Twenty-two three

22 March is my sister’s birthday. Now, it’s something else too.

I was still getting ready to leave for work this morning when the news came in first about the bombs at Brussels airport – where I’d been at 11pm the previous night – and then at Maelbeek metro station, just a short distance from my flat. Jo begged me to stay at home, and that’s probably what I should have done, but I didn’t. I walked in to work along eerily normal streets where the people I see every day looked like they always look, or perhaps just a little bemused and quiet. Police cars with men wearing balaclavas tear past, sirens wailing. But that’s another thing we see fairly often in my part of town, given the regular Summits. I get to the office and once I’m at my desk it feels fairly normal. I check Twitter and Facebook. Friends all over the world are messaging me to ask if I’m OK. I feel like a fraud. I’m in the middle of this thing but basically I’m just fine, unaffected. And then I start to cry. I can’t explain it. Fifteen people are dead at the metro station I can see out of my window. People are dead at the airport I flew into yesterday night. It could so very, very easily have been me. But it wasn’t. I feel guilt. I feel disconnection. I feel very strange. I dread finding out who has in fact been killed, and injured. This is a small town, this will touch us all.

Nearly fifteen years ago, days after 9/11, I was in a large crowd gathered on rue de la Loi outside the Berlaymont and the Justus Lipsius to show solidarity and sympathy with America. Fifteen years later, I look out of my window at the same view. There are barricades, I count at least a dozen armed police, and I can see four soldiers in full body armour carrying assault rifles. If Osama Bin Laden could see this he would say to himself “mission accomplished”.

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That “demos” thing

Sooner or later, every Brexit debate hits the “demos” wall. The following conversation is a classic example:

 

Its critics will say that the European Union is not democratic, and therefore lacks legitimacy. Its defenders will contest this, as I did in this post. We claim that, actually, it has all the characteristics of a healthy democracy, and arguably then some (compared to certain EU Member States). No no, its critics argue, none of these characteristics count because they are meaningless without a “demos”. The EU, they say, doesn’t have a demos; and so it can’t be a democracy.

This is a tautology and a circular argument. They criticise us for not being democratic while in the same breath arguing that we cannot be democratic by definition, and that we should therefore not even try. The very fact that we try seems to be what infuriates them. The more the EU attempts to advance its democratic credentials, the more state-like it seems, the more we anger those who insist that sovereignty and statehood must be limited to existing nation states. Why? we ask. BECAUSE DEMOS, they yell, as if this is self-evident (which to them apparently it is).

For a long time now I have wanted to tackle this argument, but I have never found the right way to come at it. I think it’s because we are simply talking past each other, in different languages. Theirs is the emotional language of nationalism, I think, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. What defines a “demos”? The Oxford English Dictionary definition says that a demos is “the populace as a political unit, especially in a democracy”, which hardly helps – what defines a “political unit”? If the EU has all the trappings of a political unit, then isn’t it one? By specifically excluding the UK from the quest for “ever closer political union”, has David Cameron effectively excluded the UK from an EU demos and thereby validated the “out” camp’s argument in a bizarre form of Pyrrhic victory?

We need to dig deeper. What makes people feel that they belong to a political unit? Is it language? Several EU Member States have more than one official language and all certainly have citizens whose first language is not the majority language – are those citizens excluded from the national “demos”? Is it a shared history? Clearly not, I won’t even bother dismantling that argument but will simply point to Norman Davies’ excellent book Vanished Kingdoms. Perhaps it’s shared culture? That’s also hard to argue in our multicultural and yet monocultural modern world. I’ve come to the conclusion that a demos is self-defining and therefore largely meaningless unless you are already part of that self-selected demos. Playing the “demos” card is like playing the joker, it only works if everyone playing the game has agreed a common set of rules.

I could end this post here. But that would be a touch too dismissive. Clearly, this does mean something to lots of people, and I have to try to understand. Many people feel disconnected from the European tier of government and have no sense that they belong to a continental “demos” or political community. Evidence for this is the poor turnout at European elections, with many of those who do vote tending to do so on national issues. Clearly, many of us in Brussels feel defensive about this and so we invest a lot of effort in creating democratic institutions and attempting to communicate more effectively with citizens. (On this subject, see Jon Worth’s article on the EU’s efforts at comms.)

