I don’t normally talk about politics on this blog, but in this one case, I am making an exception…
Back in the 1980s, I was appalled when the UK’s Conservative government abolished the democratically elected Greater London Council. They did this because the Conservative Party could not – despite their best efforts – win control of the GLC. Would the GLC have been abolished if the Conservatives had managed to win control of it? I think not. I didn’t live in London & still don’t, but I did (and still do) care about democracy.
To me, democracy is non-negotiable. I am a fierce opponent of the House of Lords, the UK’s upper chamber of Parliament. Why? Because it is unelected & not accountable to the people. The House of Lords is made up of appointed members who are there for life, along with Bishops from the Anglican Church (also there for life). They never have to justify their decisions to the electorate by standing for re-election yet they have the power to block, amend, and/or delay legislation passed by the democratically elected House of Commons.
Also, back in the 1980s, I went on marches & waved placards in protest at the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Again, the reason I found this regime so objectionable was the fact that it was manifestly undemocratic. The majority of the people in South Africa were denied any franchise in the way their country was governed. The fact that this was due to the colour of their skin was even more abhorrent to me.
These are my values. I am a fervent supporter of the democratic process. I simply cannot countenance any form of government which does not derive it’s sovereignty from the will of the people it seeks to govern. Which brings me to the subject of the EU referendum…
Before I voted I decided, given the gravity of the decision to be made, it was incumbent on me to make an informed decision. I started off as a neutral, undecided voter. Perhaps even leaning a little toward “remain” – I didn’t like many of the comments coming out of the mouths of some UKIP types, to be honest – apart from anything else, they are climate change “deniers” & oppose any form of environmental controls, so I took nothing they said at face value.
So I did my research… I actually read The Lisbon Treaty which defines the relationship between the EU & it’s member states (there’s a whole week & a half of my life I’ll never get back). I also read the text of David Cameron’s renegotiated EU deal. I listened to speeches from both sides of the debate. I checked the veracity of claims made by both the Remain and Leave campaigns, as best I could. I wanted to find out…
- Is the EU democratic? (a big concern for me).
- How much does the UK get from the EU?
- How much do we pay in?
- If we leave, would that stop us trading with EU nations?
In short, I went hunting for facts. This is what I found…
Let’s begin with how the EU is structured:
The top tier of the EU is The Council Of Europe. This is a committee made up of the heads of government from all EU member states. The job of this body is to set the agenda… to come up with the strategic goals that the EU, as a whole, wants to achieve. This has it’s roots in the early days of the EU (when it was still known as the European Economic Community or “The Common Market”). The then (much) smaller number of member states were pretty much aligned in terms of national interests – what was good for one country was by & large good for all the member states.
Nowadays with 28 (soon to be 27) member states with vastly differing national interests, it becomes much more difficult to nail down a “one size fits all” set of policies.
As evidence of this, take a look at what has happened in Greece – as a member of the Euro zone, their economy is bound to the economies of Northern Europe. And therein lies a problem for Greece – the fiscal policies which work fine in Germany (interest rates & so-on) are not the right fit for the Greek economy. Youth unemployment in Greece stands at around 50% & the Greek government is denied many of the tools it needs to tackle this because they would need to be applied across the whole Euro zone & that’s not going to happen.
Scale this situation up to cover the whole continent, and every decision each government has to make & you begin to see (as I did) that it is almost impossible to find a universal policy on any matter which will work for all countries involved. When there are 28 nations, all with differing interests & priorities, trying to reach an agreement on the tiniest minutiae of continent-wide policies on everything from fishing to fiscal policy, reaching agreement on the specifics can be a little bit like trying to herd cats. But still a resolution must be issued – it would be politically embarrassing for a Prime Minister to return from a big EU summit with no deal agreed. Hence, the form of words used is, more often than not, open to interpretation.
The text of any such resolution is often suggested & even drafted by the EU Commission (we’ll come to them in a moment). The “all things to all people” nature of these resolutions can mean that different heads of government leave the summit with opposing views of what the agreement actually means – but they can all return home saying they’ve got the deal they wanted. A triumph of diplomacy, to be sure, but not much use for deciding specifics. And it’s not like each country is then free to interpret the resolutions in the way that suits them when it comes to drafting their own specific laws. The actual legislation is written by the next EU tier of government… The EU Commission.
The EU Commission has typically always been made up of ex-politicians from EU member states who have either lost an election in their own country or fallen out of favour in some way (Peter Mandelson springs to mind). They are supposed to be impartial functionaries, but in fact they all have their own political agendas – they are career politicians, after all. These people are given the job of writing the laws (or “Directives”) that everyone in the EU is legally bound to obey.
The alarming bit, for me when I found this out, is that The EU Commission is not elected. We aren’t allowed to vote for them. Really! That’s NOT who we are electing at European elections. They are appointed to their roles as a form of patronage by their friends in power back home (Peter Mandelson, again). They decide the laws that we all have to live by, but they do not have to answer to the public at the ballot box. Moreover, the EU Commission (unelected, let’s not forget) can actually overturn laws passed in member state democracies.
