One of the most profound changes to the UK Constitution and system of government has been membership of the EU, and yet today many politicians are urging us to leave. Were this happen, it would be a further profound change and, many argue, a reduction in Britain’s influence in Europe and in the world. Proponents of Brexit however argue that Britain would, once freed of the bureaucratic and restrictive over-government of Brussels, be liberated and would flourish economically.
Constitutionally the EU has brought about a very significant diminution in the sovereignty of Parliament, since it now has a rival legislator in the EU in the latter’s areas of competence, shared between the European Commission and the EU Parliament, a diminution in the power of the executive in relation to the EU Commission and the European Council, and the judiciary in relation to the European Court. The European Court of Human Rights is a separate body, outside the EU framework.
Yet one wonders about the timing, given that Europe feels threatened by powerful outside pressures from Russia and Islamic extremism and internally from the Far Right and eurozone crises, and arguably most needs to pull together. This also applies to the UK since it is threatened by nationalism from within that also threaten to pull it apart. The forces of the UK right, or one should really say the English right, seem to want to further emphasise disintegration by leaving the EU.
Pro and anti EU forces: the Eurosceptics are not having it their way
The issue is toxic to the Conservative Party, both internally from a powerful Europhobic right and externally from UKIP. Prime Minister Cameron proposes to hold a referendum on whether to stay or go after a “re-negotiation” of membership, despite widespread scepticism from his EU partners, and this issue could also be grounds for a coalition alliance with UKIP after the 2015 election. Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP, who could together replace Cameron’s team, are united on opposition to a referendum or to leaving. Thus at present the forces for and against the EU look finely balanced, with arguably a potential electoral and party majority for staying in.
This interestingly chimes with movements in public opinion. There is now a clear majority in opinion polls in favour of staying in the EU, which parallels rising economic confidence and a return of good times and also a decline in support for UKIP. Referenda tend to be conservative tools, voters on the whole voting against change, which arguably leaving the EU would be big time, especially if as seems very likely much of business signs very big cheques for the In campaign.
The anti-EU position
Membership of the EU has divided both major parties at different times. Initially it was Labour who were the doubters, and PM Wilson used the device of the first UK referendum in 1975 to win a vote to stay in the EEC, as it then was, to head off his left-wing critics. Labour later became euro-enthusiasts after the UK joined the EU Social Chapter in 1997 granting certain employment rights and worker protection. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP are fervent supporters of the EU. Conservatives became divided over the EU from the time of the the fall of Mrs Thatcher in 1990 and the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Her successor John Major’s government was dogged by eurosceptic opposition, whom he called “the bastards”, and whom Mr Cameron has inherited when he became PM in 2010. This section of the party has pushed Cameron into a more anti-EU position than it seems he would have liked, such that he now proposes after the 2015 election, if re-elected with a majority, to negotiate changes in the UK’s relationship with the EU by 2017 and then submit the result to a referendum to stay in the EU or to leave. In the wings are UKIP, stridently anti-EU, who have been provoking fear in the Tories of losing their seats and thus redoubling the pressure on Cameron.
What do many Conservatives and UKIP dislike about the EU?
The key problem is the commitment of the EU to “ever closer union”. Eurosceptics fear being dragged into a European “super-state” and the ensuing loss of independence. This reflects a traditional British island distrust of “continental entanglements”, earning the UK the name of “perfidious Albion” from France. Thus while Mrs Thatcher was an enthusiast for the Single Market she was opposed to the moves towards a single currency and the UK opted out. An attempt to join the euro failed in 1992 when the UK was forced to leave its precursor, the ERM, which had a lasting impact on euroscepticism. Since then the euro has proved a significant dividing line, with its logic of further political union which the UK has opposed. In effect two camps have emerged within the EU, those in the eurozone and those outside it.
Other areas that are attacked include what is perceived as an remote, over-bearing, arrogant and interfering Brussels bureaucracy which it is said lacks democratic legitimacy. Thus there’s a prevailing tendency to view the UK as in conflict with “Brussels”. This was powerfully reinforced when the new Head of the European Commission, Mr Junker, was appointed to a barrage of impotent UK hostility. Eurosceptics and others want to repatriate EU powers to the UK, and see the principle of “subsidiarity” applied much more widely.
A major bone of contention recently has been the scale of immigration into the UK from Eastern Europe, particularly at the start of 2015 when Roumania and Bulgaria gained free access under the Freedom of Movement provisions of the EU treaties. The right wing press present such immigrants as “welfare scroungers” living in the UK “at the tax-payers’ expense”. Immigration is the top political issue in the UK 2015 election, and Cameron has promised to negotiate changes to the Freedom of Movement laws, despite strong opposition in other EU member governments. It should also be said that anti-immigrant feelings are strong in many EU countries.
Other issues include the Common Agricultural Policy, which takes the bulk of EU spending to which the UK, with a small agricultural sector, contributes. This has long been a problem for the UK, who is a net contributor to the EU budget, despite Mrs Thatcher’s famous or infamous rebate. The Conservatives would like to regain full control over employment and social security legislation, nullifying the Social Chapter, as part of their free market beliefs. Legislation to prevent further transfers of power to the EU without a referendum was passed in 2010.
Despite massive eurosceptic opposition, Cameron has managed to avoid having the referendum date brought forward and has largely kept open his options for negotiation.
Constitutionally, it should be said that in the UK the UK parliament is sovereign. There is the constitutional convention that no parliament can bind its successor. Parliament can repeal the Act of Accession. Period.
Whether this makes for practical politics in a world dominated by super-states of which the EU is one is not convincingly answered. Nor is the objection that Britain would have to implement EU policies that it has had no part in making.
The bigger picture: the democratic deficit
The UK’s eurosceptics are not alone, as pointed out above. There are strong anti-EU movements in other countries such as the Front National in France and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, arguably stronger than those in the UK. The crisis over the euro is driving a wedge between the debt-ridden south and the more prosperous creditor nations in the north. Austerity policies are bitterly disliked and fuel left-wing opposition. The EU government is to many of its citizens too remote and unknown.
People believe that there is a democratic deficit and that the EU is insufficiently accountable. This is a very important point. The EU was a creation of the political class and much policy-making is between ministers and in the Commission whose heads are appointed and not derived from a coalition that has won an election. The EU produces fixers rather than powerful, charismatic leaders, the quintessential fixer being appointed in 2014, Jean-Claude Junker. Elections to the European Parliament produce MEPs from the minor parties and the elections tend to reflect national issues and provide opportunity for a protest at that level. Much far left and far right activity in Europe is being fuelled by this sense of alienation from “the political class”.
Loss of a sense of purpose
Many suggest that the EU has lost its sense of purpose. New generations not brought up in the shadow of war do not feel the same need to unite, heal European conflicts and prevent another World War. It is ironic that some many in Eastern Europe want to be part of the EU just as those in the west are having second thoughts. The problems in the Ukraine, whose government wants to join the EU, are in many ways similar to those that led to the outbreak of the Second World War, nationalist minorities sponsored by a major power that wants a revision of the post-Cold War status quo. Nationalism of minorities within larger states can destabilise a country, as happened in the former Yugoslavia. The EU is proving weak in handling Russia involvement in the Ukraine and Putin is successfully drawing EU members into his sphere of influence.
Thus the EU itself faces an existential crisis, which could threaten the security of Europe.
This is the context in which the British right argue for Brexit. The next few years could be dangerous times