Tuesday, 26 May 2015

We need a positive case for the EU

The Labour Party now supports an EU referendum. It's perhaps symbolically important, but is effectively a pointless position: the referendum will happen as the Conservatives have a majority and it was a manifesto commitment. The task now is to build the case for continued membership.

There are legitimate complaints about the EU that need to be aired and recognised (although I would not consider protection of human rights and freedom of movement among them).

  • As with any bureaucracy, it likes to increasingly creep in to areas where it previously had no mandate. When it meets a new issue its first instinct is to standardise and harmonise. It rarely follows the principle of subsidiarity, and  gives little thought to individual country preferences and cultures (see the 2013 olive oil shenanigans for an example). 
  • The EU also has an insidious drive towards making us Europeans first, and national citizens second. National borders are often an arbitrary construct, but a shared sense of identity is important for communities, and institutions should not be trying to artificially shape that - particularly when they have such an obvious self-interest in doing so. 
  • As an example, the pan-European research programme (current iteration is FP7) is more about fostering cross-border collaboration as part of being 'Europeans' than it is about research excellence or economic growth.
  • The Common Agricultural Policy, despite reform, still exists, and continues to interfere in the global food production market to the detriment of third world farmers. 
  • The EU's civil servants and MEPs are paid way too much, and there are too many of them - the growth of the bureaucracy and political elite has been extraordinary. There are also too many directorates - 27, one for each member to be head of (literally). 27 cabinet members is too many, particularly given the obvious overlap between the areas of responsibility. 
  • Having to relocate the entire Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg every month is mind-numbingly stupid - an example of Conquest's Third Law
However, the EU adds a lot of value. 
  • As a trading block it is critically important - and it is naive to think we could still influence the shape of that without being members of the club. 
  • Things I know about, like telecoms, benefit from EU involvement - roaming charges, for example, can only be dealt with at an EU level. 
  • It provides protection for human rights against the actions of/abuse by government. Those that complain about the HRA and ECHR would probably end up complaining about any British Bill of Rights too, once judges began to interpret it - they just don't like the limit that inalienable human rights place on the actions of government. (Repudiation of the ECHR is also a very complex issue.) 
  • Freedom of movement provides tremendous value through the contribution of migrant workers to the economy.

The EU needs to move back towards its trading block roots, and be less about consumer protection, welfare, and other social issues. These should be the realm of domestic governments. Its budget needs to start shrinking, and our MEPs and European Parliament need to cost us less.

However, although it needs reform, the EU is not broken such that it does the UK more harm than good. The easy thing to do is to wash our hands of it. The right thing to do is to drive reform of it.

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