Tuesday, 16 February 2016
The late Tony Benn said, " If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system." He was unquestionably right. The question is, do you care?
Like most people I used to be passively in favour of the EEC (As it was), because I didn't understand it. Then I studied its constitution and realised that regardless of any benefits or disbenefits it is not constituted on anything which could pass for a democratic basis and must therefore be opposed.
There will always be a group of people who argue against democratic principles on the basis that people are too stupid to know what's good for them so their interests are best served by a qualified elite of appointed yet benevolent masters. (I particularly remember my Venezuelan friend +Julian Field arguing this way. How's that working out for ya?) This was the original idea behind what is now the EU as envisioned by its founder, Jean Monnet, who came up with the original European Coal and Steel Community from which the EU has evolved. If you want a nice concise yet thorough history of this evolution you could do no better than to read this excellent book by Tom Gallagher.
There has been some tinkering with the powers of the Parliament since I studied the constitution but they don't amount to much. The real purpose of the Parliament is to add a veneer of democracy to a profoundly undemocratic institution. It can't veto laws, it can comment and ask for review. Even then, in practice it is often completely ignored, a recent example being the recent Tobacco Products Directive, which was thrashed around by the Parliament and the Commission for ages before everything they decided was ultimately binned and measures which had never been proposed or considered were adopted on the hoof at the 11th hour by the Council, in consultation with the Commission.
Quick explanation of the powers of Government and how these are constituted in the EU:
1. The Drafting of the Legislative Programme:
In the EU laws are proposed by the commission. In the UK, this is the job of the duly elected Government, answerable to the electorate every so often. The Commisson answers to nobody. Its members (Commisioners) are appointees, mainly establishment figures from their member country who have been rejected by their own electorate, see N Kinnock.
2. Amendment or veto of proposed legislation:
The European Parliament can suggest amendments but it can't effectively veto anything. Hence the illusion of democracy. The Europarl is a very large, expensive organisation with no real power. Even if it did have power, it doesn't really represent a proper electorate. It's a simple fact that Italian and Polish electorates do not regard themselves as unified. There is no cohesive European electorate.
By contrast, in the UK if a Government proposes a law which parliament doesn't approve of, it can veto it. Parliament is supreme and each member is directly accountable to the electorate in his or her constituency every so often. Not so in the Europarl
3. Final assent to legislation.
This lies with the Council of Ministers. There is some legitimacy in this because it is constituted of the ministers of State from the member states with responsibility for the class of legislation under discussion. Back in my day this formed a very effective brake on the power of the Commission because unanimity was required for legislation to pass. Therefore no law could pass into law without the assent of a Government minister from each member state. In those days being a member really did give you influence. Not any more. Now we have QMV, which means only 16/28 ministers must assent for a measure to pass, provided they represent at least 65% of the EU's population. This rule means that now the Commission gets its own way pretty much all the time.
In the UK we have Royal assent, which is totally undemocratic, but our measures have to have been passed by Parliament to get to that stage in the first place.
It can readily be seen that the Commission is effectively the Executive Government of the EU. The Commission is not elected. The President is not elected. We do not live in a democratic system.
On the face of it Mr Cameron was on a worthy mission to renegotiate Britain's membership but that renegotiation quickly lost credibility. None of his requests even hinted at the constitutional reform that the EU lacks. Tinkering with immigration rules and seeking commitments not bound in treaty form is worse than meaningless. That's not surprising. It's happened before, this pamphlet covers the 1975 renegotiation, which was thought of as having been a rip-off until it was made to look effective by Cameron's latest efforts. Be in no doubt, even if he has achieved what he says he has, it amounts to nothing.
This is a shame because there was an opportunity. The thing about negotiation is that you have to be prepared to walk away if you don't get what you want. Cameron didn't take this approach, so he got nothing. If you go to buy a car you pay more if you have decided that, whatever the price, you're definitely having it. Same thing.
I always thought this would happen which is why I have never seriously thought I might vote to remain but there may yet be a set of proposals on offer which I would vote for. There has been much scare talk recently about what would a post Brexit Britain look like? Good question but the history of referendums on EU issues in member states is that when they go against the EU, they get re-run. I would be amazed if an out vote led directly to Brexit. I think it will bring about a real renegotiation in which the EU will have to come up with something the British people will buy.
So if you want to be in a reformed, more democratic EU, vote leave. We'll very likely get a better counter offer.