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.
LIKE WHAT WE DO? HELP US TO DO MORE OF IT BY DONATING HERE.