Europe, a road crash that was decades in the making

‘I believe the Union is over-democratised.’ Herman van Rumpuy EU President from 2009 to 2014 (quoted by Perry Anderson in ‘The European Coup’ London Review of Books, 17 December 2020)

I was fourteen at the time when on 3 February 1960, Prime Minister and old Etonian Harold Macmillan made his wind of change speech to South Africa’s parliament during his African tour. That day he said: ‘The wind of change is blowing through this continent and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact’. To many the speech is remembered as firing the starting gun to speed up the decolonisation of the British Empire in Africa, a rush for the exit you might say, whilst seeking to minimise Soviet influences on these emerging nations. But it was also an attack on South Africa’s system of apartheid which was only swept away some thirty years later. I did not realise at the time that this was the precursor to a long courtship with the then European Economic Community (EEC) which as we all know ended in an acrimonious divorce.

Macmillan became prime minister in 1957 taking over from Anthony Eden who had led Britain along with France and Israel into a disastrous attack on Egypt the year before, when its leader Gamal Abdel Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez Canal. US President Dwight Eisenhower was furious; he had not been consulted and as a rival to Britain and to a lesser extent France in the Middle East over many years, put the boot in by threatening all three nations with economic sanctions if they persisted in their attack. (See Lords of the Desert by James Barr for an excellent account of Britain’s struggle with the US to dominate the Middle East). In the aftermath Britain and France found their influence as world powers weakened as the United States and Soviet Union increased their influence in world affairs.

Licking wounds Macmillan turned his attention to the dismal state of the UK capitalist economy which was in urgent need of modernisation. It was performing poorly against its six neighbouring countries in the EEC so he considered the possibility of joining them in an attempt to improve the situation. This was to be his “Grand Design”. Although the Kennedy administration supported an application by the UK from which they felt they could benefit in the restored post Suez relationship between the two nations, (and provide them with a bridgehead into the EEC) this was well spotted by France’s President de Gaulle who in many respects was still trying to settle ‘old scores’ from the 1939-1945 conflict.

But what to do about the old British Empire, now being reinvented as The Commonwealth, that the UK had been exploiting economically for centuries? In 1947 the post war Labour Government oversaw Indian Independence with the partitioning of India and Pakistan. In 1956 Sudan gained independence, closely followed the next year by Ghana (until then the Gold Coast). One by one British colonies throughout the African mainland declared independence over the next decade. Macmillan’s wind of change speech was meant to give notice of closing one door and opening another (to Europe), from which the UK economy would benefit.

Flushed in afterglow of victory over fascism in 1945, post war UK governments of both parties took little interest in the lead up to the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 which created the EEC, but UK capitalism was performing so badly that Macmillan decided to act. In 1962 his Conservative government applied for membership, a move opposed by the opposition Labour Party under the leadership of centre-right Hugh Gaitskell (who died the following year). Gaitskell in his speech to the Labour Party Conference in the summer of 1962 summed his opposition up as follows: “We must be clear about this: it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say ‘Let it end’ but, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought. And it does mean the end of the Commonwealth. How can one really seriously suppose that if the mother country, the centre of the Commonwealth, is a province of Europe (which is what federation means) it could continue to exist as the mother country of a series of independent nations? It is sheer nonsense.”

I was now two years older and undertaking a paper round in my home town of Sutton and Cheam in Surrey and had numerous opportunities to read the coverage of these matters in the ‘upmarket press’ I delivered to households in middle class Cheam where many of the houses had longish drives! Meanwhile early in 1963 Macmillan’s application was vetoed by President de Gaulle. Not only did the UK want the perceived economic benefits of EEC membership it wanted its existing trading relationships with the Commonwealth to continue as before!

The UK economy continued to decline and despite its earlier opposition as expressed by Gaitskell when in opposition, Wilson’s Labour Government tried to join in 1967. For a second time President de Gaulle said ‘Non’, and would veto Britain’s application. He further warned France’s five EEC partners that if they tried to impose British membership on France it would result in the break-up of the community.

It was to be another decade (when de Gaulle had gone) before Edward Heath’s Conservative government, elected against the odds in 1970, made another application for membership. It succeeded and was approved by the House of Commons and on 1 January 1973 the UK joined to a fanfare of press approval, the Daily Mail proclaiming; “For 10 years the Mail has campaigned for this day … Britain’s best and brightest future is with Europe.” Denmark and the Republic of Ireland joined at the same time.

However the seeds for future discontent were already being sown. Although when in opposition Heath had pledged that he would not take the UK into the EEC without the ‘full hearted consent’ of Parliament and the people of Britain. He got the first but dodged the second, although given the balance of public opinion at the time, including the support of the vast majority of the UK press, a referendum on membership would have been a walk over!

