Saturday, April 23, 2016

On Europe

In the near future, I have to vote on whether I wish the UK to remain within the European Union.

I love Europe but then I'm biased because I’m European. I’m British and always will be. But this is not a question of identity but of Union. It’s also the first time, being 48 years old, that I’ve ever been asked the question. For most of my life, I’ve been within the European Union, I’ve voted for MEPs but I’ve never chosen whether I wanted to be.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments from both sides - the leaves and the remains - and the question has vexed me. I’ve been told about immigration threats but immigration isn’t a threat, it’s a benefit. I know the lazy use it as an excuse to hide mismanagement of housing, social and service policies but that’s all it is  - something to blame for other failings. I live a land with low population densities in the countryside, a growing economy and plenty of room if people choose to make that happen.

I’ve heard the arguments of cost but whilst we’re talking of billions in payment, we have billions in rebates. There are many benefits from the Union - the freedom of movement, co-operation on science to workers' rights. We’re stronger as a larger union and there’s no solid reason to believe that any “savings” won’t be flittered away on tax breaks.

I’ve heard the arguments on security, we may tighten our borders but we also co-operate with others. I can’t see that co-operation changing much either way. I can’t see a convincing case we’d be safer.

I’ve heard the arguments on trade both with our European partners and potential future hypotheticals. I can’t see we’d actually stop trade with Europe if we left, the UK is an important destination but we also lack trade negotiators and what guarantee do we have that such future trade arrangements might happen? I would suspect there’d be some fall-out especially if the threats of consequences - also known as vengeance politics - happened.

I know that EU is subject to extensive lobbying by corporate interests, we’ve seen this first hand with the decision by the EC to suddenly declare open standards as FRAND. It’s a minor  and trivial point for most but one which could have profound impacts on open source software.  It’s also one we fought against lobbyists in the UK only to find it snuck in via the “European Union route.” 

But then, how many times has our own Government introduced legislation via "Europe" and then declared back home that they are forced to take this legislation because "Europe" says so.  Whilst, the UK has a good record on transparency it is not uniform and it is lazy to think that backroom deals and hushed secrets on international trade agreements (TTIP) are a Union problem and somehow distant from us.

I know Obama has urged us to stay but then that surely is in the self interest of the US, its Gov, its multinationals and its military. I was of course dismayed by the ridiculous, trifling and offensive arguments by Boris, rambling on about Churchill’s statue and Kenyan heritage. But then offensive is not an uncommon word when listening to some of the views of those who want to exit and the nationalist propaganda they peddle. 

I know I’m being bombarded by fear and uncertainty. If we leave Europe then millions of jobs will be lost, we’ll lose international status, become a rogue state of little Englanders and bigots. That’s not the country I know but then I understand that one way to silence people is by “association” to undesirable characteristics and one way to coerce is through fear and uncertainty. I saw the same games played in Scotland.  We will probably lose some jobs, maybe some trade, maybe some status - I’m sure there will be downsides to leaving. But I’m weary of the old tales of doom and gloom - “if you stop non doms then your entire economy will collapse” or “If you introduce this legislation then all the banks will move to Hong Kong”

There’s is however, one thing I never weary of. Democracy

It is an ideal which though never truly reached, we should always strive for. We, the people, lend our members of parliament the power to make decisions over us. We do this through elections. It’s a power they have to give back and which we grant to new MPs. We are not constrained by policies and choices of the past, we have parliamentary sovereignty.  These powers, as Tony Benn once said, must be returned undiminished.

But this is the first time I am voting on the European Union. We have a body known as the European Commission that is not elected, that we (the people) do not grant authority and power to but instead it is appointed and has taken power signed in treaty after treaty. It governs many policies from agriculture to trade. It makes trade deals. It has close associations to industry to corporations and we have no recourse. We cannot vote it out.

Except this one time.

I will not willingly surrender power to unelected undemocratic institutions. If all the bodies of the EU, if the EC was elected then maybe things would be different but they’re not. As much as I want to see a strong Europe, I have been given a chance to change something that has ruled over me without permission and has taken power with no apparent intention to give it back.

