Tuesday, April 5, 2016

#Brexit: The Case for Democratic Reform

Karl Eastham - Guest Contributor (which sounds rather grand, but I don't know what else to say. Ed.)
Being an elected Labour Party member and a Eurosceptic is a lonely business. Lumped into the same camp as fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, our isolation from both the left and right-wing mainstream only increases. However, speaking to members of the Labour Party and the public more generally, two things become clear. Firstly, there is a left-wing case to be made for Brexit and, secondly, there are Labour voters out there who want it heard.

So here are just a few reasons why I’m convinced that we need to make the argument for a Brexit in order to best protect the people we fight hard to represent.

How are we governed?

The EU is incomprehensible to the man or woman on the street, their boss and, most likely, their politically engaged elected representatives. Ask anyone in the UK who is in charge of the EU, and they will not know.

This points to a damaging democratic deficit: if politicians in Westminster seem removed from the people they represent, then the politicians making decisions in Europe seem not only removed from their communities, they may as well be living on Mars.

But the Byzantine structure of the organisation which produces legislation that directly affects our lives is not the worst of it: even if you do know who your MEP is, you will be disappointed to hear that that very same MEP is there only to provide illusory representation. MEPs do not make the laws by which we are governed, they can only ‘amend, adopt or reject’ legislation which originates with the Commission. That Commission is appointed, one member per state, once every five years. Our indirectly elected Prime Minister appoints one commissioner, who proposes legislation in Europe as one amongst 28.

Our MEPs simply give a veneer of democracy to what is actually a very messy, and undemocratic, process which no voter really understands, and the less engaged they are, the less they understand it.

As Labour Party politicians, we aim to represent the voiceless and the disengaged. We know when we knock on doors how difficult it can be to get people to vote in general elections. This is because these people feel that it doesn’t change anything, politicians are too far removed from the concerns of ordinary people and do not represent them. The EU tells them that it represents them through its MEPs, but it does not. Decisions are taken between heads of state in backroom negotiations – heads of state doing exactly what a cynic would expect politicians to do.

This state of affairs does nothing except decrease people’s faith in the democratic process, and increase the appearance that the whole thing is a stitch up. The whole structure of the EU is damaging to democracy because it is democracy in its worst form – tokenistic and indirect.

Protecting Progressive Politics?

Many people agree there are issues with the lack of democracy in the European Union, but, given it protects our hard won freedoms, these problems are worth overlooking. This is one of the most invidious and short-sighted arguments for staying in and ignores the constitutionally inconvenient issues around democratic decision making because it is convenient for the left to do so.

We may not like it, but the Conservatives were the biggest party in government in 2010 and 2015. That means that more people voted for them than voted for any other party. It is no secret that the Conservatives stood on an economically right-wing manifesto, but people voted for it. They hate the Trade Unions. They do not really believe in maternity rights, paternity rights and such. After the election, they threatened to make people pay for their own sick pay and they have recently suggested getting pensioners to pick fruit.

Of course we hate this. But they did win. It is unclear why an undemocratic supranational body, which nobody quite understands, should be allowed to overrule their manifesto. Of course, we must have checks and balances, and of course there are different levels of power. I cannot see, however, why commissioners appointed by the Hungarian Prime Minister should overrule the democratic will of the British people, particularly on national rather than international issues

Imagine if the boot was on the other foot, the EU is not inherently a left wing body or a left wing check and balance. There is a new nationalism on the rise in France, Poland and other nations, and the Vis├ęgrad bloc is becoming increasingly vocal as a right-wing force. It is not inconceivable that the EU might argue to restrict the rights and freedoms won for workers in Europe sometime in the next 20 or 30 years, should the political make-up of Europe alter. In that scenario, I’m not sure Labour Party Members would be so sure that the EU was an effective check or balance against a left-wing agenda pursued by Jeremy Corbyn.

The fact is, by arguing that the European Union is a check on the government we have elected, we argue that it is OK to ignore the democratic choice of the British people if that means that progressive aims and policies are protected. This is nonsense. It only increases people’s disengagement with politics because it means they vote for something and get something else entirely.

The Costs of a Free Market

The advantages of a free market imply the driving down of wages to the lowest level possible. The economic model that the European Union is founded on is one of free market capitalism which does not work in the interest of the lowest paid, but in the interest of the biggest business. Anthony Wells, of YouGov, has analysed the limited polling data there is from business and found that the smaller a business is, the lower their support for membership of the European Union. Given that 76% of British businesses have no employees and 62% are sole traders, there is a significant business voice against British membership of the EU.

A couple of years ago, I spoke to my cousin about his work. He’s a sole trader (builder) in the North of England and he complained about Eastern European labour coming to the UK and pushing down earnings for him and his friends. Critics argue that we can protect against this by effectively enforcing the minimum wage, ignoring the fact that he was earning more than the minimum wage at the time.