Not having a magic solution to offer, let me instead offer these thoughts, in no particular order:

  • The harder we try to legitimise EU government by giving it the trappings of democracy, the less people seem to like it. So why do we bother?
  • Are we not falling into the populist trap of fetishising democracy? (By which I mean misrepresenting our representative democracy as a direct one, and glorifying the people’s actually rather limited though important safeguarding role in the complex process of modern government – which I talk about here.)
  • In a functional, modern state there are multiple tiers of government which each have legitimacy with a given ‘political unit’ (or demos), and we are all as citizens members of more than one demos. The trouble with the people who claim that the EU has no demos is that they actively choose to exclude themselves from that demos; and I think that these are generally the same people who dismiss the other tiers of government too. These are the Westminster exceptionalists who get in a tizzy over the West Lothian Question. They cannot see the wood for the trees. I can’t lose any sleep over their inability to see the bigger picture, and it would be a crying shame if they took the UK out of the EU because of their tunnel vision.
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The referendum’s silver lining

Still early days, but so far I’m finding this referendum campaign less of an ordeal than I expected.

This morning, a friend said to me “this whole farce must be very frustrating for you.” But it isn’t. Negativity, misinformation, and ignorance has long been the norm when it comes to the UK’s public debate about the EU, and I am used to it. Refreshingly, we are now also hearing the other side.

I blame the media far more than I blame politicians for the years of toxic negativity. There are many principled British politicians who make the case for the EU but who have not been heard because the media does not give them a platform. There are principled politicians on the ‘out’ side too, who truly believe that the UK would be better off outside the EU (I am quite sure they are wrong, but I respect their opinions and am happy to debate them). But these are not the politicians to whom the media gives a platform, either.

Seen from an outsider’s perspective, the UK’s mass media seems to have lost touch with the principles of sound journalism, confusing business imperatives with journalistic imperatives. What matter are circulation figures, viewer figures, listener numbers, page hits. EU-bashing sells papers, therefore it must be right. We are reaching the logical conclusion of our fetishisation of democracy, interpreted in a literal and simplistic fashion. People power is what counts. Have your say! Vote in our online poll! The results of which become the news.

Chris Morris beautifully skewered the vox pop as a news tool in The Day Today, but twenty years later it has become a core ingredient of modern ‘journalism’. In a world where focus groups and call-in shows set the political agenda, it’s small wonder that we now refer complex and weighty policy decisions on the future of our country to a referendum.

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This is the world of the Daily Mail and UKIP; this is why Nigel Farage appears on Question Time more often than, say, Catherine Bearder, or Douglas Carswell for that matter. Euromyths sell newspapers; fearmongering generates page hits. Demonising the EU makes business sense for the red tops (and some of the broadsheets), and in our confrontational, bipolar, first-past-the-post beauty contest of a democracy, the market leader is also the opinion leader. There may well be more sinister reasons for press barons to denigrate the EU, but regardless of this, our system is skewed towards populism. This is why we are having a reckless and risky referendum on the UK’s future; and incidentally it’s why our cousins across the pond are now presented with the real risk of a populist President.

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Donald Trump – popular

My critics will tell me that I am guilty of paternalism and elitism. This is a lazy defence of populism. We live in a representative democracy, not an Athenian-style direct democracy (thank God). General elections are there as a safety valve, so that the people can remove an executive which seriously underperforms. But we appoint an executive to govern on our behalf – we do not govern directly, because as ineffective as that was in an ancient agrarian society it would be simply ridiculous in a complex modern society.

So where is the silver lining? Here it comes: this referendum has finally given a platform to the moderates. The media’s obsession with ‘balance’ can be infuriating when we see a swivel-eyed climate sceptic given airtime alongside scientists; but in this referendum campaign we are finally hearing from the ‘pro’ side of the argument. After literally decades of overwhelming negativity, the UK media is at long last also giving coverage to the people who are making the case for the EU. Personally, I am finding it wonderfully refreshing.

