Brexit – good for Europe?

The EU is failing and it ought to be too important to fail. To recover some semblance of political development, Brexit could be welcomed as an opportunity to begin the root and branch reform that puts fairness and democracy at the heart of every European country’s government creating a Europe governed by and for the people.

The kind of blustering Schaublerish bluff that the UK will somehow be cast into economic limbo is simply nonsense. It is far to important an export market for anything like that to happen.

A more rational approach would be to identify and safeguard the European institutions that work well, and some do, then get to work examining why the rest is such a mess and start rebuilding from scratch.

The whole business of Brexit is more about Europe than it is about Britain and Europeans should begin to think the implications through.

A progressive case against UK membership, not only from an English perspective, but equally from the other member countries of the UK, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland seems neither to have been explored, nor made, or at best, to have been unheard via the media. The Labour Party’s reticence about involving itself in substantive debate is perhaps a reluctance to create electoral hostages to fortune by engaging in a process initiated by the Conservative Government on terms of Cameron’s defining, the minimal renegotiation of terms governing EU membership, but may eventually be seen as another, perhaps historic sign of Labour’s diminished credibility as a coherent political force. A reduction of the case for EU membership to the shrill moans of Cameron, Johnson and Farage does the notion of internationalism, the UK and the EU no favours.

In its issue devoted to Brexit ‘Der Spiegel’ makes an error commonly encountered in Germany about the UK, which is to assume a greater similarity, or affinity between the two countries than is reasonable to assume. There are deep seated differences which float beneath the surface of both societies which address quite different notions of the structure of a society and the place of an individual within it. If one of the strongest tendencies in Germany is peoples’ attitudes and allegiance to Christianity – Catholic, Protestant, Free-thinkers and anti-Clerics, with all that implies for individuals and communities, in the UK, a persistent long term debate, first clearly articulated in the English Revolution of the1640′s, but reiterated by Thatcher’s notion of a ‘property owning democracy’, or Blair’s notion of a ‘stakeholder society’ as part of the Clinton/Blair/Schroeder notion of a ‘Third Way’ is the issue of who is a full member of society with whatever rights, obligations and privileges that implies. That was summed up in the phrase, who has an ‘interest’.
On one side of this debate are those who would argue that ownership, of land, property and wealth brings the right for those ‘interests’ to be represented on behalf of the ‘stakeholder’, perhaps a key concept for all right wing thinkers, which is opposed to the broader idea that everyone is a member of society based on their common humanity, irrespective of gender, creed, race, hereditary status, or wealth – a common enough starting point for left wing attitudes. This makes it easy to understand why the children of small businesses owners, whether indigent Britons, or migrants from India or elsewhere, have no problems joining the Conservative Party of David Cameron as potential Ministers, or contrariwise to recognise the roots of xenophobic intolerance of some sections of society to the point of conflicting with their own self interest.
This is a much deeper contrast, than the tired assumptions of Britain as a class based society (perhaps a once useful notion owing more to German intellectuals like Max Weber, or Marx than to Britain’s understanding of itself and its political traditions).
The British notion of citizenship has quite different origins to that of other countries throughout the EU and while that might seem an arcane, or perhaps nit-picking detail for people whose lands have only recently emerged from decades of totalitarian government, the connection between property and social rights within the broader framework of human rights has a powerful resonance in British politic attitudes. The so-called ‘Property qualifications’ for the franchise were abolished as a necessary consequence of ‘votes for women’ legislation in 1918, since only a tiny minority of women property owners would otherwise have be enfranchised. Plural voting, which enfranchised business owners, who could vote twice, was only abolished in 1948.

Since joining the EU, a fundamental reform of the legal system and changes to local government in response to the necessity of working with Brussels have been implemented. It is unlikely that the notion of a ‘Supreme Court’, or Mayors with executive authority would have been introduced otherwise. Whatever their merits, they were a direct consequence of EU membership rather than a considered extension of British political development. The notion of an executive mayor, deriving from France, inadvertently harks back to the erea of councils dominated by local businessmen who voted themselves into positions of authority. What had taken centuries to remove, was reconstituted thanks to EU notions without serious consideration, but bolstered by a central government who promised incentives for collaborators. This all has a bearing on Britain’s experience as an EU member and the sense that the EU machinery of decision and administration is poorly fitted to Britain’s needs and functions inadequately for many other EU members too.