The challenge the left faces in defending the EU’s economic model is further exposed in Port Talbot. How can we defend an organisation that believes in unbridled free markets within its borders and has rules against letting a state protect tens of thousands of people who rely on the labour that a national industry provides? We are in a topsy-turvy world when the ‘right-wing’ argument to leave is one that protects the lowest paid, and the ‘left-wing’ argument to stay promotes unrestricted markets, limits state aid to business and increases competition rather than solidarity in the labour force.

The Labour Party ignores concerns from small businesses, poor communities and the low paid at its peril. It is not xenophobic to fear for your livelihood, but it is economically foolhardy to allow unrestricted movement of labour from the whole European continent. It is very easy to see why high-earning professionals extoll the benefits of cheap labour: they get all of the benefits and suffer very few of the economic consequences.

Do not get me wrong, I believe it is in both our and the rest of the EU’s interest to maintain an element of free movement of people. There are varying ways of measuring the number of Brits living in Spain, but it is anything between 300,000 and 1 million. Clearly, we are not going to start pulling up the drawbridge any time soon, and neither are they, as the economic consequences would be enormous. Cultural exchange, economic benefits, and the offer of refuge and shelter to the persecuted are all brilliant reasons to allow people into this country. But the EU does not allow us to control the effect it has on our economy and to the lower paid at all.

If we leave the EU, we can re-negotiate the deal, and control our borders on our own terms. That does not mean an end to immigration. I means an end to the charade of politicians promising to reduce immigration when they cannot, providing impossible solutions to people’s very real concerns and ultimately, yet again, damaging our democracy.

The Peace Dividend

Quite rightly, proponents of the Remain position argue that the European Union has guaranteed peace and security in Europe since the Second World War. However, Ashoka Moody of Princeton University argues here that the EU’s role in this regard is no longer relevant. We are, now, too closely integrated economically for war to be a realistic prospect in the European Union. The aim of the EU was originally economic integration to such an extent that war was impossible. This has been achieved. I am yet to meet anyone on the Remain side of the debate who seriously believes Europe will descend into war if we leave the European Union.

Rather, the main threats to the security of the European Union now come from outside, from terror threats and unpredictable regimes in places like Russia and Iran. The issues in Iran were not resolved by the EU, but by EU and non-EU states working together. The Crimean crisis makes me wonder how much the Eastern expansion of the EU has checked Russian ambitions, particularly when the EU proves itself to be completely toothless time and time again in enforcing its values. The military and diplomatic power that matters comes from NATO, and from the big actors in Europe (usually Britain and France, sometimes Germany) working with the US. These actors are not, regrettably, aided by Maltese, Cypriot or Estonian intervention.

An even flimsier Remain argument is that it aids in the fight against terror. But EU states do not share intelligence gathered by their intelligence agencies with the rest of the EU as a matter of course. The recent events in Belgium led to calls for this to happen, and pointed to the failure of Europe to co-operate on security issues. We do, clearly, need better co-operation on security issues, but the evidence shows that the EU is not a facilitator in this regard.

Indeed, nations with effective security services have their own information sharing agreements. One of the most important to the UK is FIVE EYES, an arrangement between the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Does it need to be stated that this alliance has not required economic and social integration, or a shared parliament, in order to come about?

In stark contrast, the European Counter Terrorism Centre was only established in January 2016, and falls under the jurisdiction of Europol. Europol has no powers of arrest and has serious issues with intelligence gathering due to reluctance for member states to share information, as outlined here.

Of course, any intelligence is good intelligence, and we no doubt do benefit from some information sharing within the EU. But the idea that this limited intelligence sharing within the European Union will end with the UK leaving is ludicrous. We have important partners whose intelligence we need, and who need our intelligence. Some of those are in the EU, and some are not. If you think the French would not inform us of an imminent terror attack in London just because we left the EU, I would question how useful it is to be in a union with them in the first place.

But what next?

The IN campaign claim that it is too great a risk to leave the European Union. It would leave us isolated in the world, worse off and powerless. This is clearly nonsense.

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian has outlined very clearly here why he thinks that those risks are overblown, and I won’t rehash them. What I will say, though, is that whatever happens in the years after the referendum, not a huge amount will change. We are in Europe, whether we like it or not. We are politically, socially and economically too closely tied for a complete separation to take place.

What we can hope for is a real renegotiation and a real discussion about what our position in Europe should be. I have not done that here, though I have a few ideas.  It would include close economic integration with Europe. It would include some movement of labour and people. It would include more co-operation on security issues. It would not include isolationism. I am not a little Englander. I know that it is impossible to leave Europe, but not impossible to leave the EU.

I hope I have shown here that there are some real problems with the EU that need to be changed. It undermines our democracy and does not protect the lowest paid. We have little to fear by leaving the European Union precisely because we are too closely integrated with the rest of Europe. But it does need change and it does need renegotiation.

We can only really renegotiate our relationship in the interests of the people we aim to represent and protect by leaving, and thinking again. And that is why I will be voting for Brexit.