I promised that I would dip a toe into the acid bath of EU matters, and with my feet well protected in rubber boots I will wade in….ankle deep at any rate.
Whatever your viewpoint, the first fox that needs shooting is that the EU is primarily an economic organization. In my view, that is a diversion. It is actually a political structure that lists economic management as one of bailiwicks, and uses economic arguments to further its statist ambitions. Once you accept this proposition then the debate about whether we should stay in the EU or leave becomes more a matter of political taste and where you sit on the tribal spectrum.
It was the vision of European leaders that the EU would use political, economic and social policies to unite the continent in an ever closer union in order to suppress the nationalistic tendencies that did so much damage during 2 world wars. For the founding fathers, political union was accepted as being a long game but it would become inevitable once centrally imposed social and economic policies developed poorer countries and ultimately bound them together in a unified political process. Harmonised fiscal and social policies, a single currency, a parliament, commission, foreign policy and, as recently announced by Juncker, an aspiration for an EU army, are much more than an economic single market. They are the trappings of a state.
Now there is no doubt that the EU has been beneficial for former Soviet Union countries like Poland. However, the question is whether a political union is still necessary to save Europe from itself and maintain stability in the post Cold War era? In my view it is no longer necessary. For a start, it is pie in the sky to think that the EU could ever deploy its own army. There is just too much historical baggage and a plethora of differing opinions for effective policy formulation. Think about the current and past EU foreign policy disagreements such as the Yugoslavia fiasco, and more recently, the different attitudes within the EU towards Russia. This is why NATO, acting solely as a security mechanism and backed by a strong US should remain the foundation of Western European security. The alliance has a clear mission that is universally supported by its members, and its security focus is unencumbered by the distraction of European political state-building. Moreover, it is my view that free markets in goods and services will ensure the economic interdependence of states and act as a far tougher glue than any social or political engineering by a central European authority.
Turning to the politics, the EU is essentially dominated by socialist and social democratic parties that have an altogether different viewpoint that is at odds with the political culture here. Despite the current polling balance of left and right parties in the UK, I believe that the British instinct is essentially Conservative in nature and not in the mould of European social democracy although I would accept that the situation in Scotland currently seems to be different to elsewhere (but watch what happens when they are responsible for raising their own taxes). This difference in political culture is readily apparent by the behaviour and constitution of the European Parliament which by British standards is as left-wing as anything we have seen here in the UK since the Michael Foot days. Whilst the British electorate periodically elects Labour governments it only does so when the Party moderates its politics towards the centre, and in my view this demonstrates that mainstream Britain sits further to the right of the political spectrum than most of our European neighbours.
Whilst differences in political culture causes practical problems for policy, my main issue with the European project relates to its size. I have previously discussed some of the factors that seem to be undermining the credibility of our political process here in the UK, but perhaps the main issue is the feeling that politicians are too remote and that voters feel unrepresented and unable to affect the outcome of the political debate. For many, it seems that a vote cast has little value, and voters therefore feel powerless and disenfranchised from the decisions affecting their lives. This problem is not just confined to the UK and is characterised by the rise of extreme and populist political parties at each end of the spectrum with potentially destabilising implications. When voters become disenfranchised they eventually take matters into their own hands by voting for decisive change with unpredictable results. Witness the rise of the far right in France, for example.
History suggests that the feeling of disenfranchisement gets worse as political structures get larger especially if power is retained centrally. It is far harder to represent an individual voter’s opinion if he/she is one individual in a massive sea of people with different political views and culture. On the other hand, whilst smaller structures improve representation they can be inefficient and prevent administrations from balancing competing needs between regions. It comes down to balance again, but one things is for sure, if the existing UK political structures have become too large and distant for voters, then we are making the situation worse by hitching our wagon to the European monolith where the democratic deficit is magnified tenfold.
I am increasingly concerned about voter apathy, cynicism and disenfranchisement and where we might end up if we don’t fix this democratic deficit soon. The more I have reflected on the matter, the more I am favouring a massive devolution of power, including taxation, away from a central federal government based at Westminster down to some newly created English regions plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have a population of 65m, and with other countries operating very well with populations of 6 million or even less, there is plenty of scope to design our regions such that they would be economically viable and capable of operating more like the states in the US. Decentralisation to a federal model would increase local political accountability and promote voter engagement. Crucially, as part of this project, we should take back powers from Europe and return them to the British people. Decision making needs to come closer to the people not further away from them.
There are many that argue that we would be damaged economically if we withdraw from the political structures of the EU but I believe this is a disingenuous distraction with political undertones. I will offer one fact that illustrates why trade with the mainland would continue whatever political alterations are made to our relations with the EU: half of the cars that are made in Germany are purchased in the UK. We just buy too much of their stuff for them to close their trading doors to us.
This is a political matter not economic. We need to bring decision making closer to our electorate, and EU integration is going in the wrong direction. I would vote OUT in a referendum at the moment but I remain open-minded about potential reform. The changes would need to be significant, however, rather than superficial.
More hay and rumination, Fritz and Pierre?