The best way to defend the UK's role in the EU is to be honest about its failings

Nigel Lawson's provocations on the EU question raise some important points. It is no longer tenable to trot out the same tired arguments for the Union. It has very serious failings. A positive account of the UK's membership must address them head on.

Image: florriebassingbourn, Flickr

Nigel Lawson has certainly set the cat among the pigeons, plainly with malice aforethought. Two anti-EU ministers, Gove and Hammond, have now taken flight in the hot air of the Conservatives’ succession politics, Theresa May is poised to take off, while David Cameron, the plumpest pigeon of them all, has scarpered to a perch in Washington, having given up even on holding his cabinet colleagues to the old-fashioned principle of collective responsibility. It is fair to conclude that Lawson has probably destroyed the Prime Minister’s evasive strategy to remain in the Union after ‘winning’ an in-out referendum on the EU membership.

It would be easy to write Lawson off, saying that he got big things wrong while he was Chancellor, and still does - notably on climate change. But his intervention gives the country and the democratic left an important opportunity to discuss the case for and against remaining in the EU, since he has raised important questions about the EU’s undemocratic nature. The to and fro of political debate in the UK on the EU has almost entirely been conducted in terms that are way over the heads of most people.  The Thatcherite right complain of the loss of sovereignty to the EU bureaucracy if we stay in – the sovereignty in question being theirs, not the people’s – and calls for the repatriation of powers (theirs, not ours). But the rhetoric nevertheless strikes a popular chord in a country where most people feel they have no political power or efficacy.

The response of the pro-Europeans is weak, narrow and questionable. They baulk at any discussion of the EU’s democratic failings and fail even to mention the wide social benefits and more that membership brings to ordinary citizens. Labour switched to being ‘pro-Europe’ when Jacques Delors delivered on socio-economic rights and protections. And it is still the case that were it not for the EU, most people would not have the rights on equality, at work, maternity pay, working hours and paid holidays that they now possess; Britain would be the dirty old man of Europe. The pro-EU arguments of the European movement in the UK, timelessly reiterated, is that the EU is our biggest market and that leaving the EU would inflict huge damage on the British economy and employment. Cue earnest Nick Clegg.   

Meanwhile, people in Britain and across the EU are growing ever more discontented with the Union for a reason that Lawson identified squarely in his article: “a fundamental contempt for democracy has always  been one of the most striking and least attractive characteristics of the European movement, however noble its intentions.” Lawson is quite obviously right. It is not just the institutional democratic vacuum in the EU’s centralised structures, where even the Parliament does not represent a European demos, but it is also the very culture of its ruling class that denies it democratic legitimacy.

Lawson again: “Some pin their faith on making use of the much-vaunted doctrine of ‘subsidiarity’. But subsidiarity – pushing decision-making down to the lowest appropriate level – is something to which the European establishment pays lip service and then resolutely ignores.” In the background, he says, there has always been a political objective behind European economic integration – “the creation of a federal European superstate, a United States of Europe.” It has always been clear to me that only in smaller nations is there a realistic prospect of participatory and deliberative democracy. For this reason I am wholly against the direction of travel at the core of the centralised European project, as most of the peoples of member states are as well.

The financial crisis has brought out the worst instincts of Lawson’s “European establishment”. The so-called troika – the EU, the European Bank and IMF – rode roughshod over constitutional protections of socio-economic rights and living standards in Greece while also imposing drastic austerity measures on the nation’s politicians and parliament. Austerity measures imposed on Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and now Cyprus, reveal a ruthless indifference to the EU’s own socio-economic ethos and instruments as well as to political self-government.

The concept of a “Union des Patries” seemed for some time to animate the Conservative right. But whatever attraction that idea of a union of self-governing states acting cooperatively once had for them, it is now apparent that it no longer has any traction. Basically, they want out, probably even if substantial changes were possible. At best, they want to “cut Europe down to size” - to what is little more than a free trade area. 

Their ambitions have profound implications for the quality of life of most UK citizens. European law has transformed the protection of social and economic rights in the UK, especially in employment. When they talk of repatriating powers, what they mean is that they wish to remove the EU’s power to frame rights and regulations promoting socio-economic and employment rights and to scrap or dilute those that exist in their quest for a low-income economy. Additionally they seek an escape from Community environmental rules, controlling levels of air pollution, for example, and the use of pesticides that imperil bees – two areas within which the Tory side of the coalition is against reform. Their vision for the future is a nation and economy free of regulation in which citizens’ rights and the environment are sacrificed to the needs of the private sector.

There is, I think, still place for an argument in favour of a democratic and transparent European Union which is more a “Union des Patries” and less the instrument of a pan-European elite. For instance, the negotiations and decisions of representatives of member states in Brussels should be open to scrutiny and approval by their citizens at home and directives should be more fully debated within national parliaments. In the UK, we should abandon the ‘closed’ proportionate electoral system (which privileges internal party hierarchies over responsive elections).

More immediately, the Labour leadership should not frame its policies on the EU within some sort of triangulation tactic in response to the Conservatives’ and Ukip’s frenzied combat. A putative Labour government, in or out of coalition, should take seriously one substantial point that Lawson made. Lawson bemoaned the development of a Eurozone core which would leave the UK on the margins of much EU policy-making. Clearly, greater economic, political and fiscal integration is vital to the Eurozone’s future and it would be counter-productive to contest it. But fashioning new arrangements within the EU to govern the relationship between the core and other member states would be a proper subject for negotiation.

The Labour party should also be strong enough to spell out the benefits of  membership to the majority of UK citizens. Otherwise, if the Tories and Ukip carry the day, most  people in Britain stand to lose protections of their way of life and environment that they are scarcely aware of.  For all its faults, the EU remains the only region in the world in which employment and some social rights are legally embedded while political rights and freedoms are promoted. But is the European movement here capable of arguing this broader case? I fear not.

 

Response from Colin Crouch: I am fundamentally in agreement with Stuart. I think that he just neglects three things: firstly, the need for Europe to punch its weight in shaping regulation of the global economy. Germany alone has the sort of clout among the European nations to stand alongside the US, Japan, China, and possibly Russia - and even Germany is not so large in that company.

Second, there needs to be something of a level playing field in certain areas of social policy, environmental policy and competition policy if we are to trade among each other without barriers. 

Finally, countries within the Eurozone must also accept a degree of fiscal federalism in exchange for the protection of the ECB, but clearly there have been major deficiencies of democracy in the way the Euro-crisis has been handled. On the other hand, British Conservatives have absolutely no right to point the finger here. A major reason why the normal institutions, including the European parliament, have been so ineffective is that Cameron's veto against using them to resolve the crisis made it both possible and necessary to invent ad hoc arrangements.

About the author

Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and co-founder of Charter 88. He is a consultant to the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust on the State of the Nation polls.