Sunday, 13 March 2016

Sovereignty matters now more than ever

As some have remarked, the Leave campaign's insistence that regulation is pettifogging fussbucketry that can all be fed into the shredder is simply not a credible position. It's easy to see why things function better with it than without - and why business loves it.

And that is chiefly why they are so Brexit averse. The corporates love regulation and they do not like change. If you know what the regulatory regime is, and you know it is not going to change then you can plan ahead. Financial forecasts depend on stability and democracy throwing uncertainties into the mix interferes with the it normal operation. So it is not wholly unreasonable that they should speak up if they believe regulation is going to change. To them, any major changes incur costs whether they are improvements or not.

The problem I have is that while certainty for them is good, certainty for any sentient, creative and vibrant human beings is a living hell; to know that this base level of muddling mediocrity is the best we can expect and that no matter who we vote for the regime will not change.

And that's why a vote to remain really worries me. We may buy ourselves a period of certainty by staying in the EU, but when change becomes necessary and the system does not allow for it, there is bound to be a rapid democratic correction in the most uncertain of ways.

A system that does not flex will break. That democratic correction will be far more severe and uncertain than anything Brexit may do. The whole point of democracy is that it is a safety valve so that the people can change the system according to their preferences - and that's why we need it.

What business wants is to keep the tools of democracy out of our reach because they are risk averse and terrified of change. What they are saying is that their commercial needs trump all other moral, spiritual, strategic and national concerns - and to some extend seek to prevent any change that could see their market position threatened.

In this their main weapon is fear. Sector by sector they plant the seed of doubt that workers may lose their jobs and see their lives turned upside down. They do it because it works. But it ignores two very crucial points. Change in itself is a stimulating process. As much as it shakes us out of complacency it causes us to adapt, reinvent and innovate for the new paradigm. Change is evolution.

In this I would argue that we need exactly that. The EU itself is a product of a pre-internet age - and as an institution I don't see that it can stay relevant. That brings us onto the second point. The new age of globalisation.

While business is whinging about Brexit uncertainty, this uncertainty is born of a huge misapprehension. To replace everything the EU does in law in one hit would be impossible. As so because it's impossible - we can rule out that risk. In the event of Brexit, in order to avoid the uncertainty of a "regulationfest" - we would for the time being adopt the entire EU acquis. There is no other realistic way of doing it. 

As many have been keen to point out, there is little value in regulatory divergence. The headaches it would cause means no government would seriously seek to reinvent the wheel - except for those areas where it was possible and necessary. It would take time to establish where those areas are, but that's no big deal.

Such would less be part of a "regulationfest" as some have it, and more the normal business of government. That means there is no more uncertainty than the usual level of background regulatory evolution - in which business has no real justification for holding us to ransom.

The second misapprehension is that it is "Brussels bureaucracy" is much to do with Brussels. Those businesses that do whinge about regulation tend to be moaning about compliance costs but in the main their costs come with compliance to international standards embodied in EU law - law we would adopt in any case since corporates here at home for insurance purposes must conform to global standards, but also they must conform if they want to export at all, nevermind exporting to the EU.

As I now understand it, virtually all of maritime law is either a product of the IMO or part of UNECE - and Codex is pretty much the alpha and omega of food regulation. Even customs systems like TIR are nothing at all to do with the EU - and trade rules are WTO based.

The bottom line is that Brexit uncertainty is not the product of Brexit in itself, rather than the cultural and commercial ignorance of how regulation works and where it comes from. The fact is, little will change in the short to medium term - and that which does change will be at a manageable pace - and probably very necessary.

And that is the ultimate point of Brexit - to have a healthy balance between those things we concede sovereignty on and those things which are by and large domestic matters - energy, agriculture, fishing and environment. We still comply with standards and meet our international obligations - but how we do things is no business of the EU. They are not, in the main, cross border concerns.

The point of leaving is that we need a democratic defence against rules we do not want. As mentioned plenty of times before the EU takes our seat on many of the global bodies that make the rules and where it doesn't it is itching to get rid of members states (especially at the IMO) and will keep trying it on. It already removes our right of reservation and forces us to vote for the common EU position. No other trade bloc works this way.

