Why the EU matters to me

The campaign for a vote to remain in the EU has been taking up a lot of my energy for what feels like a long time. Why does it matter?


The quick version
The short, doorstep comment is that the EU matters because of the peace and the stability, the opportunities and possibilities it brings.

The longer version…

The European Union matters enormously. It has been the context of British political and economic life for decades. It’s tended to under-state its contribution, so people are often not aware of how many development projects or pieces of investment begin in the EU. The contribution has been so great that we can take it for granted — and sometimes rail against its supposed shortcomings without bothering to look at the whole picture. The referendum changes this. Suddenly it might not be there. This posting is not about whipping up fear, but is about expressing some of the richness in which it is rooted, and the contribution it brings.

Culture and history

Europe has a long and convoluted history. There’s an intertwined heritage of culture and religion. There have been centuries of Europeans trading with each other, fighting with each other, sharing cultural influence and sharing faith. Up close, it looks like a story of rivalry. At a distance it looks more like the squabbling of long-married couples, where the words shouldn’t obscure the depth of the connection.

The two world wars look rather different if their savagery is seen as the savagery of a civil war, as if, way before the EU, we already acted as if we were close enough to each other to be deeply interconnected. The degree of inter-marriage between European royal families gave a taste of that.

I’ve written on music in eighteenth-century London because the particular political situation there meant it drew musicians from all over Europe, creating a rich melting-pot. Even the splits in Europe are not as stark as they look — at the Reformation Europe split in to Protestant and Catholic, but these two put so much effort into defining themselves against each other that they remained deeply, if unwittingly, interconnected.

Down the centuries there have been many wide networks — the Hanseatic League and the Holy Roman Empire are particularly strong examples. These built bridges and brought people together, enabling trade and stability.

Stability and “ever closer union”

In the last century things have been turbulent. There have been two large-scale wars and a dividing of Europe in to East and West. In the middle of the twentieth century the raw materials of warfare were coal and steel. The initial vision of Jean Monnet Robert Schuman paved a way to bring together coal and steel production which made it impossible to go to war: his genius was to realise that treaties can be broken, but closer integration cannot. People who get jumpy about “ever closer union” in the EU miss the fact that nations are either growing together or growing apart: there is a stark choice between “ever closer union” and “drifting towards war”.

Single market

As the European project deepened, one of its milestones was to create the single market. The economic logic was that businesses need a domestic market to which they can sell easily. At the time, our main competitors were the USA and Japan, both with much larger populations than any one European nation, but a single market, where we share one set of trade rules, gave us access to a market that is more than the size of those two put together.

But there were some potential problems with a single market, and valuable solutions which made the Single European Act a key moment in the European project:

  • Democracy: the danger is that a single market is of most benefit to the most wealthy, so its introduction was also accompanied by improvements in democratic decision-making.
  • Deprived regions: removing trade barriers was good for most people, but risked harming the people these had protected. This is why the creation of the single market included substantial structural funds to help the areas that would lose out as it is more effective to intervene early than when people been unemployed for years. Although it is outside the EU, Norway pays into EU funds for access to the single market as it is contributing to these structural funds — the same would apply to the UK if we left he EU.
  • Workers’ rights: the single market also included a “social chapter” guaranteeing workers’ rights. The logic was that treating employees badly can be a (usually questionable) way for businesses to get an advantage. Labour law reduces that incentive in a country, and harmonising these across the EU made things better for everyone.
  • Migration: a single market does need people to be able to move around so that it is possible to go where work is — that makes there free movement of people essential. It also means worries about wages suffering because of migration are offset by the economic boost of the single market.

Devolving power

If a country has to be prepared to go to war with its neighbours, people need to be united. There isn’t freedom for separate regional identities and possible rivalries. The stability brought from peace means there is more room for regional identities to surface. That is a good thing. It is also part of the European vision of subsidiarity — doing centrally the things best done centrally, and pushing the rest as close as possible to the people they affect. This is the real answer to the “European superstate” fear — that it is about providing the stability for true diversity. It’s balanced by the harsh reality that globalisation forces a money-driven and unaccountable form of international co-operation which needs to be critiqued if its is not to work only for the super-rich.