The other crucial issue they dodged was the fact that the terms of entry included accepting the supremacy of European law over British law. This important condition hardly saw the light of day, until much later.  Heath’s television broadcast on Britain’s entry into the Common Market, January 1973 made passing reference: “There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty. These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified.”

No doubt Heath was aware of what had been written in the 1971 White Paper on entry which declared: “There is no question of any erosion of essential national sovereignty; what is proposed is a sharing and enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the general interest.”

The emphasis was firmly placed on the trading advantages membership would bring. Most of the public believed that the UK was just joining a free trade area. As Perry Anderson a leading Left-wing intellectual writing in the London Review of Books (The Breakaway 21 January 2021) puts it: “…the government systematically avoided the fact that its terms of entry instituted the supremacy of European law over British law – that meant, in short a derogation of national sovereignty. Not a single minister candidly admitted what the documents they were urging into law meant constitutionally. For Heath, Europe would be a substitute for empire, and that was sufficient; likewise his colleagues…” In other words it was a price worth paying! The people were not lied to, just not told the full story and even if they had been many would have accepted it for the perceived economic gains, especially in the absence of a full public debate on its implications.

When the Labour government was elected in 1974 Prime Minister Harold Wilson aware of the divisions in his party over Europe decided that Heath’s terms of entry into the EEC should be renegotiated and put to the people in a referendum, which Heath had refused when he was prime minister despite his pledge made in opposition. To the late Tony Benn (Industry Secretary at the time) who now opposed membership, this was a straightforward matter. Writing in his Diary Against the Tide (Chapter 3 Referendum) he said that: ‘…The central point argued by me and others opposed to the Common Market was that the British electors would lose their right to enact through parliament the laws they wished, and to uphold this legislation against Community law…’

When it came to the vote in June 1975, 17 million voted to remain with 8.5 million to leave on a 64 per cent turn out. The role of the national press was important. Writing in the Guardian on 4 February 2016 (Did national papers’ pro-European bias in 1975 affect the referendum?) columnist Roy Greenslade declared: ‘They were under no illusion which answer was favoured by their newspapers. Yes, yes, yes said the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, the Sun, the Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, Daily Mirror and Daily Record. Their combined daily circulation at the time was just shy of 15m (giving them a readership of some 45m). By contrast, the no camp was represented by the Communist Party’s Morning Star, the short-lived workers’ co-operative title, the Scottish Daily News, and the Dundee Courier. Together, they sold fewer than 150,000. What a turnaround from the coverage in the lead up to the 2016 referendum of which more later.

I was one of the 8.5 million who voted to leave. I was concerned that in joining the EEC we had turned our backs on our sisters and brothers in the Commonwealth which the UK had exploited as part of the Empire for generations. Of course the favourable trading arrangements the UK had with them was in the nation’s (i.e. business) interests as well as providing markets for Commonwealth country’s products. I was also strongly influence by Tony Benn’s argument referred to earlier. By voting to remain, the UK was reaffirming handing over parliamentary powers to European institutions which were unelected and not accountable to the electorate. I was also a member of the International Socialists at the time and looked at just who was in favour and against. Favouring continued membership was virtually the whole of big business, the Tory party, the right and centre of the Labour Party, the trade union right wing and the ‘establishment’ network.  Against were the left in the Labour Party, the Communist Party, and the trade union lefts. Of course there were a number of Tory and other right wing voices in favour of leaving including the racist Enoch Powell (now an Ulster Unionist) and the National Front and other extreme right wing groups who I wanted nothing to do with and actively opposed. Remaining in the EEC I believed would strengthen the right and weaken the left. Shortly after the referendum result Tony Benn was sacked by Wilson from his post as Industry Secretary in a Cabinet reshuffle and moved to a lesser post heading up the Energy Department, much to the delight of the City and the right wing.

All seemed to be going well for the UK’s EEC membership and in the 1980’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher even negotiated a two thirds reduction of the nation’s contribution to the Community budget. She and her government backed the 1987 Single European Act the first major revision of the 1957 Treaty of Rome which set a deadline for the creation of a full single market by 1992 and created deeper integration by making it easier to pass laws, strengthening the EU Parliament (it was now officially to be called a parliament rather than an assembly) and laying the basis for a European foreign policy.

