Most criticism of the EU is right-wing vitriol – but there are real problems with the Brussels machine
Europe-bashing has become mainstream within British politics. UKIP have succeeded in driving the political debate sharply to the right on immigration, with the result that a recent ICM poll put immigration as the number two issue in the British political mindset – just four points behind the NHS. This has fuelled a backlash against the EU – now, even the Europhile Liberal Democrats are joining the assault against Brussels.
Right-Wing Pet Hates
Criticism of the EU from the right-wing political establishment focuses around what is really two points – freedom of movement and human rights laws. Freedom of movement is a fundamental principle behind the European Single Market – something which David Cameron is otherwise very much in favour of .
Freedom of movement of labour cannot be separated from the other three freedoms – goods, services and capital – which are essential for allowing an integrated European economy.
The four freedoms are also, incidentally, something which derive from the Single European Act of 1986, a treaty which was in large part the brainchild of Margaret Thatcher, something which is a never-ending source of amusement for me. The Thatcherite parties, that is the Tories and UKIP, try to back-pedal on one of the most important achievements of their predecessor’s premiership.
On the subject of human rights, any attempt to withdraw from the European Convention would be inconceivable. Not only is the Convention itself another fundamentally British invention (Winston Churchill’s this time; not looking good for the Tories, is it?). It would be virtually impossible to remove European human rights protections without replacing them with essentially identical British protections. The alternative is to cast in our lot with countries like Belarus and Saudi Arabia – something which no British government could do without inspiring general outrage.
What About the Rest?
Beyond these two non-problems, the right-wing political establishment and media seem to be pretty happy with the EU as is. Yes, there are periodical requests for more money – such as that for another €2.1 billion which hit the newspapers on the 24th of October – which elicit indignation from the supporters of so-called Tory austerity, but these are fleeting objections. More or less, mainstream politicians couldn’t care less about the rest of the EU’s problems.
But there are some real issues with the way Europe works. For starters, consider that the EU is a fundamentally undemocratic organisation. The European Parliament is the only EU body which is actually elected and, despite receiving new powers under the 2008 Treaty of Lisbon, is still very much the weakest EU institution. The Conservative Party, it should be pointed out, actually opposed even these limited powers to Parliament – they would rather appointed institutions like the Commission and Coreper (the EU civil service). Some areas of policy, such as taxation and justice policy, still aren’t subject to any kind of democratic scrutiny at all. Instead of wasting time attacking the basic principles of the EU, the changing of which will be neither possible nor beneficial, why don’t the mainstream parties focus on this absurd lack of democracy?
Perhaps the greatest example of the anti-democratic nature of the EU at work is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) corporate power grab. This is a free trade treaty currently being negotiated, in secret, between representatives of the EU and the USA. The current proposals for the treaty include ‘Investor State Dispute Settlements’, allowing American corporations to sue the British government in secretive, closed tribunals for any action they take which might impact their profit margins. This would not only make renationalisation of key public infrastructure – supported by over 65% of the British public – impossible, it would also open up existing public services such as the NHS to American corporate buyouts. If the government resisted, they would be subject to legal action and crippling damages payments.
TTIP has the support of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties and even UKIP supported it until recently – abandoning the idea as soon as it became clear that there was public opposition to it, another fine example of principled UKIP policy-making. Only the Green Party opposed this dangerous treaty from the outset, along with a grassroots campaign mustered by 38 degrees (you can sign their petition against TTIP here). This is a clear sign if one was needed that the mainstream political parties don’t really care about the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, just clinging on to their own positions of power.
The European Union was a fantastic idea which has gone badly wrong. Anti-democratic organisational features and economic incompetence have led what should have been a wonderful experiment in international peace and co-operation into a deepening crisis, while TTIP threatens the very economic sovereignty of its members.
UKIP’s solution to the problems of Europe is to jump ship; my preference would always be to push for reform first, but what is clear is that the establishment parties will not tackle the real issues with Europe, so obsessed are they with chasing UKIP’s right-wing narrative over immigration and human rights laws. As usual, it’s up to us – the people – to force the idiots and self-serving careerists who rule us to take the right course. Don’t hold your breath.
This article is cross-posted with the author’s blog, Cynical Optimist