OPINION

Leading Hove Labour politician makes democratic case for leaving EU

Posted On 07 Mar 2016 at 8:55 am
Brexit? Why our democratic values, forged over centuries, is the real issue in the EU referendum debate

On one of my recent business trips to the United States, I was the guest of Maryland State Senator, Jim Rosapepe. Late one evening, after dinner, he kindly persuaded one of the guards at the state house to open up a room of historical significance that got me soul searching about the current EU referendum debate.

In the fading light, this was the room that in December 1783 George Washington resigned his commission as commander of the continental army.

We know from our history books of course that this was one of the final chapters in ending the idea of British over-lordship of its former colony. To this day, Washington’s actions also signify a fundamental principle of American democracy: that the elected civilian government has authority over the military. It’s the reason why the President is still referred to as commander-in-chief.

The founding fathers of the American constitution not only created checks and balances in power and decision-making at federal, state and local levels, they also enshrined the idea of a direct line of sight between those making the laws, and the people expected to live by them.

No one would argue America’s system is perfect. Witness the rise of Donald Trump! But it is an undeniable truth that if you don’t like a politician – the county clerk, the governor or the President – you can kick him or her out.

The same can’t be said about the European Commission. These are the people who between them now initiate and draft up to 65 per cent of Britain’s domestic laws – via EU directives. They are unelected and unaccountable.

In just about any other liberal system of government, the executive is ultimately accountable to voters via an elected legislative assembly.

Yet the European parliament is no sovereign: it cannot initiate legislation or repeals laws of its own. Neither can it put up or lower taxes.

Technically, European parliamentarians can dismiss Commissioners, except in practice, such power is almost impossible to use.

The European Council – made up of the member states’ heads of government – does derive some democratic mandate. But only from national electorates, and even then, most of its proceedings are in secret. Once again, democracy and transparency is the victim of progress.

Unlike some in the leave campaign, immigration and the clamour to regain control of our borders is not where I am coming from in this once-in-a-generation decision. Britain needs to remain open to the world, continue to work in multilateral institutions like NATO and the UN, which should include accepting our obligations to welcome skilled immigrants and refugees coming to our shores – just as we have done for centuries.

Fundamentally, this referendum decision is about the democratic deficit at the heart of an enlarged EU that has become a distant Leviathan in the daily existence of most peoples’ lives. One of the greatest political challenges of our age is that people are no longer trustful of large institutions – whether that’s Google skimping on the payment of taxes or Westminster elites sucking up to press barons.

A lot of people – and not just the ‘angry mob’ – are simply fed up with Big Oil, Big Money and Big Conglomerates. It doesn’t matter whether these big beasts are the public sector or business corporations: both can display the same arrogance of power, entitlement and the assertion that they know best.

Indeed, these big interests love the EU because it allows them to rig the economy in more easy and accessible ways. And let’s be clear, the vast majority of workers’ rights in Britain, since the first factory acts of the 1850s, came from the progressive work of the Labour Movement, not from post-Maastricht Single Market EU directives.

The real federal project in Britain today should not be whether to inevitably become part of a United States of Europe, but to create our own federal union – once and for all ending the over concentration of power in Whitehall and settling amicably with the English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.

The truth is that people are crying out for power, wealth, opportunity and resources to be devolved to the lowest possible level. The EU takes all these things in the opposite direction. By definition it is supranational, not super-local.

In the short time since being elected to local government, I’ve lost count of how many conversations that have started with: “we can’t do that because of EU procurement rules.”

My local constituents clearly wanted more of a say in choosing the design plans for the new King Alfred leisure centre, yet EU rules, we were told, ultimately prevented them from doing so.

The decision before us on June 23 is about democracy. From Magna Carta to the Suffragettes, our proud British traditions have been one of tightening the leash of accountability around those who would deny us of our rights.

It would be wrong of course not to acknowledge some of the achievements of the European Union. But success in preventing conflict since World War II cannot be forever held up as the main benchmark of continental success.

Look at how badly the EU handled the Euro meltdown in 2011 and how today it is handling the migrant refugee crisis.

Greece – the cradle of ancient democracy – was reduced to nothing more than a medieval vassal in accepting the terms of austerity drawn up for the country by the European Commission and ECB. Greek pensioners alone will have to swallow a €1 billion cut in support this year just to meet the requirements of European creditors. There’s absolutely nothing progressive about that state of affairs.

Enough is enough. From Simon De Monfort at the Battle of Lewes in 1264 and George Washington at Yorktown, it has become a fine and noble tradition to oppose those who would have us continue to subordinate ourselves to a distant and tyrannical regime.

As the legendary Labour Chancellor, the late Denis Healey once remarked about supporters of greater European integration: “Their Europeanism is nothing but imperialism with an inferiority complex.”

We need to return to Jean Monet’s original vision: one that brings the peoples of Europe together in free trade, mutual respect and co-operation.

The referendum is the opportunity to reject the idea that increasingly sovereign states should be forced into a union straightjacket that is simply no longer working.

Tom Bewick studied a postgraduate degree in European public policy, worked in Brussels in the 1990s and is a Labour councillor on Brighton and Hove City Council.