Of course Thatcher’s plans to improve the performance of the economy (i.e. make it more profitable) included the most vicious attacks on trade union organisation in living memory. As she said in a speech to her backbenchers in July1984: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty,”

Downing Street papers from 1983 show she told the then head of her policy unit, Ferdinand Mount that she agreed that Norman Tebbit’s gradualist approach to trade union reform was too timid and that they should “neglect no opportunity to erode trade union membership”. As Nick Jones a former industrial correspondent wrote: “Slowly but surely the unions’ strike weapon was emasculated. Strike ballots were required by law; walkouts were no longer possible on a show of hands in a car park; flying pickets and secondary action had been outlawed; and most importantly of all, a union’s assets were at risk if there was “unlawful” action, as the NUM President Arthur Scargill discovered to his cost in the 1984-85 pit dispute.” (See: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22076774)

However on the European front problems were piling up. In 1985 Britain’s chancellor Nigel Lawson wanted to join the EU’s Exchange Rate Mechanism which prevented the pound and other member currencies from deviating by more than 6%. Thatcher rejected the idea, but it was ‘shadowed’ instead. After  a third election Tory victory in 1987 the economy was quickly in trouble with rising inflation (nearly 10% in 1990) and interest rates (around 15% the same year) partly under the pressure of house price rises.

In October 1990, Margaret Thatcher changed her mind, as pressure to join came from members of the cabinet, including John Major her new Chancellor and foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. It was part of the aim, to use Major’s words, to; “place Britain at the heart of Europe….” (without adopting the Euro of course) and help give the UK economic stability.

Reeling from the government’s massive attacks on jobs, trade union organisation, pay and conditions and public services and the defeats of the miners and Fleet Street workers following the Wapping lock out by Murdoch in 1986/87, the TUC welcomed the speech by Jacques Delors President of the European commission to Congress the following year in which he placed a new social dimension at the heart of Europe. To the trade union leadership this was a way of protecting the unions’ workplace gains made over the years and even build on them via Social Europe especially in areas like health and safety. To Thatcher it was just about “socialism by the back door” and stood in the way of her government’s continued neoliberal offensive. And it would not have escaped her notice that the gap between rich and the poor was at its narrowest in the 1970s, a period when trade unionism was its strongest – so no going back there the Tories proclaimed!

Thatcher resigned in November 1990 after a challenge was launched to her leadership, because (amongst other reasons) of her now openly hostile attitude to Europe. But her departure did not mean that the Tory party was more pro Europe, quite the opposite. Hostility grew towards moves to adopt the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which laid the foundations of the present European Union, and marked a new stage in the process of European integration. It established a political union, strengthened economic integration with the creation of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). It also aimed to bring about the stabilisation of political tensions within Europe at the end of the Cold War, and integrate a unified Germany into the Union.

Although Thatcher’s successor John Major won the earlier 1992 general election, hostility to Europe from within his party was increasing and the following year the UK Independence Party (UKIP) was founded, but its growth was slow at first. By the time he left office in 1997 he had been worn down by constant ‘in fighting’ over Europe with his own back benchers as well as attacks on his government’s economic competence which he experienced for most of his period of office.

Having been elected an MP in 1983 on an anti EU manifesto Tony Blair Labour’s new leader was in the opposite camp by the time of ‘New’ Labour’s landslide 1997 victory. The party (and Blair) had performed a remarkable U-turn. Many believe that the most important achievement of the EU during the Blair years was its enlargement in which the UK played a leading part. It also brought about a subsequent rapid rise in immigration. Between 1997 and 2010, net annual immigration quadrupled, and the UK population was boosted by more than 2.2 million immigrants, more than twice the population of Birmingham. In Labour’s last term in government, 2005-2010, net migration reached on average 247,000 a year.

Sir Stephen Wall, who was Blair’s most senior EU adviser between 2000-2004, frankly admits an error. “We simply didn’t take account properly of the pull factor of England for people with skills who could probably find a bigger market [in the UK] for their skills – you know the Polish plumber.”

This issue was to become toxic and fuelled opposition to Europe. David Blunkett, Home Secretary from 2001 to 2004 blamed the global meltdown from the end of 2007 for making the issue of immigration so toxic for Labour. “Back in 2004 and all the way through to 2008 the economy was able to absorb young, able skilled workers who wanted to work and wanted to stay in the country for a short period of time while they made enough money to invest back home,” he says. Once the recession set in he said that was no longer the case.

“The big mistake we made was not to put more money into integration and into preparation for people being dispersed either under the asylum programme…” (reported in How immigration came to haunt Labour: the inside story by Nicholas Watt and Patrick Wintour The Guardian 24 March 2015).

But it was not just European immigration that was fuelling the debate. Blair’s disastrous military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in more refugees fleeing the conflicts and seeking asylum in the UK by any means possible added to which civil war in a number of African countries increased the flow of people seeking a more secure future.