So, I am faced with a choice. 

I could decide to continue to hand over power to bodies that include unelected undemocratic institutions in return for keeping the status quo, maybe a bit of wishful thinking that we can change it but lets be honest it would really be about that bit of extra security and keeping the economy ticking along. Who wants to upset the apple cart? But then I’m not the only one effected because this was done to me. My parents generation handed my power away cheaply to unelected officials such as the EC who now govern many aspects of my life.  

To vote to remain, I would be doing the same to my son that was done to me. What would I say when he was older - I took away your power and gave it, without your permission, without thought for your future to unelected bureaucrats for a bit of security, safety and better job prospects?

I would rather die. 

Democracy is not something to be given away, to be sold, it is something incredibly precious that we keep for future generations and it is worth fighting for. I don’t care what the impacts are, I don’t care if we all end up poor but I’m sure some of you might. For me, the only way forward with democracy is more democracy not less.

There are many reasons, many attractions and many comforts that urge me to vote to remain in the European Union. There are vile people voting against it for the most atrocious, bigoted and nationalistic reasons.

There is only one reasonable reason to vote against remaining in the European Union and that reason is democracy. However, that reason trumps everything else. So will I cower under fear and uncertainty, be concerned about what people might think through association or even hide in one box rather than tick another. No. 

I am not voting against Europe, I am voting against the undemocratic institutions, the executive of the European Union - the European Commission - and all the technocrats and structures (e.g. the EuroGroup) that have been forced on others.

I have been given a chance to take power back from the unelected, to increase democracy rather than diminish it for both myself and future generations. I will seize that chance. 

I will vote to leave the European Union.

I will still be a European.

Added 23rd April 2016

I was asked the questions :-

1) Do you think the UK might leave the EU?

Very unlikely. Nothing is impossible but this is in the realms of fantasy land. If this is keeping you up at night then stop worrying. It'll almost certainly be a landslide for remain based upon the betting odds and even if it isn't (unlikely) then there's a long road between ballot box and this actually happening.

I have to vote with my conscience and I cannot vote for less democracy, I have to vote for more. However people have many reasons for which they will vote and being a democracy you just have to accept that what matters to you will often not matter to most people. 

In all likelihood, the overwhelming majority will vote based upon shorter term concerns such as jobs, mortgages, trade and the economy and not questions of democracy. It might be of paramount importance to some but that doesn't make it universal. It also doesn't mean that others are wrong. People have different concerns and democracy itself is probably not going to be high up on that list. I wish it was but that's just life, that's democracy for you, suck it up.

If you're hoping that the UK will be some beach-head of change, a beacon of revolution then I suspect you're in for a rum night. We're a nation of shopkeepers, we like the peaceful life and a piping hot cup of tea. We're not marauding vikings. We see a queue and we stand in it whether we need to or not. There is nothing wrong with this, it is perfectly reasonable to vote to keep the status quo if that is what is most important to you. Mine is a vote on a principal (a principal of principles above all others), a vote of conscience on a very specific and important issue to me.

2) The EC and the EC President are democratic as they are elected by MEPs, it's no different from the civil service [or in some cases people will say 'cabinet'] in the UK!

The EC and the EC President are appointed. Yes, the European Parliament does get a veto (i.e. it has to approve) but neither the commissioners nor the EC president are elected representatives (by you and me). They are not even MEPs. The EC also initiates legislation in the EU.

In the UK, civil servants work for departments (e.g. health, justice, work & pensions) and those departments have a secretary of state (a minister responsible). The secretary of state is appointed by Government from MPs i.e. the convention is that each department has a head who is a named individual that has been elected by and is accountable to the people and then appointed by the Government of the day which itself has been elected by and is accountable to the people.

