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.