There is another upside to what I guess we should call the popularisation of the news: the rise of social media. As our society has careered from one extreme (elitism) to the other (populism), the undue weight given to poorly-informed popular opinion is balanced to a degree by the decline in relevance of the mainstream media. The Daily Mail might sell the most papers, Question Time might have Nigel Farage on again, but we are using Twitter and Facebook and we see that we are not the only ones who have a problem with what we are hearing on the television and radio and reading in the press.

Boris “Outs” himself as a fan of electoral reform – or is he just a massive hypocrite?

So it seems that Boris will be the figurehead of the Out campaign. Today he writes in the Telegraph that:

That is what we mean by loss of sovereignty – the inability of people to kick out, at elections, the men and women who control their lives. We are seeing an alienation of the people from the power they should hold, and I am sure this is contributing to the sense of disengagement, the apathy, the view that politicians are “all the same” and can change nothing, and to the rise of extremist parties.

Boris

I love this new Boris with his passionate concern for citizens, his belief in democracy, his frustration on our behalf at our inability to kick out our rulers. I have every confidence in him that he will carry on from here to crusade for electoral reform and rid us of the wicked First Past The Post system which disenfranchises the vast majority of British voters. Good for you Boris!

 

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I mean, he must mean FPTP, right? He surely can’t mean the EU…

 

Banning town-hall boycotts: a pillow to the face of UK local democracy

The UK government is planning to make it illegal for any organisation that receives public funds to boycott goods from a given company or country. So it would be against the law for, say, a university student union to boycott products from an illegal Israeli settlement, or for a local authority to blacklist a company that exports products which could be used in torture.

The government argues that these so-called “town hall boycotts” amount to “local foreign policies” which are “undermining our national security”. (Presumably the London Borough of Havering’s “local foreign policy” presents no such threat to national security). There will be “severe penalties” for any organisation or institution which breaks the new law.

There is a rich tradition in the UK of local activism targeting bad guys by hitting them in their pockets. Some would say that the grassroots boycott of South African products contributed to the end of apartheid. Certainly, voting with your wallet can be a way to feel that you are actively helping a cause.

Of course, the new rules would not stop an individual from maintaining his or her personal boycott – they would not take away your right to choose, even if the money in your pocket found its way there via the public purse (say as benefits, or a public sector salary). I, civil servant though I am, will not court arrest by ruling out Hewlett Packard next time I’m in the market for a new printer. Nor will organisations be banned from mounting their own boycotts as long as those organisations are not publicly funded. In fact, rules for public institutions already exist. Under international and EU public procurement rules, it is illegal to discriminate against countries which qualify for equal treatment, as long as the public contract being offered is worth over a certain ‘threshold’ value. Leicester City Council can’t exclude Israeli bidders from service/goods contracts worth more than around €175,000, for example. But what the government is proposing here seems to go well beyond existing public procurement rules. I don’t think this stems from a wish to promote free trade. I think it’s about forcing local government to bow to the wishes of central government. It’s another illustration of a general problem in British public life: a sense of entitlement and exceptionalism on the part of Westminster and Whitehall, our national tier of government.

Let me expand on this point. In 2014 I wrote about the West Lothian Question and why it shouldn’t even arise in a properly functioning federal state. This policy announcement is another symptom of Westminster’s refusal to cede democratic ground to other actors. The government will presumably argue that it has every right to say how public money should be spent as it draws its legitimacy from its victory in the general election. But Leicester City Council was also elected. And the NUS leadership is elected. Their policies reflect the will of the people who voted for them, and are as legitimate, democratically, as anything cooked up by Tory SpAds. The fact that central government controls the purse strings does not give it greater legitimacy, it simply gives it greater power.

The UK’s central government advocates localism and devolution, but without the meaningful empowerment of local government by devolving budgetary powers that advocacy is specious. Until it has the power to raise taxes and then spend those taxes as it sees fit, local government remains effectively an executive branch of central government. In a federal country like Canada, the national (‘federal’) and local (‘provincial’) tiers of government share the tax you pay. About a third of your income tax goes directly to the province where you live; and most of the sales tax you pay also goes to the province. Canada’s constitution defines what the federal government can spend money on, and what the provincial government can spend money on. The federal government cannot tell the provincial government what to do with its money. And, unlike devolved UK local authorities, Canadian provinces can borrow money and run a deficit.

