The UK general election – what chance for the ‘remainers’?

The starting guns have been fired for Brexit with article 50 and for a UK General Election with the approval of Parliament.  The ‘remainers’ are seizing the chance to promote their cause.  All parties claim that they respect the views of the British electorate in the 2016 Referendum, but some parties respect the views of the people more than others.  Both the Liberal Democrats and some in the Labour Party  ( notably Keir Starmer its Brexit shadow minister) now seem to want somehow to worm their way back into the EU.  The Lib Dems and Keir Starmer have stated that they want to remain in the single market and in the customs union.  They say they accept that the UK leaves the EU but that it should remain in its flagship project.

Remaining in the single market and in the customs union without being a full member of the EU is the worst of all possible worlds.  It is, in effect, the Norway option.  It might work just about for Norway but it could never work for a country the size of the UK and with the varied economy of the UK.  All the laws and rules would be made by the institutions of the EU and we, not being members, would simply just have to put up with them.  And, we would still have to put up with the judgements of the European Court.  We would have given up our seat at the table but not regained any portion of our capacity to make decisions suitable for ourselves.

Those who advocate this policy clearly have no knowledge at all about the nature of the European Union or how it works.  Yet they claim to be the true ‘Europeans’.  Before they open their mouths on this subject they would do well to find out the facts.  I should issue copies of my 2016 book, ‘In or Out: An Impartial Guide to the EU’ to all Lib Dem and Labour candidates to assist them with queries from voters (who are not all that silly) and the press.  Perhaps I should find a sponsor to do this for me!

The customs union represents the wall around the protected economy of the European Union.  It was pretty strong when first constructed but today is full of holes from the wide range of WTO rules, specific trade deals and globalisation.  Most of the rules for international trade are today made not by individual states or groups of states like the EU but in international organisations both state supported and private.  The EU merely puts them into effect for all its members.  The single market is, even by the most ardent pro-EU supporters, widely recognised to be incomplete.  It works for manufactured goods but hardly exists for services.  And, indeed, it will never be ‘complete’ because much of economic activity is based on local markets.  Free trade for those products which are like commodities – the same the world over – is one thing as is free trade where there are comparative advantages.  But services are always going to be largely local in nature because they concern relations between individuals.

It is ironic therefore that the critics of the effects of globalisation (and the EU as a regional organisation) for its uneven effects on peoples’ lives should try to prop up a regional economic organisation that may have been relevant in 1980 but is becoming more and more out of date today.  The Liberal Democrats and those sections of the Labour Party represented by Keir Starmer need to do a lot more thinking on this subject before they engage with voters and the press in the coming weeks.

Article 50 letter sent to Brussels – we are leaving your house but still want to play in the garden, please.

As Donald Tusk said when he got his ‘Dear John’ letter from Theresa May today, it is a sad day for Europe.  It could well turn out to be a sad day for the UK as well, but after all the EU did have a chance to offer the UK a better arrangement and failed to make any meaningful concessions.  The divorce was pretty inevitable.

Mrs May’s letter says a lot more than ‘we’re off’.  She says she wants to maintain good and strong relationships with the EU.  We will no longer be living in the European house, in part because it is only half built and we do not like the way it is being constructed.  It has already become too big, has far too many rooms, and there are ambitions to turn it into a real palace.  We are leaving the EU, not Europe.  We will continue to live in the neighbourhood, maintain friendly relationships and would like permission to play in the garden.  What will the other 27 member states think about that?

The other 27 should certainly not want dangerously hostile relationships with a big neighbour, particularly one with friends in other parts of the world.  They should want to keep the UK on side as a partner to defend the territory and to co-operate in removing pests that threaten their safety.  Some will want to be able to continue that friendly intercourse that comes with sharing sugar or flour when supplies suddenly run out.  There is much to be said for being a good neighbour – it is mutually advantageous.

