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In or Out? Why both the EU & the UK are equally to blame for Brexit

JR Max Wheel

10 April 2019

It may seem perverse to argue that there are a number of important positives to take out of the referendum result and the political paralysis in the UK. Firstly, for many we have had a serious and protracted row over our participation in the EU, that is important. True, it has generated more heat than light, but it has illuminated many aspects of the EU’s present configuration and future challenges.

It has also revealed that article 50 as a process is fundamentally unfit for purpose. If ever a member state votes to leave of its own volition, for better or worse, article 50 is a hopeless mechanism. Firstly, it is abnormally time-bound for a period which cannot possibly address the complexity of issues likely to affect both leaving and remaining states. Secondly it is so one-sided in favour of a rules-based process, that negotiations as traditionally understood to operate are virtually impossible. It has also allowed a sequencing on a two staged process, when in fact a simultaneous withdrawal and future trade agreement would provide a more normal and probably much less contentious process. So, from many viewpoints it is almost guaranteed to produce impasse. Add to that the frustration of ill-tempered insult and finger-wagging.  This serves neither party. It is of course especially true of very close result outcomes. But It goes much further than that.

At its simplest an in/out referendum was about a relatively elementary choice, whether the UK wished to continue to subscribe to the aspiration for an increasingly federal Europe, with all that entails for nation states, including remaining members, in terms of defence, foreign policy, law and order as well as the well-worn clichés over immigration, the left-behinds from decades of increasing globalisation.  None of these issues is unique to the UK and not all member states share the direction of travel of many of the European Council and Commission. So again, we have the collision between the legitimate interest of the member nation and an aspirational set of ideas, which may never actually be realized. This drift towards “completing the project” has been apparent since Maastricht in 1992 but accentuated by Treaties of Nice and especially Lisbon (2004/9). If there was ever a moment to test the appetite in the UK for such a proto EU constitution, it was surely then. Indeed, it was and roundly rejected by Ireland, France and the Netherlands. The UK was not offered such a say, and this has rebounded spectacularly with the rise of nationalist parties. The crash of 2008 revealed multiple fault lines in many Western democracies, enforcing as it did a level of austerity that threatened long-standing public service provision. Turning points in the tide of history are often hard to disentangle, but it is a fair bet that the damage done to living standards and rising inequality have had a direct effect on the scepticism against Governments of widely differing types.

Culture and identity do matter, and they are enshrined in multiple facets, institutions, monuments and a sense of belonging. This does not translate well to multilateral bodies, which lack historical legitimacy and don’t easily “connect” to national electorates. The EU, no matter how beneficial it has been to some has always suffered from this tension, the so-called democratic deficit, coupled with the notion that even elected officials are pursuing agendas that have never really been agreed or subject to proper consultation.

If one takes the UK’s European Communities Act of 1972, its second clause allows for decisions proposed by the Commission and endorsed by a “remote” Parliament via a series of Acts or Directives to pass into law, which have never been debated or properly scrutinised by the national parliament. This has been particularly acute in the UK, where the process is to pass them into law; other EU members have frequently chosen to ignore or pay minimal attention to these directives. In this sense there is both divergence and a sense of lack of control.

The UK was always going to be a difficult member of the European club, partly for historical reasons, partly its legal system, its independent tradition and crucially its lack of any contiguous borders, with the exception of the Irish Republic. Thus, what is appreciated as logical and beneficial, freedom of movement of people, good and services and a single currency make sense within Continental Europe. The problem is that a mix of governmental remoteness and poor design/implementation of policy e.g., the single currency has left behind a legacy of problems which are now exceptionally difficult to reform. The single currency is the 21stC “gold standard”, a deeply inflexible system, where economic adjustment is only possible through the movement of real incomes, and employment, which condemns less competitive economies to keep making adjustments which never result in sustainable competitive economies. This is a core problem only capable of resolution if the key and powerful member counties were to create a system wide agreement to proper burden-sharing, deposit insurance and dumping artificial criteria on debts and deficits. Germany in particular does not want to sacrifice its exchange rate benefits to become the EU’s paymaster, understandable enough given the history, but there is an overwhelming need to address these shortcomings with all Eurozone member states.

Add this to an unprecedented level of immigration from failed or war-torn states and one comes to the inescapable conclusion that Europe so long a dominant part of the West in the 20thC  is now in relative decline to the US and China. The EU does not appear to know how to address these issues.

The UK has an invidious choice to stay or go, to make long overdue changes to its own political system or to try and effect changes from within- such efforts have never been welcomed by partner states and the result of nearly 3 years of upheaval has exhausted patience. For better or worse the UK has had a protracted and mainly internal row over its participation in what at heart remains a 1950s construct. Were the EU to adopt a real reform agenda it would make remaining a viable, even obvious option.