In the UK, only a much smaller proportion of your tax bill is paid directly to local government (in the form of the far more regressive Council Tax, which is in any case capped by central government). Local authorities still get most of their money in the form of grants from central government. Devolution is happening, but in a piecemeal way, region by region, without an over-arching constitutional framework to enshrine local government’s budgetary powers. The next few years will see drastic cuts in central government funding to local government, with local authorities unable to borrow and having only limited revenue-raising powers to make up the shortfall: central government will continue to call the shots on how local councils can set business rates, for example, and increases to Council Tax are capped at 2% (councils need to hold and then win a referendum to exceed this cap). And, regardless of where the money comes from, most local government spending is statutory, leaving little scope for discretionary expenditure. So when you vote in a local election in the UK, what exactly is it that you’re voting for?

Jeremy Corbyn has called the proposed ban on town-hall boycotts “an attack on local democracy”. Yes, it is, but then what kind of local democracy do we have in the UK anyway? With only limited competence to raise and then spend money, one of the few ways in which the UK’s elected local politicians can execute meaningful policies is by determining how a local authority’s budget is spent within the narrow space still permitted by our controlling central government. By threatening “severe penalties” for local politicians who take such initiatives, central government wants to shut down that space too.

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 promises great things, but it’s hard to trust central government to give real power to local politicians. We saw in the 1980s how Westminster will go to great lengths to muffle its democratically elected enemies in local government, and this move to ban town-hall boycotts has a whiff of déjà-vu about it. Can we expect a majority Conservative government to stand back when devolved local government takes action against austerity?

Why British exporters love the EU

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The Economist tweeted this graph this afternoon showing that the UK now sends the majority of its exports outside the EU. It offers an accompanying editorial comment that this chart will please eurosceptics. At first glance, you would think that it supports the ‘Leave’ campaign’s assertion that the UK can thrive as an exporting nation outside the EU, focusing on trade with the rest of the world. Actually, the graph shows quite the opposite.

Firstly, as @Shivoa points out, the UK benefits from many trade deals which the EU has negotiated with other countries in order to sell its products overseas. Outside the EU, the UK would no longer be party to those agreements and would have to renegotiate them on far from preferential terms, without the muscle which the EU has as the world’s largest trade bloc. Rather than accelerate the trend which this chart illustrates, Brexit would put it at risk.

Secondly, as this article on Conservative Home demonstrates, we are not talking about a zero sum game here. British exporters do not choose between the EU and the rest of the world. If exports to the EU fall, they do not automatically rise elsewhere. The Economist’s graph in fact illustrates (but also masks) a serious deterioration in the UK’s balance of trade over the same period. A fall in the UK’s exports to its primary, high value markets in the EU is a bad thing, even though it can be made to look like a shift towards non-EU markets if we ignore volume and look purely at percentages.

150901-Balance-of-trade

The ‘Singapore’ argument for Brexit is fallacious. Brexit would only harm British exporters, and that is why they overwhelmingly want the UK to remain in the EU.

Follow-up: I have to add this graph which was posted by @NauroCampos (Professor of Economics at Brunel University). It speaks, literally, volumes.

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Where next for social democracy in Britain?

I recently did some reflecting on the policy challenges facing the British centre-left during the next five years. A result is this post, which I should warn you up front is a longish read, but of interest I hope.

Of all the tricky issues facing progressives over the next few years, two stand out for me: the European question, and public disenchantment with mainstream politics.

