by Mike Lynch, a veteran anti-EU campaignerMy first serious misgivings about the EU arose over 25 years ago when I was a Liberal Democrat.
The party of course supported the EU, apparently without question, and I wondered why a Party which said it was so committed to democratic principles and accountability of elected representatives should uncritically support an organisation where democratic accountability was so weak. It was clear that members of the European parliament could never actually propose any legislation – that was the sole privilege of the European Commission – and if the MEPs ever had the temerity to vote down a Commission proposal – and I happened to be in the chamber at Strasbourg on one of the very rare occasions when this happened – the Commission’s representative rather angrily said he would soon bring the proposal back in another form for them to vote it through.
The Commission’s view about democratic decisions in general became very clear at the time of the Treaty of Maastricht. The referendums in France and Ireland came our clearly against the treaty, so people of those countries were told in no uncertain terms to vote again, and this time with a different result. You will continue voting until you give the right answer.
So my question to the Liberal Democrats remained unanswered, like an elephant in the room, except when I brought it up at meetings. Then it was like arguing with treacle – you could seem to win a particular argument, but it never made any difference, the policy on the EU, like treacle, came spreading silently back over the points I had made so that they vanished.
I felt I was up against something unspoken, something I could not grapple with, so I left the Party.
Sometime later I was present when Vernon Bogdanor, the Professor of Government at Oxford, was speaking about his new book on the British Constitution. I asked the Professor whether he agreed that the greatest political achievement in British history was that after a long struggle the people won the power not only to elect our own government. The professor agreed that it was. I then asked what was the comparable mechanism in the EU, and after a little thought Dr Bogdanor replied that there wasn’t one, and that was why a lot of people were worried about the EU.
I started to understand a little more about the EU when I made a special study of EU law when I trained as a barrister, and realised what people mean when they talk of ‘EU Law’.
Law as we know it comes from two sources – Common Law, built of decided cases which together form precedent and based ultimately – in theory at least – on public acceptance of the reasonability of decisions, and secondly legislation, made by our elected Parliament. European law is neither of these. It is founded on the treaties signed by member states, which are frequently interpreted by the Court as meaning something entirely different from what the member states thought when they were signing them.
The jurisdiction of the European Court rests entirely upon this shaky foundation. We can also see that the principle governing all the Court’s decisions is that whatever serves to promote, strengthen and extend the European project is good, and whatever does not is bad, so that what we have is simply a political court, set up to serve the political purpose of promoting and consolidating that European project.
There is something further and even more significant about EU law, and the constant work of the Commission to introduce a common European corpus juris. The adversarial system of the English Common Law, with all its faults, maintains one highly significant principle, which is that no one has the monopoly of wisdom, and certainly not the State. The truth is something which emerges from the argument. Visiting law students from continental countries are very often surprised by this approach, as in their legal systems, usually based on the Napoleonic code, there is certainly argument but all too often final authority and the truth it represents is believed to reside somewhere within the structure of the state, as it did in the Roman Empire. Not for nothing was the founding EU treaty called the Treaty of Rome.
So now we have a very puzzling question. Why should the EU, which constantly presents itself as the champion of progress, enlightenment and human rights, take these two huge apparently retrograde steps – the weakening of democratic decision making and accountability, and the development of a more authoritarian and politically driven legal system?
I believe the answer is to be found in the anxieties and the hopes of people such as Monnet and Schuman, who after World War II worked to set up the Coal and Steel Community, Euratom, and in 1957 the Treaty of Rome. They certainly had an idealistic purpose – to prevent another such war, and they were frightened by the inescapable fact that Hitler, although helped along by thuggery and violence at key moments, had achieved power through democratic elections. The conclusion that Monnet, Robert Schuman, Hallstein and others drew was that the only way to ensure peace was to weaken democracy, to withdraw its key powers and transfer such power to some form of supranational authority.
Of course this could not be done explicitly. It was done, and is still being done, gradually and is accompanied by constant protestations about the enlightened, progressive nature of the European ‘dream’.
After the tragedy of the Second World War there were, I believe, genuinely idealistic motives in such a project, but there are now three things wrong with it.
The first is that history has in fact made it irrelevant. The idea of one nation declaring war and marching armies over the border into another country is, thank heaven, very old-fashioned. Wars like this don’t happen anymore. There is widespread war in the world, but it is virtually all taking place not between nations, as Monnet and Schuman envisaged, but within them. The only real example of an invasion of the old type was Russia’s takeover of Crimea, and then the EU, with its bumbling head of foreign affairs, Baroness Ashton, was completely ineffectual. The idea of the EU as a guarantor of peace is nowadays the solution to the wrong question. What seems to be happening now is that the EU Commission uses the threat of ‘war’ and the fear of foreigners to justify its own continually increasing power, which is actually the oldest trick in the politician’s handbook.
Secondly it is clear that any system without effective democratic accountability has an inherent tendency towards corruption. We see this clearly with organisations such as FIFA and the World Athletics organisation, and we also see it with the EU, where the auditors have, for the past fifteen years at least, have refused to approve its accounts and where a senior whistleblower, Marta Andreasson, who raised concerns about finance and the budget which led to the resignation of the whole Commission, was herself penalised and dismissed, and remains so despite the acknowledged truth of her allegations.