Meanwhile the Tories were growing more anti-Europe, expressed as opposition to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (subsequently updated by the controversial Lisbon Treaty in 2007) as shown in the election of three successive Eurosceptic leaders, William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. The fourth, David Cameron, however, did not share their hostility, but recognised the increasing dangers to his party from the right wing Brexiters both within and without, more especially from Nigel Farage who took up the leadership of UKIP in 2010 the same year that Brown lost the general election. At the Euro elections the previous year the UKIP party had won the second-highest share of the UK popular votes ahead of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The result of the 2010 election resulted in Cameron going into coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats. Any referendum on UK membership of the EU that many Tories wanted was put on the back burner. The official policy was that there would be no in/out referendum. But the Eurosceptic MPs, organised in the European Research Group, stepped up the pressure and coupled with UKIP breathing down his neck and an increasingly anti-European press increasing the volume, Cameron announced in 2013 that a referendum would be included in the Tory Party manifesto at the next general election. To him it was a party management issue and anyway he did not expect to win the 2015 election thinking that the coalition would continue and talk of the referendum would go away, at least for a while!

However, he did win and had to deliver on his referendum promise. Although no fan of the European institutions I thought it just wasn’t the real issue facing us. After 5 years of the Coalition’s disastrous austerity implemented by chancellor George (‘tougher than Thatcher’) Osborne, the real issue was the cuts, and the shrinking of the UK state, which had nothing to do with the EU!

The case for the vote is put by Craig Oliver, then Cameron’s head of communications in the introduction to his book Unleashing Demons, The Inside Story of Brexit. He writes:  “those who say he could have avoided are, I believe, denying what was political reality. The issue of whether we should remain in or leave the EU had been a slow train coming for years. It just happened to arrive in the station on David Cameron’s watch. A range of factors made it impossible for a Conservative prime minister to avoid. Scores of Tory MPs were rebelling on any and every issue that could be linked to Europe; the right wing press were full-throated in their demands; UKIP had become a significant force in British politics (eventually winning the 2014 European Election); and over half the population indicated they wanted a say- with anyone under 60 never having been able to vote on the issue…”

Without it Cameron thought the country would become ungovernable. At the 2015 general election he won with an overall majority of 11 seats. UKIP won 12.4% of the vote, compared to 3.1% in 2010. It may have been party management for him but to me Cameron was in a hole and kept digging, eventually throwing the nation into a much deeper one!

Unlike in the 1975 vote, most of the press were hostile to Europe and backed leave. A report published in September 2016 by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism examined how the UK press covered the EU Referendum story, and looked at what the key arguments, spokespeople, tone of articles, and areas of focus were during the referendum. The report was based on analysis of two days of press coverage each week for London editions of nine national newspapers over 4 months of the campaign. Of the 2,378 articles analysed which were focused on the referendum, 41% were pro leave as against 27% pro-remain. Press coverage focused heavily on politicians and campaign spokespeople with relatively few analysts/experts, academics, and foreign politicians cited, and with more attention on personalities and the contest, than the issues.

On its publication, Dr David Levy, Director of the Reuters Institute and one of the report’s authors said: “The research reveals a picture of highly polarised press coverage, reliant on a narrow range of voices, and where coverage was relatively more focused on the contest itself and personalities than any of the complex issues at stake. In that sense, in spite of some notable exceptions, the press was generally better at reinforcing the views of decided voters than in giving undecided voters, seeking broad facts and high-quality information, the evidence to make up their own minds.”

Having accepted that the vote was going ahead I did consider abstaining, given that I believed Europe was not responsible for austerity, the running down of public services and the increasing poverty and inequality in our society. These were home grown policies.

On the other hand having been asked, in circumstances not of my choosing, my concerns about continued membership were based on a democratic deficit, the unelected and unaccountability (electorally) of the Europe’s governing institutions, the European Council (made up from the heads of national governments), the European Commission (the executive of the Union made up of one member from each member state and subject to the approval of the parliament), and the Council of the European Union (the Council of Ministers). There was the elected European Parliament, but it ultimately has no law-making powers of its own with the unelected Commission being the only institution empowered to initiate legislation and having a near monopoly on legislative initiatives although it can take the initiative by requesting that the Commission submit a legislative proposal.

Two other unelected and powerful bodies are the European Central Bank and the European Court of Justice which also give concern.

The Central Bank operates for the 19 EU countries which use the Euro. Its main task is to maintain price stability, the outcome of which was a disaster for Greece in its stand-off with the bank in 2015. Much of this was played out in the press and other media which must have annoyed some of the European bureaucrats involved. The Central Bank is unique for being completely unaccountable to any outside authority, let alone any democratic institution, and so it is able to break the treaties which in theory empower it, a view supported by Perry Anderson (and see below). At least the Bank of England publishes minutes of the meetings of its powerful Monetary Policy Committee which decides what monetary policy action to take including rates of interest.

The Court has always been: ‘the driving force of integration at the expense of the legal rights of nations and civil-society bodies such as trade unions’ writes Perry Anderson in Ever Closer Union in the London Review of Books (7 January 2021). In the same article he goes on to accuse the Court of brazenly ignoring or distorting European treaties and laws, by acting beyond its powers. He continues: ‘Most significant of all, the Court is unique in the world in being entirely unaccountable to anyone. Its decisions are secretive, final and effectively irreversible.  In short, powers ‘that no analogue in a democracy has ever possessed.’

