Europe keeps cropping up at important moments in my life. I was born on the 8th of May, VE day, my first vote was the 1979 elections for the European Parliament (the first ever for a supra-national body), I moved to the Netherlands just before the introduction of Euro notes and coins in 2002 and I am likely to be moving back to the UK later this year, soon after the UK’s possible exit from the EU.
Being part of the EEC/EU has always seemed right to me. From accession in 1973 until now I have never doubted that it was the way forward, and I still don’t. However, the referendum campaign has made me try to rationalise why I think that Stay is the right choice.
War is a terrible thing.
Over the centuries there have been many wars in Europe, mostly to the detriment of ordinary people. In the 20th century, our wars became even more terrible and spread across the world. So, it is no wonder that statesmen, Churchill included, in the late ‘40s looked for ways to break the cycle.
The European Union started with the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), first proposed in a speech by Robert Schuman, French Foreign Minister, on VE day 1950, with the aim to make war between historic rivals France and Germany “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”. The ECSC became the EEC, and then the EU, but the fundamental purpose – to end war in Europe – remains the same. After 70 years of peace it is easy to forget or downplay that or, as many Leavers do, give sole credit to NATO, whose primary purpose was to stop Russia pushing further west. Both aims have been achieved and it seems churlish to argue which institution should get the credit, surely the success of one reinforces that of the other.
Ending war is a noble aim, but “how?” is a fair question. The logic of the ECSC was that pooling production of war materiel, coal and steel, would make it impossible for one side or other to build an advantage over the other. The successor organisations have gone further, creating a single market and an “ever closer union”, with the same objective. The freedom of movement for labour, capital, goods and services are fundamental but there is also a personal level: the freedom to study in another EU country, to work with colleagues from another EU country, to watch sport together, and so on. These things could happen without the EU but the EU makes it easier, more common, more normal.
I am lucky enough to have worked with people from most European countries and know that we are fundamentally the same: with parents, partners, and children; worried about their education, health and welfare. Differences in culture or religion are minor; skin colour is irrelevant.
The more we interact with people from across Europe the better. Whether that is through the Erasmus programme for university students, the Framework Programmes that fund science projects, businesses trading across the continent or just from people visiting other countries for pleasure is irrelevant. A nod, a smile, a thank you matters.
The UK leaving the EU does not stop these things happening, but it makes them less likely, less frequent, and just “less”. Being a part of the EU shows commitment, being apart from the EU signals the opposite.
Of course, there is a price. We trade control for mutual benefit, just as we do when signing any international treaty or joining an international body. Of course, the EU requires a bigger commitment than any other body, because the benefits are larger, but the principle is the same. Critically, our sovereignty remains, we can choose to end the agreement if the electorate sees fit; this referendum is evidence of that.
The EU is a ground-breaker: a supra-national institution, with a directly elected parliament, operating on a massive scale. It was never likely to be perfect right from the start. Inevitably, making it work well is a work in progress, with a long way to go.
Does it make sense for the parliament to shuttle between Strasbourg and Brussels? Of course not! But that can be changed.
Should it have stayed at six members, or twelve? Maybe. Is twenty too many, or twenty-six? Perhaps. But we are where we are.
Is it democratic enough? Improvements have been made: a one-term limit for commissioners, and they now have to be approved by the parliament. What more could be done? Perhaps direct elections to the commission, a clear constitution, EU-wide referenda on key policies. Let’s talk about how to make it better.
One thing that must be tackled is the woeful lack of communication from the EU. People need to understand the EU, its institutions and what they are actually doing. Showing the relevance of the EU to ordinary voters is the way to increase the turn-out at elections.
Immigration is the most emotive issue in the leave campaign. More people means more pressure on housing and services, and those who feel this most are those already damaged by loss of manufacturing jobs. Immigrants get blamed for all the ills of society; I have seen the same thing happen in all of the countries that I have lived in (China, Malaysia, Singapore and The Netherlands). it is human nature and it is hard to counter. The fact that most immigrants contribute more than they take out is not seen by people in their day to day lives. The idea that NHS waiting lists are high solely because of immigrants is nonsense; if you have to wait 10 days to see your GP immigrants are not occupying the other 9 days, the NHS is under-funded. The need for new, younger tax-payers to fund the welfare state as our population gets older is not understood. That many Brits take advantage of EU freedom of movement to live and work (or retire) abroad is forgotten. Tomas the plumber from Poznan contributes more to the economy than Margaret from Cleethorpes, now retired to Coimbra. Yet Leave risks forcing both of them to move “home”.
Anti-EU campaigners have spouted so many lies and half-truths, so often and for so long, that some have become accepted as truth by many. Let me deal with some of those “facts”.