Those secretary or ministers of state can and do lose their position at elections. In the last election, we lost several ministers in charge of departments along with a few cabinet ministers e.g. Vince Cable and Danny Alexander. For reference the composition of the 95th cabinet can be found here. So if someone tells you that the EC is just as democratic as the UK Cabinet (which is often claimed) just ask them for a list of EC commissioners that have been removed from office by public elections. You'll be waiting for that list for a long time but [spoiler alert] the answer is ... none.

Also, for reference when you're told that MEPs vote on EC commissioners, people often forget to mention that it's on the entire team of commissioners and there's a lot of "compromise" that goes on.

It should also be noted that unlike the EC, civil servants don't initiate legislation. Whilst Civil Servants might draft legislation (such as statutory instruments or SIs), even SIs are "laid" before parliament on behalf of the minister. The EC and the Civil Service are not similar in terms of democratic accountability nor do they hold the same functions. Oh and no, I'm not particularly happy about quangos, chief execs and privatised departments either but then I'm not voting on those issues.

3) But the EC is accountable to MEPs!

Oh, what can I say? I know, I won't. I'll let someone else spell it out.

From New EU trade secrets law could jail whistleblowers

According to the transparency group Corporate Europe Observatory, a key group of MEPs from the centre-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) party were persuaded to vote in favour of the new directive believing they had a firm commitment from the European Commission that new laws would be brought explicitly protecting whistleblowers.

But that's not how things worked out: "By voting for the trade secrets directive, the S&D lose everything: after the debate, and contrary to their demands, the Commission said last night that the legal provisions on this issue in article 5 of the [trade secrets] directive are strong enough. In other words, no need for a directive to protect whistleblowers."

Yes, even your elected representative (i.e. elected by you, though often not directly but through proportional systems with a party choosing) such as MEPs get told "on your bike" in diplomatic terms by unelected (i.e. not elected by you but appointed) officials. There isn't even a convention for commissioners to be chosen from people you've elected (e.g. MEPs). Power to the people! Unfortunately for those poor MEPs, it's the unelected officials of the EC that get to initiate legislation, hence the MEPs can't do anything about it. Well, they can ask but from the above the EC has said "no" or more accurately "no need". Yes, your MEPs (voted by you) get told you don't need this by people not voted by you. Power to the People etc etc.

Just to be clear, there's a lot of MEPs trying to do a good job on our behalf. However, the use of procedure (e.g. "dirty political tricks") to the weak ability to initiate law (in general it is allowed to ask the EC to submit a proposal unless specific treaties give the parliament the right of self initiation) should cause concern.

4) Wouldn't getting rid of the House of Lords be more democratic?

Unfortunately, I have not been asked to vote in a referendum on the House of Lords. Of course, if I was asked then I would respond as I do now - more democracy, not less. I would be voting for an elected second chamber. 

Naturally, if this referendum was on the House of Lords instead of the EU then someone could argue "Well, the EC isn't elected by members of the public but instead appointed by your elected representatives and I don't see you trying to get rid of the EC, so why would you vote against the House of Lords" ... because I happen to believe in democracy, that power is given by the people and the measure of a democracy is the ease at which ordinary people can get rid of those in power. Whenever an opportunity is presented to give more power back to the people, I'm going to take it. I'm certainly not going to agree with an argument of the form "it's broken over there and so we should keep this broken thing over here".

5) Shouldn't you vote remain and help reform EU?

We will almost certainly vote to remain and I will at that point join DiEM25 and support the campaign for a more democratic Europe. However, I won't vote against my conscience because of some wishful hope of future change. I'm asked to vote on 'what is' and not 'what might be'. Whenever I'm given the opportunity, I will vote for more democracy over less democracy every single time. In my 48 years of life, this is the first opportunity I have had regarding the EU question. I won't squander it.

6) What is the right thing to vote for?

That is something that only you can decide for yourself. Regardless of how you vote, I would hope you take the time to find what is important to you and vote on that principle whether its democracy, freedom of movement, trade deals or even your own security. This is an incredibly important decision. There is no right or wrong or as Blair said "sensible choice", democracy isn't about that. You have the vote, it's your decision and you have been given this chance. Decide on what matters to you and vote.