While it is usually in our best interests to simply go with the flow and make the necessary compromises, there are times when it would serve our distinct needs to have a defence against one size fits all policy making - not least the Port Services Directive. We have no adequate means of defence against that. So as blogger "Flip Chart Rick" has it, sovereignty is not some creaking obsolete concept. In a world of ever more globalised law, it matters now more than it ever did. He has it that:
So all those horrid EU laws, including the dreaded European Communities Act 1972 that Boris Johnson was complaining about, can be repealed. EU law only has primacy over UK law in certain areas because Parliament says it has. And Parliament can change its mind about that whenever it likes.
But this is pure sophistry. While we can in theory repeal the European Communities Act, in practice that would cause a Europe wide recession and is broadly viewed by just about everyone (except Dominic Cummings of Vote Leave) as economic suicide. So no, those essential aspects of sovereignty we need are not available to us. It's fatuous point. Sovereignty in this context is the exercise of vital powers within a framework. 

The debate is distorted on both sides in that we are looking at two extremes. One side wants total sovereignty - the other wants a total surrender of it. Neither of which is a workable proposal for Britain.

That is why the EEA/Efta model is the best of both worlds. It retains our market access for the most part, while maximising our trading autonomy and giving us more say in the creation and the rules the EU adopts. As globalisation progresses we will see the EU folding its own distinct regulation in with global market rules and so the trend is EU obsolescence.

Now you can argue that there are consequences to using a top level opt-opt or veto in that it places limitations on market access to certain products - but that really is for our own government to decide if the trade-off is worth it.

Some of our industries are strategic national assets and require some degree of protection. The whole question of our globalised age is how liberal is too liberal? Is everything to be wide open to global competition? Is everything to be sacrificed on the altar of free trade even if that means the death of our agricultural sector and consequently rural husbandry?

I couldn't even begin to answer those questions but as a nation that is for the process of deliberation of parliaments with sovereign powers. Powers that we do not have as EU members - where we are subject to one size fits all policy making with only notional defences. Certainly our rabble of MEPs who are nearly always outvoted is hardly a means of defence.

What we are looking at is an emergent global single market where the rules are formed through a consultative process, largely divorced form any democratic institutions. But it is all agreed on a multilateral basis - sector by sector instead of regionally. That is the modern and more appropriate paradigm. In this, at best we can say the EU is a redundant drag factor. I would go as far as saying it is uniquely damaging.

As much as overriding our national preferences, doing great harm to various industries in the process - and imposing inappropriate solutions on Britain, its own supranational agenda on global forums sees it pushing for more dominance more regulatory hegemony - not with a view to opening up world trade, rather it seeks to maintain the garden-walled EU market. It only gradually opens up, at a glacial pace according to whatever its own priorities are - which may not be the same as ours.

The Spanish economy may demand of the EU that it puts most of its runtime to opening up links with South America - whereas we may have more pressing concerns elsewhere. Nobody is served by having the EU dictate our trade agenda.

In this, whatever superficial value there may be in pooling sovereignty to take advantage of market size is retarded by the lack of agility and internal bickering for diplomatic resource. It makes us a second rate influence inside the EU and diminishes our global reach. This is why a vote to remain would be a real tragedy for Britain.

It means gradual stagnation and eventually will will have another disastrous one size fits all policy that once again will wipe out British industrial sectors that can never be replaced. For sure it won't happen overnight and so slowly that nobody will really notice or understand why, but that is our "certainty" as continued EU members.

I concede that Brexit offers no guarantees - but the risks are massively overstated. What we can say at the very least is that by leaving the EU we will achieve a more equitable relationship with the EU - and one that puts to bed a niggling dispute that will never be truly resolved until we do leave. That can either be now under amicable terms - or later -when we are forced by circumstance.

Brexit ultimately puts us back in the driving seat - and how well we do out of it is entirely up to us. That is really what sovereignty is about. Self-determination and democracy will never be a quaint, antiquated concept. Without it we cease to have any control in a world that has never been more uncertain.

If we want full participation globally and we want a say in the rules that affect us, we have no real choice but to leave the EU. It will never reform along the lines we need it to and it will always be anti-ethical to our desire for a global community of equals. We seek multilateral cooperation not supranational subordination and coercion. Whatever the EU can give us, it cannot give us democracy - and in the end offers no certainty either. 

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