As set out in The Lisbon Treaty, EU law takes supremacy over member state law, meaning that any law arrived at by a democratic process in the UK (or any other member state) will be null & void if the EU Commission issue a directive which states something to the contrary. And we, the public, have no redress over this at all. It seems, then, that the EU Commission have a lot of power, are there any checks & balances on this?
Well, this is where we begin to talk about The European Parliament, who are democratically elected in European elections & are supposed to be the voice of the people. They CAN (in theory) fire the whole Commission en masse but, in practice, the procedural obstacles to this actually happening are too great to overcome. It has never happened in the entire history of the EU. Neither are Individual Commissioners accountable – they cannot be removed from office by the Parliament. Nor can the Parliament initiate legislation – that is not the job of the elected representatives. Laws are written by the unelected Commission.
Sure, the EU Parliament CAN temporarily block, or amend slightly, the legislation put forward by The Commission but this hardly amounts to any kind of real say for the man or woman in the street. And what happens if a domestic law that only affects the UK falls foul of an amendment put forward by EU Parliament where the British representatives are outvoted? This HAS happened… a directive instigated by an unelected Commission (effectively a “politburo” in all but name), and amended by a European Parliament of largely overseas interests can overturn a law arrived at democratically in the UK, which has no effect outside the UK.
Moreover, the UK has much less of a say, proportionally, in the EU parliament than many other nations: Britain has one MEP (Member of the European Parliament) for every 839,194 UK citizens, whereas Austria has one MEP for every 486,235 citizens. Britain, therefore, finds it almost twice as difficult to get it’s point across in the EU Parliament than Austria does. This is NOT democratic. Democracy DEMANDS that all votes should count equally.
An old adage states that “Power corrupts & absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Now I don’t want to start flinging accusations of corruption around (I don’t want to be sued, frankly), but it is a matter of record that the EU’s own auditors have refused to sign off on The EU Commission’s accounts for over two decades. Billions of pounds/euros have simply disappeared & no-one knows where it’s gone. We DO know where it came from though… Germany, The Netherlands & Britain: the three net contributors to the EU budget – the only nations to pay more into the EU than they receive back in the form of grants & subsidies.
Back to democracy… At no time in the run up to the referendum did I hear anyone from the Remain campaign address this issue. Not once. Instead, it was all threats… “project fear” as it became known: If we leave the EU, we’ll all be worse off, essentially. I actually heard a Labour party representative utter “No, no… That doesn’t matter, the real issue is…” when asked a question about the lack of democratic accountability in the structure of the EU. Seriously… someone from the left wing of British politics saying that democracy “doesn’t matter”!
Gradually, I began to realise that many of those who, like me, think of themselves as natural “lefties” seemed to be brushing democratic concerns under the carpet. The same people who marched against the lack of democracy in South Africa thirty years ago, seemed to be less bothered about a lack of democracy in Europe now. The reason for this has to be the topic of racism.
One principle of EU membership is the free movement of people across borders within the EU. I don’t have a problem with this per se. When it works as intended, between nations who have broadly the same average wage, it provides enhanced employment opportunities for everyone & a larger talent pool for employers. Everybody wins. The problem comes when this principle is extended to countries which DO NOT have economies that are in sync with each other…
If your country has an average salary which is many times that of another nation, then that does not encourage the free movement of people – it rapidly becomes one-way traffic & drives down wages & standards of living in the higher wage country, as well as creating a lack of skilled workers in the lower wage economy, making it even more difficult for that country to generate wealth & raise standards of living for it’s population.
Indeed, the EU’s own rules state that before any nation joins the EU, it must fulfill certain economic criteria to ensure that exactly this kind of imbalance does not occur. The problem is, though, that these rules have been largely ignored to allow membership to expand eastwards into the ex-Soviet bloc countries. A political decision was made to do this as a show of strength to Mr. Putin in Russia (Hey, Vladimir! Look how big & powerful WE are now! You’d better not mess with the EU!).
In 2014, when the Ukrainian government made overtures to the EU about joining, Putin rolled his tanks into Ukraine to stop this EU expansion in it’s tracks. Encouraging the eastward expansion of the EU was a gamble which backfired terribly & the price is being paid by the people of Ukraine.
As for the debate in the UK, any mention of “immigration policy”, conjures up the ugly shadow of National Front skinheads from the bad old days of the 70s. Mention the word “immigration” and there are people out there who still immediately assume you are a swastika tattooed moron who thinks that anyone with the wrong skin colour should be “sent back where they came from”. These racist idiots are still there – I’m not going to pretend otherwise – but they number much less than they once did. They are a dying breed & good riddance to them all! Perhaps, though, because racism is quite rightly such a taboo these days, and because immigration was (wrongly, in my opinion) placed front & centre of the Leave campaign’s strategy, many well meaning people followed this line of logic…
Brexit = anti-immigration = racism, right?