7) Are you anti-Europe?

No, I'm pro Europe. However being pro-Europe, being a European does not mean I have to be pro a particular political institution such as the European Union and its related bodies (e.g. the EC). If I was voting on whether we should have a democratic federal Europe then I could easily find myself voting for it as long as it means more democracy, more accountability to the people, more transparency to the people. But I'm not voting on that.

8) Are you right wing?

No, I'm old labour.

9) If you're old Labour surely you want the European Union?

I'm fully aware that Conservative & UKIP MEPs tend to fail to block legislation far more often than Labour & Liberal MEPs e.g. 87% of the motions that Conservative MEPs were opposed to they failed to block, 95% for UKIP and about 36% for Liberal etc.

For me, I could go - "well, that's great because that's more inline with my political view than against it".  That might be my interest and I could make a pretty good argument that it's in the common interest across Europe (based upon my political views) and convince myself that it's ok because I'm getting more of what I want. But that's hardly democracy or an excuse for the deficit of democracy within the EC.  That's the really tough part of democracy - accepting that if you have it, you may actually get less of what you wanted.

I completely understand those who would argue that the EU has a tempering effect on the excesses of politics at home by allowing more socialist and work friendly policies. I also understand the hotbed of corporate lobbying that the EU / EC are. But as I said, this is a vote on a principal and I'm for more democracy, not less.

10) What is your view on free movement?

My view is rather simple and as I'm frequently told "idealistic" along with other choice words. One planet, one people i.e. universal, worldwide free movement. But this isn't a referendum on free movement, it's a referendum on a political institution and for me that means issues of democracy are paramount.  Yes, I'm fully aware of the benefit that the EU and free trade has made to free movement and this is wonderful, I would hope it would be maintained. Yes, I can make an argument for voting to remain purely on the basis of fear that leaving EU would mean less free movement especially given some of the comments by the Leave campaign. However, that still won't overturn why I'm voting the way I am.

On the issues of immigration and asylum (which is where this normally leads), I view immigration as a benefit and I'm saddened by our response to the current crisis. I am perfectly aware that not everyone shares this view, please don't feel the need to explain to me why I'm wrong.

11) Would anything change your view on voting Leave?

A commitment to more democracy would always change my vote. For example, a binding commitment from the EU for :-
1) Full and immediate transparency in ALL decision making, treaty negotiations and documents of all EU institutions, councils & groups.
2) Compulsory register for lobbyists, public record for all meetings with any official.
3) All commissioners to be elected by the public of that nation state by 2018 in free and open elections.
4) A constitutional assembly by 2018 with the absolute commitment to a Sovereign European parliament elected by the public by 2020 and a European constitution built on citizens rights, enacted by citizens.

Something like that would certainly swing my vote. However, as it stands (and promises don't cut mustard) then the more democratic option is to leave.

12) Are you against the European Convention on Human Rights?

Absolutely not. I'm a huge supporter of both the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Council of Europe (CoE) which is a non law making body that is focused on democracy, rule of law and human rights and policies treaties in such areas.

We are not voting on the CoE or the ECHR. If we leave the EU that does not mean we leave the Council of Europe or the European Convention on Human Rights. The EU and the CoE are different institutions. There is a connection, as far as I remember, that a country has to be a signatory to the ECHR before joining the EU (I believe it is part of the Copenhagen criteria).

13) Isn't your objection really that EU uses a different form of democracy? 

An extremely good point and possibly to the nub of the matter. Yes, I'm strongly in favour of parliamentary sovereignty and yes, I realise this is not the ONLY way to do democracy. It may not be a coincidence that countries like UK, Netherlands, Finland and Sweden have all had issues with the EU / EC structure and that all these countries have a history of parliamentary sovereignty. There may certainly be a cultural element to this. It's an extremely good question and I do not have an answer but it certainly makes me think. The question of course now becomes, am I willing to accept a different form of democracy for the common interest? That I need to mull over.
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