Monday, 10 December 2018

Brexit: why we fight

A while ago a friend of mine came down to go and have a look at the tank museum down at Bovington. The subject of Brexit came up - probably because it's not unusual for me to offer an opinion on the subject. I had some difficulty explaining the rationale for Brexit. My friend isn't especially political but he is smart enough to know that the usual shtick about taking control of our money, borders and laws isn't of itself a convincing argument.

That much is the basis of an argument but not a particularly sophisticated one. What we pay to the EU is not in government terms a vast amount, nor is it dead money, and it's difficult to persuade a young and commitment free bloke that freedom of movement is a bad thing. Then, as far as most people are concerned, we do make most of our own laws.

To really get to grips with it you have to pick it up and look at it from all angles and know something about it. The problem there is that most people don't want to know anything about it because, to anyone normal, it's pretty boring stuff. Certainly international trade is dull as dishwater and most people don't really care about technical regulation unless it affects them directly.

This was a particular barrier in the referendum where people would come to me asking how it would personally benefit them. That wasn't an easy question because I couldn't say that they would have more free stuff because we'd have more money to spend. That would be a lie and not a very convincing one.

Even now remainers are exploiting this weakness in the leave case. We are giving up on tangible and explainable entitlements and benefits for intangible concepts, many of which don't really seem worth the bother. It's difficult to sell people on the notion of democracy when most people don't think of democracy as much more than voting occasionally.

Moreover, most people do not notice the impact of the EU. It isn't reported and much of its output is concealed by national politics. Where directives are concerned most of what ends up on the statute book looks very much like domestic measures unless you know what you're looking at. Insofar as most people are concerned the EU makes no difference to their daily lives. This is why the issue was never really a burning passion save for a sizable minority of obsessives like me. You then have the problem of the status quo. If you're doing ok right now then there's no real reason to rock the boat. Things could be better but if you're on to a good thing, why risk it?

Generally I have a hard time articulating a case for Brexit in person because you first have to set out all of the parameters which leads to a number of interesting diversions. But that is half the point. It is difficult to separate out the issues because it is all connected. This is why blogging is a more effective communication tool.

Britain is presently in the midst of an economic, social and political malaise. Remainers would argue that this is nothing to do with the EU and it's more to do with the problems in our own system of government. The problem with this argument, though, is that the EU very much is our system of government. It's not called a political union for nothing. One is an extension of the other and the system is indivisible.

One of the big factors in play is how the EU changes to culture of government by defining the methods and processes along with setting legal paraters, standards, quotas and targets - which very much turns government into a machine for delivering on those requirements rather than responding to needs of people.

When we needed measures to bring down home heating costs what we got instead was a raft of new measures to meet EU requirements which substantially added to our bills. At the time the government was able to capitalise on the anti-Bank and anti-corporate sentiment of post-crash politics and blame it on the energy companies and greedy shareholders. Behind the price rises, though, was government meddling at the behest of the EU. The same can be said of the Water Framework Directive.

Many of these policies have nothing at all to do with addressing our immediate needs, rather they are big ideas starting life in the global organisations, adopted by the EU Commission as a means to further integrate utilities and government procurement with a view to further liberalising services and expanding the scope of the single market. Then, of course, some of it is geared to meeting international climate obligations which, depending on your point of view, is fine - but not if it means the poor having to ration their electricity usage and grannies freezing to death in winter.

We should also not forget that these measures are often gold plated with the vanity hobby horses of the EU and national politicians and seldom does it come cheap. They don't seem to be constrained by the notion that somebody (us) has to pay for all of this. This comes to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds and very often meeting legally binding targets takes priority over fixing acute problems which leaves us with the double whammy of having to take emergency remedial measures.

This leaves the UK with an inordinately large tax bill where our tax freedom day isn't until the end of May. It wouldn't be so bad were we actually getting Rolls Royce services for our trouble, but the NHS is in permanent crisis, adult social care is collapsing and local government is neglecting the basics to meet its pension and welfare obligations.

This matters because the basics are important. Noise enforcement and housing inspection is (believe it or not) an important part of immigration control. Without prosecuting landlords for overcrowding (often detected by way of noise complaints) we find that immigrants are able to substantially cut down on their living overheads in order to undercut the natives.

The problem with all this, though, is it is all highly debatable and difficult to prove. What is EU influence and what is domestic misrule? This is a tidy little arrangement in that the EU gets to blame member states for failures but take credit for successes and vice versa. The point, though, is that there is no clear line of accountability and that stands in the way of meaningful and responsive reform. when we do identify issues that can only be resolved at the EU level it takes the better part of a decade and nearly as long to lodge it on the agenda.

The point here is that the influence of the EU is profound and insidious. It already legislates for anything even remotely technical from fishing all the way through to energy markets and building standards. It then makes interventions in labour law - not especially to protect or enhance our rights, rather it is a means of creating an EU wide level playing field for the facilitation of freedom of movement. That is not without its social consequences. All too often it is judged on intent rather than outcome.

