There is No Alternative To The European Union (at this current juncture)
TINA is a long running joke about liberal defences of the status quo, so I thought I’d use it as I invoke my most liberal tendencies in this somewhat stream of consciousness post.
A personal gripe about fisheries
As someone who used to be quite interested in environmental issues, the Brexit claims about the UK fisheries particularly irks me. Contrary to the infinite wisdom of Nigel Farage, fish do not respect national territorial boundaries. In fact, it might be better to think of fisheries operating inside a large North Atlantic system.
The deep trawling technologies of the 20th Century have led to over-fishing and collapse of stocks globally. As a counter to this, the EU developed a Common Fisheries Policy with the aim of making fishing sustainable — both for the fishes, and for those that make their livelihood from fishing. Unfortunately, because of national interest and a lack of political will, the a workable system was never implemented, and importantly, countries that stayed out of the EU are not party to the quotas, making the whole thing a mockery. Blame the nation states, not the EU.
Is the EU undemocratic?
Both sides of the debate have given unsatisfactory answers to this question. Brexiters repeatedly contend that the EU is undemocratic without noting that Britain is also pretty undemocratic, whereas Remainers claim that since the EU Commission is headed up by the executive of all democratically elected governments, then the Commission itself cannot possibly be undemocratic.
However, this is to misunderstand what people think of legitimate democracy. Because EU institutions look so unlike the national democracies and that it’s at such a far remove from our everyday parliamentary politics, it is not surprising that people sees the EU institutions as undemocratic.
Andreas Follesdal & Simon Hix take this further and argue:
…an essential feature of the practice of democracy is an institutional design that allows for an ‘opposition’ to the current leadership elites and policy status quos. Providing incentives and arenas for oppositions to organize and articulate their positions is important to ensure that citizens understand differences between the present government and the (democratic) political order. If citizens cannot identify alternative leaders or policy agendas, it is difficult for them to determine whether leaders could have done better or to identify who is responsible for policies. Active opposition parties in parliament with many affected parties represented, and media scrutiny, are crucial for such fact-finding, attention and assessments.
These benefits require freedom of association and information, and real opportunity spaces for formulation and contestation of the agenda and policy choices.
Consider those who favour an alternative set of policy outcomes to the current policies of the Commission, the Council and the Parliament. As the EU is currently designed, there is no room to present a rival set of leadership candidates (a government ‘in waiting’) and a rival policy agenda.
And even Andreas Vosskuhle, President of the German Constitutional Court (which concluded that the EU is fundamentally undemocratic), agrees:
Europe’s destination cannot simply be decided within elite circles. To reach the best decisions, we must engage in more open and serious debate, in the parliaments of the member states, in the European Parliament, and in the public. Criticism and opposition are part and parcel of how democracy defines itself. And without a vibrant democracy, Europe can grow no wider.
I’ve long been in agreement with Simon Hix, that a mechanism to Europeanise parliament elections needs to be found, and that this is most likely to be simultaneous EU-wide parliamentary elections whilst increasing the power of the European parliament.
However, it’s easy to see why national governments would not want this, as this would genuinely presage a decline in identification with national parties, affecting their income, party organisation and survival. In addition, governments of one ideological persuasion would fear a EU-wide election of the opposite side. It’s not entirely clear how we get to to this point.
Another fear is that increasing the role of the European parliament would lead to a decline in participation in national elections. Given that this is a phenomenon that’s happened across all Western democracies, including the United States, I don’t think you can blame the EU for this one.
But yeah, it’s a hard one.
Is the EU a neoliberal club? / You’ll get a pony and a pot of gold if we leave!!1111oneoneone
Not quite. In terms of the type of legislation the EU produces, it’s best seen as a treaty consensus making organisation for the regulation of capital, consumer and labour markets within the European single market. Sounds pretty neoliberal. Yes, but what would people assume would have been done differently without it?
Privatisation would have been continued apace without the EU. You do remember the Tories were in government in the 1980s? And I simply refuse to believe that Blair would not have continued those programmes. And fuck it, if the single market meant the British old boys network lost out because they confused being born with a silver spoon with actual competence, good.
