Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The EU Referendum (Part 1)

There’s about three weeks to go until a referendum in the UK on whether the country wants to stay in the European Union. I’ve been meaning to write a post about it for a while, but have been on holiday (in mainland Europe, fittingly) and preoccupied with other issues up until now. I’ve already written a blog post in the past on why I think we should stay in the EU, and I still believe that now, in light of the referendum.

The charge that Eurosceptics lay at the EU’s feet is that is overly bureaucratic and unaccountable. While this is not entirely untrue – for example, the unnecessarily costly expense of moving regularly from Brussels to Strasbourg - it’s worth pointing out that many problems with democracy also plague the UK political system. The House of Lords (HoL), the upper chamber of Parliament, remains unaccountable, with around 790 sitting lords. This includes twenty-six bishops and 92 hereditary peers, the latter of whom have inherited their position from the family line (hereditary peerage once extended to everyone in the HoL, but was curtailed under the House of Lords Act 1999). The vast majority of those peers are men; incredibly, in this day and age, the vast majority of these peerages can only be inherited by men (there are women in the HoL, but they are outnumbered by men). The remaining members of the HoL are life peers, who are also not elected by the public, but rather are appointed. 

Along with the anachronistic First-Past-The-Post voting system (FPTP) still operating in general elections, but not in devolved Scotland, this makes me a lot annoyed than the machinations of the EU referendum. The reply from those whom advocate the UK leaving the EU is that the House of Lords cannot be compared to the EU due to the fact that the HoL does not make laws, but rather only scrutinises them. The purpose of the HoLs in general is to analyse bills. To which the response should be that there should be no problem in changing the layout of the HoL, then. Yet the prospect of having a referendum on this is never seriously entertained.

Leaving the UK could result in the disintegration of the UK. If a Brexit occurs, pro-EU forces in Scotland could find their demand for another referendum on Scotland remaining in the UK taking on a new momentum. It’s not too far-fetched to suggest that one of the reasons (along with the uncertainty of the currency question in the event of independence) that Scotland voted to stay in the UK in the referendum in 2014 was because of the fear of an independent Scotland being ‘outside’ the EU – i.e., a non-member state - and having to reapply as a new member. If Brexit happened, and Scotland subsequently declared independence before then joining the EU as a new member-state, the result could be a physical land border between Scotland and the rest of the UK via the border between Scotland and England. It would also mean a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, sealing off two communities who currently share a Common Travel Area.

The EU, while far from perfect, has attempted to stop EU members from trading with the appalling Saudi regime, and has attempted to cap bankers’ bonuses following the financial crash. Both have been resisted by the UK, and it’s difficult to see how a UK outside the EU would be any different in its dealings.

EU legislation has led to cleaner beaches, cleaner air (though it may not feel like it in London), tangible workers rights, and a whole host of positive environment policies, including restrictions on landfill dumping. It has funded projects the length and breadth of the UK via grants, improving infrastructure and pouring money into neglected areas.

Eurosceptics have often cited, and continue to cite, the likes of Iceland, Norway and Switzerland  - three European countries not in the EU - as examples to follow. These economies are all prosperous, and have some of the best standards of living in the world, but they are not necessarily examples to the UK due to their differences in many ways. All have small populations. All are high-tax economies (hence the high cost of things when visiting those countries). However, on top of their high taxes funding the state, Norway also manages a huge sovereign oil wealth fund, one that has been carefully built up over the years, in contrast to the UK, which has frittered away all the profits from its own oil in the North Sea on tax breaks for the rich. Switzerland, with a population of around 8 million, has an economy mostly based around slightly murky banking laws. Iceland, meanwhile, has a tiny population and an economy orientated towards fishing and geothermal energy.

All are worth admiring in their own way. But they remain different to the UK. Furthermore, in order to access the Single Market, they have to remain members of the Schengen Area, despite not being members of the EU. This would not be a model for the UK post-Brexit, with Eurosceptics making clear that they are opposed to freedom of movement from Europe, and of the UK joining the Schengen Area.

