Blimey. It’s hard to grasp. Today the UK leaves the European Union. BREXIT. Nearly 50 years. Thanks, but no thanks. Enough is enough.
I recall with shame my quite useless performance in a walk-on debate role at the Oxford Union back in 1975 when we had our first EU referendum, nay our first ever nationwide referendum:
Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?
I blathered for Abstain. That was not an option on the voting-paper. We voted by a massive majority to Remain.
So what’s been the problem?
Here is a good Guardian article featuring the views of successive British Permanent Representatives to the European Union looking in broad terms at the fluctuating relationship between London and Brussels over that long period:
Thatcher’s settlement at the European council in Fontainebleau in the summer of 1984 was a barnstorming victory. But she recognised a need to banish the perception that Britain was just an awkward partner. That same year she gave the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, a document entitled Europe: the Future, proposing a way forward to reducing barriers to trade in the single market and cooperate on foreign policy.
Thatcher was ambushed. “She had given it to the French and Germans, they barely gave it the time of the day and then tabled something almost identical,” Hannay recalls. The Franco-German axis was not ready for British leadership. Thatcher would never be as constructive again. “When I was about to go in 1985 as permanent representative, I suggested to her that Brussels is rather like a game of snakes and ladders,” Hannay said. She said, ‘David you are quite wrong there – they are all snakes’.
The Hard Reality that Remainers can never accept is that we Brits have never really liked or wanted the EU. We haven’t been a good fit, politically or more important temperamentally.
UK officials other than lunatics despise the fact that EU processes have become so convoluted and impenetrable that they have had to invent an ugly new word – comitology – for the machinations needed to steer things through that labyrinth. We have gawped in astonishment at the banners stretching high up the side of Brussels office-blocks proclaiming The European Year of Citizens or The European Year of Lifelong Learning, our minds boggling at the corrupt waste of taxpayers’ money that such Ceausescu-style exhortations represents. We haven’t wanted to look like sissies in EU parades waving blue balloons with yellow stars on them to proclaim our loyalty to … what exactly?
Right back in 1975 Tony Benn spelled out the problem with the then European Community and the way its constantly growing decisions increasingly would be taken: it’s just not democratic.
He was right, probably beyond his wildest imagination. The merciless drive by EU fundamentalists towards ‘ever-closer union’ eroded towards zero the ability of EU member states and their voters to have a distinctive sovereign voice.
Back in 2012 I described how cunningly this was accomplished as the rights of member states to block decisions were cut to shreds:
80 percent – 60 percent
EU (Friendly and positive tone) “We’ve been thinking about the rules. That majority voting has worked well. A few squeakers here and there, but nothing too serious. It is well worth extending this voting to some more areas.
The great advantage to you as a significant club member is that usually you’ll be able to use your influence in the club to pass rules you really like. In theory you can get outvoted on issues important to you, but according to our calculations that will happen very infrequently. And even if you lose a few votes, you’ll gain much more by getting the things you like passed faster and not blocked. Plus you retain a veto on the great majority of decisions! OK?”
UK Thinks: They don’t give up do they? But maybe they’re right: on balance we’ll do a bit better by getting our requirements pushed through faster. Plus we keep a veto on 60 percent of all decisions – the ones that really matter…
“OK, but I insist – that’s enough fiddling with the rules!”
60 percent – 49 percent
EU (Thinks: this is the big one. Stay calm and don’t panic) “How nice to see you again. We have an important proposal about the rules. We brought in more club members from Eastern Europe, just as you wanted. Some of them are a bit dodgy, if you ask me. But the problem is now obvious: we now have far too many vetoes.
The time has come to divide issues into those that really matter and those that don’t. We calculate that only 49 percent of issues in this larger club – that you wanted – are important enough to warrant everyone having a veto. We’ve successfully extended voting into many areas in recent times, and life has gone on well enough. So how about another small change? You’ve already accepted voting for 40 percent of issues – another 21 percent won’t really make much difference.
Oh – one other thing. The club court is finding it necessary to interpret some of the rules much more – ahem – flexibly these days. The club’s true vital purposes just can’t be fulfilled otherwise. All these members’ vetoes are jamming everything for everyone! Not everyone is happy about the court, but it’s for the common good which we have all accepted.”
UK Thinks: Blimey. I did press to allow in all those new members. The problem is that if we don’t accept this new proposal, the club court may rule against us anyway in some of these areas. Maybe it’s better to accept this and firmly ring-fence the remaining areas and so bring this change under some sort of members’ control?
“I’m really not happy about this, but OK. And no more fiddling with the rules!”
And so on, to the end:
10 percent – 0 percent
EU (angrily) “The club Central Committee and Court have decided that the remaining areas open to this so-called veto are no longer acceptable, and are hereby abolished under a wide-ranging rules revision.
