Tuesday, 7 June 2016

European thoughts - why I am voting REMAIN

A sense of European perspective.

The 'debate' about Europe spiralled off into fantasy land weeks ago. The Remain camp warn of renewed warfare and economic collapse if we leave the EU; the Brexiteers warn of the end of a thousand years of history if we stay in. Each side ramps up the rhetoric, leaving most of us scratching our heads wondering who is right. The lack of proportion is breath-taking. The extreme posturing is disheartening. The result is that nearly half of voters say they do not trust what either campaign is telling them.

Thanks to The Guardian's Steve Bell for this little beauty!

The reality is that we face a far more nuanced choice than the campaigns suggest. On the one hand, if the UK votes to stay in, British citizens will continue to enjoy a significant range of benefits of membership despite the EU's considerable imperfections. On balance, therefore, I hope very much that we vote REMAIN on 23rd June. If, on the other hand, we vote LEAVE, the sky will not fall in. But we will be worse off in several respects, even if we strike a deal with Brussels allowing us to continue to access the single European market and even if much of the beneficial EU legislation that currently protects us continues to apply.

As I outline below, I am voting to remain in the EU because we retain sovereign control over most key government decisions; and, where we share sovereignty, we do so for perfectly practical reasons and generally support the decisions that result. The resulting EU legislation gives us essential environmental, consumer, social and employment protections that will be put at risk if we leave. I am voting to remain because leaving the EU will not in itself stabilise UK population levels. I am voting to remain because we can easily afford the cost of EU membership and, in fact, are economically better off overall. I am voting to remain because the EU is sufficiently democratic, albeit in need of some reform, and we can only achieve those reforms by remaining an influential EU member state.

Shared sovereignty is good for Britain.

The Leave camp bangs on about the need to 'regain control' and 'take back our sovereignty'. The Remain camp counters that our sovereignty has not been significantly compromised by EU membership. Neither of them is being entirely truthful.

On the one hand, the Leave campaign massively overstates the degree to which British politics is subject to EU law. The reality is that most of the important decisions made by British governments have little or nothing to do with the EU. Think about the 'big ticket' political arguments that have polarised the UK over the past six years. In most of these areas, the UK decides for itself what it wants to do and to suggest otherwise is nonsense. Domestic politics reigns supreme. Here are some recent examples.
  • British governments, not the EU, have been responsible for the successive 'austerity budgets' pushed through by George Osborne since 2010 and for the steady degrading of our public services.
  • The British government, not the EU, has ramped up university tuition fees, cut higher education funding and reduced investment per pupil in our schools.
  • The British government, not the EU, pushed through the radical top-down NHS reforms of 2012.
  • The British government, not the EU, cut the top rate of tax for the wealthy and boosted their tax-free inheritance rights.
  • The British government, not the EU, has been responsible for the heartless welfare cuts and benefit changes that roll on and on. Brussels did not impose the bedroom tax on our most vulnerable families or embark on the train wreck that became Osborne's derailed attempt to cut tax credits for the working poor.
  • British ministers, not the EU, have decided to waste tens of billions of pounds on HS2 and new roads rather than invest more widely in our public transport networks.
  • British governments, not the EU, have scaled back support for the British renewable energy sector and chosen to subsidise fracking and nuclear energy. It was not Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission who coined the phrase "green crap" or tried to privatise our forests, but our very own prime minister.
  • The British government, not the EU, handed control of our police forces to elected Police and Crime Commissioners (for whom most of us don't vote).
  • The British government, not the EU, is making multi-billion pound preparations to renew our strategic nuclear weapons system.
  • British governments, not the EU, have allowed our airports to expand and British ministers are preparing to allow a third runway at Heathrow airport despite the environmental costs.
  • British governments, not the EU, are responsible for the failure to build enough new homes over the past thirty years.
  • British ministers, not the EU, decided to flog off the Post Office to the private sector.
  • Successive British governments, not the EU, decided to participate in disastrous wars in Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa despite widespread public unease.
On the other hand, of course, it is disingenuous of pro-EU campaigners to suggest that our sovereignty has not been compromised by British membership of the EU. We share sovereignty in a growing range of policy areas as a result of successive treaties signed by Conservative and Labour governments. The Single European Act of 1987 - supported by Mrs Thatcher herself at that time - allowed the Council of Ministers to use Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) to push member states to accept common European rules governing their trade. Subsequent treaties signed in Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon between 1991 and 2007 extended the use of QMV so that most EU directives and regulations are now passed in this way. Moreover, the powers of the European Parliament have been similarly extended through a process known as 'Co-Decision', giving MEPs a more co-equal say (with the Council) on most EU legislation. The upshot of this is that the ability of UK governments to 'veto' draft EU legislation (in those policy areas where the EU has the right to legislate) has been greatly curtailed over the past thirty years.