Most readers of my blog will hardly need persuading that Brexit would be a disaster for the UK in every respect. It would challenge the country’s political cohesion and social cohesion. The quality of life for millions of Britons stands to be materially damaged. Many, many people will lose their jobs, the country (what’s left of it) will be poorer, services will suffer (further), people will be pushed (further) into poverty. Environmental, consumer, food quality, health, and employment standards would be weakened or abandoned. This would be a progressive nightmare. But so far the case for staying in the EU is being made primarily by the centre-right and by business groups. Business certainly has something to say but it should not be the only voice, nor even the loudest voice. There is a very strong progressive case for staying in the EU and we should be making it much more clearly. It’s about quality of life.

Whatever happens in the referendum, progressive politics will have to tackle the aftermath. An exit is going to bring a host of problems, not least working out what kind of relationship we have going forward with our neighbours; but staying in will also be a headache. Staying in what exactly? Variable geometry seems a given for the future EU, will we be at the centre or at the fringes? And when should we expect the next neverendum? The campaign for another one will start the moment we vote to remain in the EU.

But debate over the UK’s EU membership is in some ways just a subset of a much bigger bundle of issues relating to the way we allow ourselves to be governed. There is a crisis in our democratic system and social democrats are taking much of the punishment. There’s a lot to unpick here. In the UK, under our first-past-the-post system for national elections, both major parties must appeal to a broad church. Their core voters see their chosen party as representing their values. But elections are not won by appealing to core voters, they are won by appealing to floating voters who swing between the two major parties, and these voters are probably influenced mostly by what they see as their interests. As both major parties have increasingly gone after these interests, so they have begun to bleed core voters who feel that their values are better represented by parties like the Greens and UKIP who don’t much care for consensus or compromise.

New Labour arose from the ashes of a Labour Party which, many felt, had lost touch with the interests of ‘middle England’ (ie floating voters). In correcting this, New Labour may have gone too far in the other direction and alienated many people who came to feel that the party no longer represented their values. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is the result. What Labour ‘moderates’ need to do now is to reconnect values and interests; they need to make the case to their party members and to the wider public that they do represent progressive values while also delivering results for ‘middle England’. The Blairite solution – rightly or wrongly seen as embracing austerity, overly business-friendly, and amenable to if not openly advocating deregulation and small(er) government – has been roundly rejected by the party membership. Labour’s moderates need to get over their rejection and reconnect with their base. A disunited party will never get out of opposition.

I believe there is a way forward for progressives which recouples values and interests. Like the EU, it’s about offering people a higher quality of life. But to get there we need to break out of the mould of established British politics, and overcome some of Westminster and Whitehall’s mental blocks.

One of these is taxation (closely linked to austerity). For decades now, right and left have vied with each other to be seen as ‘safe’ on tax. Whatever they have actually done in government, campaigning on a platform of raising or even maintaining taxation levels has been taboo. This has simply become an accepted fact of mainstream British politics in much the same way that the Queen is a national treasure above criticism, poppies must be worn from late September onwards, and house prices must always go up.

Ah yes, house prices. The British property market is seriously broken – in ways which are too numerous to go into here – and this empoverishes millions of people in the UK. But who in Westminster or Fleet Street is pushing for meaningful regulation of the housing and rental market?

And here’s another mental block: the pre-eminent status of Westminster in our national political life. I have blogged about this elsewhere. Aversion to, disinterest in, and disrespect for, other tiers of government (local, regional, European) is hard-baked into British politics and it’s closely related to the similar aversion to/disinclination for serious electoral reform.

Really this is about reflexive thinking in our political culture. Sometimes, you have to be an outsider to see past a group’s collective assumptions. For example, when I was at the Foreign Office, I observed that many colleagues took it for granted that the UK’s historic advocacy of EU enlargement was a principled position which won respect if not always support from other EU Member States. As an outsider, I saw otherwise. I told my colleagues that the UK’s position was often seen as self-interested and hypocritical, hiding behind the reluctance of countries like Germany and the Netherlands, knowing that its bluff would never be called thanks to them. Sir Humphrey’s explanation is taken as the literal truth by many of our partners, it seems to fit the facts. Whether it is the truth is besides the point, the fact is that Whitehall and Westminster insiders were guilty of drinking the kool-aid. And this is also true when it comes to issues like taxation, property prices, and constitutional reform.

