Tag Archives: Brexit

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

European Disorder.

Reviewing Prof Simms New Statesman article 24-30 November 2017.

 

JR Max Wheel

30 November 2017

 

Amongst the near endless name-calling and brickbats over Brexit in the UK, a very interesting and insightful article appeared in the New Statesman this week, written by Prof. Brendan Simms, from the University of Cambridge’s politics and international studies department.

Since the UK remains so deeply divided on this issue, it is good to have a take on the EU which throws some light and not heat.

 

Most mainstream media outlets have pinned their colours to the Leave or Remain mast and hence are even less trustworthy than normal as sources of information, but have degenerated into presenting emotive and deliberately slanted presentations- click-bait.

 

Simms points out some important messages, one, that populism far from going away is now rife in many (most) member states, sometimes powerfully so, whether in the splintering of a broad political consensus; Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Greece have suffered from it as well as the UK. Poland and Hungary are in near open revolt at EU rulings from Brussels. Worse still, there is now a strong regional identity issue in Spain over Catalonia, the North in Italy, as well as the ever-present issues between Walloons and Flemings in Belgium. This is disturbing as the EU was supposed to have substituted the nation state with the prospect of an overarching federal Europe. That now looks impossible. The creation of the Union to supplant the nation state was never the foregone conclusion that many of its proponents believed. Indeed, as Simms argues powerfully far from transcending the nation state, the EU has thrown a lifeline to it after a near death experience in two world wars of the 20th.C. De Gaulle viewed the Union as a “L’Europe des Nations”, not what its founding fathers envisaged at all.

 

Suddenly regions matter as well as nations. This is a unique achievement, the EU has spawned the very opposite of what it promoted, a “Balkanisation” of Europe instead of a cohesive Union.

 

In large part this stems from its messy single currency, which has aggravated many of the underlying economic issues between members since the Crash of 2007/8. This has driven up unemployment, meant that achieving competitive balance is impossible and works only in favour of the most advanced and productive countries, especially Germany.  So, we have a common currency and a common travel area administered by a de facto confederation, not a federation, and on frequent occasions, an agenda driven by a key member State, Germany or in the past, France. The founding Franco-German axis may rebalance or not, what is certain is that the status quo cannot persist in an era of mass migration, globalised trade in goods and services. Many parts of the EU economy are still not open, in services especially, but also in the protectionist tariff wall, which also masquerades as a harmonisation of standards. Such standards largely emanate from UNECE anyway and are transcribed into EU law.

 

Large swathes of industry in individual member states have languished economically, the economic decline being mirrored by the rise of an angry electorate, ready to punish its leaders for falling to recognize the economic damage or seeming to care much about it.

 

It is worth looking at the problem of post-election politics in Germany.  After 12 years in power as Bundeskanzelerin, Angela Merkel seems vulnerable. Never a political visionary, Merkel was always a cautious political manager, seeking a consensus, when she did act decisively according to her instincts, in opening the borders to a massive immigration wave, it spectacularly rebounded threatening to stymie a largely cohesive system. The Centre Right CDU/CSU party and the Centre Left SPD have been outflanked to the left and right. Far from being the bastion of free trade and stability in the wake of what is painted as populist upsurges in the UK and US, she is likely to be overwhelmed by it. Simms also uses an interesting analogy for these times, that of Klemens von Metternich, Austrian Chancellor after the Napoleonic Wars. Metternich’s aim was to stifle uprisings, contain radicalisation and revolutionary movements until it hit the buffers of the 1848.

 

Brexit was never the real catalyst for a break-up of Europe, even if some of its wilder promoters desired it, it was always the underlying political and economic factors affecting real people.

 

There are only a few choices, accept that there are limitations to the Federal Project as conceived or to try to forge a smaller and consensual European Union, which may have to be a lot smaller and economically, and politically cohesive. Even that is unlikely to be acceptable or sustainable without deep-rooted changes.

