Thursday, 21 January 2016

This week I am mostly voting to remain in the European Union

I used to be very opposed to the UK’s membership of the European Union for reasons that I outlined in this post back in May 2013. However, over the last couple of years I have become more sympathetic towards the EU and, as things stand, I intend to vote to remain within the European Union when the referendum on UK membership takes place on 23rd June this year.
In the post linked to above, I gave two main reasons for being opposed to the European Union: Firstly, its size, and the concomitant diminution of my power as a voter (as well as the fact that the size of a government may be inversely proportionate to its efficiency of operation and may also make it more liable to 'capture' by corporate interests which are more capable of lobbying etc. compared to members of the public, for whom a continent wide government seems - and in many ways is - distant and remote). I still think this is a problem, and national governments should, in my opinion, work hard to push back against the inevitable gravitational pull of a large, centralised EU and try to make sure that only those powers which are relevant to the continent as a whole are retained by that institution. However, one of the big issues of our time is the increasing power of transnational corporations and the best chance that people have for holding these institutions to account is through a continent wide approach. The EU population (and therefore the number of consumers in the market) is nearly eight times larger than that of the UK. This means that the EU has eight times the bargaining power (and eight times the clout) of the UK when it comes to negotiating with - and regulating and taxing - the financial powers that be. Also, a united front among European countries when it comes to minimum levels of taxation, health and safety standards and workers' rights is the best way to prevent a race to the bottom as individual countries fight to retain profitable businesses within their own borders. At one time it may have been possible for governments to provide public services by taxing workers’ incomes in order to pay for them. However, over the last 30 years, an increasingly high percentage of the profits of industry and commerce has gone to owners and shareholders as opposed to workers, which means that in order to continue to provide good quality services it will increasingly be necessary for governments to be able to tax companies’ profits at a reasonable level. At a time when the power of corporations is growing, then, transnational unity among governments is surely a rational response.
The second reason I gave for being against the EU was the fact that there is no common language for Europe, which limits the possibilities for continent-wide public debate, so making it harder for the EU electorate to hold the EU institutions to account. I still think this is an issue, but a far less serious one than I used to think. This is because, as long as the UK parliament is the sovereign body in this country, then there is no actual threat to democracy from the EU. If we, as a country, choose to pool some of our sovereignty with other European countries then that is a decision that has been democratically arrived at through our own national institutions and one that we could reverse at any time - again through our own democratic institutions - should we, as a national electorate, so wish. Notwithstanding the fact that George Osborne recently described the upcoming referendum as settling the question of the UK's EU membership (or non-membership) for 'a generation' (and I have heard other politicians describe it as settling the question 'once and for all'), the fact is that even if the forthcoming referendum results in the UK remaining in the EU, should a majority of the UK public decide at any point in the future that it wishes to leave then there is nothing to stop it from voting in a government which would take the country out of the EU. What I am trying to get at is that it is okay to 'outsource' some of the functions of government to an institution which is perhaps less than optimally democratic, provided the decision so to do is arrived at democratically and that there are democratic procedures in place for reversing that decision. (To put it bluntly, if the United Kingdom’s domestic political system is sufficiently democratic that the ‘public will’ is reflected in government policy, then should the majority of the UK electorate at any given time wish to leave the European Union, the government will respond accordingly and implement that wish. In such circumstances, membership of the EU cannot be construed as any kind of threat to the sovereignty or self-determination of the UK and its citizens. However, if the UK’s domestic political system is not sufficiently democratic that the ‘public will’ is reflected in government policy, then to leave the EU with the intention of returning to a more democratic, responsive and popular form of government would be an exercise in fantasy and futility.) Incidentally, I think it is this non-compulsory aspect of EU membership that differentiates the EU from the traditional idea of an Empire and also helps to ensure the principle of subsidiarity – that is, the principle that the EU should only intervene in matters where national governments acting alone would not be sufficiently effective.
The advantages of EU membership in terms of free trade and a single market (and of having a seat at the table that decides on the rules of that single market - rules which are necessary to prevent a race to the bottom in terms of health and safety and working conditions) and in terms of encouraging inward investment into the UK are so great that, in my opinion, it is worth pooling a certain amount of our sovereignty in the manner described above, in order to retain these.
Finally, there are two additional reasons why I would like the UK to remain in the EU. Firstly, I have friends (and will soon have a relative through the marriage of one of my nephews) who are legally resident in this country because of the freedom of movement that our EU membership brings. Even when I was opposed to the EU I was not against the freedom to live and work in the country of one's choice, but I fear that should the UK leave the EU there could possibly be a threat to the right of these friends and relatives to remain in the UK or to become UK citizens should they so wish.
Secondly, there is a very real possibility that, should the UK withdraw from the EU, Scotland would vote to leave the UK. Not only that, but if Scotland were to be admitted to the EU as an independent country while the rest of the UK was outside of the EU, then there could be an actual border complete with customs and the need for passport controls between Scotland and the rest of Britain. A similar situation could obtain with regard to the island of Ireland, where a vote for the UK to leave the EU could result in the reinstatement of border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic, undoing one of the achievements of the peace process.

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