Break-up of the UK’s traditional political parties or damp squib?

20 February 2019 JR Max Wheel

What’s going on at Westminster? Is the sudden crack in the ranks of traditional parties by the formation of an Independent Group any more than individual desperation over Brexit or the beginnings of a big change in UK politics. Most moves like this, resignation from parties fizzle out even when like the SDP they created a viable party, but these are not normal times. Things are changing in the UK, and in many respects these changes are long overdue.  It is not only clear that the first past the post system (FPTP) has serious failings in terms of representation, and most especially when there is a close result, but that the old largely class and interest-based groupings are increasingly irrelevant to younger age groups, if they can muster any interest in voting at all.

It is also not solely about the vexed topic of Brexit although it is an important driver. References to “broken politics” are frequent. Matters European have been unravelling since the financial crash of 2008, the austerity measures, the incompetence of public sector service management and the downright greed of major transnational corporations, easily able to choose where and when to move capital and people across frontiers, with scant regard for the consequences of those affected.

The Commons has over 650 members, this is grossly overstaffed at one level and under-representative at another, namely the ability to respond to legitimate issue or grievances. The unstitching of the UK via representative assemblies or Parliaments in the constituent countries has hardly proved a resounding success either but is a sop to nationalist ideals and a divisive and expensive way to try to square the circle. It has manifestly not worked in N. Ireland. barring the relief from the troubles but the basic question of United Kingdom or United Ireland, kept on ice as too provocative. Result, a non-functional Stormont. This is a serious impediment to community harmony, let alone the deliberately provocative issue of the RoI/N.I. border.

Scotland is no better, after a failed referendum in 2014, nationalist sentiment simmers beneath the surface. Wales has an Assembly but is still a Labour dominated country more reminiscent of its industrial past than its current stagnant economic future. All three have been paid scant serious attention by Westminster since it is the golden triangle of the South East, London, Home Counties and University cities like Oxford and Cambridge that dominate. This is equally scandalous for the other English regions, whether South West, Midland, North West or East.  When taught economics years ago there was a “location of industry” theory where governments in their wisdom were supposed to pay attention to the balance of industrial and service industry distribution and with it the necessary and supporting infrastructure. This was dismissed as a result of “pork-barrel” politics and the patent failure to make sensible choices about what to back where. It was left to the market. That was a long time ago and it needs to be resurrected in the most aggressive and determined way if communities are not to left to rot.

Fixing British politics means radical change, given that cooperation and compromise are needed more than ever. It may require an acceptable version of PR, as no party has a monopoly of wisdom.

It certainly requires drastic pruning of the House of Lords or its abolition. The regions must be properly represented for decisions of national importance- just what kind of body can answer that is tricky but why not a second chamber with representatives from the 4 countries rebalanced – in effect a Federal Britain. We have long resisted the Federal Europe on offer and on balance it seems an unlikely event given the resurgence of the nation state and regional powers, these need to be recognised whether in Barcelona, Belfast or Edinburgh.  If the Independent Group can grasp any of the real needs, then they just may redraw the constitution in a way fit for purpose and government of the UK in an increasingly fractious world. It’s got to be better than the current system.  

BREXIT- The ongoing travails, courtesy of Article 50.

JR Max Wheel

17 Jan 2019

 

It is a pretty nearly accepted fact that triggering Article 50 prior to establishing some idea of what kind of exit from the EU was likely, acceptable and could be planned was aa major mistake. It was but just as bad was the notion that Article 50 could ever provide for satisfactory negotiations. Since it was only reluctantly accepted for inclusion in the Giscard drafted EU constitution aka the Lisbon Treaty. It was really designed to suspend or remove member states who had gone rogue and failed to comply with the EU’s provisions. As such being both a rules-based process and subject to a bizarre sequencing of withdrawal agreement and then well talk trade, this could never form the basis of any meaningful negotiation, other than staying put or be instructed how the EU wished a relatively large economy like the UK to leave. So, it has proved.

Michel Barnier is unquestionably a skilled( and perhaps typical) French bureaucrat , he Has also held all the cards since day one as enshrined in the Article, so it has always been a case of the UK negotiating on the back foot, whilst some fervent Remain voters have done their level best to throw a bagful of spanners into the negotiations whether by amendment or often clandestine meetings held with EU colleagues. This does not excuse for a moment the delay or incompetence of the UK’s negotiating team.  However, it was always the case that leaving an institution would be uncertain and hard to define other than in broad terms about the sense of loss of control of decision making – real sovereignty and the malign effects of capital as it slides effortlessly around the globe seeking better cheaper deals with scant regard for impacts on the host countries. This damaging effect – which it is true the UK could have tackled earlier and with far more vigour and the mishandled response by many to the 2008 financial fallout has and continues to produce a massive backlash – now visiting many EU member states.

