Friday, 15 February 2019

The castration of democracy


On occasion I'm accused of flip-flopping over Brexit and at other times accused of being a "secret remainer". The latter accusation is risible. I'm not very secret about anything. If I have an opinion you will surely know about it. As to the flip-flopping, I admit to having a number of reservations about every mode of exit. That's bound to be the case if you've interrogated the subject honestly.

I'm under no illusions about Brexit. I'm certain that if we leave without a deal then it will be a major blow for trade even though I'm still hedging my bets on what sort of mess Brexit day is going to be. The point for me is that I am in no rush to experience the economic turmoil that goes with Brexit. My best friend is currently on the dole looking for work and he's a talented guy - yet he's having all sorts of problems. I've been in that unhappy position before and I'm in no hurry to go through it all again. No deal is a nuclear option and something to be avoided if at all possible. I do not, though, rule it out.

I have an order of preference. At one point I was firmly in the EEA Efta camp but no longer think that is viable. I think we missed the window and if we go in that direction now they will tack on a customs union and over time it will simply be parked as a proxy version of membership where we end up same as before, adopting rules with no real Westminster input. Though Efta would give us the necessary instruments to oppose new directives, the chances are we wouldn't. Our politicians still don't get Brexit. 

Being that my hope for the end point of this process is The Harrogate Agenda, I don't really see how such a relationship would be compatible. The Flexcit approach to leaving would have dispelled the uncertainty and prevented much of the damage but that ship has already sailed. 

More to the point I can certainly see why Brexiters don't think the EEA is brexity enough. Committing to a longer divergence process carries its own risks and as Parliament is reluctant to leave it is probably they would maintain current levels of alignment indefinitely. Parliament is rightly not trusted and that's entirely a mess of their own making.

So it now looks like the plan B is Mrs May's withdrawal agreement followed by whatever trade relationship we can cobble together be it shadow EEA or an FTA with enhanced customs cooperation. If it be the latter then there is a strong chance the backstop will be activated thus curtailing a number of key freedoms we expected to achieve by leaving. Either way there is a bitter pill to swallow. 

There are days when I really do wonder if any of this is worth the hassle, particularly when we are setting ourselves up for a fall. Current parliamentary arithmetic would suggest that May's deal will not limp over the finish line and we are odds on for an "accidental Brexit" with little time to prepare. This is the last thing I wanted to happen but ultimately if it is the only way to leave then that is how it must be. A reminder of why crossed my path this morning with this article from Corporate Europe.
Opposition is growing over the European Commission’s proposed Services Notification Procedure. This directive threatens to undermine local democratic decisions, and constrain public interest policy-making in a wide range of sectors, including city planning, education, affordable housing, water supply, energy supply, waste management, and many others. The proposed directive is part of a wider Services Package (a follow-up to the 2006 Services Directive, also known as the Bolkestein Directive which provoked mass protests in several EU countries due to concerns about its social impacts and was only approved after being scaled down).
Many, from city councils to trade unions, have expressed alarm at the sweeping new powers the draft directive will give the Commission. It will be able to annul new laws and regulations developed by national parliaments, regional assemblies, and local governments across Europe, or impose significant delays in order to change proposals. Those authorities will have to submit their regulations to the Commission three months in advance, in order to receive prior approval; a far-reaching tightening of existing rules, which only allows the Commission to object after the approval, and as a last resort to take the matter to the European Court of Justice. And the scope is overwhelming: according to recent information from the Commission, 79 different sectors – including child care, energy, water supply and 76 more – were covered by notifications between 2010 and 2015. New documents obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory now confirm that, in drafting the proposal, the Commission has taken its cues from the corporate lobby groups who will benefit most, whilst largely ignoring concerns raised by other interests.
This is pretty much the whole argument for Brexit in a nutshell. The concern that it "would constrain democratic decision-making in member states on everything from housing, to water and local planning" ignored the fact that it already does in many subtle ways. You can have EU membership but not democracy. There are plenty of ways in which the EU system of governance dictates the shape and culture of our domestic governance in such a way that democratic inputs are rendered inert.

We were told by David Cameron that the EU could be reformed and we were to a large extent exempt from ever closer union - not least because of the referendum lock, but integration very often happens by stealth and happens with every law the EU passes. Much of it never appears on the public radar until it's far too late. I'm an EU watcher and this latest proposal is news to me. I've seen no mention of it in our media. As far as I can see not even the Guardian has covered it.

Then, of course, we are told that with greater participation we have a shot at vetoing such measures, but the thing about the EU is that defeated regulatory initiatives never die. They just go into process and resurface later on. To remain in the EU would would be to resign ourselves to the further encroachment of corporate influenced technical governance which increasingly subordinates democracy and puts the power over our authorities into the hands of foreign lobbyists. TTIP 2.0.

In respect of this, I don't think there is a price I would not pay to stop this happening. I could certainly do without a no deal Brexit and I'm not looking forward to the inflation and job shedding that goes with it, but the direction of travel for the EU and wider global governance is to subordinate public authority to the needs of corporate capital and for me that is a bridge too far.