OK you might say, but you can hardly called the UK a beacon of democracy with its monarch, an unelected House of Lords and a Commons elected by a ‘first past the post’ unrepresentative voting system. But at least the largest party elected in the Commons can form a government (sometimes with support from other parties) and that government is accountable to Parliament. The EU parliament has no such function, there is no governing party and no opposition just political ‘blocks’ or groupings. For all its shortcomings, the UK system is more democratic than Brussels/Strasbourg. The EU institutions just don’t stand up to democratic scrutiny and accountability.

Of course being in the EU brought us trading, ‘just in time deliveries of goods’ free movement and travel advantages, as well as close cooperation with a range of European institutions. However, the judgement one had to make in 2016 was one of balance against the democratic deficits I have already referred to. So, without illusions, I voted to leave.

Of course if Labour had won the 2017 election on a radical socialist and anti-austerity programme which would have been ruled illegal under EU law, post the referendum they would have been able act free from its challenges (although not those from business interests and the right wing press who would have done their best to obstruct the programme). The UK is also no longer  subject to EU procurement and competition rules, which are there to protect the EU’s internal market. This freedom  gives government the right to decide how public services are provided. However, that was not to be…for the time being!

I fully realised that being outside the EU would not be easy. The Leave camp had no real vision of what  a post Brexit society would look like, just a series of slogans around the theme of ‘taking back control’ which now sounds very hollow to what’s left of the UK fishing industry to mention just one sector.

But neither did the remainers offer much of a vision as to why we should vote to stay in since they generally dodged the issues the lack of democratic accountability of the European institutions. The line from Hillaire Belloc’s poem ‘Jim’ (who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion) to “always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse” comes to mind.

Maybe it’s on this premise that the European Union will stagger on. However, the last few years has seen the growth of far right political parties in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Hungary, the Netherlands and Poland. Early on European far-right and anti-immigration parties campaigned against the EU, now they are appealing to a pan-European identity to further their goal of a racially pure, white Christian continent. Just how the European establishment deals with this remains to be seen.

As for the UK, having left without a plan, the vision thing by the Brexiters is still ‘work in progress’ it seems! And if we want to protect and improve our public services, environmental, labour and other standards, we will (as always whether in or out of the EU) have to fight for them to prevent what could well now become a ‘race to the bottom’. If the winds of change were blowing through Africa in the 1960s, they are certainly blowing through the UK as a result of the 2016 referendum and the subsequent election of the Johnson government.

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Europe, a road crash that was decades in the making

  1. Like a lot of people who voted Remain in 2016, I don’t see the EU as a perfect example of government – more as a “work still in progress” project. However, on balance, I would have preferred to remain and reform – the UK has now no influence to do this which is a pity as the EU has become a lot more self-critical as a result of Brexit – but the Brits won’t benefit from their reforms.

    I can partially accept your critique of the lack of democratic accountability but this was the previous situation. Now it is improving as the EU Parliament gets more power and scrutinises legislation and policy in greater depth. Laws are proposed by the EU Commission and the EU Parliament and Council of Ministers then debate and sign off on all legislation before it is implemented. We voted for our MEPs so where is the lack of accountability?

    I accept that previous UK governments were not 100% honest about the consequences of joining the Common Market but they were probably influenced by the pro-EU stance of the media and the population in the 70s and did not want to rock the boat during the initial years (they were politicians after all).

    However, my main reason for supporting the EU project is the peace within the borders of the “club” since it was formed (the war in Bosnia was outside the borders). I always think that nations that trade together, rarely start wars with each other and the EU is a supreme example of this – 65 years of peace after 800 years of continuous fighting in Europe. Applying this logic, I equally think that the West and China will attempt to resolve their differences in order to preserve the trade between the 2 regions – in the past, there might have been a greater temptation to “press the button”.

    As a Labour Party member, I also admire the labour laws and employment regulations of the EU and I assume that the TUC also does based on the staunch Remain stance of the TUC secretary, Frances O’Grady. After so many years of the Tories, our own unions have been greatly weakened and I fear for the future as the UK heads in a US direction and our employment regulations become diluted.

    I also believe that when the sea gets economically stormy, it’s always better to be in a big boat. The ECB intervention during the 2008 financial crisis was crucial (as was the intervention of the administrations in the US and UK in propping up their financial systems). I’m not sure what you mean by the “unelected” ECB – is the Bank of England admin team elected and accountable to the people?

    I also don’t understand the critique of the “unelected” ECJ – is any supreme court elected? I can’t comment on the UK supreme court as it’s a recent creation but in the USA they are political appointments. Why is the ECJ different? The important criterion is the law itself – not the people who apply it.

