#013 - The U.K.’s 2016 European Union Referendum

The government of the United Kingdom has decided to hold a referendum on the 23rd June 2016, with the approval of the U.K. parliament as with all policies, as to whether our country should remain in or leave the European Union (E.U.).

This rare slice of direct democracy has happened primarily because a significant part of the political ‘right’ of British politics, namely some factions of the Conservative Party, alongside the UK Independence Party, have consistently campaigned for Britain to question, and ultimately leave, the European Union, after joining its predecessor, the European Economic Community back in 1973, which was backed by 67% of voters in the first ‘European Communities membership referendum’ of June 1975 (under the then Labour government).

In 2014 the UK Independence Party, or UKIP as they have become known, won the European Parliamentary elections, gaining the most Member of European Parliament (MEP) seats, on an explicitly anti EU message, obtaining almost 4.4 million votes, this followed the party obtaining roughly 2.5 million votes in the preceding two European elections, 2004 & 2009.
A year later, in the 2015 General Election campaign, UKIP, bolstered by an expanded media presence, gained almost 3.9 million votes across the U.K, coming third, in terms of vote share, to the Conservative and Labour parties.

Both these events played a notable role in putting this 2016 EU referendum on the political agenda.

The traditional British left, in the 1970s and early 1980s, also opposed the European Economic Community (EEC), even Tony Blair, later a Labour leader and Prime Minister, was originally elected, as an MP, on an anti-EU ticket back in 1983,

During the 1980s however, the flagging left, for the most part, changed their view and came to see the European Community, or Union, as a last safeguard of progressive values, as the then dominant Margaret Thatcher attacked the unions, undermined ideas of solidarity, community, communal spirit & society and ushered in the neoliberal era in Britain. From the mid 1980s (with the exception of a few key figures such as Tony Benn and Graham Stringer) many on the left all out refused to properly engage with euroscepticism of any form, until the 2000s, when UKIP started to attract traditional Labour voters on a significant scale. Even in 2014, at UKIP’s peak, Ed Miliband avoided the EU referendum question as best he could, and all out refused to hold a referendum should he win the soon to be held 2015 general election.

The current Labour leadership, Jeremy Corbyn & John McDonnell, along with MPs like Dennis Skinner, as back benchers, in contrast maintained their anti-EU stance through the decades and voted against the European Union on multiple occasions in Parliament between the 1980s and 2000s, despite being a small minority on the Labour benches.

In 2009 Corbyn voted against the Lisbon Treaty stating,

“The project has always been to create a huge free-market Europe, with ever limiting powers for national parliaments and an increasingly powerful common foreign and security policy”

He also, on a different occasion, described the E.U. as,

“A European bureaucracy totally unaccountable to anybody. Powers have gone from national parliaments. They haven’t gone to the European Parliament, they’ve gone to the Commission and to some extent the Council of Ministers. These are quite serious matters.”

It is therefore hard to understand why Corbyn, a campaigner and politician who has found success, and risen to the position of leader of a major political party, based largely upon his principled, positive, socialist approach to politics, has decided now to change his mind, given his strongly held prior positions, however in fairness it has to be acknowledged in his current position as leader there are other things at stake, such as the near impossible task of keeping together an increasingly divided political party in the 21st century and trying to steer the behemoth coalition that is the Labour Party in a progressive direction as one.

Historically then the EU question has never truly gone away, it is also true some people’s attitudes toward the EU have altered, as the EU and they themselves have changed over time. Others, on the other hand have reached a position on the subject and stuck with it across the years.

When considering which way to vote in this referendum however, it really is not about which political personalities promote which position and who we choose to align to in this moment, it is really about their reasons for doing so and whether those reasons stand up to objective, critical inspection.

When the arguments are objectively examined here, three things become clear.

Firstly the E.U. is flawed on many fundamental levels, which many acknowledge, including those supporting a remain vote, secondly the arguments for remain often don’t stand up when properly examined and thirdly, to reform the E.U. looks near impossible.

So let us here explore,
- What is the European Union?
- How does the EU work?
- How the EU is problematic?
- and examine whether it can be significantly reformed for the better?

Before we can explore this, it’s helpful to know how the E.U. came into being, and which countries lie within its borders, the following two videos explain this well.

The European Union is a ‘supranational’ organisation, an organisation with power transcending national boundaries and national governments, based in Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Frankfurt. It is (now) a political and economic union, containing over 500 million people, made up of seven decision-making institutions or bodies, that together issue and enforce directives and regulations, which ultimately take precedence over national law.