At the beginning of this process I came to understand that regulatory harmonisation was the WD40 of trade and that it is a facet of modern global governance. What I never fully understood was the scale and pace of it - and while we are in the EU, the political authority ultimately rests with the commission and the ECJ - and if it wants more powers it can find ways to acquire them without a new treaty and there are no safeguard measures.

This is a dynamic our politicians are barely aware of. They don't really care. They take no interest in technical governance and they like that the difficult stuff is handled elsewhere so they can preen about the NHS and poverty. Our grandstanding virtue signalling politics is very much symptomatic of an abdication from grown up statecraft. To them Brexiter demands for democracy and sovereignty are little more than irrational pleas for the intangible thus valueless in the face of the trade we stand to lose.

Being that the Overton Window is largely dictated by our utterly debased media, many of the themes discussed on this blog in respect of trade will be utterly alien to MPs. I recall last year an MP reading out some tract out in parliament that I'd written on international organisations. She later remarked that she'd never heard of any of them let alone understood their significance. Though technical, arcane and obscure, the substance is highly political and massively consequential, yet the so-called mother of all parliaments is found nowhere near it. Brexit has put it back front and centre where it should be. 

Since Britain is a complex services based economy, much of our economy depends on regulatory harmonisation and cooperation, so this is not something we can retreat from, but it ought to be offensive to anyone calling themselves a democrat that our key interests are not debated or understood by our so-called representatives and that what little defence we have against such measures consists of a pack of quarterwit MEPs, themselves the plaything of lobbyists.

There is no denying that we stand to lose a staggering amount of trade by leaving the EU, especially so should we leave without a deal, but when that trade is facilitated by removing essential democratic controls in collusion with corporates in closed door sessions with no early warning system then we simply have to call time on it. 

We are routinely told that membership of the EU means we have a seat at the table where the UK is able to defend its interests. That is a view I hear regularly from British EU functionaries and diplomats. This is echoed in a recent Guardian piece. More than 40 former British ambassadors and high commissioners have written to Theresa May warning her that Brexit has turned into a “national crisis” and urging her to delay proceedings until the government has greater clarity about Britain’s likely future relationship with Europe.
They write: “Our country’s national interest must always be paramount. The Brexit fiasco has already weakened the UK’s standing in the world. We strongly advocate a change of direction before it is too late. It is clear that Brexit has turned into a national crisis.
There is no possible deal that will be a sensible alternative to the privileged one we have today as members of the EU with a seat at the table, inside the single market and customs union but outside the Euro[zone] and Schengen[area].
The problem here is that our diplomatic corps have to a large extent gone native. Their perception of how we are viewed internationally trumps all the petty domestic concerns like sovereignty and democracy. In their high stakes world they are building complex market frameworks to advance the UK's commercial interests - which to a large extent is what they are paid to do, but are all too used to the idea of doing it without the meddlesome supervision that goes with it being coupled to democracy. 

The question, though, is who decides what the national interest is. Commercially it may well be in our interests to complete the single market in services, but when those corporates best placed to exploit such markets tend to be tax dodging multinationals it's worth asking who exactly do these people serve? I do not see that it is in our interests to have our local and national bylaws revoked at the behest of of global consultancy firms. For as long as the trend is toward globalisaton then the trend is toward the further castration of democracy.

Remainers will point  out that Britain will face many dilemmas in the future as we resume an independent trade policy. The USA will no doubt make demands of our food safety rules and Japan will seek to exact the maximum advantage possible. What they don't mention is that we are not obliged to ratify any such agreements and parliament is well within its rights to assert itself. That very well may mean that much vaunted FTAs are scuppered, but safeguarding our democracy is what are MPs are fundamentally there to do. That we are in this Brexit mess to begin with is because they were negligent.

To quote Sam Hooper once again, "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 put 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 and diplomats.

The 2016 referendum was a statement. Throughout the course of our relationship with the EU, successive prime ministers have taken us deeper into the project without consultation or consent. they then proceed to lie about it. David Cameron then asserted that we could reform it and indeed that he had reformed it. There is simply no basis on which to trust our establishment in respect of the EU,and part of the reason Brexiters have become progressively more hardline is because there have been several attempts to derail and reverse Brexit.

The statement made in 2016 was that our establishment is no longer trusted. It has repeatedly shown contempt for the democratic will and without the democratic tools at our disposal to stop them, there is simply no way we can further consent to what is done by them in our name. The more overt policies of the EU have had their own costs, but now we see the full extent of what has been done to us and what is yet to come. They have set us down a path that was always designed to be irreversible so it comes as no surprise that reversing it comes with a great deal of political and economic pain.

That, though, is not an argument for not doing it. As I cast my mind to the mid term, in the full knowledge that already tough economic conditions will worsen, a large part of me is not looking forward to Brexit at all. This is the price we will pay to correct the errors of previous generations of politicians. And pay we will. 

Still, though, I see no compelling reason to remain. The future holds only more salami slicing of democracy which has already had a subtle but profound impact on our politics. If we allow it to continue unabated then we shall find that we are no longer citizens, rather we will be demoted to the status of corporate serfs - to be managed like cattle - where nothing happens unless Brussels gives us permission. Whatever the EU may be offering, the price is simply too high. 

No comments:

Post a comment