Instead, a post-Brexit UK would find itself isolated in negotiations with the EU. These negotiations would be intense and torturous, unravelling 80,000 pages of EU agreements and decades of legislation. Both sides would be fighting their own corner, with the EU in a tense state, having seen a large member vote to leave, while at the same time concerned that a Brexit might encourage pour les autres in the remaining EU to have their own referendums. There is no guarantee that it would be willing to give any ground in striking a deal with the UK. In contrast, the UK currently has the best of both worlds inside the EU: it has managed to remain inside the Single Market while at the same time gaining opt-outs on joining the Euro, the Schengen Area, and the rebate. The latter opt-out is seldom mentioned by Eurosceptics, when mentioning how much money the UK ‘puts in’ to the EU, while failing to account for how much ‘comes back’ to the UK.

Eurosceptics also mention that a vote to Remain is somehow a ‘vote for neo-liberalism’, ‘for the Tories’, or for ‘big business’. These arguments belie the fact that many on the Brexit side are just as likely to favour big corporations, cutting red tape, and the rolling back of employment rights. Two members want the death penalty returned to the UK. It is not hyperbolic to suggest that, outside the EU, they would be perfectly placed to try and enact such regressive laws if they thought they had license to. Boris Johnson has been assiduous in helping foreign money pile into property in London, in turn pricing out local communities, while cynically joining the Brexit campaign as part of a scheming bid to become the next Prime Minister. He remains a Tory at heart, of course, just as the Conservatives are divided over the referendum; hence the spectacle of the party falling apart before our own eyes at the moment. Therefore, in no way can it be said that voting to Remain is somehow giving a ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘tactical approval’ to the Conservatives. Instead, you could argue that voting Remain allies the voter with the other main parties – Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the SNP in Scotland – who all back the UK staying in the EU.

Then there is the claim that voting to remain in the EU is ‘a vote for TTIP’ or for Turkey becoming an EU member state. The former, which for those who don’t know stands for Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, remains a difficult trade agreement to summarise; one way of summing it up is that it would be negative for local businesses in Europe. What’s important is that it has been contested all over Europe, with demonstrations having taken place against it all over Germany. Such is the ill-feeling towards TTIP throughout populations in the EU that it would be extremely difficult for it to take effect in EU legislation without protest at large. EU officials would be wary of seeing yet more antagonisms on the streets of EU nations after already explosive demonstrations by the public in austerity-strapped Southern European nations. A watered-down version of TTIP could appear, but it would still be contested. Meanwhile, the latter point has been one seized on by the Leave campaigners, ignoring the fact that the prospect of Turkey joining the EU remains far into the future, if at all. There are thousands of pages of legislation that would have to be negotiated, and which Turkey would have to accede to, before Turkey makes any steps towards joining, in a process that would lead beyond 2020, and which would have to be ratified by all member states. That includes Greece and Cyprus, both member states, who are likely to veto Turkey’s EU membership over their continual dispute with the country over divided Cyprus. It’s likely too that many EU countries would be concerned at the EU’s borders extending to the borders of Iraq and Syria, and could also weld a veto accordingly.

There are some good reasons to consider Brexit. The impact of EU common fisheries policy on communities, for example (a key reason why Iceland has chosen not to join). Old left-wing leaders such as Tony Benn feared the EU for its facelessness, just as he disliked the unelected upper chamber of Parliament. But in my view these are still outnumbered by remaining what is still the largest trading federation in the world, even despite the Eurozone crisis in southern Europe  – one that has (mostly) managed to unite a Europe that was once split by the iron curtain. By pooling sovereignty as a result of being a member of the EU, the UK has not lost the majority of its independence; indeed, the UK has it better than many other EU nations via the opt-outs mentioned above. It is thus in a unique position – and one that would be a tragedy to discard.