These institutions are as follows:

· The European Commission — The Commission is the executive body of the E.U. and submits proposals for new legislation, alongside administering the budget and enforcing E.U. law. The President is proposed by the Council and then elected by the European Parliament, whereas the other commissioners are appointed and approved as a whole by the European Parliament.

· The European Council — The Council are the elected heads of the member states alongside a permanent President who is appointed by the heads of state, along with the President of the Commission. This body does not legislate but gets together and sets general objectives and priorities at least four times a year.

· The European Parliament — The Parliament is a fully elected body of MEPs that amends laws proposed by the Commission & later decided and drawn up by the Council of ministers.

· The Council of the European Union (Council of Ministers) — The Council of Ministers consists of one national minister for every member state. This body meets in different configurations and comes up with most of the content of the laws, and accepts or rejects amendments to laws put forward by the Parliament. The council operates almost entirely in secret.

· The Court of Justice — The Court of Justice, made up of judges, ensures the uniform application of EU Law across the Union.

· The European Central Bank — The bank controls the money supply and determines monetary policy across the ‘Eurozone’.

· The Court of Auditors — The auditors check the proper implementation of the E.U. budget.

Jean-Claude Juncker, Current President of the European Commission

The E.U. is a complicated, bureaucratic setup then, containing 28 member states currently, with others looking to meet the criteria and join in the future. It functions differently to our national parliament, which works through members, who are directly elected by the people, drawing up, proposing, amending and voting on new laws directly, and a non elected house, the house of lords, checking and occasionally sending these laws back to the legislators with amendments, before they pass and become law.

The E.U. is also built upon four freedoms, outlined in the Treaty of Rome movement (1957) and expanded on in the creation of the single market, at the height of Thatcherism, with the 1986/1987 Single European Act. They are the freedom to move capital, goods, services and labour (in the form of people) freely throughout the union. As mentioned the E.U. institutions are spread across four cities, with the Parliament even upping sticks and moving once a month, from Brussels to Strasbourg, at the cost of around £100 million a year.

Now in the month leading up to the referendum we have been hearing a muddled case for reducing immigration, from the official leave campaign, and a questionable economic case for remaining, often in the form of scare stories and hyperbole as to why leaving would be cost us all dearly, in all kinds of ways.

Many of these predictions come from politicians with questionable motives, many with vested interests, or institutions who failed to see the global recession coming, pushed for us to join the Eurozone (talking of financial ruin if we didn’t) and have presided over a huge growth in inequality in Britain, alongside near stagnation since the 2008 financial crash. Many institutions also model their predictions on assumptions, which are difficult to understand, verify or take seriously.

It’s worth adding professional economists fall on both sides of this debate, for instance Ashoka Mody, a former senior economist for the International Monetary Fund, writing for the Independent, has critiqued the idea there is some kind of consensus on the economic implications of leaving the Union,

“…Since 2010, official agencies have repeatedly promised global recovery. The forecasts fail because they all disregard inconvenient evidence. Now, the official consensus on the economic costs of Brexit has crossed the line into groupthink. A numerical illusion is masquerading as a “fact.” And when those in authority distort facts, they also subvert the cause of democracy.”


The truth is nobody can really predict the future, particularly when economics is concerned, business figures are also divided with prominent figures on both sides of the argument, so it makes more sense to base our decision, on whether we vote to leave or remain in the EU, simply on what we know for sure.

Here are the key points:

1) It is definitely possible to leave the EU and remain in the single market, and therefore accept free movement of people, just as Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland do. We should wholeheartedly reject arguments based on immigrant scapegoating, particularly as studies show immigration brings a variety of benefits, well documented and publicised throughout the (reasonable) media.

One important issue however is, by remaining part of a system of (EU member state) free movement, we are in effect treating people from countries outside the E.U. who may want to live and work in Britain, unfairly by continuing to make it harder for them to immigrate into Britain, relative to E.U. citizens, assuming the status quo remains (and Britain does not extend free movement to countries beyond the EU/EEA countries)

Remaining in the European Union (likely) means continuing with free movement as it currently stands, and therefore continuing to discriminate in this way, assuming no changes to our immigration system and assuming we don’t open our borders and extend freedom of movement beyond the 27 other EU member states.

Leaving the European Union alternatively means we have the choice, which should be the democratic choice, to either continue (or even extend) free movement, which we could technically do if we remained or left the EU, or to end free movement and look to change our immigration policy (likely in a more restrictive manner, outside of the single market, relative to the current ‘free movement’ rules) to one which treats the entirety of the world, outside Britain, equitably.

2) The E.U. is not Europe itself; it’s a set of sociopolitical institutions set up in a highly bureaucratic way, with limited democratic control, particularly when compared to national parliamentary democracy. Although it does have a parliament, its power is limited as it is the appointed (and unelected) Commission who draw up all proposals for legislation. The Commission itself asserts they have “strong decision making powers” within the European Union and the current President of the Commission, has even been quoted as saying “There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties”.

