Doubts about the EU

The EU project has at its heart a vision of European integration, a United States of Europe. In the beginning the vision was far off and involved only six countries. It was an abstraction anyway and the statesmen (they were all men) of the time saw the first steps as either safely subject to later modification or justifiable without popular consent as an act of leadership. The most important thing after all was to avoid another major European war.

So the institutions of Europe were made deliberately undemocratic. National governments each had a veto and that was enough of a safeguard. The people of Europe were to be led towards what was considered good for them, a good they might appreciate more and more as it unfolded but which they might foolishly doubt in the abstract, not least because of the then recent history of conflict.

But the vision of integration, not to mention the central concept of politicians as visionaries, survived changes in the structure and extent of the EU which no one envisaged at the start and which have been truly staggering, including the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In trying to deal with upheavals of such size and scope no one can blame politicians for using whatever tools and structures lay to hand, but the result was a tectonic shift in what made sense for Europe. Nevertheless, too much political capital had by then been invested in the vision, so the wise leaders pressed on.

For politicians had succumbed to their own myth and believed that their wisdom and guidance would lead their unruly peoples to a promised land, like Moses in the desert. Perhaps they were just sanguine about the changes that had occurred or perhaps they chose not to notice that the destination was now unrecognisable. Perhaps, more kindly, they responded to increased complexity with a desire to concentrate power simply to get necessary things done. They might for example have been genuinely torn between their answerability to their own national assemblies and the prospect of conflicting answerability to a pan-European assembly, so the nascent European Parliament was left as a travesty, a show assembly hardly more relevant than a party conference in a communist state.

Even when national vetoes were removed in the interests of easier governance, no balancing increase in democratic accountability took their place. When the wise leaders produced a European constitution to replace the treaties on which the EU rests the people in many countries had to be given the opportunity of a vote and in sufficient countries rejected the idea. But were the wise leaders daunted? No, they called the constitution something else and carried on anyway.

In the UK we are now promised a vote on whether to stay within the European Union. This will in the end be presented as an economic choice – are we collectively better or worse off inside or out? The truth is, nobody can be sure. Either course will be better for some, worse for others and the arithmetic is difficult. Business will weigh in on the side of remaining, because of course an integrated market is good for business, as is a single focus for lobbying. Since most politicians are in awe of business in one way or another that will likely be the political consensus too.

But surely it is not financial arithmetic which should be at the heart of the choice but what has become the arrogance of imposed political and economic integration. A wide European alliance is an excellent thing and a large free trade area is probably very helpful, although much less relevant than in the past because of developments in the world trading order. Without the ability for the people to have some choice in what should happen along the way, however, these benefits are bought at a high price even if GDP is higher.

It’s not that we can or should have referenda at every turn because, after all, nation states are already far too large for direct democracy. We choose leaders to act for us and trust that they will take decisions with which we broadly agree. But in the EU they can’t even do that. All they can do is go off and contend throughout the night with a couple of dozen leaders of other states with the outcome decided by some combination of trade-off, power and tiredness. Even the tenuous link of trust between us and them is broken. Democracy, already pale in the nation state, is bleached to such a ghostly shade in the EU that it no longer exists.

The central vision of a United States of Europe has thus become a crude weapon against democracy. The structures and assumptions of the EU need thorough revision to meet the needs of an organisation which stretches far beyond what its founders would have believed possible.

That process of examination and revision, that wholesale reimagining of the project, will just not happen. It will not be allowed to happen by those who benefit economically from the status quo. Power will move further and further away from the people over whom it is exercised. And that is why the EU, sadly for it has noble aspirations buried there somewhere, should be mistrusted.

Regional devolution

One thing (among many) that Scottish nationalism highlights is that there is very little substance in the idea of English nationalism. Englishness is a synthetic thing, although perhaps no more than the northern variety since Scottish nationalism is often more a question of anti-Westminsterism than local ethnic pride. The North East, the South West, even the polymorphous capital attract stronger loyalties than attach to a mythical St George’s Land, except of course when sport is involved. I speak incidentally as one born in the North East, brought up in Kent and then in Yorkshire, educated in the East of England, who worked in London and now lives in the East Midlands.