    In conclusion, I believe that the benefits of membership outweighed the downsides and that the UK could have had a reformatory role in improving the issues that you list. The Leave campaign was a fog of misinformation designed to hide the real reason for Brexit – tax evasion of the elite who would have been scrutinised more and more if the UK had remained. However, we have now left so there is no point in crying over spilt milk – but this will not stop me analysing the slow deterioration of our economy and the effects of this on the most vulnerable within our society. We are heading in the wrong direction and it was all avoidable.

  2. Thanks for those thoughts chaps. I wonder, Barry, if you are happy that your vote prevailed?

    After everything that has happened since the 2016 referendum it’s difficult to faithfully recall what I felt and thought in the lead up to it. I was working abroad during most of the 1970’s so I missed the 1975 referendum – ever since returning to the UK I’ve considered being in the EU as just the natural state of affairs.

    Despite the awfulness of Cameron and Osborne it did seem from the start that the Leave people were the bad guys – the racism, deceit and dishonesty were evident straight away. I was tempted by “Lexit” arguments but respectable people said that EU rules weren’t the barrier to Labour policies, for example nationalisations, that they were being made out to be, and Jeremy Corbyn himself said that he supported Remain and gave the EU “7 out of 10”.

    The tragedy is that the political/media class made no attempt at the time to educate the electorate and differentiate between the Political EU and the Single Market/Customs Union EU. The bipolar “Leave/Remain” referendum question was a tragic national disaster, on a par with, more likely worse than, Blair’s joining US Imperial wars, or Brown’s “light-touch regulation” of the finance industry – why are we blighted with such incompetent leadership?!?

    So back to the question Barry, are you happy that your vote prevailed? Do you see some possible future benefit? We have ended up with almost the worst possible “Brexit”, and it has been used by self-promoting individuals and vested interests to firmly install a corrupt, right wing “Chumocracy”, in the process destroying the admittedly almost inevitably doomed anyway democratic socialist Corbyn project.

    And the future looks bleak.

  3. Responding to Phil

    Phil writes. ‘I can partially accept your critique of the lack of democratic accountability but this was the previous situation. Now it is improving as the EU Parliament gets more power and scrutinises legislation and policy in greater depth. Laws are proposed by the EU Commission and the EU Parliament and Council of Ministers then debate and sign off on all legislation before it is implemented. We voted for our MEPs so where is the lack of accountability?’

    Phil is right about the changes that came about in recent years but I don’t believe it goes far enough. I have taken this below from the EU web site ‘About parliament’ and assume it’s up to date, see: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/about-parliament/en/powers-and-procedures/legislative-powers

    ‘How does the legislative process work?
    A Member of the European Parliament, working in one of the parliamentary committees, draws up a report on a proposal for a ‘legislative text’ presented by the European Commission, the only institution empowered to initiate legislation. The parliamentary committee votes on this report and, possibly, amends it. When the text has been revised and adopted in plenary, Parliament has adopted its position. This process is repeated one or more times, depending on the type of procedure and whether or not agreement is reached with the Council.

    In the adoption of legislative acts, a distinction is made between the ordinary legislative procedure (codecision), which puts Parliament on an equal footing with the Council, and the special legislative procedures, which apply only in specific cases where Parliament has only a consultative role.

    On certain questions (e.g. taxation) the European Parliament gives only an advisory opinion (the ‘consultation procedure’). In some cases the Treaty provides that consultation is obligatory, being required by the legal base, and the proposal cannot acquire the force of law unless Parliament has delivered an opinion. In this case the Council is not empowered to take a decision alone.

    The ordinary legislative procedure gives the same weight to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union on a wide range of areas (for example, economic governance, immigration, energy, transport, the environment and consumer protection). The vast majority of European laws are adopted jointly by the European Parliament and the Council.

    The codecision procedure was introduced by the Maastricht Treaty on European Union (1992), and extended and made more effective by the Amsterdam Treaty (1999). With the Lisbon Treaty that took effect on 1 December 2009, the renamed ordinary legislative procedure became the main legislative procedure of the EU´s decision-making system.’

    I admit that democracy means different things to different people and by what standards you wish to hold the institution to – so there are no easy answers to this question. However, my starting point is that I am referring to representative democracies, where we elect people to represent our views and make decisions on our behalf. The European Parliament is unusual in that it cannot propose legislation, but as stated above EU laws cannot pass without its direct approval.

    Then there is the European Commission the only institution empowered to initiate legislation. This is the executive branch, and submits proposals for new legislation to the Parliament and the Council, implements EU policy and administers the budget. Most crucially, the commissioners are not elected but are instead nominated by member countries, each of which gets one representative.