I conclude that Article 50 was never fit for the purpose of negotiating the exit of a country like the UK or indeed of any major economy. Indeed Prof. Ingrid Detter, the Swedish international law professor concluded as early as summer of 2016 the worst case for the UK would indeed be triggering Article 50.   So Barnier is no magician, he just knew the strings to pull and had the support of the remarkably quiet 20+ EU states. Fundamentally it remains France and Germany that continue to dominate EU matters of state, whilst mostly there is near silence from the rest.

I have reluctantly come to the view that despite not sharing the EU desire to create a federal state – which still looks very far away that the UK is now so run down and defeatist that the giant kick up the *ss needed to reorder both our politics and economic prospects can only be served by staying put. Despite having voted to leave for reasons that are broadly based on the experience of watching over the decades, a raft of legislation, including contentious regulations, decisions and directives and passed down to us from the Commission and enacted by Parliament with so far as I can see astonishingly little real scrutiny. I did vote to join as to stay in in 1975 and to join. The EU if it is to thrive or even survive will need urgent reform and to avoid it being half-baked the UK must play a role – this time preferably with a better bunch of politicians

Article 50- a baked-in recipe for failure.

26 October 2018

JR Max Wheel

When some historian comes to write up the tortured negotiations between the UK and the EU they might like to reflect on the now infamous Article 50. This  was a contentious after-thought to Giscard d’Estaing’s EU “constitution”.  It is a mess almost certainly by design and so it has proved in reality. Since no large member state had ever attempted to leave the Union until now, we were always in uncharted waters and the article’s scant detail totally inadequate for the purposes of reaching a fair agreement, since it gives all the negotiating cards to the remaining member states. Worse its sequencing into a two-phase approach means that many issues which are needed to reach agreement on the withdrawal phase are stupidly left to the definition of the future relationship including trade.

There has been a concerted effort to characterise the talks between both parties as negotiations, when they most clearly are not. EU member states have a rule-book to follow, into which bucket they can put pretty much what they like. Hence “negotiations” are immediately bogged down in endless complexities and little or no progress is possible. For reference this links to the wording: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/577971/EPRS_BRI(2016)577971_EN.pdf

Leaving aside for a second one’s own prejudices about whether to leave or remain, would anyone have seriously entertained this way of trying to reach any constructive agreement? The answer is likely to be a resounding No! Article 50 is inappropriate, designed only to protect the status quo ante.  It is therefore dysfunctional as a methodology and should have been challenged immediately or never triggered at all. This is not an exercise in flying a kite, Prof, Ingrid Detter de Frankopan, a widely respected international lawyer and Prof. Emeritus at Stockholm University warned back in 2016 that the one critical factor in then forthcoming UK/EU talks was to avoid triggering Article 50. It being so obvious that to do so would merely create a one-sided EU determined process.

This is precisely where we find ourselves in late October 2018, unable to exercise a sensible choice since EU tripwires have been carefully positioned so as to frustrate any progress. Worst of these, but by no means alone is the vexed question of the Irish border. It is fair enough to recognize that most member countries have historical oddities left over from Europe’s turbulent past. Andorra, San Marino, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg itself, Liechtenstein and a host of others.

Even by EU standards the choice of Ireland is an especially unfortunate (and completely avoidable) one. Not only because of the common travel area between the UK and the Republic, and the major flow of goods between the two countries, but quite obviously because of the potentially fragile Good Friday settlement. There are no good compromises here, only future technological border solutions, mainly way off, but because any sensible negotiations need to be bilaterally determined between the UK and the RoI- not the EU. Hooking themselves to the EU position will not resolve this issue and risks upsetting the delicate balance and trust built up between the communities in the North over the past 20 years as well as violating the sovereign status of the UK. This is massive overreach by the EU and they should drop it before any real damage is done.

I have previously critiqued the 4 freedoms as being aspirational constructs, not fundamentals. Even in a pre-globalized world free trade in goods and services was recognized as an economic benefit. Globalization has supercharged it to the extent that very little is not now tightly integrated. Free movement of capital and people has however become increasingly problematic. At one level technology renders borders as nearly irrelevant, however this is only part of the story, identity, culture and historical context all influence how peoples interact.

Monnet had a profound disillusion with the failure of the inter-war League of Nations and his philosophy was always for European integration and a federal structure, which became enshrined in the EEC and later EU. His was a very different world however and informed by very different experiences.

