalyst for that.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.