I had a short, but fairly intense, discussion with an avid Brexiter about the EU referendum the other day. His fundamental case for voting to break away on June 23rd was to reclaim British ‘sovereignty’. He yearned for a country with a Parliament that could make its own laws.
Of all the arguments advanced by the ‘leave’ campaign, the reclaiming of sovereignty is, to my mind the least compelling. Merriam-Webster defines the term as ‘unlimited power over a country’ or ‘a country’s independent authority and the right to govern itself’. It sounds fine in principle. Who could possibly disagree? But what exactly does it mean in the world of 2016?
Naturally I’m keen for the UK Parliament to retain power over matters that affect the British people. But over the past 20 years or so, we’ve made decisions that have transferred much of that power to other bodies, institutions and executives. The Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament are the most obvious examples, although the London Mayor has been slowly accruing more responsibilities too. Manchester was recently granted the power to control its health spending, conceivably paving the way for a two-tier NHS.
So we’re quite happy to transfer power downwards when we believe that certain decisions are better taken regionally or locally. And the reality is that other decisions are best taken at a level that goes beyond our national borders. Particularly when we’re talking about issues that transcend the boundaries of individual nation states. Climate change, for instance. Security against terrorism. The regulation of corporations and global financial institutions.
In order to act effectively at a multinational level, we need multinational government, just as much as we need local and regional government. And in order to achieve this goal, we pool our sovereignty with others. We make compromises. It’s what grown-ups do.
When we joined NATO, we accepted that our ability to make autonomous decisions on defence was limited. Under Article V, if one of our allies is attacked, we commit to defend them. We’re bound by the treaty to do so. We consciously restrict our ‘independent authority’ because we would like our allies to support us if we were attacked.
Of course, the Brexiters would no doubt say that the EU has become a monolithic bureaucracy, which sets its own agenda and direction under the influence of Germany and France. But the reality is that enormous checks and balances are included in the system – including the incredibly restrictive requirement for every single member state to agree most important changes. Perhaps if the UK had been a more willing and energetic participant in the European Union over the years, we would have shaped it in a way which is far more to our liking.
There are all kinds of figures kicked around for the percentage of UK laws supposedly originating in Brussels. But one thing the Brexiters need to be asked is exactly which of these laws cause them such great anxiety. Is it the ones that enhance the rights of employees? Those which give us clean beaches on which to sunbathe? Or the regulations that provide protection for consumers?
If you ask, you’re likely to get vague waffle about ‘red tape’ and a hotch-potch of old wives’ tales about the regulation of the size and shape of fruit. Put them on the spot. If they start talking about human rights, it’s hardly worth pointing out that the European Convention actually has nothing to do with the EU. Just tell them that most people actually quite like having some rights. Perhaps they’d care to explain why they don’t?
Allied to the protests about sovereignty is the bleating about democracy. Our government is democratic, whereas the EU is not. Well, our Parliament has an unelected second chamber of people appointed through political patronage. Hardly a paragon of democracy.
Our elected House of Commons survives on an archaic first-past-the-post voting system which wouldn’t pass the scrutiny of intelligent primary school children if they were told how it worked and asked to compare it to alternatives. Government ministers regularly use sweeping powers including so-called ‘statutory instruments’ to make changes to existing Acts of Parliament.
The European Parliament has actually gained in power and stature over the years. It was granted greater authority by the Single European Act in the 1980s and by treaties such as Maastricht and Lisbon. Has the authority of the British legislature been enhanced in any way over the same period?
So spare me the lectures. The EU isn’t perfect, but it might well be a much better place to tackle the really important issues facing all of us in the coming 50 years. Provided it’s not destroyed by those who hate its social agenda and politics of compromise.