Category Archives: EU referendum

It’s identity theft

Here is the gist of a semi-impromptu intervention I made in the sleet at the #FinalSayForAll rally  in Brussels on 11 December.

I was radicalised by Thatcher’s Bruges speech. I’m a lifelong advocate of European integration and at times it has felt like a very lonely furrow to plough. I’ve been arguing with anti-EU types for years. In the end, every argument I’ve ever had with an anti-European can be reduced to an argument about identity.

They’ll dress it up in lots of ways – sovereignty, democracy, red tape – in the end, they’ll say: “the EU doesn’t have a demos”. The EU can’t be democratic, however hard it tries, because there is no EU identity. Our identity is illegitimate, they say.

Theresa May says that if we call ourselves citizens of the world then we’re citizens of nowhere. She says that the EU never felt part of our national story. She is wrong!

They lack the imagination and empathy to see that identity is rich and multifaceted. Because they can’t accept a multilayered identity themselves, they want to take away ours! I’m British, I’m German, I’m a Londoner, I’m a Brusselaar, I’m European. They don’t get to take away my identity and they don’t get to take away your identity.

If the referendum has done one thing it is to prove them wrong. Once, speaking out for Europe felt like a lonely undertaking. Not any more. Millions of British people are speaking up and acknowledging their European identities. Where is the European demos? It’s right here!

They rejected the emphatic win for pro-Europeans in the 1975 referendum and they fought for forty years to overturn it with a second referendum. They think we’re going to roll over and let them walk away with this? We’re never going to give up. And it’s not going to take us forty years. If I was radicalised in the 1980s by Thatcher’s Bruges speech, just imagine how our kids are being radicalised by this disgraceful mess. We are not going away, we will get our chance to reverse this, and we’re going to be ready to take it.

“Leave Lies” rebutted

Here follows a lengthy reply to someone called @MaraudingWinger on Twitter who posted an (even lengthier) piece on what he called “Lies, Exaggerations and Threats from the Remain Side – Now & Then”.

Our friend deleted his diatribe. But given the amount of time invested in coming up with rebuttals and replies, I’m not going to let my contribution go to waste, so here it is in blog format… The italicised text is where I am quoting his text directly.

 

A: LIES ABOUT THE ‘£350M FOR THE NHS SLOGAN’

It is only people on the Remain side who say this was a promise or is a lie. If those remainers thought it was a promise then, why didn’t they vote for it? After all, many of the people who adduce this ‘evidence’ also worship the NHS and think more money should go into it.

You’ve misunderstood the nature of the lie. The lie is that the UK pays £350m a week to the EU. It doesn’t. Its contribution is about half that, and of course it is not a ‘gift’ or a levy, it is an investment the return on which far exceeds the outlay.

To deny that the Leave campaign – including leading Cabinet ministers – were not trying to influence voters by suggesting that the false figure of £350m a week would be taken away from the EU and given to the NHS is just pure sophistry – you know that this is what they were doing, and key Leave strategists acknowledge that this lie is what won them the referendum.

 

B: LIES TOLD PRE-REFERENDUM: THINGS WHICH WERE SAID WOULD HAPPEN IMMEDIATELY UPON A VOTE TO LEAVE – AND NOT JUST WHEN WE HAVE ACTUALLY LEFT

B1. A very hypothetical, worst-case scenario lower GDP in 30 years time by £4300 called a ‘Cost to every family’ (George Osborne)

To imply that every person who voted Remain is somehow complicit in every statement made by Cameron and Osborne is ludicrous – they are Public Enemy Number One for patriotic Remainers, as the villains who launched this totally unnecessary referendum in the first place and caved in to the fundamentalist right wingers.

That said, there is every prospect of the UK’s GDP falling to this worst case forecast, or even further. Naturally, we don’t know yet, but the signs are all there. Is this a “lie”? No of course not – a forecast is a forecast, a politician might choose a forecast that suits the argument he seeks to make, that is not the same as a deliberate and malicious lie, the kind that Leave told about the £350m, about Turkey joining the EU, etc, etc, and they’re still telling them, eg “40 years of EU legislation that was never scrutinised”.

 

B2. “I will trigger Article 50 on June 28th,” (Cameron).

You’re trying to discredit us by association with Cameron?? No sale.

 

B3. “I wont resign,” if the referendum result is in Leave’s favour – David Cameron.

I’m not interested in defending Cameron.

 

B4. “Interest rates could rise,” (Mark Carney).