Mrs May’s letter appears to have been written in this spirit.  We must hope that it is received in the same spirit.  Some of the 27 will be more inclined to see the advantages of a long term good relationship than others.  And this is where the difficulties will lie.  The EU is not a single state but an international organisation in which national interests frequently prevail over any common European interest.  The EU does not have a good record in making sensible decisions.  It is not one single state with a common government and viewpoint.  There are at least three in the EU side of the marriage (the European Council, the Commission and the European Parliament).  The EU is riven by discord between its member states whose interests rarely coincide.  There are even separate ‘caucuses’ such as the Benelux group and the Visigrad Group to be taken into account.  It may be impossible for the EU to agree common positions in the short time frame available.  Elections in several member states are likely to bring new leaders to the table with different ideas than their predecessors.  The recent pronouncements of the EU on its own future show how divided it has become – unsure of itself and its own future.  Dealing with the UK may be beyond its political capacity.  It may simply not be able to make up its mind what is in its longer term interest.   That is why today may well be sad for both the EU and for the UK.  We may find ourselves leaving without any promises at all of continued good relations simply because the EU cannot find a common viewpoint.

Happy Birthday EU – but what sort of happy returns?

The European Union is sixty years old today.  Twenty seven EU nations will celebrate its birthday in Rome, its birthplace.  I never noticed when the EU was born.  In 1957 as undergraduates at Oxford the most important foreign issues to us were the events of late 1956 which had seen both the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising.  We were much more preoccupied with fear of Communism than with a trade deal among six European states. We totally missed the significance of the Treaty of Rome.

In 1972 I was appointed to teach European politics at the University of Bath.  The EU had, at that stage, advanced so little that the first half of the course had to be a race round the political systems of the EU’s six member states.  By the time I stopped teaching the politics of Western European Integration  (at Cardiff University) at the end of 1988 the EU had already expanded its membership and was in the midst of a blizzard of single market law making. I was a member of the Economic and Social Committee commuting weekly to Brussels fighting off the paper and battling to introduce some sense into proposals.  Today The EU has 27 member states and a mountain of millions of pages of law, thousands and thousands of legal judgements and a host of regulators churning out still more uniform rules.  Judged by the amount of law it has created the EU is a huge success.  Its still unfinished project for a single currency has been less successful.  It has not been good for all member states.  The effects that benefit Germany do not benefit Italy or Greece.   The slight upturn in economic fortunes this year cannot mask the cracks in the single market and currency projects.  The single market has not ensured prosperity for all and the Euro has further undermined the capacity of some member states to manage their economies.

So far the EU can claim a lot of success.  It has grown from six to twenty seven members.  It certainly it has produced a mountain of law.  Its law is all encompassing.  But it lacks power, the essential feature of a nation state.  It has to rely on its members to obey the laws they agree to collectively. It has a sort of bureaucracy but no administrative structure to enforce agreed policies.  This feature of the EU is particularly marked for the Eurozone.  The Euro was launched with a set of rules which were flouted from the start and are deeply resented today.

The EU was launched on the promises of PEACE, POWER AND PROSPERITY.  As for PEACE, NATO has played a far more significant part than the EU.  The EU is not a state so it has no POWER.  It must rely on its member states to enforce laws agreed collectively and to administer programmes.  They are not very good at either task.  And, above all, the EU has not ensured PROSPERITY for all – even its best friends admit that it is lagging behind other parts of the world.  The representatives of the member states meeting in Rome today have issued a bland statement full of pious hopes and generalities.  They, like the Commission, have absolutely no clear vision of the future.  The dream of ‘ever closer union’  is gradually being replaced with a more pragmatic realisation that the future of the European continent must lie in unity through diversity.  With this new vision the rich seams of European culture and inventiveness could be allowed the freedom to ensure that the continent of Europe survives in a fast changing world.  Whether the EU in its present form can enjoy many happy returns and a 100th birthday is by no means obvious.

Postscript to last blog – Mrs S changes her mind

The news this morning is that the SNP leader has changed her mind.  Its not the EU that she wants to join if Scotland votes for independence from the UK, just something else – like EFTA say.  Problem with EFTA is that the loss of independence is even worse than it is with the EU because you have to obey the rules but don’t get a seat at the table when they are made.  Goodness me, what a swift u-turn!  She  did not want to jump out of the frying pan into the raging fire but only into the embers.  The score looks like  Sturgeon nil, Mrs May five.

Once she gets her mind round the shape of the Scottish economy (if she is capable of that) she might notice that staying with the UK even after it leaves the EU would not have the disastrous economic impact that all those witches of Macbeth (the economists) predicted.  Whisky sales might even go up as new markets are open…

 

Article 50 – the starting gun is ready to be fired

Yesterday the House of Lords finally gave in and voted through the Bill required to give Theresa May Parliamentary authority to write a letter to the EU notifying the desire of the UK to leave the Union.  At last – after so much ‘debate’ much of it, particularly in the House of Lords, either deliberately avoiding facts or displaying ignorance of the EU and how it works.  All these months of pointless debate cannot change the facts – someone has to negotiate our departure and they cannot have their hands tied.