3) It is very hard to hold the people who make decisions to account and scrutiny, because the institutions of the E.U. hold a great many meetings in private and refuse to make many records public.

4) There is no clear alternation of power. While different groups may gain more seats in the European Parliament, this is not necessarily matched by similar changes in the ‘executive’ branches of the EU, these being the European Commission, and the Councils.

5) Being a member of the European Union costs Britain roughly between £250 and £290 million per week, accounting for the rebate which never goes to the EU. The EU also then spends some of its budget on projects in the U.K., as an EU member state, totalling around £80 - £100 million a week

6) The E.U. has built a small military group, known as the EU Battle Group, answerable directly to the Union, and the current President of the European Commission would like to go further and build a full scale European Army, to combat and compete with Russia, China and the United States of America. This would require unanimous agreement by all member states in practice but there is reason to think this is an ongoing aim by the people in power in the E.U., including both elected and appointed figures. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/08/jean-claude-juncker-calls-for-eu-army-european-commission-miltary

7) The European Commission is pushing to implement TTIP (the Transatlantic trade and investment partnership) which threatens to lower food, health and environmental standards, allowing corporations to sue governments for causing losses to their profits through policy implementation or contravening trade rules in private international courts, undermining democracy across the continent and greatly aiding the ongoing privatisation of the NHS, which is being negotiated, largely in secret, between the E.U. and the U.S.

8) Current E.U. law makes it more difficult to re-nationalise British railways in the future, following privatisation in the 1990s.

Good articles on this issue are here,
http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/08/renationalise-railways-what-no-one-will-tell-you-we-cant-while-were-eu and here
— http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-3728-EU-referendum-Change-here-for-public-railways#.V0mqGZMrK35.

Nicole Badstuber, a researcher in urban transport governance at the London School of Economics and UCL, writes,

“The EU package may not strictly require privatisation but it is definitely designed to create an environment conducive to this. Curiously, the EU holds up Britain as a role model, despite the fact that many in the UK take a more critical view of the privatisation in hindsight. I would therefore suggest there is a valid case for Mick Cash to say that the package promotes dismantling state rail services and paves the way for privatising operations.”

Additionally in 2006 French Rail Company SNCF was fined hundreds of millions for not opening its freight sector to private competition. Similarly the Viking Line and Laval case rulings by the European Court of Justice institution show the E.U. is far more concerned with securing economic freedoms within the single market than protecting social and employment rights, through legally restricting collective action.

9) E.U. directives/regulations such as its state aid rules, the ‘Stability & Growth Pact’ (Eurozone) and competition laws, serve to illustrate the dedication the European Union has to private, market forces being the only force for good for the European people. This ties together with the European Union’s treatment of countries inside the Eurozone recently, particularly Greece in the wake of their referendum to reject an austerity package on offer from the European Central Bank, one of the European Union’s institutions, and the impact the E.U. ‘Troika’ (a decision group formed by the Commission, Central bank and IMF) on Ireland. Both countries, as a direct result of massive austerity policies, endorsed or pursued by the E.U., now have depravation rates above 30%, the figure higher in children in particular, and very high numbers of emigration, particularly among young people. Moreover the European Union even went as far as installing a ‘technocratic’, unelected government in Italy, to manage its debt crisis, from 2011 to 2013, and implement significant austerity measures and “structural reforms”.

Moreover, corporate lobbyists in the European lobby outnumber NGO (non-governmental organisation) lobbying by 15 to 1, which again illustrates the influence of big business and neoliberalism generally, in comparison to the social democratic influence on the institutions. (Over $38 million a year from British financial institutions no less, http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/UK-Bankers-Spend-over-38-Million-a-Year-to-Lobby-EU-Report-20160607-0009.html)

It’s clear then from these points alone, the European Union has many fundamental problems, which should push any critically thinking person towards the exit door, but what about the arguments upheld by the progressive wing of the Remain campaign?

In brief all of these arguments are flawed or misguided to one extent or another.

For instance the argument that the UK is undemocratic because it fails to elect the House of Lords or civil service, or that it is undemocratic because the House of Commons doesn’t employ a proportional voting system, do not stand up — firstly the European Commission has the power to propose all the EU legislation, this is a fundamental power not shared by the House of Lords or the civil service, secondly, these national institutions are not beyond the reach of our elected representatives, meaning they CAN be reformed and even abolished, thirdly, acknowledging problems in our national democracy (namely our ‘first past the post’ voting system) doesn’t somehow make bigger, more fundamental problems with European Union democracy justifiable.