  1. Paul Chandler Reply

    Tom says he has lost count of the number of times the EU has stopped the council doing things. Has he kept count of the number of times the UK government has stopped our democratically elected councillors from doing things? I think he will find this a far higher number.

    The EU is a democratic institution and we vote for our MEP’s who will have (for example) the final say on the EU-US trade deal known as TTIP.

    The Brexit campaign is a power grab by the right wing of the Conservative Party. They care about sovereignty because they control it – and we have had a Tory government for 70% of my long life.

    Labour politicians who support Brexit (they are a small minority) are being what Lenin called ‘useful idiots’. That is people arguing against the interests of their class because of falling for the propaganda of the other side.

  2. Valerie Paynter Reply

    Oh! Bravo, Tom. BRAVO! I for one intend to retrieve the vote I gave in 1975. What we ended up with is not what I thought I was voting for. My vote was stolen.

    Connection with Europe is massively important. The shared history and pain of the 20thc wars still requires resolution, but not as the EU. The ties that bind us will not break if the EU experiment is ended. It is the third tier of undemocratic, unelected and profoundly expensive (£51m a DAY from the UK) government that must GO.

    Thank God we at least never gave up Sterling to the profound inequities of the Euro. Britain’s Brexit is a move toward liberating Spain and Greece from their unfair positions too (I hope).
    .

  3. Anon Reply

    You are an ill-educated, short-sighted, disillusioned person if you think being out of the EU is better for the UK.

    Every economist says it’s suicide. We don’t have the empire any more, we don’t have a decent government, we don’t have the trading power, we don’t have the skills within our own country to rebuild any more.

    This is a disgrace of an article and you should be ashamed.

    • Valerie Paynter Reply

      Why should anyone listen to “Anon”? And “every” economist is not known to you to allow you to make this sweeping and incorrect assertion. Economists are theoreticians and not the best people to be forecasting how we would do outside the EU.

    • Harvey Crusader Reply

      Every economist??? you’re deluded ask Professor Minford of Cardiff University about Brxit and the opportunities it will bring. He’s someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. The truth is you don’t actually want the U.K to leave and succeed.

  4. Reg Stamp Reply

    Churchill stated following the battle of Briton that victory was thanks mainly to the few. The next battle will be decided by the many consisting of countless numbers of people, with one vote apiece, who have the guts to say enough is enough and quit the EU.

  5. Brian Ogilvie Reply

    Good article BUT …”We need to return to Jean Monet’s original vision”

    Er I think not.This was the man after all who said :

    “Europe’s nations should be guided towards the superstate without their people understanding what is happening.

    This can be accomplished by successive steps, each disguised as having an economic purpose, but which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation ”

    All of which neatly sums up the EU

  6. Nigel Furness Reply

    Well, I never thought I would say this Tom, but what a superb and well researched case you make! You have exhibited commendable courage and in so doing you have soared in my estimation. As for you, Anon, I think that name suits you—your’e every bit as anonymous as those Brussels Buraeucrats. Strange though, I would have thought that someone with such a massive superiority complex as you obviously display, would have loved to bask in the glory of your ill- conceived comments!
    Hope to see you on the Brexit Street Stall in New Road on Saturday, Tom.

  7. Paul Chandler Reply

    The Brexit case seems to be: leave the club but still play the game (only ignore the rules). Is this very convincing? If we can leave the EU without consequences then why not stay in?

    Of course there will be consequences either leaving or staying but the Brexiters cannot agree on what they will be. Well to be honest they don’t know what they will be.

    They do think that it will save money, but this is only the case if we also leave the single market (Norway for example is out of the EU but in the single market – and they pay almost as much per head as we do). We will also save money if we opt out of the many progressive employment practices that are part of our EU membership – maternity leave, paid holiday, minimum wage, gender equality etc. etc. Who trusts an ongoing Conservative government to keep these benefits?

    • Harvey Crusader Reply

      Nowhere else in the free world do you have trade tied to political union and nor will that be the case when we leave the E.u The progress you speak of will still exist when we leave and only a fool would introduce tariff barriers to it’s biggest customer when it’s national economies are falling off a fiscal cliff. Meanwhile Britain will benefit from bi lateral trade deals that don’t take decades to broker (unlike the e.u. you love so much). Its like the other guy above.. the only people who don’t want Britain to leave the E.u. are it’s client state and associated losers. Also TTIP will go ahead if the U.K were to be foolish enough to remain in the E.u. the E.u. commission would never let a little thing like democracy spoil a good coporate hegemony; tut tut that would never do.

  8. Richard Corbett MEP Reply

    EU is not undemocratic, though improvements are possible: http://www.richardcorbett.org.uk/which-democratic-deficit/

    and there’s nothing left wing about being anti-EU :
    http://labourlist.org/2015/09/theres-nothing-left-wing-about-being-anti-eu/

    • Harvey Crusader Reply

      It’s not what the U.K signed up for in 75 in fact 75 was a total stitch up for that alone we need to tell the British people what the plan was and still is which is a federal United states of Europe. All this froth and sophistry is designed to deflect attention away from the fact that we have to make a choice (for better or worse..better in my opinion) that are either a sovereign nation or a star of a federal E.U. flag unable to make any meaningful law or say who comes in to Britain.

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