My considered view is that, on the whole, it makes sense for us to share sovereignty in these particular areas of policy. It makes sense for governments to share decision-making in relation to our shared trading relations. It makes sense for European governments to jointly decide how to protect worker rights in that shared market - and to provide good employers with a level playing field on which they can look after their staff. It makes sense for us to share decision-making on legislation to deal with cross-border environmental challenges like climate change or water quality or air pollution. It makes sense for the EU to regulate our agricultural sector given our shared reliance on food imports and exports. In short, in areas where common action is the best way to safeguard and improve the quality of our lives, it makes sense for decision-making to be made in a way that facilitates progress and minimises the problem of individual governments blocking necessary change for selfish reasons.

In any case, most EU legislation is positively supported by the UK, both in the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. This is partly because the European Commission and the European Parliament usually bend over backwards to accommodate the concerns and interests of the member states in order to find a workable consensus. As a result, British ministers vote in favour of at least 90% of the legislation that crosses the desks of the Council of Ministers. That sounds like a reasonable deal to me - I can only dream of a scenario in which I supported nine out of ten decisions made by the British government!

We can stay in the EU and manage our population challenges

UKIP has dined out on the issue of immigration since the mid-2000s and used it as a means of galvanising their attacks on the EU. Their campaigns are xenophobic in the extreme and it is no coincidence that support for UKIP has grown since 2004 as support for the BNP has declined.

I fully accept that managing migration and the overall level of the UK population is an issue that requires close attention in order to ensure that everyone living in the UK has access to affordable housing, decent healthcare and school places. It is true that EU laws governing freedom of movement make it impossible for individual EU member states like the UK to re-establish tight controls on migration from other EU countries (and nonsense for Cameron to claim otherwise). It is also true that annual net migration to the UK has risen sharply following the EU's enlargements in 2004 and 2007 and has recently topped 330,000.

But the Brexit campaign has blown the issue of migration out of all proportion in their narrow-minded quest for victory in this referendum. My reading of the situation is that migrants are NOT the main cause of our housing crisis; and the problems in our health and education systems are the result of chronic under-funding and poor decision-making by generations of British ministers. This is as true today as it was a century ago, when thirty million fewer people lived in Britain and most of them lived in poverty with terrible housing, health care and education. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose...

The Brexit campaign's claim that population growth in the UK will be solved if we leave the EU is nonsensical for a range of reasons. The UK population is increasing naturally as births outnumber deaths; most migrants come to Britain from outside the EU; tens of thousands arrive as refugees or are seeking asylum; many are students who will continue to be wanted by our universities; many have vital professional qualifications, experience or skills that our employers will continue to demand. Sustainable population 'management' in the UK will require an intelligent, multi-strategy and long-term approach, and 'pulling up the drawbridge' is not the answer to our woes.

I suggest that it is worth pressing a few facts into service before blaming 'Brussels' for population pressures that have, in fact, been a feature of British life for the past half century.
  • Half of the ten million increase in the UK population during my fifty year lifetime has been the result of people being born here in Britain. Trends suggest that our home-born population growth will continue whether or not we leave the EU.
  • Most migrants to the UK in the past twenty years have come from outside the EU, drawn in for family reasons or to study here or to fill labour shortages in key sectors like healthcare. Leaving the EU will not deal that side of the population equation at all.
  • Around 25,000 people seek asylum in the UK each year, a number which rises and falls regardless of our membership of the EU.
  • One in seven new British businesses are set up by migrants. Migration boosts our economy overall, so limiting EU migration will have an adverse impact on our GDP.
  • Approximately two million Brits live and work or study or are retired in other EU states. What will happen to them and us if Brexit makes it more difficult for them to remain abroad? Our EU borders are open in both directions.
  • Migrants are more likely to be in work and paying tax than British citizens. Most are young, healthy and childless and therefore far less reliant on our public education and health care services than that bubbling cesspit of xenophobic outrage known as the Daily Express would have us believe.
  • It is true that migration exerts some downward pressure on the wages of the lowest paid, but the best answer to that problem is for our government to establish a decent National Living Wage and enforce it properly so that all employers respect the law and treat their staff fairly.
  • It is also true that migration creates additional housing pressures, but our national housing crisis is primarily the result of decades of under-investment in new housing, of the mass privatisation of our social housing stock since 1979 and of land-banking by developers who are still not being pushed to develop brownfield sites or higher-density urban housing in sufficient quantity. Limiting EU migration will make little difference to that problem either.
Finally, it is highly likely that the UK will have to accept free movement of workers even if we vote to leave the EU! So this ugly, dangerous debate about migration is an academic one. If we vote to leave, the British government will seek to retain the preferential access to the single European market that we currently enjoy, and free movement will be the price we pay to secure this. The Norwegians and Swiss have had to accept this and I cannot imagine that our future will be any different. Of course our economy is far larger than those of Norway and Switzerland, and of course we are a major importer of EU products; but EU leaders are well aware of the extent to which British companies rely on their European export markets and will insist that we continue to accept free movement as the quid pro quo for access to that single market. Why anyone should think otherwise is beyond me, given Cameron's complete failure to secure concessions on the principle of free movement during the nine months of EU talks that followed the 2015 general election.