When the UK voted to leave the EU it did not vote to stay in the EU.  That means that it cannot stay in ‘The Single Market’ which is the EU’s flagship policy because that is so constructed that its laws take precedence over those of the member states.  Other options come with restrictions.  Leaving does mean leaving but it certainly does not mean that trade with the other 27 member states will cease overnight – indeed many other countries trade with the EU even in the absence of free trade agreements.  It does not mean that EU countries will cease selling their goods in UK markets.  The EU is no longer able to function as a close protectionist bloc in the circumstances of 21st century global markets.  It may hate Amazon, Starbucks and Google but it has not been able to keep them out.  Macdonalds too is everywhere – even threatened to arrive in Florence.  The Scots will still be able to sell their Whisky.  Here too the market is not primarily European where Brandy is a formidable competitor but global.  A bigger threat to Scottish Whisky producers is Japanese fakes.

The SNP, in the shape of Nicola Sturgeon, tried to put a big spanner in the works yesterday.  She is calling for a second referendum on Scottish independence – or is she?  She says another referendum is necessary because Scotland voted to stay in the EU in 2016 which is a ‘material difference’.  By relying on this argument in favour of another independence referendum she is muddying  the waters.  She seems to want membership of the EU more than independence.  Not all of the SNP supporters voted to remain in the EU. The two issues do not completely overlap.  By becoming a member of the EU Scotland would throw away its hard won freedom of action granted in the devolution settlement. It would have to adopt the Euro.  Its estimated 9% budget deficit (at present the hole is filled by the rest of the UK taxpayers) would flout the fiscal rules of the EU.   It would lose all capacity to free its fishing industry from EU control.  It would not be able to design an agricultural policy suitable for Scottish circumstances.  The UK voted to leave the EU because it was such a great and growing restriction on our freedom of action.  Mrs Sturgeon seems to want to jump from the frying pan right into the fire –  more freedom of action will be lost than gained by Scottish independence with EU membership.  And, as the EU moves further towards greater integration the noose will progressively tighten.

The UK voted to leave the EU to gain a little more leeway in making our own decisions.  Mrs S seems to want to leave one Union which has given her country wide freedom of action and generous financial support for another which will progressively remove much of her current freedom to choose policies for the benefit of the Scottish people.  But, perhaps that exchange of nooses does not matter.  Sentiment and Mrs S’s hurt feelings are more important than prosperity and freedom of action for the Scottish people.

 

The EU has no idea what its future might be – the Commission’s view

Today the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Junker, unveiled the Commission’s contribution to the debate on the future of Europe – to be discussed by the 27 Heads of State in Rome at the end of March.

Mr Junker presented his ‘White Paper’.  It did not conform to the purpose of a White Paper which is to set out a government’s preferred way forward.  Instead he presented five different ways forward for the EU and invited comments.  His document should have been called a ‘Green Paper’ which is merely a consultative document, maybe offering more than one way forward.  The EU copied these terms from the UK’s practice and in the past has distinguished between the two types of proposals.  The term ‘White Paper’ was chosen to give the impression that the Commission had concluded on the best route forward when in fact it had not.

That the Commission cannot pick out the best route forward for the European Union indicates just how confused the Europeans are about their future and the future nature of the institutions in which they work together for greater unity.  Some want to press on to the new federal European state, others want to return powers to the nation states.  Some are content to continue muddling through.  There is no clear vision.

The five options presented today are:  1. go on as we are, 2. give up on broader ambitions and concentrate on the single market, 3. let those who want more integration go for it (a two speed EU), 4. do less and do it better and  5. doing a lot more together.  Brief indications are given of the pros and cons of each of the five different choices.  Further more detailed papers are promised later in the year.  Even these will not indicate a preferred route, merely outline the choices.

So confusing has the EU and its future become that there is no longer a binary choice between more integration or more powers returned to member states.  There are all sorts of different possibilities.  But one aspect of the European Union’s activities is crying out for a clearer set of proposals.  The ‘White Paper’ does little to address the big Elephant in the room – how to make the Euro work better for the people of Europe, particularly for those in Greece, Italy and other less successful economies.  It merely refers to an earlier report (by the Five Presidents) which was itself not entirely crystal clear.