    It’s true that the vast majority of legislation proposed in the UK parliament (a liberal democracy) comes from government (the executive) although MPs (and unelected Peers) can introduce private members bills some of which are passed into law by parliament. However, in the UK system of parliamentary democracy the executive (government) only remains in office if it can command a majority in the House of Commons. In the EU parliament there is no government party (or parties) neither is there an ‘opposition’ as we know it here in the UK set up.

    The second test of a democracy is transparency another key issue in perceptions about whether the EU is democratic. I believe it lacks transparency. The NGO anti-corruption body Transparency International’s EU writes at: https://transparency.eu/priority/eu-money-politics/).
    ‘At the EU level, despite a number of promising reforms by the Juncker Commission, the full spectrum of EU policy and decision-making remains opaque and unaccountable to citizens. The Council of the EU, for example, has made few concessions to transparency remaining apart from initiatives to improve lobby transparency. It also refuses to open its decision-making process to the public, going against decisions taken by the European Courts and calls by European Ombudsman, national parliaments and civil society organisations. As for the Commission and Parliament, their respective ethics bodies are unable to effectively deal with cases of conflict of interests or effectively tackle revolving door risks between public positions and private interests.

    Transparency International EU’s assessment of political corruption risks in the EU institutions has shown that despite a sophisticated regulatory and institutional framework, crucial areas such as safeguards against conflicts of interest and transparency of lobbying leave much to be desired. Addressing these and more fundamental accountability gaps in an effort to make the Union more responsive to direct citizen input will require wide-ranging changes, including the EU’s founding treaties.’

    Of course lack of transparency is not solely an EU phenomenon, as we know from the recent court case against Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who was found by a high court judge to have acted unlawfully by failing to publish multibillion-pound Covid-19 government contracts within the 30-day period required by law.

    Back to the EU, when I was on the European Federation of Journalists steering committee, during the last decade, I remember only too well the continuing debate about the proposed TTIP (The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) launched by the EU in 2013 and finally rejected in 2019. Getting information about the negotiations with the USA for an agreement on the elimination of tariffs for industrial goods was like getting blood from a stone. The process was shrouded in secrecy and attempts to tell the public (let alone MEPs) were being constantly frustrated.

    Writing in The Guardian on 31 August 2015 The promised ‘transparency’ around TTIP has been a sham, (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/31/transparency-ttip-documents-big-business) Sven Giegold a Green MEP and one of the founding members of Attac Germany said…
    ‘Unfortunately, most politicians in the European parliament are as much in the dark as ordinary citizens. We MEPs may get access to a few more documents in the parliament’s reading room than those searching the EU commission’s website. Nevertheless, the most important ones containing the demands of the US government are kept secret, even from MEPs. Even worse, although there are thousands of pages of documents, readers are not allowed to take any notes. Non-native English-speaking MEPs are further deterred by highly technical trade-law jargon. And while we could employ staff who are better trained to read the documents, they are not allowed to access the reading rooms. Therefore, the right of access to documents for MEPs is largely a sham. A real understanding of what is going on is only achieved through the actual publication of documents…’

    Sorry it’s such a long response to only the first part of your comments Phil. I’ll respond (hopefully at not such length) to the remaining points later this week, then move onto Damien’s comments.

  4. Thanks Phil – I’ll try and cover three of your main points

    I agree that there have been no wars between the EU nations and that of course one of the objectives of setting up the Common Market was to avoid such conflicts. In 1950, the European Coal and Steel Community, the foundation of the Common Market, began the process of uniting European countries economically and subsequently politically to secure a lasting peace. However, as a result of the ‘Cold War’ with Europe divided into the two blocks (until the final collapse of the USSR in 1991) and Germany further divided between East and West, it was unlikely that there would be hostilities between the non-communist nations, even without the Common Market/European Community, although we are all free to speculate on hypothetical outcomes.

    Following the death of President Tito in 1980, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia slowly at first began to fall apart, leading to subsequent years of civil war. The European Community at first backed the continuation of the Yugoslav Federation, which had been linked to the European Economic Community (EEC) by a cooperation agreement signed in April 1980. However, by 1990 and realising the gravity of the situation in Yugoslavia, the EEC tried to find compromises and solutions, but because of internal divisions these attempts at keeping peace failed. So while it was possible to keep the peace within the borders of the EEC, national interests in the Balkans ultimately prevented a united approach by the Community. There is an interesting account of this period at: https://blogactiv.eu/blog/2010/05/14/the-eu-and-the-disintegration-of-yugoslavia-2/

    I fully understand those who argued for remain believed improvements in labour laws, considerably weakened during the Thatcher and Mayor era, which was exactly what they wanted to achieve through policies of privatisation, deregulation, and anti-trade union laws, were down to the EU. And they would point to the fact that union membership dropped from its peak of 13, million in 1979 to just under 8 million by 1997 when Labour was elected. However, an interesting article Don’t be fooled – the EU is no defender of workers’ rights by Larry Elliott, economic editor (Guardian 24 October 2019) puts a counter view and paints an interesting picture, pointing to how the European project has always made life easier for capital – that’s why multinationals like it so much (see: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/24/eu-workers-rights-capital-multinationals .

