Monday, 21 January 2019

To whom are they accountable?

Yesterday, the EU and ASEAN agreed in principle to upgrade their relationship to a strategic partnership. EU and ASEAN foreign ministers discussed cooperation on regional and international issues, including global challenges such as climate change and strengthening the rule-based multilateral system. Ministers addressed priority areas for 2019 such as enhanced security cooperation, including counterterrorism, transnational crime, maritime security and cybersecurity. They also discussed how to strengthen EU-ASEAN cooperation on connectivity.

This is trade at its highest level where it begins to merge with wider policy. This is far beyond tariffs on tins of beans. This is giants in a playground. Agreements will be made and there will be binding commitments for both sides affecting millions of people.

I look at these high level EU trade meetings and my first question is; how do ordinary people meaningfully influence this process? On the EU scale I just don't see that it's possible and I'm certain there aren't the necessary democratic safeguards. Will any of this ever make it as far as the UK parliament for debate? Will our media even report on it? Does the average MP even know what ASEAN is? Will we ever know what is done in our name? Will this process be carried out in the open? Who are the lobbyists involved? Will MEPs even know what they are voting for?

But actually, of all the questions we could ask, that first question is the single most important one. The basics answer is that there is zero chance of UK public engagement influencing this process. Moreover I don't see Federica Mogherini paying much attention to a lowly MEP. She is not accountable to anyone in a meaningful sense. Here the Commission is a rogue non-state actor. We have seen from the Brexit process how member states tend to have minimal involvement, largely because politicians are only too happy to delegate.

This is primarily what Brexit seeks to address. As much as EU membership takes technical governance out of the public domain and puts it into the hands of anonymous officials, elected and unelected, these competences, by extension, are merged with the ever encroaching global network of intra-bloc trade. This is global technocracy. The privatisation of governance.

With Britain's largely europhile centre-left this is of no importance. This frees them up to indulge in their managerialism; turning our national debate into little more that retail politics where the main function of national government is to put out brush fires in the regions by doling out grant money for town centre regeneration. It's the new welfare feudalism that suits our paternalistic politicians down to the ground. Governing our external affairs in the national interest is all just far too much like work - and as far as liberal progressives are concerned, delegating it all to Federica Mogherini is embodiment of national interest.

That Britain is no longer to be a part of the EU, where our politicians no longer get to strut around in the "world stage" is a grievous loss to progressive liberals. They no longer get to parade their virtue to the world. They mock Theresa May as she stands "isolated" and alone - the international billy-no-mates parariah.  

Such analysis, as Sam Hooper noted just recently, is uniformly simplistic – "former colonial power having an identity crisis, mid-sized country trying and failing to punch above its weight, lots of schadenfreude about loss of empire, lots of gloating over the humiliation of a country ranked by the intelligentsia alongside only America and Israel as uniquely evil and benighted, polished off with a smarmy, waggish lecture about chickens coming home to roost".

Says Hooper, "Wherever self-described intellectuals of a center-left persuasion are gathered together, you can read exactly the same cookie-cutter take on Brexit, perfectly crafted to enable them to nod and stroke their beards while having all of their prejudices neatly confirmed". This is the sole trick of one trick ponies like Fintan O'Toole.

Hooper concludes that "Brexit – in all its halting, stop-start awkwardness – is the first significant attempt by any country to answer the question of how a modern nation state can reconcile the technocratic demands of global trade with the need to preserve meaningful democracy. On this key question, Britain is currently the laboratory of the world. No other first-tier country has dared to touch the subject with a ten-foot bargepole. At best, some of the more forward-thinking opinion journalists are belatedly ringing the alarm bells, but nowhere other than Britain have these concerns generated any kind of significant governmental response".

Of course Brexit of itself is no automatic remedy - especially when our institutional knowledge of trade and international affairs has long since atrophied. This is abundantly evident as Tory Brexiters demonstrate on a daily basis. But even now it has but trade concerns front and centre. Though only baby steps, the debate around "hormone beef" and "chlorinated chicken" has generated an awareness of trade issues and the subject is once again fashionable. Brexit has once again politicised what is ordinarily the domain of officials.

In respect of this, Britain may certainly not have the "clout" as is on display in the above video, but the crucial question is in whose name is that clout wielded? Very often the Commission and the ECJ will take grubby shortcuts to ram through trade accords opening us up to sweeping changes in our own markets with no safeguard measures at our disposal. Ultimately the political authority over our own markets does not reside in Britain. This is why we must "take back control" and this is why attempts to keep us in a customs union are alarming.

The future for Britain is one of a midranking trade power but one in charge of its own external relations. We need to evolve to a state where external matters of such pivotal importance consume the lion's share of Westminster concern, and consequently the relative trivia that presently occupies parliament will be devolved to its rightful place. 

The assertion that outside of the EU the UK will be forced to adopt US food standards is part of the remain canon - which holds that Britain is too weak and feeble to defend its own interests and is therefore a passive victim of beggar-thy-neighbour trade policies. It's certainly true that there will at times be uncomfortable trade offs, but the central issues is where the decisions are made, our capacity to reverse such decisions and our ability to remove those who made the decision. No such instruments are available to EU members and certainly nothing their electorates have direct influence over.

Nobody can dispute that the EU is a trade superpower capable of exerting extraordinary influence, but it works largely in the service of a single globalising agenda where democracy is an inefficient and unwelcome intrusion. Human factors as swept aside in service of GDP and trade expansion. National sovereignty presents barriers to the completion of their grand utopian designs. The more power it has the more power it thinks it needs - and the more it has the more it can take, demoting our own government to the status of super lobbyist.

It is ironic that europhile opponents of the so-called Norway option complain that we would be a lobbyist and rule taker in that this is already the case in the EU on a far more profound scale. That there are top level voting rituals among our own disconnected elites is neither here or there. Nor is the presence of a Potemkin parliament. The ultimate test is whether the people themselves have final authority over who and what comes into the country. For as long as we remain an EU member, the model we live under fails that most basic test.  

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