At least there is a European Parliament debating the regulatory regime. Without the EU, negotiations would look much more like TTIP deal. The end result may not be a social democratic ideal, but they’re far superior to what would be attained without a Europeanised negotiation process. In addition, the introduction of roll-call procedures has given the public visibility into the process of decision making. If only anyone of us cared.
Either willingly, or unconsciously, Brexiters fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in the global age (to borrow the title of Ulrich Beck’s opening gambit in his series on cosmopolitanism). It’s no longer possible to challenge capital within the confines of national-territorial borders. Global financial flows are here to stay and leaving the EU will not change that.
Much like the Scottish independence referendum, one side is making promises it can’t possibly keep. With Scotland, this was the promise that there would be full social democracy overnight if Scotland went independent — never mind placing all betson the price of oil, whereas with the EU, it’s claims about “getting our power back”, etc… Manufacturing has left the UK for the Far East. As unpopular as it is to say it, this is not necessarily a bad thing — China’s rise to a middle income country has arguably brought hundreds of millions into the middle class. This is not the result of the EU, but of the WTO.
There is some evidence that the way that the EU Single Market is structured, that this favours larger manufacturing firms (mainly of German origin) over smaller domestic producers. This has had the result of favouring the development of a service industry where the constraints of scale do not apply. This has mainly favoured the development of London and the South-East at the expense of the rest of the country.
There is definitely a case for removing constraints around EU tender processes such that they do not get dominated by large corporations, though Paul Cotterill is both more knowledgeable than me on this and can present an alternate view.
As an aside, my prediction is TTIP in its current iteration will fail, or get so watered down to be irrelevant. All of the low hanging fruit of international trade is gone — tariffs are easy to negotiate and remove (after a few WTO rounds anyway). What’s hard is regulatory standardisation. The EU has done a tremendous job of harmonising regulatory regimes across Europe, and trade unions and environmental groups were able to get in protections as part of the ongoing development of the EU Single Market. These are at risk with TTIP, which intends to force the EU to level down towards the United States Republican controlled free-for-all. This isn’t going to happen — France has already said it will veto. The Democrats in the US are none too happy about it either, and the chance of congressional approval is currently approaching zero.
As it currently stands, the EU market is slightly bigger than the United States — manufacturers that want to sell within the EU end up employing those standards globally, leading to better outcomes for say, the environment (it’s the case I know the best). If Britain leaves the EU, the size of the single market will shrink, and both Britain and the EU will lose bargaining power vis-à-vis the United States and multinationals, which may lead to worse outcomes for European regulations. This is a lose-lose situation.
What do we do after the vote?
The ‘Migration Crisis’
After the events of last week, I noticed a book in the remainders section of Waterstones on Cosmopolitanism and Europe. It was an idea I once cared about, and hadn’t paid any attention to it for a while. Neither does the idea come up either in any debate (maybe except the slightly off smearing of Ed Miliband by the press).
So, what happened? Did the idea of cosmopolitanism disappear with the loss of Ulrich Beck?
I think it’s best to understand some of the arguments for a ‘Cosmopolitan Europe’ were actually more strongly rooted in an anti-Americanism, specifically of the anti-George W Bush Americanism. Against the unilateral interventions in Iraq in particular, Habermas and Derrida never really challenged nationalism, but instead invented a European supra-nationalism. This could be seen in the call to develop a common foreign policy. Beck was interested in the expansion of what he called a ‘post-imperial empire’ of the European Union with the entry of Turkey and Caucasus states. It’s not too hard to see that the main continental proponents of a Cosmopolitan Europe were heavily influenced by their national contexts and thus utterly failed at creating an ideology that could capture the imagination outside of France and Germany.
What really put to rest any notion of a Cosmopolitan Europe was the Arab Spring, and most specifically Libya. I was amongst those who were against the intervention in Libya. In retrospect, I cannot tell whether or not I was right or not, so I no longer attempt to offer prognostications of my own in this regard.
