Europe: I’ve already voted

David Cameron has committed his party to a referendum on Europe. He proposes to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership; the subject of that renegotiation will be put in a referendum to the British electorate, who will be able to decide whether or not Britain remains in the EU. Those are much the same terms on which the previous referendum took place in 1975.

There are some common misconceptions about the 1975 referendum. I voted in that referendum, and being a dreadful hoarder, I still have copies of the leaflets and posters from that campaign. I can remember no point at which it was ever suggested that this was about nothing more than trade. The Government’s pamphlet, Britain’s New Deal in Europe, explained that the aims of the European Community were

  • to bring together the peoples of Europe
  • to raise living standards and improve working conditions
  • to promote growth and boost world trade
  • to help the poorer regions of Europe and the rest of the world
  • to help maintain peace and freedom.

According to Cameron, “today the main, over-riding aim of the European Union is different: not to win peace, but to secure prosperity”. That doesn’t look so different to 1975.

Cameron argues: ‘Put simply, many ask “why can’t we just have what we voted to join – a common market?” ‘ Is that what we voted on? The European Community of the time was clearly a federalist project, and the European Peoples’ Party, which the Conservatives were aligned with for many years, was federalist in principle. The leaflet for the “Yes” Campaign, delivered to every household, has admittedly only one very oblique reference to “European economic and political integration” (in a quotation from the Australian Prime Minister). The leaflet for the “No” campaign, however, was much more direct: the Common Market, they argued in the second sentence of a long pamphlet, “sets out by stages to merge Britain with France, Germany, Italy and other countries into a single nation”.

Neither of these pamphlets is available anywhere else on the Internet, so I’ve scanned the text and included them here: Why you should vote YES and Why you should vote NO. It’s striking how little the arguments against have moved in nearly forty years.

Merkel misses the point on welfare

Angela Merkel, in an interview for the Financial Times, suggests that Europe has to spend less on welfare to be competitive. “If Europe today accounts for just over 7 per cent of the world’s population, produces around 25 per cent of global GDP and has to finance 50 per cent of global social spending, then it’s obvious that it will have to work very hard to maintain its prosperity and way of life.” She cites the problem of competition from other countries: “Other models have long since emerged: China, India, Japan, Brazil, and they will be joined by other countries that are working hard and proving to be innovative.”

She’s missing something important. All the countries she’s mentioned are committed to social support as well as economic development. Japan has long established networks of solidarity; China, Brazil and India have all been extending their systems of social protection. So have other countries she doesn’t mention, such as South Africa, Mexico and Indonesia. Developing security, reducing vulnerability and improving welfare is a large part of what prosperity is for.

Can Europe act on poverty?

The European Commission has proposed the development of a new fund to give European aid to the ‘most deprived’, mainly homeless people and children in poverty. The money would be directed through Member States or ‘partner organisations’ – that is, through NGOs.

I’ve written in the past about the Commission’s attempts to establish competence by developing programmes that create a precedent (see The principle of subsidiarity and the social policy of the European Community, Journal of European Social Policy, 1991 1(1), pp 3-14; Social policy in a federal Europe, Social Policy and Administration 1996 30(4) 293-304). When the Lingua programme allowed the EU to fund language teaching in schools, the responsible commissioner claimed: “we now have competence in education”. It’s been a long time since the EU did much to pursue that agenda; but if this fund is approved, the EU will have competence in poverty relief.

Scotland and the EU

First Minister Alex Salmond has been accused of lying in a TV interview, when he said that yes, the government had sought the advice of legal officers about Scotland’s position in the EU in relation to debates and documents. In the Parliament, Salmond defended himself with chapter and verse about which documents he meant. I have just checked them out for myself, and I think Salmond has the right of it. Two of the three papers he cites, Choosing Scotland’s Future (2007, p 24) and Your Scotland your referendum (2012, p4) do make statements about Scotland’s position in Europe and will have passed the law officers, even if they are somewhat thinner than a proper legal consideration might offer. The main problem the Scottish government might have in giving a fuller account would not, I suspect, be the question of the confidentiality of advice; it would be that obtaining such advice would be a breach of the Scotland Act, which deliberately and explicitly prevents the government from contemplating the breakup of the United Kingdom. Following that line of enquiry has only been made legally possible following the Edinburgh agreement.