There are then more visible ways in which the EU governs us. Smokers will notice this especially. The recent introduction of retail controls mean it is no longer possible to buy a small pouch of tobacco. This is problematic for those trying to give up smoking. These are things that really should be decided nationally but once they are decided at the EU level - not least of the facilitation of trade, it is all but impossible to change the law. So how can you call it democratic?

The things about these little incursions into our lives is that they are everywhere. They are many and subtle, not least in terms of internet regulation (that infernal and pointless cookie warning), right through to copyright controls which effectively hand ownership of the internet to a handful of media giants.

Were I to compile all the examples known to me then this would be a considerably longer post but the impact of the EU is not trivial - nor is there any particular constraint to it. Notionally there are measures to prevent the EU taking power without a new treaty but it only takes a few ECJ rulings here and there to change the definition of things in order to widen its competences. Trade is always evolving and provides the EU many opportunities to expand the scope of what is covered in FTAs thus bringing more areas under the mantle of EU exclusivity.

Notionally we ought to be able to veto trade deals that do this but of course our politicians generally won't and even when such deals like TTIP are torpedoed, the EU has ways of smuggling them in piecemeal by the backdoor without anybody really noticing. One could even say that headline FTAs are decoys.

Gradually the EU is salami slicing British sovereignty and in ways we have yet to fully comprehend and to an extent that goes far beyond what was ever discussed and without the knowledge of our political class. For al the talk of becoming a rule taker after Brexit, as members we adopt rafts of EU rules automatically via statutory instrument and nobody is monitoring it on this side of the channel. the European scrutiny committee is one of the worst attended.

It's not for nothing that people feel they are no longer in control - because in truth they are not. The smoking ban came, devastating UK nightlife and it was beyond our power to secure derogations. It really ought to be a local matter. But it isn't. Whether you agree with the ban or not is neither here nor there. It's an example of something with serious fallout and serious social implications that we the public had no say in.

We can then expand this to grumbles about EU rules allowing larger lorries on our roads driven by foreign drivers, causing more accidents and undercutting UK hauliers. Any remedial measures we might take can be overturned by the Commission or the ECJ because that is where the supreme authority resides. We are just not in control of our country and it's only going to get worse especially as the global network of treaties and conventions ossifies. We are building a global technocracy over which the people have no authority.

The ultimate consequence of this is a politically disengaged public where we get used to the idea that when something is going wrong that's just the way things are and we have to get used to it. As demoralising as that is, that mentality also extends deep into local and national government. We simply tell ourselves that this is one of the sacrifices we make in the greater good - being part of a club that makes us richer. But does it? Evidently not for half of the country or more.

Back in the days of Ukip, it was described as a single issue party banging on about "Europe". The point though, was that "Europe" never was a single issue. It's every issue and everything it touches has implications for something else be it an economic or a social cost. Freedom of movement has had its own social implications - especially for the bottom two deciles and where you have a single market in people and goods you have single market in crime - from Romanian pickpockets to industrial scale counterfeiting and fraud.

The point for me is that all of the trade advantages of the EU can be done through normal intergovernmental processes without the transfer of political authority. We do so, though, because the EU is not primarily a trade entity. It is a political project which views national sovereignty as an impediment to accomplishing its political and economic goals - and once it gets the power it never gives it back. The consequence of that is a nation unable to swiftly correct and improve laws when errors occur. That almost saw North Sea cod fished to extinction.

The case for EU membership is largely a narcissistic and superficial one and one easily communicated. Were it not for the fact that leading voices for Remain are so utterly snobbish, condescending and authoritarian, there is a good chance they'd have won the 2016 referendum. The case for exit was poorly made and miscommunicated, precisely because it cannot be conveyed well with empty platitudes and slogans. One can almost see why strategists settled on such a banale phrase as "take back control".

Though the mechanics of trade have changes and the political landscape has shifted, the argument against the EU is the same now as it was in 1975. The EU has only one destination and that is to become a fully fledged government with minimal democratic oversight and one which  will always prioritise its founding ideology over the needs of people. It is not just anti-democratic. It is anti-human.

If we believe that government should be by the people for the people, and that there should be no higher authority, an entity such as the EU ought to be viewed as intolerable and monstrous.  Its success has depended entirely on its gradual encroachment and its superficial appearance of a democracy - (the whole point of its faux-parliament). We have hollowed out the definition of democracy to such an extent where we no longer know what it is. But when you ask in what way can the people meaningfully organise to propose, amend or repeal law in the EU and the answer is stark. Not by any measure do I recognise it as a democracy.

It is for these reasons I am not at all persuaded by the economic arguments. GDP may be a concern but it cannot be our overriding consideration. The right to meaningfully express ourselves through the vote is something we have always considered worth fighting for and dying for. It's a troubling sign of the times that we would trade it away for the sake of anemic growth inside the EU. Leaving the EU may come at a high price but we do so to preserve something of far greater value. 

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