Other countries do things differently, even quite similar countries, like Germany, Belgium, Sweden, France, and Canada. As someone who has spent over half my life in some of those other countries, I can’t respect these sacred cows of British politics. I see that people in highly taxed countries like Belgium and France have a quality of life which surpasses a typical British person’s. Just because you pay a lot of tax does not mean that you don’t get to have nice things – often, it’s the opposite. Childcare, healthcare, transport, and other publicly subsidised services mean that monthly costs for many Belgians are much lower than they are for the British. Belgium is a highly regulated country, but those regulations often address issues which are a problem in Britain – for example, housing. Property is affordable in Belgium because the regulatory environment works against treating housing as an investment; and tenants and landlords both enjoy a high degree of protection. And having a written constitution, with a federal system of government, and proportional representation, can deliver very high performing governance which better represents people, is more accountable, and engages citizens.

Like the campaign to stay in the European Union, this is about quality of life. Shouldn’t a decent standard of living count for more to most people than whether their home appreciates in value and whether they save a couple of pence in the next Budget? Shouldn’t this be the rock solid baseline from which the centre-left builds its case to govern? But this message isn’t getting across to the people it should reach. How does one persuade Ms Middle England that her interests are not inexorably rising property values and low taxation but subsidised, guaranteed childcare, decent public services, affordable housing, protected rents, and yes, continued EU membership?

I think the answer has to be a twin approach, top down and bottom up. Social democrats need to show courage and leadership, telling a story which resonates with voters about their quality of life and how it can be improved. This story needs to draw on ideas and experiences from around the world to demonstrate that a better life is possible. It also needs to challenge these ingrained assumptions which stifle innovation in British politics. It needs creative, adventurous thinkers who don’t mind breaking taboos. But it also needs civic engagement. People need to feel that they have a stake, and a say. Civic virtue is something we associate with Socrates and Aristotle, it’s missing from our modern vocabulary. We need to find ways to reconnect people with their politics in a way which comes much more naturally to, say, Canadians, who seem (in my limited experience) to have a stronger connection to their communities and a better understanding that you get out what you put in. Some clever people are doing interesting work on this – Demsoc for instance. I’d like to see progressive think tanks forming alliances and coalitions with organisations like Demsoc in order to bring these strands together. An essential aspect will have to be building links between people in different countries. This is where the EU has already done a great deal, and why continued EU membership is so crucial for the UK: the people to people connections forged through programmes like Erasmus do so much to spread enlightenment and dispel ignorance. We should do much, much more of this.

In trying to tie up these various threads, I run up against a typical policy conundrum. There’s a virtuous circle there – creative progressive policy-making feeds public engagement feeds creative progressive policy-making, etc – but how does one get it started? I see two possible ways in.

The first is the discussion which has already begun in British progressive circles about “predistribution”. While I find that I dislike the neologism, I think it captures notions of social justice and economic fairness which are taken for granted in some of our partner countries where a higher tax burden is not about redistribution in the form of benefits so much as levelling the playing field up front and delivering high quality public services to all. This is an anti-austerity vision which can appeal right across the board, the challenge is how to communicate this to people.

Which brings me to the second potential entry point: devolution. The Scottish referendum in September 2014 shook things up. Levels of engagement soared. People saw that government doesn’t have to mean Westminster (or indeed Brussels). You might not hear about it from London-based news services, but devolution is happening. The localism being pushed by a radical government intent upon downsizing its place in our national life creates a vacuum which other tiers of government are willing to fill. And it’s exciting for politics right across the UK, including England. We have talented people working in local government who are pushing ahead with new engagement strategies to involve local residents in decision-making. We can only hope that, as local government takes up the slack and engages local residents, the British public will finally begin to take more of an interest in local politics as something of significance in its own right and not merely a proxy for the national two-way battle.

This post has already gone on for too long, but there’s one issue which I’ve only touched on tangentially: populism. Populism is what happens when this goes wrong. It’s the easy option when politicians lack the energy, intelligence, or creativity to treat voters like adults and persuade them to think differently. It’s why Cameron is going after migrants on benefits rather than pursuing meaningful EU reform. It’s why Labour went after migrants in the last election rather than challenge austerity. Politicians can’t blame the people if populists like Farage steal away voters when those same politicians haven’t offered a persuasive, positive alternative. No-one is saying it’s easy, but real politicians did not go into politics because it’s easy.

