David Miliband on Question Time this evening made an interesting point in relation to our membership of the EU. He asked whether we want a world of nations with bilateral agreements, or to be part of a larger bloc, with greater power to punch above the weight of its individual constituent members.
Well, David, we could make a similar comparison with independent MPs and political parties. Would we rather have individual MPs making rational decisions on a case-by-case basis, or would we rather have the current system of political parties, whereby members are forced to toe the party line rather than represent the interests of their constituents?
Give me the bilateral agreements/independent MPs model any day over the tactics of large blocs. The modern world needs increasingly decentralised and nimble decision-making cadres, rather than increasingly large and cumbersome old-world blocs, incapable of making decisions quickly, democratically, and in the interests of all their members.
The large bloc may present a more powerful front on the world stage, but countries are quite capable of coming together to present a united front on specific issues without being shackled together on all issues – we do it all the time. It will be rare that the interests of all 27 members of the EU will converge on one issue, or that agreement will be reached quickly. We may be faced with a situation where one nation within the EU is forced down a road utterly counter to its interests, in the same way that MPs are whipped into voting along party lines.
If you like the system of party whips, the idea of a large, powerful political bloc may appeal. I prefer freedom of conscience.
To be fair, many Europhiles (or rather EU-philes) are finally admitting publicly that the EU needs reform. That’s all fine, but we’ve heard good intentions about wide scale CAP reform and more democratic accountability for at least twenty years (as a former EU-phile, I know this), which kind of makes my point about the intransigence of large political blocs for me.
In financial terms, 11 of the 27 members of the EU are net contributors to the EU (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budget_of_the_European_Union#Net_contributors_and_recipients). To put it bluntly, these nations put in more money than they get out, and the UK is among the top seven of these in all terms, and the fourth net contributor in absolute terms.
It is one thing that a citizen may support the socialist concept of the redistribution of wealth (not all citizens do, of course) within their own country, but quite another that tax payers in eleven nations should fund more generous projects than they themselves enjoy in nations in which they have no democratic mandate. What was it the American revolutionaries (quite rightly) cried? No taxation without representation. This transcends the politics of Left/Right though, which is why prominent members of the Left are as equally opposed to the EU as the traditionally-lampooned ‘little-Englanders’ of the Tory back-benchers.
I’m quite sure that a sizeable proportion of the electorates in the net contributor nations would be unhappy if they were truly aware of the kind of benefits their counterparts in the net recipient nations enjoyed. In brutal terms, we support the construction of shiny, new roads and transport infrastructure in Romania when we could really do with pumping more funds into our own transport infrastructure. Those expensive, blue European Regional Development Fund signs we see dotted around always make me laugh in this context – they’re just cynical exercises in propaganda (what other purpose do such signs serve?) when you grasp that we would have more money for the same projects if we weren’t paying into the EU budget – and we would rightly be angry if small blue signs appeared indicating that our street had been resurfaced thanks to the generosity of the Tory party.
While we’re on the subject of the EU budget, this is set to increase again, while nations and families are cutting their own spending. This is against the background of an EU budget which has not been signed off for 18 consecutive years! Several nations oppose an increase in the EU budget, but if no agreement is reached it is increased automatically above inflation anyway!
It doesn’t suit the French to reform the CAP, it doesn’t suit the Germans to unify economies as they are, and it doesn’t suit the British to introduce a Europe-wide financial transaction tax. We all have different priorities and interests, and there is nothing wrong with that.
We can remain on good terms with our European neighbours and cooperate on many levels, retain a single market, and open borders, if so desired. But we don’t need the trappings of the EU institutions (notably the Commission and Parliament) to do this. An organisation along the lines of the current Council of the European Union (incorporating ministers from each interested nation holding portfolios relevant to specific fields) would be perfectly adequate to reach consensus where consensus among nations were required.
In the 21st century, in political terms, big is no longer beautiful, sensible, democratic, or fit for purpose.