That they “could” is a statement of plain fact. Inflation is heading up and will head up further, against wider trends in the developed world – wait and see what happens to interest rates in the medium to long term.

 

B5. ‘In the event of voting leave I will hold an emergency budget’: (George Osborne)

Get used to emergency budget after emergency budget as the UK government tries to plug the gaps created by Brexit in coming years.

 

B6. No plans for an EU Army. This is what Nick Clegg said on 2 April 2016: “This is a dangerous fantasy. The idea that there’s going to be a European air force, a European army, it is simply not true.”

Yeah, he was being disingenuous, both that there is no plan for an EU Army (we already have EU brigades and well-developed EU military capabilities) and that it’s a “dangerous fantasy” (it’s not, it’s a very necessary reality and the opposite of dangerous, because we need this for our own future security).

 

B7. ‘The Queen didn’t back Brexit’.

It’s the Queen, who gives a monkey’s what she thinks?

 

B8. ‘A Brexit vote will create an INSTANT DIY recession’ (George Osborne).

I don’t care what Osborne said, and serious people were not saying that a recession would be “instant” but that the UK’s economic performance would be seriously hit by Brexit, and indeed this is exactly what is happening, even before Brexit takes place.

 

B9. ‘Brexit might kill The City of London’

Yep. Jobs already haemorrhaging away from the City, this will continue, we will see a long-term decline in the City’s status and where it would/could have been without Brexit – and this will of course impact the UK’s tax base (disaster for eg NHS) and also London’s property market (small silver lining).

 

B10. ‘Brexit would lead to 100000 banking jobs being lost’

We’re already on the way to that figure.

 

B11. “The Commission is just like the Civil Service.” Various, including the Commission itself.

The Commission Services (for which I have worked for 22 years) are the civil service, working to and for the Executive, which is the College of Commissioners, an appointed body of senior politicians who fulfil the same role in European government as the Cabinet fulfils in UK national government. In terms of democratic legitimacy, the College of Commissioners has imo more of it than the Cabinet – the President is appointed as the candidate of the largest political grouping in the Parliament, the members of the College are nominated by national governments, each is subject to a confirmation hearing by the Parliament, and the College as a whole can be sacked by the Parliament. All considerably more democratic than the UK’s executive.

 

B12. ‘The EU is democratic’ – various

See above. Also, see http://ottocr.at/125/

 

B13. ‘The EU is more democratic than the UK’ – Alan Butt Philip, former Reader Honorary Reader in European Integration, University of Bath.

Yes, I know, I believe he drew on my work. Naturally, I agree with him.

 

B14. “There is no prospect of Turkey joining the EU in decades.”

If Turkey were to join, what would be so terrible about that? What’s your problem with Turkey? Turkey could only join if it fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria and after fundamental reform and restructuring of its economy and political environment, and it would be a fantastic thing if it got to this point, and a great boost for Europe’s security and prosperity.

 

B15. ‘No one wants a United States of Europe’ – Guy Verhofstadt.

I want a United States of Europe.

 

B17. “EU roaming charges now down to near-zero; gone entirely next year. Consumers are better off remaining in the EU.”

Roaming charges within the EU are now gone. Not all UK providers have promised to continue to respect EU rules once the UK leaves. Note that roaming in non-EU European countries eg Switzerland is still incredibly expensive.

 

B18. ‘The UK is more secure in the EU’ – Michael Fallon. Security Expert and Government advisor Colonel Richard Kemp disagrees.

Richard Kemp is a foaming europhobe, not a serious figure, on the political fringe, and not someone I could ever take seriously. Of course the UK is more secure in the EU – I mean, just look at the reality.  http://ottocr.at/european-consolidation-and-disintegration-past-and-future/

 

C: POST-RESULT REMAIN LIES

C1. ‘We need the EU to protect human rights’

You: “We were hardly under a regime which abused human rights before we joined the EU. We can also protect human rights with domestic legislation, we don’t need the EU to do this. It is also worth noting that EU human rights protection is less than 10 years old. We were doing okay before that, weren’t we?”

This is incredibly complacent. If you look at how the current government is treating asylum seekers, refugees, foreign nationals, the disabled, how can you trust it to respect your human rights? It wants to gut the Human Rights Act, and you trust them because, what, they are British? That’s incredibly complacent and naïve. Human rights need protecting. Seeing what has happened to the UK Home Office under Theresa May, I would not trust her or her government for one second with my human rights.