Therefore, if you regard yourself as being vehemently against any form of racism (as do I), then a vote to remain in the EU would have been a no-brainer, right? Hence the fact that when the result came through & the “Leave” campaign had won the day, social media lit up with people saying they were ashamed to be British… they genuinely believed that the UK had shown itself up as an international pariah: the little island full of racist xenophobes. The irony of this is that a vote to remain in the EU was in fact a vote FOR a racist policy. Don’t believe me? Well, here it is spelled out…
Those who wish to come & live in any EU country from say, India, Pakistan, Australia, Canada, Nigeria (or anywhere else in the world outside the EU), face many more restrictions on relocating to a new country than citizens from within the EU: Because of EU-wide policy it is much more difficult to come & live in the UK if you are from the Commonwealth, for example, than if you are from Slovakia. Is that not a text book definition of racism? To penalise someone based purely on their country of birth? Surely, to say to someone “You are going to have a harder time settling in our country because you come from the wrong part of the world” is inherently racist. This IS the EU immigration policy.
Because I fervently advocate the supremacy of democracy, and because I find discrimination against anyone based on their nationality utterly repellent, I voted for the UK to leave the EU. I honestly came to believe that it is just too broken to be fixed, for all the reasons outlined above. I want the UK to have access to the best skills & talent from around the world, both from within the EU and from outside it. And I want a level playing field for those who want to come here and contribute to our economy, society & culture. And I want the rules that govern this to be decided democratically… along with all other laws.
Decision made, now the Aftermath…
Much is being made of the economic fall-out from the UK leaving the EU. The next recession (whether it happens next year, or in ten years time) will, no doubt, be blamed on Brexit (as will the next terrorist atrocity in all likelihood). The fact that the world economy is heading that way anyway as China’s economy hits the skids will be conveniently brushed under the carpet by the “I told you so” brigade.
Admittedly, Sterling has dropped in value in international currency trading since the Brexit vote, but ask any economist & they’ll tell you “markets hate uncertainty”. The financial markets backed the wrong horse – they predicted Britain would remain inside the EU, just as in 2008, when they were also caught with their pants down by failing to predict the financial crisis that engulfed the world. Once again, having been proven wrong, they are scrabbling around for answers, so let’s restore the certainty by getting on with the task in hand. Now we have a new Prime Minister about to take office, let’s get on with the business of becoming a self-ruling democracy once again. Whatever happens though, Britain WILL NOT become some kind of European North Korea “hermit kingdom”. We WILL continue to have access to the European single market.
How do I know this? Well, it’s simple: the WTO (World Trade Organisation) sets legally binding tariffs for global trade. Being inside the EU means that these tariffs do not apply – countries within the EU can trade with each other without having to pay to do so. When the UK leaves the EU, we will have to pay WTO tariffs to trade with France, Germany, Spain & all other EU nations. We will still be able to trade with our neighbours, we will just be trading with them under WTO rules (the same way the USA, China, Australia etc. do) rather than EU rules. And here’s the rub… the cost to the UK of paying these WTO tariffs is SIGNIFICANTLY less than paying EU membership fees.
We will also be free to protect jobs to a greater degree in the UK once we have left the EU. I live right on the doorstep of a steel works which has just had to close after almost a century of production. The price of steel (like all commodities) fluctuates & it reached a point where it was uneconomic for the Redcar blast furnace to continue production. It could have been kept open if the UK government had been able to provide an aid package to tide us over until the world price of steel rebounded – this would have cost significantly less than the bill for closure (once you factor in the decommissioning costs & unemployment benefits for the 2000 workers who lost their jobs – to say nothing of the effect the closure has had on the local economy). However, the EU rules on state aid for industry made it illegal for the UK government to step in, and the jobs (along with the skills that took a century to foster & develop) are now gone for good.
These are the conclusions I came to after delving beyond the headlines & rather histrionic coverage in most of the media. The future of my country is just too important to make a decision on based on vague, warm, fuzzy, “let’s stay together so we can all be friends” type sentiment, or whether you’d like to punch Nigel Farage’s tobacco stained teeth out or go for a pint with him. These matters are simply too momentous to avoid examining the real nitty gritty facts of the matter.
Of course, I want to be a good neighbour to our European trading partners. Of course, I believe in international co-operation & I utterly reject any accusation of racism based on the way I voted. I am PRO-immigration, I just believe the UK’s immigration policy should be decided by the democratically elected representatives of the UK populous, not by unaccountable EU Commissioners, no matter how well meaning they may be. Also, should we not treat all those who wish to settle in the UK with equality? Put simply, I believe that those who write our laws should be accountable to the public who have to live by those laws. Also, I do not think it is fair to discriminate against anyone who happens to have been born outside the EU when it comes to their right to live in our country.
I’m sorry if you find this upsetting, but I stand by these views.
Back to music next time. Until then…