However, I still think Steve Saideman was essentially correct that this was a ‘xenophobic intervention’ in that it was mostly undertaken out of a fear of refugee outflows from Northern Africa into Southern France, which would then have lead to a backlash from the Front National.
Although the intervention was a NATO one, and did not directly involve the EU, this is really indicative that Europe would not have an ever increasing horizon of shared citizenship, but have a dominant ideology where international organisations are used for the purpose for shoring up the interests of individual states.
And this non-cosmopolitan Europe decided whole heartedly against the idea of welcoming strangers. For the left, the EU is no longer seen as a vehicle for peace, but for the deaths of thousands in the Mediterranean.
I have no idea how the Left might move forward on this, so I’m just going to state the obvious — Dublin III is a crock of shit.
Oh, and everyone should come to the protest to defend all migrants on the 24th, the day after the election.
A new fiscal compact for the Eurozone
Another thing which is a crock of shit is the Growth and Stability Pact. This is probably the cause of one of the best arguments for Lexit — that the EU is a neoliberal club, and that the core countries screwed over the southern nations.
Yes they did, and for good reason — democracy.
We cannot talk about the democracy of Greece, Spain or Portugal being hampered without talking about German democracy. Simply put, German voters did not want to pay the cost of bailing out the PIGS, with horrendous results for those nations. But the PIGS also failed to collect taxes efficiently. What is needed is a true, but limited fiscal union for the Eurozone to ameliorate differences between different regions in the Eurozone. In addition, it might sharpen the minds of those in government to set up proper taxation regimes.
And people like Dan Davies, might submit that some of Syriza’s antagonism against the Troika was somewhat misleading:
How much primary deficit financing did Greece get from the troika?
How much primary deficit financing could Greece have got from anywhere other than the troika?
So, how much did Greece benefit from the troika, in terms of smoothing output and consumption?
Roughly, 6% of GDP over four years.
Is that a lot?
Yes, proportionately, it’s about half as big again as what West Germany received under the Marshall Plan.
It might also be time to consider some level of import-substitution between Southern Europe and the rest. One of the side effects of Greece’s (sometimes France, but mainly Greece) multi-decadal objection to Turkish entry into the EU is that Turkey was implementing import-substitution for quite a while (sometimes with bouts of extreme inflation), with the end result being that they are a major European white goods manufacturer. The trick is how to implement this without restricting the free movement of labour, or the WTO coming down like a tonne of bricks.
Devolution and the need for a constitutional assembly
A lot of the arguments about Brexit were actually a proxy for deeper questions regarding the nature of British democracy. Complaints about a lack of sovereignty are in some ways actually about the constitutional mess that we’re in, with partial devolution to Wales and Scotland, some mayors in some places but always under threat from a central government that can pull the plug at any time, simply because parliament is supreme. Various EU treaties enshrine a principle of subsidiarity:
The general aim of the principle of subsidiarity is to guarantee a degree of independence for a lower authority in relation to a higher body or for a local authority in relation to central government. It therefore involves the sharing of powers between several levels of authority, a principle which forms the institutional basis for federal States.
Apart from the obvious German bias in the text, successive British governments have never finally settled the balance between subsidiarity and the British principle of parliamentary supremacy, choosing instead to muddle through. The subsidiarity principle has been implemented most successfully, in my opinion, in Northern Ireland. We are talking about an area that is all intent purposes mutually governed by two different sovereign nations without a physical border, with a peace bound by the common market. Brexit potentially throws this all up into the air. I have no special attachment to peculiarly British modes of democracy, not least as they usually end up being our most undemocratic features (monarchy, unelected second chamber, unwritten constitution). The EU is not to blame for the tension between centralisation and devolution (to London, Scotland, Wales as well as Northern Ireland)- political scientists have noted the over-centralisation of British power since the eighties and gave the nation about thirty years until it hit some sort of constitutional crisis. And so it happened.
Labour, initially under Ed Miliband, and now particularly John McDonnell are making the case for a constitutional assembly. I encourage everyone who cares about pro-democratic change to participate in Assemblies for Democracy, whose next event is on 16 July.