You said: “Also, EU law allows for the killing of citizens by the state.”

Capital punishment is expressly forbidden by the EU Treaties. What you are referring to relates to the use of force by the state’s law enforcement and military. Are you saying that the UK post-Brexit will make it illegal for its police or its military to use lethal force?

 

C2. ‘Voting to leave the single market was not on the ballot paper’; or ‘There is no mandate to leave the single market’.

You fall into further sophistry. We all know what was on the ballot paper (a simplistic and imprecise binary question). How that result should be interpreted was left entirely open to question and debate, a debate which we are not having because the UK government led by Leave ayatollahs has stamped on it. It is perfectly possible to be outside the EU but in the Single Market, and this is exactly what all prominent Leave campaigners promised would happen. There are trade-offs which mean that it would come at a cost, but that is a debate which should be had, not suppressed.

 

C3 ‘The referendum was advisory’ so can be ignored – AC Grayling

The referendum was non-binding. We live in a parliamentary democracy. There is a reason why modern democracies with a history of fascism now ban referendums. Referendums are anti-democratic, reducing complex issues to simplistic binary questions where the motivation of voters is often unrelated to the issue on the ballot paper, especially where that issue is complex and something which a large proportion of the electorate don’t understand. This is obviously true of the EU, not least as the public has been systematically misinformed and lied to by generations of politicians and newspaper moguls. What we are witnessing is a populist coup, and honourable patriots should resist it. No serious modern democracy would countenance such a fundamental change to its governance – with such serious implications for its security and prosperity – on the basis of a 52/49 vote and as Leavers said before the referendum on such a narrow win it would be “far from over”.

 

C4. “A majority of the UK population wishes to remain in the EU. Proof: have another referendum. Include 16-17yr olds, all expats, all taxpayers”

I don’t want another referendum, see above, I want parliament to assume its responsibility and do what’s in the national interest.

You said: “Firstly, ex-pats are not a part of the ‘UK population’.”

So now you’re depriving British citizens of their citizenship? You don’t think British citizens should have a say on a fundamental, existential matter for their country?

 

C5. “The ref was advisory, major constitutional change requires supermajority if vote for it is to be binding.” – AC Grayling

See above. “Oh but we don’t have a proper constitution” IS NOT AN ARGUMENT.

 

C6. ‘Hate crime has surged’ – The Guardian

It unquestionably has and your attempt to explain this away as nothing to do with Brexit and the current wave of xenophobia lashing the country simply undermines the rest of what you say. As I said to you on Twitter, “Not all Leavers are Nazis, but all Nazis are Leavers… Brexit was fed by and feeds an atmosphere of xenophobia stoked by redtop press.”

It cannot be repeated too often: the European Union was established explicitly as a tool against Nazis. That’s why it exists.

 

C7. ‘The EU is an outward-looking organisation. We have become isolated and insular due to Brexit.’

You said: “If the EU is so outward-looking, why is its list of current free trade agreements so pitifully short?”

Oh God. See my Twitter posts and threads and blog posts passim. Here for example. https://twitter.com/ottocrat/status/894304509568180224

 

C8. “The queues seen at airports are due to Brexit.”

They’re not due to Brexit. However, Brexit will make travel harder, not easier. That’s a given.

 

C9. “Food standards will be threatened post-Brexit.”

Yes naturally if Liam Fox has his way and we have a bonfire of regulations, deregulating the food industry means removing standards, ie they are threatened.

 

C10 ‘The EU does not drive down wages’ – Vince Cable.

This is a straw man, and circular to boot. EU policy will do what it does, and if people don’t like it, they should vote for a different policy in national and European elections. Same as in a national election, if you don’t like the national government’s policies, or in a local election, mutatis mutandis.

 

C11. “We can control immigration and therefore remain in the EU” – Tony Blair

We already control immigration. Freedom of Movement is a wonderful thing and destroying it will be one of the greatest mistakes ever made by a British government.

 

C12. ‘The Tories are only pushing for Brexit because the EU has anti-tax avoidance laws coming into effect in early 2019.’

First I’ve ever heard this claim so I’m calling straw man. Of course it’s not why the fundamentalists are pushing for Brexit.

 

D. GENERAL LIES/MISUNDERSTANDING ABOUT THE EU PROPAGATED BY PRO-EU PEOPLE

D1. “EU law doesn’t prevent the railways being renationalised”.