The European Commission is appointed and paid handsomely to come up with ideas to progress the European project.  It appears to have run out of steam. Mr Junker’s contribution to the debate on the future of Europe – by which he actually means the future of the European Union as an institution – indicates the extent to which the present Commission lacks the necessary intellectual power and political will to identify the best route to take.

We have now had the European Parliament’s ideas and those of the Commission.  In the last analysis it is the member states of the EU who will have to decide which road forward it takes.  So far indications are that they will be no clearer on the future than the Commission.

I personally believe that the EU would have a better chance of regaining the support of the citizens of its member states if it chose the fourth path set out today – the EU should do less and do it a lot better.  That, however, is not an option for the Euro.  What a confusion!

News from the forgotten Parliament – what the European Parliament thinks about the future of the EU

Last week the European Parliament adopted no fewer than three ‘Resolutions’ on the Future of the European Union.  They were the first of the three EU institutions to reveal their hand – neither the Commission nor the European Council has yet made their views public and are unlikely to do so in the next few weeks.

On the 25th March the leaders of the remaining 27 member states will meet in Rome to celebrate 60 years since the Treaty of Rome that set up the European Economic Community – now the EU.  Both the Commission and the Council are scratching their heads as how to approach this birthday at a time when the future of the EU has never been more uncertain.  Many of those leaders who meet in Rome will not even be in office by the end of the year.  Others may have different views.  But they will have to say something. Expect warm words on the great achievements of the past decades and a general agreement to keep muddling through.

Do not expect a ‘great leap forward’.  This would only be possible if the EU were faced with a serious external threat and/or had charismatic leaders with big ideas.  Instead the EU is faced with a myriad insoluble problems.  From the outside the biggest threat remains migration.  From the inside the biggest threat comes in the shape of an overloaded agenda where the dysfunctional institutions of the EU grapple unsuccessfully with big issues like the management of the Euro all the while taking on more and more concerns that really have no ‘European’ solutions. These include such matters as childhood obesity or gender balance on company boards.  Overloaded organisations are doomed to fail and the EU’s agenda is certainly overloaded.

What did the European Parliament contribute to the debate on the future of the EU?  The general public may be forgiven for not knowing what it said as it has proved impossible for this reader to track down media comment on the Resolutions in the days since they were adopted.  Why were there three resolutions anyway?  Because of the mad procedure of the European institutions which give control of issues to ‘Rapporteurs’ who put down what they think and then try to persuade their colleagues to agree with them. One is no longer enough because of fear of bias so we have to have a selection.   In the case of these three Resolutions the Rapporteurs must have been disappointed.  First the texts were heavily amended in Committee and then at the Plenary the support for them was not as overwhelming as would befit such important documents.

If we take each Resolution in turn we find first that around 13% of the 751 MEPs did not bother to vote at all.  Of those who did vote many abstained.  The first resolution drafted by the arch Federalists Bresso and Brok was the most successful with 329 in favour and 223 against with 83 abstentions.  It called for institutional changes within the terms of the current Treaties.  The second drafted by Verhofstadt, another arch federalist, also concerned with tinkering with the current institutions, was approved by 283 to 269 with 83 abstentions and the third approved by 304 to 255 with 68 abstentions.  This last dealt with institutional changes to the Eurozone including a specific EZ budget, a European monetary fund, a convergence code for the EZ economies and a bigger role for the European Parliament and the national Parliaments in the process. It was the most substantive but simply echoed the recommendations of the Commission on EZ management.   Only the first Resolution had a solid majority of those voting in favour against those voting against and abstaining.  In each case the numbers voting against, abstaining or not even bothering to vote were greater than those voting in favour.

It is very surprising that these votes have not attracted media attention.  In the past the European Parliament has been characterised by its extreme enthusiasm for more and more European integration and for supporting the European Commission at all costs.  Faced with a big opportunity to demand a great leap forward all they can do is suggest some little pussy steps – most of which will be pushed back by the member states who do not agree about anything especially new powers to the European Union.

On the plus side perhaps this is a sign that the European Parliament is becoming a little more mature and thoughtful.  Only a little – but its highly ambiguous votes last week are a sign that it is no longer an easy push over for the European Commission.