The current backlash against the inequalities created by the manifest downsides of a globalized world has led to a re-recognition of nationalism. It never really went away, although this is not properly recognized. Now member states are just that, national states. Those so-called freedoms of capital and people allow firms to relocate financial and production resources at will and with little/no consideration for the host country. Freedom of movement for people touted and even enjoyed as a benefit has turned out to be an authentic nightmare. Since a nation state’s first duty is the protection of its citizens neither the precarious nature of migrants, nor the self interest of firms should be allowed to override policy provisions by individual states. To do so is to invite mass uncontrolled movement, exactly what we have been experiencing. The combination of free capital movement and open migration have proved to be double edged swords. The consequences of being economically “left behind” and opening borders to uncontrolled movement are major causes of our decision to leave the EU.

In truth the EU was from inception always a Franco-German project and one where the UK played a reluctant and often marginal role, hence staying in to reform this 1950s project to make it fit for purpose in the 21stC is and remains a fantasy.

 

The EU/UK Stand-Off – An Epic Historical Muddle

12/05/2018

JR Max Wheel

As a divided UK wrestles with leaving the EU, it is worth reminding that many of the arguments for and against, over the power of a state to exercise its sovereignty dominated the debates prior to our accession to the then EEC. Many heavyweight politicians from both major parties worried away at the loss of national sovereignty and the fundamental differences in the way that laws are made under the UK’s unwritten constitution. The LSE’s Piers Ludlow has revisited this subject especially the debates of October 1971. Objections from the anti-EEC camp focused on three key areas, UK’s long-standing support for free trade, its internationalist stance and laterally the importance of making its own laws, as proposed and voted on by Parliament.

Interestingly much of the focus was on negative consequences for dominions and former colonies, whether sugar or banana producers in the Caribbean or lamb and butter from New Zealand and Australia, part of the terms of access and a deep-seated issue since the cheap food policy -the need to import food which lay behind the 19thC repeal of the Corn Laws. The “terms of entry” thus assumed a much bigger role than in any in depth assessment of what we were joining and serious public discussion of the terms of the acquis communitaire. The latter imposed a set of circumstances on the UK which included all EEC legislation back as far as 1958. Equally the aims and aspirations of the EEC towards a federal state were both well-known, but never made clear to the British electorate, rather it was presented much more as a trading bloc. This was a mix of sleight of hand, which rather echoes Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s celebrated comment on the proto-constitution contained in the Lisbon Treaty of 2004- “public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals we dare not present to them directly”.

Failing to inform directly or acknowledge what was envisaged in the acquis was a grave error and the beginning of a long-lasting suspicion over the EEC and later EU that the British media exploited relentlessly, and it sowed the seeds of Euroscepticism, even outright hostility that are still with us.

The nature of the acquis is that not only would a large swathe of EEC agreed legislation from the original six members pass into English law, but thereafter under the terms of the European Communities Act of 1972, all manner of directives, directions and decisions (laws) and treaty obligations would pass into British legislation. Whether these were properly debated and critiqued by successive Parliaments is a moot point. Further interpretation of this body of law was to be subject to the interpretations and rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) effectively making the very point that the anti-membership debaters in 1971 feared.

Such a body of information, with its complexity easily passed over the head of much of the electorate who were sold the benefits of the EEC as a trading bloc, to escape the dire UK economic performance in the 1960s and early 70s. If it had been more carefully explained, there would have been a more realistic appreciation, if not necessarily whole-hearted support. In this way it uncannily mirrors the equally inept arguments used by both sides in the 2016 referendum.

Enlargement of the Community from 1980s and 2004 has brought with it a further layer of complexity, many aspiring members had limited recent experience of democracy, Portugal, Spain, Greece were recent dictatorships and the Central and Eastern Europeans recent escapees from the domination of the Soviet Union.  Their identities, cultural and history was often removed from that of the original members.

Finally, the nature of the now infamous Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty aka EU constitution was never designed to accommodate an orderly and voluntary withdrawal process by a member state but rather to seek actions against “rogue” behaviour by member states, e.g. suspension of the rule of law or similar violations.

That is why it was always the wrong forum for negotiations on the UK’s decision. Whilst it by no means excuses inept UK management of the process, the error was in triggering it and by so doing allowing a completely one-sided arrangement, determined entirely by the EU and creating endless wrangling. No international negotiations are like this except after defeat in a war. The omnipresence of EU laws is like a one-way ratchet whereby they have been caught up in every nook and cranny of UK life and law. It is like trying to reverse an industrial loom, the fabric is now an inextricable mix, where new problems and trip wires appear constantly. Much, if not all of this could have been avoided if the terms of the original deal had been properly presented and understood, for that successive Governments are intimately responsible.

 

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