The more important question is where an independent Scotland would stand in relation to the EU. A helpful article last month by Alan Trench in the Guardian explains that while Scotland’s position is uncertain, it is debatable whether the EU could deny a Scottish application without breaking its own rules. Europe has a federal structure, in which every citizen is a citizen of Europe as well as of the member state; denying access to Scotland would deny citizenship to EU citizens.

Further note, 1st November: The press have caught up with this argument this morning, with an honorary member of the Commission confirming that EU citizenship cannot be withdrawn and that terms of entry would be negoatiated on that basis between a referendum result and independence.

The Greek tragedy

The continuing crisis in Greece has been presented in questionable terms. First, we have been told that the alternative to ‘austerity’ is a disorderly default. Defaults do not have to be disorderly. New York and Cleveland, both members of a different currency union, have defaulted on their debts in the past; the dollar was unharmed, and they were not forced to adopt a new currency.

Second, we are told that Greece will have to leave the Euro. Greece cannot be forced not to use the Euro. Money is what people accept as a unit of exchange, and if people in Greece opt to trade in Euros, they cannot be stopped. Some countries use other countries’ currencies informally; some (like Ecuador, which uses the US dollar) do it formally. Germany might have more success in insisting that Greece should use a different currency from them if Germany itself was to leave the Euro, but that seems unlikely.

The economic policy that the EU, and Germany and France in particular, are forcing on Greece has led to a major depression – and the problem does lie in that policy, not in Greece’s deficit. Austerity is the worst possible answer to an economic depression; and austerity which is targeted on the poor is indefensible morally as well as economically. If France and Germany want to ensure that Greece does not default, to protect their own banks, they need to take steps to shore up the Greek economy. At present, they are doing the opposite.

The European constitution and the treaty

The European Union claims that the newly agreed treaty is not a revival of the abortive proposal to establish a constitution. A House of Commons Select Committee has complained that the new treaty has most of the same elements as the old, rejected one. They are both right.

The abortive attempt to establish a European constitution might be seen as a fundamental criticism of the character of the EU. I suspect the reasons for the treaty’s rejection in referenda is more pedestrian. The responsible committee, chaired by Valery Giscard d’Estaing, made a thoroughgoing hash of it, being unable to select the principles that mattered, and trying to include every aspect of EU policy. Even for those who (like myself) support the principles of the European Union, it was a thoroughly uninspiring document. The procedures for the French referendum made made the full document available to everyone – and the document, which is as hard to read as a telephone book, was unlikely to win any friends.

A constitution is a foundational statement. It needs to be communicative, transparent, and justiciable. Every constitution needs to set out the basic institutional framework. It needs to state primary legal rules – rules of recognition, change and adjudication. It should probably state fundamental principles, like the Bill of Rights in the US constitution. But it should not include policy. Instead of confining itself to constitutional issues, the “constitutional treaty” sought both to consolidate the content of previous treaties and to include substantial elements of previously agreed policy – issues like the environment, agriculture and fisheries, and commercial rules. However important these may be, they are not constitutional principles; and whatever the merits of the policies may be, it is very questionable whether the policy which is appropriate now should be expected to be appropriate a hundred years from now. More than nine-tenths of the constitutional treaty was clutter – although it may have contained important policy decisions, it should not have been in a proposed constitution at all.

At the same time, the constitutional treaty included many issues on which there were new agreements. Some of those agreements were fundamental, like agreements on the principle qualified majority voting. Some were not, such as the specific designation of voting arrangements in respect of different policy fields. The member states and the Commission are reluctant to lose sight of the areas they agreed; and so the proposals have been revived in the new treaty. In other words, the new treaty is largely made up of the clutter that should never have been in the proposed constitution. The new treaty does duplicate the constitutional proposals – but it is not a constitution.

Europe still needs a constitution – the specification of institutions, primary rules and basic principles. This treaty is not it. One has to hope that eventually, proposals will be made for a genuine, effective constitution – but it has to be done without elevating every policy area in the EU to the level of fundamental principle. As a modest proposal, there needs to be a word limit. The constitution should not be longer than ten pages; there should not be more than about seventy five clauses. It needs to be served up in plain language. Then, perhaps, it might be worth voting for.