Maybe I’m alone in thinking this, but to me the SNP shows a very undemocratic contempt for the people of Scotland. Independence apart, the SNP cannot hope to command a majority for their programme in the UK so they demand a different electorate. If that electorate returns the wrong answer as they did in 2014, the electorate is wrong. They must do it again until they get it right, at which point their decision becomes the irrevocable and timeless will of the Scottish people! But for all that, Scottish independence will inevitably come, partly because of that autocratic logic, partly because UK politicians have not been and still do not seem to be able to think of anything other than to take step after mesmerised step into the swamp.

But before anyone gets carried away with the idea that we should have English devolution to match the next inevitable round of appeasement of Scottish Nationalism, why can’t we think again about regional devolution? Scotland after all is in population terms only middling among the existing recognised regions of the UK – look at the regional population figures. London already enjoys significant autonomy and an autonomous Greater Manchester is George Osborne’s pet project. Why not devolve more powers to the regions – North West, North East, Yorkshire and the Humber, East Midlands, West Midlands, East, South East, South West, London, Scotland , Wales, Northern Ireland – and turn the UK Parliament into a federal parliament exercising whatever powers need to remain at the federal level?

OK, there are many reasons why not. But mostly they have to do with vested interests. First, since the genie is a long way out of the bottle, every region would have to have as much autonomy as Scotland. That is complicated, and would require incredible sacrifice by Westminster for the greater good. But is it really a bad thing? Huge national organisations have very few advantages and always need a regional structure even now – think NHS. They could still exercise powers federally if they saw advantage in so doing. Taxation would vary regionally, which might make income and corporation taxes tricky to administer, but surely rules could be devised to cope. If the taxation problem proved really to be intractable that would be a signal than certain taxes had to be federal.

There would of course be some “post code lottery” problems. But it would be up to regional powers to keep up with their neighbours or face the wrath of their people, so such problems should generally be short term. Westminster would lose power overall, which would be the biggest obstacle, the biggest vested interest and the reason why national parties and politicians would not even like to have this option discussed. It is the reason however why it needs to be discussed.

Then there is the “wasteful extra layer of government” argument. This is a good argument, so why not abolish the county level as a quid pro quo? Already the shires can be heard stirring, too many pockets of power, too many cosy relationships and political careers threatened! Yes, it would be a big change, but after the dust settled? Regions and districts without the middle layer would make a lot of sense.

Another objection is that some regions would be dominated by one or more conurbations. Well, they are! If the conurbations are where the population is concentrated, what principle of democracy suggests the conurbations should not be dominant in their regions? If the fear is that the leaders of conurbations cannot be trusted to understand rural matters, maybe there should be some federal powers to protect rural areas. But there is an immensely patronising assumption built in there.

On the plus side, regional loyalties and traditions are far stronger than any Shakespearean appeal to Englishness. Regions are real. They exist already, not just in the administrative arrangements of many national organisations, including government, but in the hearts and minds of the people who live, say, in Yorkshire, or the South West. Nationalist separatism within the UK is little more than this regional loyalty wrapped in a resentful history. So why not recognise what already exists? In this way separatist sentiment has a better chance of being contained and regional resentments can be recognised and channeled for the good of the region. It is the best option for retaining a United Kingdom, by embracing a federal form.

Many regions chafe now at the dominance of London and the South East. Regional devolution allows, indeed challenges, any region to do something about that, especially if at the federal level all regions are equal in political power. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have more power than their population numbers justify, but no change there. Westminster, assuming the federal capital stays in London which should certainly be up for debate, would be diminished. But the UK would be stronger.

In the next five years we face an unremitting assault on the integrity of the UK and an attempt by one region to separate on, let us be honest and who can blame them, terms which are as favourable to them as possible – which means as detrimental as possible to everyone else. A federal structure of government based on regions is no Utopia. But it might just create a fairer deal for everyone in the UK.