Increasing democracy

One of the ongoing tensions in the EU is between the powers of the European Parliament, which we elect directly, and the powers of the Council of Ministers, which consists of the relevant minister from each nation state. That tension is inevitable because both source of authority are legitimate — and a creative tension might well be the best solution. There’s been a gradual sense in which the authority of the European parliament has increased, most obviously around the power from approving (or not) the budget, and confirming the appointment of Commissioners. A weakness of the European Parliament is that members are usually elected on the basis of the political parties in their home country, and then sit in groupings that the domestic voters might not recognise: a hopeful sign is that the Liberal grouping, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe has formed itself into an EU-wide political party which feels like an important step in the development of EU parliamentary democracy.

Working together — Eastern Europe and Turkey

One of the functions that the EU has taken on has been stabilising democracy in Europe. Spain and Greece were only able to join after a transition to democracy. The fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe created a unique moment: would their European heritage re-assert itself and enable them to transition to functioning democracies or would
totalitarianism re-assert itself? The EU requires member states to function in a properly democratic way, and the desire to join the EU pulled those nations in a democratic direction. Recently there have been concerns about the situations in Hungary and Poland, with the Commission pushing to stabilise things. Recently the tensions in Ukraine have been partly about how far that country looks to the EU or to Russia. There has been a cost to admitting these former communist bloc countries, but this is a fraction of the cost of being posed for military conflict with them as we were in the cold war. I should be wary of the term “cost”: as these economies develop begins to look more like prudent investment.

But we are not out of the woods here. One of the reasons for Vladimir Putin being keen to see Brexit is that the EU does a good job of stabilising Eastern Europe. There have already been rumours of his funding of Eurosceptic parties, worrying both Americans and Europeans. An EU weakened by Brexit is very much in his interests.

Conversely, an EU that seeks to safeguard fundamental values of liberty, freedom and democracy is profoundly attractive.

The recent controversy about the possibility of Turkey joining the EU looks very different if it is seen as anchoring a democratic and stable Turkey in a European way of pattern, rather than pushing it towards its more volatile neighbours. The complexity of that process, and the question of whether it is a good idea, lie at the heart of Turkey’s accession talks being so slow.

Facts and statistics

One of the recurring comments of the campaign has been “we want the facts”, and the wildly distorted statistics of the Leave campaign don’t do it much credit. The quick answer to people wanting reliable facts and statistics is to look at infacts.org and fullfacts.org. Figures like the claim that we send £350 million a week to the EU have been shown to be simply wrong. But some of the other numbers are more tricky. Working out what proportion of our new laws come from Brussels is complex. Does one count an act of parliament which, in among lots of other things, implements something from the EU? If so, is a single-market change that would be needed in any case to trade with the EU? Is it “Brussels dictating” or is it simply reflecting the reality of an interconnected world? The upshot can be wildly differing numbers — and it might well be that the number chosen actually reflects the anxieties of the person quoting it.

A European future

For me, the European vision is about a shared and inter-connected cultural story. It is about working with our neighbours and having the flexibility to adapt as circumstances change. Some of that involves responding to crises, like Syria, some is about potential threats, like another global recession or Putin’s Russia. Some is about facing changes brought by globalisation and global warming, not in fragile isolation but working with others with whom we have much in common. This doesn’t preclude other connections worldwide, but it is easier to make those when we are well-rooted in Europe.

3 thoughts on “Why the EU matters to me”

  1. Good article. I’m still struggling with the fact that we don’t have democratic control over the European Commission though, especially as they set the agenda. It’s a very Continental Paternalistic approach to government.

    1. The commissioners are appointed by the nation states and confirmed by the parliament which brings in significant control. The actual logic is that these should be distinguished figures who would be near the end of their careers, so not treating it as a stepping stone. The weakness of direct accountability is that if can cause people to act to get popular support rather than to act wisely. The way this was set up means the parliament can sack the whole commission, but not an individual commissioner. This means that, if an individual commissioner behaves badly, the first line of censure is their fellow commissioners and the second is the parliament. One of the advantages of this is that we don’t think in terms of “our commissioner” when the UK nominates one

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