Banning unbent bananas
It is common for countries to classify products, to make it easier for suppliers and buyers to know what they are getting; remember when eggs in the UK used to have a British Standard kite mark on them? The EU does the same. One criteria for a banana to qualify as class 1 is that they have to be curved; unbent bananas can still be sold but but in a different class. Similarly, you cannot sell a misshapen apple as class 1.
The truth is that this is perfectly reasonable stuff, but the looney wing of the UK media presents this as “crazy” EU regulation.
The EU army
A thing which doesn’t exist, and may never do, is presented as a reason to leave. The justification is that “we” don’t want a foreign general commanding UK troops. This ignores the fact that it has been happening since 1951, with a succession of US generals commanding NATO forces in Europe. Even operationally it is perfectly normal for UK forces to be commanded by allied military leaders and vice versa, this is a fundamental part of NATO’s integrated command structure. Personally, I do not see anything wrong with this and there is a clear smell of racism about Leave campaigners raising it (American general = good, Bulgarian = bad).
The truth is that one day, after proper discussion, there might be an EU army. However, that is far from certain not least because, under current rules, each state would have a veto. Voting Leave is not necessary to prevent this.
Unelected and unaccountable
Most people’s ignorance of the EU’s institutions is woeful. It doesn’t matter most of the time, but when they are being asked to make such an important decision it becomes frightening.
The European Council consists of the elected leaders of all member countries. It makes major decisions and sets the direction for the European Commission. Additionally, it nominates the members of the commission. The UK equivalent is the Cabinet, all of whom are chosen by the Prime Minister; they do not even need to be MPs, a quick appointment to the House of Lords allowed Peter Mandelson to join Gordon Brown’s cabinet in 2008.
The European Commission is the EU’s executive body. It is led by the 28 commissioners, who are nominated by the Council and must be approved by the Parliament. The UK equivalent is the Civil Service, with the Commissioners equal to the cabinet members in their roles as departmental ministers. The House of Commons has no say on who is part of the cabinet, nor on which portfolios they hold.
The European Parliament is elected by European citizens across the continent (as an EU citizen living in The Netherlands I have a vote in European elections, but not national ones; but I have no vote in UK elections because it is over 15 years since I last lived there). Laws proposed by the Commission must be approved by the Parliament. The UK equivalent is the House of Commons. There is no EU equivalent of the House of Lords, the entirely unelected body that has to approve all UK legislation.
“Ah, but I don’t know who my MEP is!” Whose fault is that? We live in an age when information is available at our fingertips, almost anywhere and practically instantly.
The truth is that the key EU institutions are elected and accountable, but too many people can’t be bothered to do either.
One of the great post-war acts was the creation of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), largely drafted by UK jurists, which is administered by the European Court of Human Rights. Court judgements are a frequent source of complaint and the EU is usually blamed. However, membership of the ECHR is separate from the EU. There are 47 members of the ECHR and only 26 in the EU.
The truth is that leaving the EU will not “free” us of our ECHR responsibilities.
Some may consider the exchange of control for benefit to be too much, others think that EU can never reform itself enough to be acceptable, and consequently are in favour of leaving. So be it. That is democracy. However, the economy is the factor that should make them hesitate before voting “out”.
Nearly half of the UK’s exports go to the EU, without any tariffs. Much of the rest goes across the world through a network of fifty trade deals negotiated by the EU. If the UK leaves we face trade barriers from the EU and have only two years to replace those deals with the rest of the world.
“No problem” say the leavers, “we will replace them with better deals.”
Really? What is better than zero on our exports to the EU? Why will the rest of the world give better terms to Britain (population 65m) than to the whole EU (population 500m)? Especially when those new treaties have to be negotiated in record time, against the clock, and when the UK has not negotiated it’s own deals since 1973. This is fantasy.
Some want to vote leave because they think it will improve their job prospects. Some individuals may benefit but not the majority. Stay or leave, it is still much cheaper to make a TV in Asia; leaving won’t change that. Manufacturing jobs are not coming back. Put up trade barriers and the public will have to pay more. Other jobs, created in Britain because it is inside the EU, will be lost: Nissan, Toyota, American banks, and so on will move their European operations inside the EU, leaving behind only what they need to serve the UK. It won’t happen on day 1, but it will happen.
All of which will weaken the pound. Lower demand for pounds means that, in turn, each pound “buys” less foreign currency. Prices will rise to compensate for higher costs. Interest rate rises will be needed to counter that. Inflation will ensue. Savings will be devalued. This is all basic economics.
Of course, the leavers deny this. Somehow the UK’s economy will blossom (what’s stopping it now?), money will be available to spend on the NHS, all will be green and pleasant again. This is fantasy.
In 1947 Churchill said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
The EU is not perfect, no democracy is. Reform is happening, too slowly for my taste, but it is happening. Leaving the EU will reduce our influence in Europe, and thus around the world, and damage our economy too.