Or the idea we need the E.U. to continue international cooperation for issues like security and human rights, despite being already involved in many international groups such as the U.N. and the 47 member state Council of Europe (which preceded the E.U. and is explicitly focused on promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law).

Similarly the idea the E.U. adequately protects our environment, which all out ignores many facts, look at the Common Agricultural Policy’s effects on farmland or the effects of the car industry’s successful and unrelenting lobbying of the E.U., leading to vast increases in diesel engines across the continent, to the detriment of European air quality. Arguing we need to remain in the E.U. for the sake of the environment also ignores the role the Council of Europe and the U.N. plays and could play going forward, look at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for instance, involving many countries outside the European Union.

Or the idea, the EU has kept the peace in Europe since World War II, this argument is beautifully counter-argued by a Cambridge University Politics & International Relations professor here — http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/opinion-can-the-eu-keep-the-peace-in-europe-not-a-chance.

Or the idea after we leave the E.U. we somehow lose all our rights overnight, ignoring the fact EU laws can be incorporated in UK domestic law and that workers rights are won and maintained by trade unions, campaign groups and strong social movements, not by a top down organisation, and are often currently set higher than the E.U. requires anyway (for example, holiday leave, maternity leave and maternity pay, the minimum wage).

On and on these flawed arguments and half truths go, there are many articles already in existence, which detail these myths and explain why they are misguided, here’s one that’s particularly concise and all encompassing, from Counterfire.org,
- http://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/18296-debunked-12-left-wing-reasons-for-remaining-in-the-european-union,

and another two from the Left Exit Campaign Group,
1) http://www.leftleave.org/five-myths-about-the-eu/
2) http://www.leftleave.org/seven-more-myths-about-the-eu/

So can we really reform the E.U?

Besides the handful of ideas put forward by the ‘DiEM25’ and ‘Another Europe is Possible’ well-intentioned campaign groups, it’s notable that there is no specific vision and practical plan to change the E.U.

This is basically because to do so requires treaty changes which would involve getting a majority of EU member states to agree to start a convention, involving national ministers, MEPs and the Commission, and then getting all 28 member states to unanimously agree on any change, large or small, where every member state holds an effective veto. Although larger countries in theory hold more sway than smaller countries, to achieve far-reaching change is near impossible in this set up, particularly with the political parties and individuals currently in power across Europe.

Donald Tusk, President of the European Council

Significant progressive change would practically require several radical, progressive governments being in power simultaneously, across the member states. Additionally the principles of EU law overriding national law and the free movement of people within the European Union can never be changed, so the democratic and discriminatory issues will remain regardless.

Anecdotally, Gisela Stewart, Labour MP, was the last politician sent to the Brussels, in the Blair era, to discuss making the European Union more democratic, this experience had such an impact she became a committed Eurosceptic and now even chairs the Vote Leave Campaign, arguing passionately and forcefully against the majority of her own party.

In conclusion then, the European Union in its current form is riddled with problems for any free thinking person, some of which are highlighted here. These problems and flaws illustrate the extent to which the Union exists to serve the interests of capital, the elite and big business whilst ensuring, even enforcing, the continuation of the plethora of neoliberal, free market driven policies now dominant throughout its member states.

This article has not even delved into the E.U.’s trade policies with the global South, which are objectionable if not all out pernicious, ‘Fortress Europe’ in all its guises or the true extent and implications of corporate lobbying across Europe.

The idea it can be reformed in any meaningful way is close to fantasy, in reality it is unclear how it will develop in the years to come but it is likely it will get worse for the British and European majority rather than getting better, all things considered, if it does not collapse completely. Twenty first century progressives, led by the millennials, should vote to leave the E.U. and continue to campaign for Britain to listen to the democratic will of the people more closely, start promoting and winning the arguments over domestic and foreign policy and work to strengthen movements and organisations promoting positive change, such as the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and the trade unions, with the help of the relatively free internet and the rapidly increasing independent press.

Simply put, a vote for Leave in the upcoming EU referendum can be a vote for democracy, a vote for freedom, a vote for change and a vote against elitism and the politics of fear.

There are many other good articles online worth reading on this topic, here are a few of them.

(Written by Ben Seifert, writer & political activist)

(Written by Richard Tuck, Professor of Government at Harvard University, author of many books on political theory)

(Written by Jenny Jones, Green Member of the House of Lords and former London Assembly Member)

(Written by Oliver Huitson, co-editor at OpenDemocracyUK, writer and contributor)



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Progressive Primers

Progressive Primers

Exploring and arguing for radical, green & progressive ideas. https://twitter.com/ProgressiveJimi