Saturday, 16 February 2019

Brexit: reclaiming democracy


Yesterday I directed your attention to this article from Corporate Europe Observatory.
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.
What's notable about this is there isn't a peep from the British press. There is no comment from any of the British think tank set. There is no public debate about it in the Twittersphere. If it's mentioned at all then it comes from Eurowonk land. British polity is simply not engaged and not remotely interested.

You would think with this being a blatant power grab with major ramifications for sovereignty that one of the eurosceptic groups would have picked up on it, but British politics as a whole is narrow and insular. Eurosceptic groups devote zero resources to monitoring the EU - which is rather a shame because they would have better arguments if they did.

But this is why UK membership of the EU can never be democratic. A curious media is a vital pillar of any democracy. Notionally we have MEPs who could vote against this measure (ignoring for a moment they are structurally outnumbered) but without a media early warning system there is no lobbying from civil society and the wider public. None of our major unions are on top of this nor is there any protest from UK local authorities.

Only occasionally do we see any uproar over what Brussels is up to. There was the outcry over Article 13 of the Copyright Directive which only really got traction due to its overlap with Youtube content creators which makes it a talking point in the culture war, but generally speaking, technical governance is completely ignored and there is no Westminster debate or scrutiny.

More generally there is a disconnect between MPs and MEPs, where one would have though that national parties would take a greater role in directing MEPs based on the outcome of Westminster debates, but the EU parliamentary system is largely ignored. The fullest extent of public engagement is the occasional Euro election which is generally low turnout and the outcome is decided by those who are actually interested. For all that there has been an outpouring of grief since 2016 from remainers who tell us how vitally important the EU is to them, all the evidence suggests otherwise.

As a rule scrutiny of the EU is a somewhat niche pursuit. If there is a corruption scandal, generally news of it reaches me via EUobserver or Euractiv, and EU trade news comes to me via bilaterals.org. The most active civil society groups are nearly always from mainland Europe and anything said by Brussels tends not to register in the British press - as has been abundantly evident through the Article 50 process.

When Brexiters complain that the EU is not democratic they tend to point to "unelected commissioners" but this always overlooks the fact that it wouldn't be democratic even if they were elected. For there to be a democracy you need a demos, and civil society involvement. No such thing exists in the EU. That which passes for civil society engagement is our NGOcracy, much of which is, in a roundabout way, dependent on the EU for funding and is little more than astroturfing.

If the European Parliament served a democratic function it should be as a goalkeeper - our last line of defence against the EU executive. But like any defence system it's only as good as the early warning radar. We have none at all. Through our efforts running eureferendum.com for more than a decade, we have long observed that British media is often years late in bumping into things that they should have been on top of.

As it stands we import much of our cultural politics from the USA and we have a more up to date understanding of US politics than anything happening on the continent. Political union is more feasible with the USA. Not that we should want such a thing. Instead we have transferred political authority over our trade and overseas policy to the EU and our own parliament has zero comprehension of what it does, how it works and what it's up to.

What's particularly toxic about this latest powergrab from Brussels is that it cuts Westminster out of the loop entirely with local authorities then becoming directly accountable to the EU and the lobbyists pulling the strings without parliament being aware the coup has even happened and they will carry on oblivious to the fact that the EU, without a treaty, can keep absorbing political authority over domestic affairs by stealth rendering local and national democracy inert.

Arguably remainers could easily say this is a consequence of British disengagement and to a large extent they are right. But culturally we have never been engaged with the EU and I don't see that we ever will be. EU membership just isn't right for the UK. For as long as we are members, outsourcing gall the policy of importance, we become ever more self-absorbed and insular, and our politics continues to atrophy. Only by repatriating political authority and putting the process back where we can see it will we change the culture of our politics.

It ought to be a national emergency to realise that so much of our decision making is now done behind closed doors (or might as well be for all the attention our media gives it). That Brexit is being handled so badly is down to a systemic ignorance of the EU in our media and political class. Little did they realise that they'd handed over competence over just about everything that is regulated. So much damage has already been done. The cost of Brexit, therefore, is simply the price for correcting their error.

I am often asked by remainers what the advantages to Brexit are. They wail about the loss of entitlements and perks and point to the obvious fact that from a trade perspective, Brexit is hardly an enhancement. The truth is that there are no economic benefits to Brexit for the foreseeable future. It comes down to one estimation as to whether you think we can allow the further privatisation of lawmaking and the marginalisation of our own powers to influence the laws we live by.

If your only concern is the convenience of going on holiday and rights you already had, there is little I can do to persuade you that Brexit is worth it. If, on the other hand, democracy matters to you, it should be abundantly clear that EU membership is intolerable. Our political revival depends on leaving it.

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