This is not helped by the very negative direct impact of EU policies on many British communities during the half century or so of British membership. Some of these failures were at least in part self inflicted. The difficulty in raising capital to finance expensive newbuild deep sea fishing boats meant British trawler owners were only too eager to see EU membership give them an exit by selling their fishing rights to mainly Spanish owners who could qualify for EU funding to pay for new vessels. The British fishing industry was effectively destroyed as the result of poorly thought subsidy and licencing arrangements. The same might be argued about the steel industry, which fell victim to the Davignon Plan to rationalise Europe’s steel production less than a decade after huge investments had been made in Britain’s major steel plants. Hardly had they been opened, than the EU policies pushed the then nationalised industry into systemic crisis, a process which accelerated once Thatcher’s privatisations took their toll. For no good reason, processes of de-industrialisation were encouraged in an uncontrolled way which has contributed to the enormous and increasing contrast of resources, most critically between London and the rest.
James Dyson, one of the UK’s better known engineer entrepreneurs pointed out that little has changed in an article to the ‘Lifestyle’ section of London’s ‘The Telegraph’: `’His views on Brussels have been shaped by bitter experience. Dyson sits on several European committees. “And we’ve never once during 25 years ever got any clause or measure that we wanted into a European directive. Never once have we been able to block the slightest thing. …..These sessions are dominated by very large companies who agree on their approach before the meeting and so vote together as a bloc. And that’s why we never get anywhere. We think that’s anti-competitive practice and we would love to prove it but…” he gives a helpless shrug. ‘
Why is this?
Again it might be argued that many of Europe’s drawbacks have been self-inflicted, by the failure of British institutions like trades unions, profesional organisations and businesses, to re-invent themselves within an internationalist perspective, or simply to do their homework.
Relationships with Brussels are too often defined by supplicant roles, applying for grants and subsidies, or support for favourite sons, rather than bringing fully developed concepts to the negotiating table. Dyson really doesn’t go far enough in his critique. My own experience observing a German banker, a British accountant, a European manager and a local government economic development administrator talk business was like watching a dog, a cat, a bat and a kangaroo discussing the best way to mix a salad. It was galling to have a London banker phone up and ask quite what a GmbH is. Europe is far less European than we would like to pretend.

Astonishingly little has been achieved by way of harmonising the economies of the EU, by two or three generations of administrators. Even VAT (MwST), which was introduced in the UK as an EU promoted replacement for existing taxes on purchases is levied at different rates and in differing proportions in each of the member states. Trade harmonisation should have meant far more than anything that seems to have been discussed, never mind achieved, if it is to be taken seriously. What is the point of being in an organisation where each member insists on doing things differently, despite a pretence of unanimity?

The extension of the EU into Eastern Europe following the fall of communism stretched its capacities at every level without becoming unmanageable, a major challenge, which was possibly the EU’s most successful intervention.
But, that success was followed by the creation of the Euro to replace the Ecu and a raft of local currencies like the Deutschmark. Management of the Euro, as a single currency among many currencies has created the necessity of core competences devoted to it and it seems inevitable that this will be necessary so long as the Euro exists. This is the central issue both favouring the EU and favouring Brexit. The EU cannot avoid a ‘two tier’ Europe.

When Gordon Brown finessed the question of Britain and the Euro, nobody expected that managing the currency would required the complete economic humiliation of member states, their financial independence undercut, their economies decimated and a generation of young people experiencing career crippling humiliation in the name of financial orthodoxy. What has happened to Greece should be a warning to every other country within the Eurozone that whatever the origins of the next crisis they could be the sacrificial victim of banal financial orthodoxy.

The book-keeperly merits of Herr Schauble’s approach to crisis management have much to recommend them as an approach to measuring the depths of an economic challenge, but need the imaginative application of ‘political economy’ to create successful solutions. ‘Political Economy’ implies open debate, the exploration of potential alternatives in an informed environment, something the EU cannot be expected to achieve without being completely restructured. Brexit might be the catalyst of change that could provoke that restructuring.

The referendum this week could take the UK out of the EU, but Britain’s membership of the Council of Europe and other international organisations like the WTO and NATO will remain. It isn’t as though the British are going to disappear from Europe and Europeans could do well to remind themselves of that.

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