 

Death of a Chancellor and the struggle to maintain the European dream

 

JR Max Wheel

6th July 2017

 

On the 16th June 2017 Germany mourned the death of Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor who oversaw the reunification of Germany; perhaps he was not the greatest German post-war Chancellor, but one who will be fondly remembered for his down to earth qualities, domestic political acumen and the extraordinary responsibility of integrating the two Germanies of West and East into one cohesive country. His place in history will nevertheless be secure. Significantly he chose to be buried in the cathedral of Speyer in the heart of the Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz), by the Rhine and not in his native City of Ludwigshafen, further upstream.  The reunification, presaged by the implosion of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its vassal states in central and eastern Europe marked the true end of WWII and 1989 should rightly be seen in the same light as 1789.

Speyer Cathedral: Courtesy Wikipedia

After Germany’s disastrous history in the 20thC, the creation of the largest and most powerful economy in the EU was not greeted with universal enthusiasm by the former Allied Powers, in particular, France, the UK, Netherlands and Poland as well as in Israel. Indeed, the notion of unity – or “Einheit” was a near toxic word with its quasi Third Reich overtones, such that “die Wende” or change, transition was preferred.

Whilst the unification preceded the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, with its ambitious political and monetary aims, it placed France and Germany, effectively Kohl and Mitterand as the key representatives of the proto European Union. In the following years the costs of reunification meant Germany exceeded the threshold levels for debt enshrined in the Growth and Stability Pact: the first of many to violate them over the next 25 years.

Fast forward to 2017, and after years of feeble economic performance from France, it was now crystal clear that the leadership of Europe was de facto in German hands. It was not meant to be so, since it was rashly assumed, at least by France, that the EU would be a “German horse with a French rider”, reflecting France’s long-honed diplomatic skill and expertise and as the designer of many of the EEC institutions, which subsequently morphed into the EU.  This Franco-German axis has always been the core with other member states being important but peripheral, especially the UK, with its radically different history, political systems and law.

Why is this important? Mainly because the EU is now notably unbalanced in terms of relative economic strength and influence. It’s eastward and south eastward expansion to include Poland, Czech and Slovak Republics and the Baltic states to the Balkans and admission of Greece, Romania and Bulgaria has tilted it towards members whose history, culture and identities vary notably from the largely contiguous borders of the founding six. Those member interests are not necessarily those of the core, this is especially true of the Central European [Visegrad] Four, as well as the UK.

One is loath to add to the entire and poisonous Brexit debate whereby the UK voted to leave in a hotly disputed referendum, but it has to be understood that the desire if not the reality of a shared federal future, long a cherished dream of its founders, Monet and Schuman was never shared by the UK. Here lies an important ironical twist, the quasi Constitution, opposed by France, Ireland and the Netherlands and then hastily cobbled together as the Lisbon Treaty 2007 was never offered to the UK in a referendum. This was a major missed opportunity, since a putative EU constitution should have always been offered up to all member states’ electorates, but was cynically avoided in the UK or meekly accepted elsewhere.

Thus, no proper debate was ever held in the UK until its own in/out referendum. The British, ever the unplanned pragmatists thus did not get to engage on this fundamental aim which was always the core of the European Project. It is remarkable, but inexcusable that the powerful British media never elevated European matters and aspirations as either important enough to warrant serious discussion or to inform its electorate appropriately. Its outcome and consequences were both dramatic and less surprising in retrospect.

The UK is the first member to voluntarily withdraw from its membership. There has always been a long streak of Euroscepticism in Britain, but the fallout demands more than its tortuous disengagement under the one-sided and deeply flawed Article 50 procedures, it argues for a radical shift in British politics away from the adversarial first past the post system to a more consensual PR system and an overhaul of the Commons (viz. a massive reduction in numbers) and Lords ( abolition and substitution by a Senate comprised of all devolved administrations and England) which would reflect the wishes of all the constituent countries of the UK.  It is astonishing that the UK played a leading role in constructing a successful federal constitution for the then West Germany, but failed to recognize any need for change in its backyard.

The outcome for the UK is highly uncertain, as it is for much of the EU, but a collective failure of imagination and will may result in a sub-optimal solution for both, weakening both parties at a time when the old order and institutions that have prevailed since the end of WWII are reaching the end of their life span and usefulness.

 

 

Death of a Chancellor and the struggle to maintain the European dream