We can afford the cost of EU membership

The third red herring waved by Brexiteers is their fatuous claim that mountains of British cash is trousered each year by our friends in Brussels. The Brexit battlebus is festooned with the false allegation that British taxpayers hand over £350 million to Brussels each week, or about £19 billion per year. This is money which the creative accountants at Brexit suggest would otherwise be invested in the NHS by generous Tory ministers.

This is nonsense, and here's why.

  • The Brexit campaign glosses over the billions that the UK gets back in return as an EU member state. In 2014, our rebate was worth £4.4 billion. We also received £1.1 billion in regional funding and £2.3 billion in farming support. Add in our other financial returns from the EU and it turns out that our net annual contribution to the EU is just under £10 Billion (about half the level claimed by the Brexit campaign).
  • Our net contribution falls further if we factor in other benefits of EU membership. The Office for National Statistics estimates that, if we take into account the spending by EU visitors to the UK linked to our EU membership and the European research funding that goes to our universities, our net contribution falls to £7.1 billion. The Treasury Select Committee estimates that the weekly cost of our EU membership is, in fact, £110 million, less than a third of the amount claimed by the Brexit campaign.
  • In addition, some of the money that the UK transfers to the EU is recycled into infrastructural investment in the emerging economies of central and eastern Europe. As those economies develop, new British export markets are opening up: British goods exports to these new markets have doubled over the past decade and the value of services exports has trebled (overall, this trade was worth £16 billion by 2014).
  • Our net contribution to the EU budget is perfectly reasonable and affordable. We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world, let alone the EU. The amount we contribute to the EU is around one-eightieth of British government spending and about 0.5% of our total national wealth. We spend eight times more on education and fourteen times more on pensions and are about to spend £100 billion on a fresh generation of nuclear weapons that we don't even need. The fact that the UK spends more on health care alone than the EU's TOTAL budget tells us all we need to know about the relatively low 'cost' of staying in.
  • It is, to say the least, doubtful that a Tory government would spend this money on the NHS if we left the EU. Tory ministers have, in fact, spent their past six years in government slashing investment in public services, including education and health, and cutting one million public sector jobs. Their track record suggests they are far more likely to dish out fresh tax cuts to wealthier, Tory-voting Britons than pay for the additional doctors and nurses that our healthcare system desperately needs.

The EU is not the undemocratic federal superstate claimed by its critics

As I mentioned earlier, the roles and powers of the EU are tightly restricted by the treaties that we have signed since we joined in 1973. Most big decisions are still made at Westminster, and it is twenty-five years since the Maastricht Treaty embedded the principle of subsidiarity in the EU (the idea that the EU should not make decisions that are best left to the governments of the member states).

Yes, the European Commission is not directly elected. But the role of the Commissioners is to propose draft legislation that is subsequently only passed into law by the Council of Ministers (representing Europe's elected governments) and the European Parliament (stuffed with MEPs directly elected by the peoples of Europe). The Commission is therefore less like a European government and more like a European civil service, and generally bends over backwards to consult with governments and key interest groups as it makes decisions.

Of course, I would like to see further democratic reform of the EU. I would like to give the European Parliament the power to remove individual European Commissioners who are not up to the job and to have more freedom to propose draft legislation. I would like to see far greater transparency in the deliberations of the Council of Ministers. I would like to see far greater numbers of European citizens taking the trouble to vote for their MEPs rather than not bothering to exercise this vital democratic right. Above all, I would also like those citizens to vote for the green, progressive politicians that we desperately need in those corridors of power - my beef is not with the EU's particular institutional architecture, but with the 'business-as-usual', unsustainable politics of the people who populate it.

It is a rich irony that British politicians lecture our European friends on the lack of democracy in the EU. Our British head of state holds this job because her dad was king. He got it because his brother abdicated. The royal family is a relic of medieval politics that should have been swept away decades ago. But at least our monarch plays a ceremonial political role, unlike the 800+ members of our House of Lords. All of them are unelected and unaccountable and lack legitimacy; some are bishops and some are hereditary peers; and all have a say over the laws passed by our Parliament on our behalf despite the fact that we (the people) did not choose them in the first place. As for the Commons, our Tory government reigns supreme thanks to a general election in 2015 that gave the Conservative party barely 37% popular support on a turnout of under 70%. Their mandate to govern rests on the positive support of barely a quarter of the electorate.

So, why stay in?

The bottom line is that our membership of the EU makes it far easier to trade with our European partners in the single European market and ensures that this trade is properly regulated with common standards. The EU has passed over two hundred environmental laws that protect us from various forms of pollution and have begun to help us make the transition to a post-carbon economy. European social and employment legislation provides us with a range of important worker rights - vital for ensuring fairness as the single European market has developed. Closer cooperation on cross-border policing makes all of us safer. The freedom that we enjoy to travel, work and retire anywhere in Europe is a freedom that we can celebrate and should not fear. The cost of EU membership is one we can easily afford. It's time for Britain to accept that we no longer live in the 1950s, that we are part of an interdependent world, and that the benefits of working together far outweigh the compromises we sometimes have to make in the shared enterprise that is the EU.

So, vote to REMAIN on 23 June!

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