Henceforth the club will grow and prosper under rules proclaimed by the Central Committee and Court, the bodies with the club’s true interests at heart. On funding, the Central Committee will wisely decide how much of members’ income goes to the club, and then offer members a wide and generous variety of options for spending the money remaining with them. You may go.”
UK (angrily) “Hold on! I have my rights! This isn’t fair. It’s NOT what I agreed.”
EU (sneering) “Do stop rattling your manacles, serf. It’s disturbing our lunch.”
Once huge decisions affecting the whole EU space are taken by Qualified Majority Voting or European Commission edict of some sort, the whole process is ripe for ‘regulatory capture’ by special interests. Take the Working-Time Directive, a power-play by Brussels to manipulate the rules to lay down how long people across the EU should be allowed (sic) to work. I wrote about this back in 2010:
Consultants who took part in the study were most damning about the impact of the changes on their trainees.
Among responses from more than 500 senior surgeons taking part were repeated warnings that the rules were creating a generation of “clock-watchers” with a “lazy work ethic” who no longer felt personal responsibility for their patients.
Trainees were now spending so little time in operating theatres that they would lack the “cutting skills” required to perform safely when they became consultants, many warned … “Without action we are going to see a generation of specialists with less experience than any that have gone before.”
We at the Embassy in Warsaw did our bit to help mobilise the Polish government to try to block some of this. The wider point is that a Brussels decision set to cost the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds was grinding through without any chance of the UK parliament having any serious voice and no public discussion. British Ministers going in to argue their corner could not reveal their true concerns and bargaining-positions to the UK public for fear (not unreasonably, given the way it all worked) of weakening their negotiation position. The whole process might as well have been completely secret.
But governments rather like secret processes, hence successive generations of UK political parties blandly going along with it all. Very few awkward questions in Westminster. When we get an EU decision we like, we hoot success. When it goes against, us we blame Johnny Foreigner. You can’t pin any responsibility on us!
Let’s be right (as my Yorkshire mother-in-law might say). Some of this is our UK fault.
Because we have not wanted to accept the logic of EU-level decision-making and surrender our sovereignty substantively to Brussels (so as to make the relationship much more like that of a US state to Washington), all sorts of complex compromises have been necessary to ‘get things done’. Plus we have opted out of key EU structures such as the Eurozone and the Schengen system. So when we decry the sprawling mess that is EU-level process, we decry something we helped create and even insisted on.
The problem with all this is that we have been like a cartoon character striding purposefully out from the edge of a cliff and walking forward in thin air until political gravity has its say. John O’Sullivan has a masterful analysis of the basic dynamics in play:
The point of sovereignty, however, is that it is the state’s own government that makes those decisions rather than some distant imperial capital.
Those who consider power to be more important than sovereignty argue for “pooled sovereignty,” the idea that a polity uniting several smaller states would be better able to win wars or solve “global” problems than any single state other than a superpower. Whether or not that’s true — sometimes yes, sometimes no — the smaller state in a new federal body no longer makes the decision. It can be outvoted by its “partners.” Pooling sovereignty creates a new sovereign power that may and often will override the aims and objections of its founding states, now provinces …
There’s no great mystery here. Relations based in pooled sovereignty work only when the partners place collective interests above their individual interests, not only on this issue or that issue but across the board. Say, when partners love each other in a marriage, or when individual states develop a new, “higher” loyalty to some post- or transnational entity such as the EU.
As several distinguished British Europhiles have lamented, notably the late Roy Jenkins, most peoples in Europe have not developed this sentiment to the point where they feel “European” rather than French, German, Italian, etc. The EU is a polity without a demos. And the British have been more recalcitrant than the rest.
This is why David Cameron found himself boxed into trite utilitarian rhetoric to frame the question as he launched the referendum campaign. He dared not address the S-word, as the EU could offer him nothing on renegotiating any of that without risking the wobbly edifice collapsing. “The issue is – will we be better off?”
No, for millions of voters there was another deeper issue:
“Even if we’re worse off in money terms, might we be better off taking our own decisions once again? Or, to put it another way, what’s important – and what matters?”
Conservatives, Labour and LibDems alike all studiously looked away whenever that appalling question was raised. Maybe part of the Leave vote was sheer frustration that that issue of issues was never even to be mentioned?
* * * * *
Anyway. It’s done. Now for Something Completely Different, or not, as the case may be. Millions of Poles and Spaniards and Hungarians all getting more than annoyed at the way Brussels bears down on their right to set their own standards in their own country. What can go wrong?
Remember my TEDx talk in Krakow on The Physics of Diplomacy? A decade ago already…
Here I am summing up and asking how long the EU and so-called EU diplomacy in its current form will survive:
The EU in its current form lasted twice five years. As predictions go, not bad.