Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Brexit: taking the power back

All too often people tell me that much of what is wrong with the UK is nothing to do with the EU. These are the same who tend to argue that EU membership has little impact on our daily lives hence there is no good reason to leave. I wholly resent that.

The subtext of this argument is that is that we should only be concerned with conventional domestic politics and completely disregard the EU because its influence is not overt. We plebs should confine our concerns to the mundane politics of schools and hospitals.

Except of course the bulk of EU governance is that which is largely invisible to us. This is anything from directives on water and energy to workers rights, all of which have a profound impact on labour market fluidity, utility bills and council tax.

In this the EU may not tell us what to do directly, but it can define the parameters a policy must fall within. It narrows the scope of what can be done, therefore places limits on local authorities and obliges them to prioritise things that would otherwise be lower down the agenda. A good deal of local authority and national agency activity is implementing policy according to targets and quotas rather than any particular practical or urgent objective.

Very often it is difficult to tell where UK policy ends and EU directive begins. This then begs the question as to whether UK authorities are working in the service of the public or working to implement EU ideals or harebrained regulatory objectives. That raises further questions as to whose  interests are served since very often regulatory agendas at the EU level can be captured by corporates and NGOs alike. To whom are they accountable?

Over the course of the last three years we have seen a number of self-important "fact checkers" attempting to debunk myths about the EU, very often struggling to tell what is a Whitehall initiative and what is genuinely from the EU. There are then times when it is an EU directive or regulation which is simply badly implemented. Conflicting objectives or just run of the mill incompetence.

Very often the EU is unfairly scapegoated but then there are other times where the EU can blame member states for what is essentially bad EU policy that was never going to work. The blame game works both ways. Half the time it is impossible to tell who is accountable for what.

Then there are times when we find we are seeking integration and standardisation at great expense for its own sake. On the continental mainland there might well be advantages to standardising approaches to infrastructure, but the UK in more ways than one is an exception by way of being an island and one where transboundary travel is less frequent and for most through a single entry point.

It is this overall confusion that allows ministers to shirk accountability. Policies that lie beyond our control mean that some issues are never adequately addressed and we are forced to take expensive remedial action to deal with the consequences of ill-thought out policies. The hidden cost of EU membership. The EU might not be directly to blame but it can be a causal influence to a degree that few fully comprehend.

Though leaving the EU will never simplify complex systems of governance, we will at least know who is to blame, and there will be no excuses to evade urgent remedy. Nor will ministers have to jet off to Brussels to persuade twenty seven other members that we ought to be allowed to modify our approach to landfill sites or inshore fishing. The public are rightly tired of being fobbed off with excuses and tired of being told things are not directly in our control.

This dynamic has its more obvious examples. Onshore wind turbines are unpopular with a large part of the public and though there is no EU instruction to build them, the obligation to source from renewable energy, combined with the practicality of other means, dictates that we get wind turbines whether we want them or not. We despoil treasured wilderness simply because there is no other cost effective means of meeting an arbitrary target.

That is one of the more visible symptoms of being in the EU that the public understands, but it runs much deeper than that with the EU having influence on technical governance to a massive degree. This is why leavers are suspicious of the EU because we simply don't know to what extent ideological measures are pushing up the cost of living.

More to the point, with parameters on things like energy being dictated by Brussels our decision making is hobbled therefore so is our democracy. While we are working to EU directives politics is unable to function as it should. Immediate practical needs and demands form the public are secondary to EU objectives.

We are told that leaving the EU still means we would adopt a good deal of EU law, but in the round this is mainly concerned with product directives and issues pertaining to trade. It is a sacrifice of direct sovereignty but largely in the greater good. Brexit is about removing EU influence from those areas such as utilities which are largely none of its business. Brexit removes a whole layer of unwelcome and unaccountable government.

For the most part the EU has no direct power over the UK in terms of being an executive, but it does shape the decisions taken in our name and increasingly robs the public of their power to influence policy. Though I don't wake up worrying about the Large Combustion Plant Directive or the Water Framework Directive, I do worry about the CCJ threat on the doormat over my water bill - and I do wonder why year on year I pay more for energy.

You can argue that the EU is not responsible but if I ask you to prove it, the moment you try you'll run into a barrage EU regulatory frameworks and directives. You'll then have to outline why it is in our interests for this level of authority to lie in the hands of Brussels and not local authorities.

Ultimately if we want to stop the rot we first need to shorten and clarify the chain of accountability. We must then restore the means to unilaterally repeal bad and obsolete law and delete those measures which exist only for the purposes of political integration. Eliminate the roadblocks and you eliminate the excuses.

The balance between trade and sovereignty is a fine line to walk and the trade-offs will continue to plague policymakers. There will always be debate about where the line should be drawn. What we can say, though, is that continued membership of the EU will gradually result in ever more competences being transferred to the EU to the point where they are beyond the influence of those we consciously elect.

The way remainers talk you would think that democracy and sovereignty were entirely meaningless and inconsequential concepts. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we are not able to usefully shape the rules by which we live on a national and local level then the agenda is being steered by others who do not value our lives, landscapes and habitats as we do. Things we value are merely assets and liabilities on a Brussels ledger.

Brexit is not a nationalist ideology at work. It is simply a recognition that people who live and work here are the best judges of who should govern and how, and that nominally efficient technocracy will never value those things that make us unique, nor will it respect those things that transcend GDP growth in importance.

We are told that we leavers are not rational in placing politics ahead of economics. This is another view I resent. Ultimately humans are not rational. And that's a great thing because humans at their most rational are barbarians. It is cold rationality that said it was cheaper to send fresh slaves to the gulags than sacks of food. The things we value very often are not rational and based entirely on sentimentality. And thank god for that. What a sterile place this would be otherwise.

Remainers think they are owed a cold and rational data driven reason for wanting to leave the EU. They are owed nothing of the kind. We stand on the principle that if power does not reside in the hands of people (and their politics) then we do not have democracy. Those who think it dispensable for the temporary certainty of the status quo are foolish - because the noose of invisible government will slowly strangle the vitality from our politics and demolish any semblance of accountability. For that we will pay.

I am far from alone in voting for Brexit despite the costs that come with it. We are simply correcting the mistakes of several administrations who traded away power that was not theirs to give away. There was always going to be a price for that - but that is what we eurosceptics have always warned about. Now that Brexit is upon us, it is incumbent on us all to make sure we don't pay a higher price than we have to in order to retake that which is ours. It may come at a high cost but in the end democracy is priceless. It is not for sale at any price.

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