In Britain, it’s no exaggeration to say that the centre-left is in crisis. The road back to government will be a long one. It needs to begin with the campaign to stay in the EU and build from there. It needs to focus relentlessly on the interests of the many people in Britain who feel disillusioned with politics because their quality of life is suffering. It needs to show these people that there are alternatives to the Thatcherite vision of individualism and competition. It needs to reconnect with its values of collectivism and social justice without abandoning its valid claim to represent true aspiration and social mobility. And it needs to rehabilitate the old fashioned concept of civic virtue by persuading citizens to engage actively in civic life.

What is EU reform?

Early in my career, with a group of other like-minded young officials, I launched a pressure group which we called “EUreforme” because we were frustrated with our staff unions’ obstructive attitude towards perfectly sensible reforms such as meaningful parental leave for fathers. We felt that, if the Commission did not reform itself, the Member States would impose reforms on us, and these were unlikely to be so constructive.

Our group attracted a great deal of hostility. “Reform” is a dirty word for some people. Neil Kinnock, as European Commissioner responsible for administrative issues and human resources during the late 90s/early 00s, did eventually push through a series of reforms which substantially eroded eurocrats’ employment conditions – it is no longer the highly attractive prospect it used to be for a talented graduate (though I’m not complaining). But la réforme Kinnock (a phrase to give a certain kind of fonctionnaire nightmares) did not do much to improve working conditions for staff and promote efficiency, focusing instead on cutting perks and reining in salaries, responding to political pressure from Member States in the EU Council. An opportunity for real reform was lost, caught between obstructive denialists in the staff unions, whose mantra was “ne touche pas à mon statut!“, and populist politicians in Member States, who saw an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with voters by going after everyone’s favourite whipping boy, the Brussels fat cat.

We are seeing something similar happen today. David Cameron, trapped by his unwillingness to confront the relentless anti-EU narrative of his backbenchers, pushes his agenda of EU “reform” – against him stand other EU leaders who prefer to preserve the status quo, reluctant to reopen the Treaty because of the referendums it would trigger in their own territories. Stuck in the middle are the rational voices saying yes, the EU could do with reform, because there are many things which could be done better than they are at the moment.

Cameron calls his agenda “reform” but this is a euphemism for “retreat”. He wants to repatriate powers, scale back ambition, play to the gallery on migration, and defend narrow national sectoral interests such as the financial sector. He does not offer a vision for how the EU tier of government should operate efficiently in sync with the national and regional tiers of government with a view to delivering good governance. For further background on this, see my post here dissecting the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech of January 2013, and take a look at this excellent article in the Dutch newspaper Handelsblad.

So what should reform look like? Let’s begin by stating some first principles: we take it for granted that we see the need for a European tier of government, and our objective is to achieve clarity on what that European tier should do; and then to make sure that it can do those things efficiently and effectively; and to ensure that the appropriate checks and balances exist in line with the principles of a modern, representative democracy. We need intellectual honesty and clarity here. If you don’t want a European tier of government, then say so and leave, don’t say you want in but then sabotage it from the inside so that it doesn’t work effectively. Intergovernmentalism is not an effective way of governing a complex political entity. If you want effective government, you need strong, functioning institutions. If you want accountability, then you need to achieve it at that level. If you think this sounds like federalism, well that’s because it is. It’s not a dirty word. Intergovernmentalism is a form of denial and a dead end.