    Regarding the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of England, it is interesting to compare their governance. The Bank of England is a public body answerable to the public through Parliament, but does have some operational independence (due to Gordon Brown and parliament in 1998 and see: https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/about/governance-and-funding . There is parliamentary accountability through the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee which publicly holds the Bank to account and scrutinises appointments. It regularly asks the Governor and other senior representatives to explain how and why they arrive at decisions. The Court of Directors (or board) including the Governor are all appointed by the government.

    The ECB is based on a different model of operation having also to deal with conflicting interests from national governments making up the EU. So is its focus of accountability European or national? Clearly the situation is more complicated than that faced by the Bank of England. A study written at the request of European Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) in September 2020 ‘aimed to cast some light on possible ways to improve the accountability framework of the European Central Bank (ECB) in the conduct of monetary policy – in particular the relationship between the ECB and the European Parliament in the ‘Monetary Dialogue’ – taking into account the institutional balance enshrined in the Treaty, standing practices and recent developments’. The paper also presented the accountability mechanisms of the Bank of England, as a comparative case study. See: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/211623/1_LASTRA-final.pdf

    It pointed out that when the ECB was created, it was influenced by the German Bundesbank so called model of stability and independence. The Bundesbank Law, the study points out, contained few provisions regarding the accountability of the central bank, relying instead on the support of public opinion, consensus rather than dissent and the statutory objective to legitimise its existence in a democratic society. This contributes to explain why accountability may have only played a ‘subsidiary role’ in the negotiations that led to the bank the study explains.

    The report made a number of recommendations to strengthen accountability and transparency to the European Parliament and concluded: ‘Accountability cannot be guaranteed by the fact that the initial stage of its creation is legitimate democratically. Accountability is judged through the life of the institution. “It is in its continuing operations and policies that the institution must be subject to appropriate mechanisms of accountability. And if the ECB gives ‘proper account’, explains and justifies the actions or decisions taken (or omitted) in the exercise of its responsibilities, is subject to judicial review and to audit control”133, and responds to the European Parliament through a meaningful Monetary Dialogue (renamed as Monetary Hearings) along the lines proposed in this report, then it can be judged to be sufficiently accountable. The jury is out!’ (They believe in long sentences!)

    So questions to ask are just who does control the ECB, what influence do national governments (especially Germany) have over the direction of policy and in whose interests does the bank operate? Memories of the bank’s (and the IMF’s) roles in the Greek crisis in the last decade which has turned Greece into a debtors’ colony, cannot be swept under the carpet.

    In answer to ‘A Pessimist’s’ question about the outcome of the 2016 referendum I had no illusions in what a ‘no’ outcome could bring. Happiness does not come into it. Cameron did not believe he would lose (nor did I!) and had no idea of what to do when he did, hence his rapid exit from Downing Street. The so called public debate in the run up to the vote was riddled with lies, cheap and vacuous ‘off the peg’ slogans; whipped up racism and pathetic flag waving and jingoism (aided by much of the national press) which should have been buried with the British Empire. The way the May and Johnson governments conducted the Brexit negotiations was appalling and we are paying the price for it. However, short of abstaining (which I did consider in 2016) and having been asked, even though I believed it was not the key problem facing us (that was the impact of austerity and growing inequality) I voted to leave.

    As to whether EU rules were or were not a barrier to Labour policies at the 2017 or 2109 elections, for example to nationalisations, is quite a complicated matter. The following article by Jon Stone in The Independent 21 June 2019 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-eu-railways-eu-rules-nationalise-single-market-restrictions-labour-a8968691.html poses interesting questions in respect of Labour’s plans to renationalise the railways. The scope of the debate is wider in: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2019/05/21/long-read-does-the-eu-stop-britain-from-using-state-aid-to-help-its-economy/ While J. White and Alex Gordon argued in Open Democracy on 9 August 2017 ‘The EU single market is incompatible with Labour’s manifesto’ that ‘EU single market membership frustrates any ability to create coherent, integrated, nationalised industries and utilities based on democratically agreed national needs’. They concluded that ‘The EU’s demonstrable commitment to enforcing market competition and liberalisation through its single market is incompatible with socialist aspirations and democratic principles’. (See: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/eu-single-market-is-incompatible-with-labour-s-manifesto/ )

    But whether inside or outside the EU we have to campaign for a better society at home and through international solidarity, a better world. The Covid pandemic makes that plain and even more urgent. Whether in or out of the EU, a luta continua.

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