The third and most significant thing wrong is that by both taking away effective democratic accountability and also ignoring the principle that no one (and certainly not the state) has the monopoly of wisdom, the EU, far from being in the vanguard of enlightenment and progress, is in fact demeaning the citizens of its member states in the most profound sense. To realise that, while no one has the monopoly of wisdom, the truth is there to be found in specific situations and that we have the right and sometimes the duty to engage in reasoned argument and debate to find it, is to discover the very spirit of a free, democratic and civilised society. If we also have the responsibility to elect and, just as importantly, to dismiss our effective government, then I would say that we have moved towards political adulthood, something which, for all its talk of human rights, is denied us by the unaccountable political elite of the European Commission and the deeply politicised European Court.
There are basically two groups of people who nevertheless wish to maintain the momentum of the European project, to keep us believing in it as a ‘European dream’. One group are the genuine idealists, who still personally believe, despite all we have said, that the EU is the best means of securing peace and human rights on the European continent. The second group are those who have an interest in maintaining the EU either because it provides them with a career or because its system of grants and subsidies favour their particular activity or, if they are politicians, because they don’t really like democratic accountability and want to preserve the EU for that reason.
We are therefore given a series of reasons for believing in the EU, reasons which on the surface seem reasonably convincing but when we look into them turn out to be basically smoke and mirrors.
The first of these is the peace argument, and I think I have already shown not just the fallacy but also the deep cynicism of that argument. If we look over the world – Africa, South America, Asia – countries just do not create war by invading each other, but there are plenty of wars within countries, and so what the EU proposes is a the wrong answer to the wrong problem. What has preserved the peace since WWII is not the EU but NATO, an organisation created for that specific purpose and which even now is sending troops to Finland and Estonia to forestall any Russian threat.
Secondly we have the economic argument. The single market will be the engine of great prosperity, we are told, but in fact the very regulations which create that market continually hamper development and innovation. The Eurozone is economically stagnant and one member state, Greece, has had its economy destroyed in the interests of maintaining the single currency. Far from liberalising world trade, the EU is essentially a protectionist structure which operates against the interests of many third-world countries. The EU funding we receive in the UK is of course money which we have already handed over to the EU and so goes out of democratic control. Such grants are conditional on the display of EU propaganda by the recipient.
Thirdly we have the human rights argument. The EU, we are told, is the pioneer and guarantor of human rights over the European continent. There is in fact some truth in this. There have been instances where someone has suffered a wrong for which the legal system of their member state has not been able to provide a remedy, and the EU has.
It is clear however that the EU does not have the monopoly in fostering and defending human rights. The original legislation of this kind, the UK’s Equal Pay Act, Race Relations Act and Sex Discrimination Act were 1970’s British legislation which provided the model for the EU to follow. We have also to consider the destructive effect the EU has, or threatens to have, on other human rights. It is certainly proposed to sideline the principle of habeas corpus, that fundamental building block of freedom which is an essential part of our present legal system, and trial by jury is itself also under question. The EU arrest warrant enables countries to imprison citizens of other member states without charge for long periods.
Scandalously, the EU is pursuing the TTIP treaty with the USA, which would give international companies the right to prevent elected governments from putting health warnings on potentially hazardous products, and force local businesses to compete with transnationals, against which they would automatically be at a disadvantage.
The EU is not the primary, still less the only, source of human rights. These rights have been developed over centuries by democratic, self-governing countries, and will continue to be developed in this way. We see the first steps, albeit faltering ones, towards the rule of law and democratic accountability in Magna Carta. Slavery was declared illegal in England in the Somerset case in the 1770’s and made illegal in British possessions in 1834, when we spent the then largest sum ever raised by any government in buying freedom for slaves and maintaining a naval blockade to prevent the traffic. Governments have legislated to protect various rights since at least the 1830s. It is fairly clear that democratic states, motivated by compassion and a sense of justice, have shown the will and capacity to identify genuine human rights arising in relation to real situations and to legislate to defend them. I would argue that this approach is more effective than the imposition of the results of academic group-thinking, which sometimes appears to be the present practice.
Fourthly we have possibly the strongest argument of all, which is that the EU represents the spirit of human togetherness, a celebration of common humanity and freedom. Rather than erecting barriers and frontiers and sheltering behind them with people essentially like ourselves, we need not to ‘fear the Other’ but to look outward and embrace difference.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It is in fact an essential goal and a moral duty. To be effectively pursued however I would argue that it needs to be carried out in a way that enables us to uphold two other essential elements in human civilisation, one being the old Greek idea of the polis, the citizen body which is able to set aside individual desires to the extent necessary to achieve a common goal, and the other being the functional unit of democratic accountability. I believe that in the modern world these two linked elements are probably best embodied in a nation state of between 50 and 100 million citizens – small enough for a reasonably workable polis for essential purposes and large enough to play a responsible part in world affairs.
I would argue that such an environment is likely to provide both the security and the sense of responsibility necessary for the development of a civic culture in which people are open-minded and ready to embrace difference and celebrate our common humanity. It is when people sense that they have these responsibilities that they are most likely to move towards political adulthood. If the polis and the democratic accountability are weak or absent, however, the civic culture with all its virtues will be correspondingly weaker, creating a risk of mutual suspicion, division and antagonism, all easily played upon by populist politicians.
I agree entirely that we should look outward, not inward – we should not be little Englanders or nationalists. The real alternative to inward-looking nationalism however is not supra-nationalism, but internationalism, where democratic states work together through international organisations such as the UN, NATO, the Commonwealth, and the World Trade Organisation, to deal with common problems. I would argue that the real path of human progress lies in fostering the development of functioning democratic nation states of an optimal size for a polis to operate, such states then forming a genuine international community. The solution is emphatically not to create an undemocratic supranational structure, a clumsy, economically stagnant block which steadily undermines and weakens those very rights that it so complacently claims to promote.