So I’m arguing for reform which would make the EU a functioning, effective, federation. That means dismantling the apparatus of intergovernmentalism which has slowly swallowed the EU ever since Maastricht. We do away with vetoes and extend QMV (qualified majority voting) into all areas where the EU is competent; and we extend EU competence into all areas where it makes sense to govern at the EU level, including monetary policy and taxation. There are other areas where it makes little sense for the EU to be involved, and so we need clarity also on where the national or regional tiers of government are competent. We need reinforced subsidiarity. Where the EU is competent, it should have the tools it needs to be effective. This means, for example, pulling foreign policy into the Commission. There should be no exceptions to the communautaire approach for all EU policies; anything else is ineffective and compromised. And for that communautaire approach to be implemented effectively we need institutions which work. This means a best-in-class civil service with strong leadership, where managers manage people not to-do lists. As for accountability, I think the EU already does pretty well on this front. But we do have a problem with public engagement and that needs more work.

So this is my rather non-specific and non-exhaustive list of areas where reform is needed. None of this is on the table right now, and the Cameron-driven “reform” negotiation actually propels us in the other direction. Realistically, I know that true reform is a big ask at the moment, and I am not optimistic that we will achieve it; but I do believe that it is necessary if we are collectively to achieve our full potential in Europe.

Should a pro-European vote ‘leave’?

medal

Last week, I collected my medal for twenty years of European public service. I have dedicated my entire professional life to the EU, it is the issue about which I feel the most passionate. As a student I was an activist for the Young European Movement, I joined the EU public service with a strong sense of purpose, and I am a believer in a European tier of government as a necessary evolution of our political system which benefits us all.

So you would have me down as a cast-iron certainty to vote ‘remain’ in the upcoming Brexit referendum, wouldn’t you? Right now, I’m not so sure.

Like Anand Menon, I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more opinion pieces like this excellent article in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. The deal which David Cameron is trying to negotiate with the European Council will no doubt be presented by him as a good one for the UK, and there will be lots of debate over whether it is or it isn’t. But it will be very hard to argue that any deal he strikes will be good for the EU and its other 27 Member States. How could it be? He will seek to protect UK interests, narrowly defined by the current right-wing and ideologically-driven government, with a view to appeasing his party’s nationalist fringe. There will be a number of superficially insignificant but symbolically meaningful features which further water down the vision of the EU as a post-national political community; and there may well be more ideologically-driven elements which water down the EU as a force for social justice. I do recommend that you read Adriaan Schout’s aforementioned article for a sense of where this is likely to be heading.

You might think that the other 27 Member States are unlikely to allow themselves to be bullied into a bad deal. But experience tells us otherwise. In the world of horse-trading and compromise that is the European Council, short-term political considerations tend to count for more than long-term sustainable visions, which is why the Treaties of Nice, Amsterdam, and Lisbon left us with such a mess in the eurozone. The EU and its Member States, acting together, can be a formidable force; but when decisions are made in the European Council it’s all about the weakest link in the chain and this results in cautious incrementalism and defensiveness.

If Cameron were negotiating for a deal which introduces meaningful reform to the mechanics of the European Union, making it more effective and efficient, I would enthusiastically back him. He isn’t, though. And his fellow heads of government are likely to bend over backwards to accommodate his political needs in order to avoid a scenario where the UK leaves the EU. So there is a fairly strong possibility that next week’s European Council will sign off on a deal which would be a step backward for the EU in order to keep the British in. But even with such a deal there is still the real possibility that the British could vote to leave in 2017; and even if they vote to stay, the European question will not go away, and the next neverendum becomes only a matter of time. The Council may buy a temporary respite, but at what price?

One way or the other, we will soon find out what the deal is which David Cameron has negotiated. Most of the debate will be about whether it is good enough “for Britain” to justify a vote to remain. I will be looking at it from the other perspective: will the deal he negotiates be good enough “for Europe”?

As a Briton, I see nothing to be gained for my country by its leaving the EU, and much to be lost. As a European, I see nothing to be gained for our collective wellbeing by further handicapping the European Union simply in order to appease one Member State. Indeed, we stand to lose a great deal. Unfortunately, although the outcome of the UK referendum will have an impact on all Europeans, only the British will get to vote. That potentially presents pro-European voters with an awful dilemma. If the final choice is between a bad deal for Europe, and a Europe without Britain, I will feel dreadfully torn. While my heart would revolt against a vote for Brexit, I can see a real possibility that the best thing for Europe would be for the UK to leave rather than stay on the basis of a bad deal for the rest of us.