It doesn’t. If it did, why are so many railways across the EU state-owned? What it does is oblige rolling stock and infrastructure to be incorporated separately – both can be state-owned, however.

 

D2. ‘EU law won’t prevent Government aid or nationalisation of the steelworks’

We have competition rules, that’s one of the benefits of being in the EU. It’s about creating a level playing field to make the Single Market function. If state aid is in breach of EU competition rules, it is not allowed. This isn’t a blanket ban on all state aid, or on nationalisation, both of which are policy tools used by all EU member states all the time.

 

D3. “Labour’s better than expected performance in the 2017 election was a rejection of Brexit and/or a ‘hard Brexit’.”

Straw man. People voted on all sorts of grounds, Brexit certainly one, but not the only. All we can say is that Theresa May did not win the endorsement for her approach that she sought.

 

D4. ‘We will lose Drs due to Brexit’.

But this will be offset by more applications for UK medical licences for medics from outside the EU, according to the GMC.

Yes, we already are losing EU27 national doctors, you think this is good? Offset by non-EU doctors? How are you going to square that with your tougher rules on immigration? Why is this a good thing? Why can’t we keep the excellent professionals we already have?

 

D5 ‘The EU is pooled sovereignty, not lost sovereignty’

Semantics. You say lost sovereignty, I say pooled sovereignty. What you are really arguing is that power should all be concentrated in a single, national tier of government, which I dispute. See http://ottocr.at/british-federalism-and-english-exceptionalism-fear-and-loathing-in-west-lothian/

A quick recap

So this is where we find ourselves:

1. This Conservative government currently has a majority of 16.

2. Investigations are underway in 20 Tory seats into alleged electoral fraud.

3. Without those seats, this government would not have had a majority to trigger the referendum (about which see point 7).

4. The Tories’ manifesto in 2015 said “Yes to the Single Market”. It also said they wouldn’t raise National Insurance Contributions. Breaking one promise could bankrupt thousands of businesses and put millions out of work. Breaking the other promise might raise a bit of much-needed extra revenue. They want to break both, but have u-turned on only one. Can you guess which?

5. Both the official and the unofficial Leave campaigns are being investigated for breaking electoral law. Oh and by the way both Leave campaigns lied incessantly, as a matter of recorded fact.

6. We had a referendum in 1975 on whether to join the EU. The UK chose to join, by 67% to 32%. The people had spoken.

7. But for 40 years a group of europhobic extremists refused to accept “the will of the people” and campaigned constantly for the UK to leave the EU. In 2016, they finally got their way. The 2016 referendum was all about appeasing the far right fringe of the Conservative Party, afraid they’d lose activists to UKIP. This is no way to make serious decisions about the future of the country.

8. Leave won by 51.9% over 48.1% on a 72% turnout – so only 37% of the electorate voted to Leave. Young people, overseas British voters, non-British UK resident taxpayers were disenfranchised and could not vote, despite the enormous implications for these groups.

9. Leading Leave campaigners said “this would be far from over” if Remain won by 52% over 48%. The same campaigners, having contested the last referendum’s result for forty years, call us traitors for refusing to accept this – I’m searching for the right word here – “shitshow” and try to silence us.

10. Modern democracies typically demand a two-thirds super majority as a necessary and sufficient condition for significant constitutional change.

11. This government (see point 3 for its legitimacy) says “no deal is preferable to a bad deal” but says it has not costed the impact of “no deal”.

12. The government (see point 3) refuses to give the British Parliament a vote on the final Brexit deal. (Note that the oh-so-undemocratic European Parliament will get a say on the final Brexit deal. But not the UK’s parliaments, national or regional.)

13. The government (see point 3) refuses a second referendum to let the people decide on whether to accept the final deal.

Still think the UK is a model of democratic good governance?

Two Breakups and a Funeral

In the last year I have gone through two traumatic breakups and a painful bereavement.

A year ago my father died. The loss of a parent is devastating and life-changing. But he had lived a full and long life, he was suffering, and so was my family. We all have to go one day. My dad’s day had come. My grief was laced with relief and acceptance.

Earlier this year, my partner of three years ended our relationship. I fell into a (thankfully short-lived) depression. I felt for a while as if my world had disintegrated, I felt rudderless. But on some level I knew that it had been necessary, that better times were ahead, that my ex had been brave to act, and that she was hurting too.

Last week the UK chose to leave the European Union. This doesn’t feel the same. I don’t love the EU like I loved my father and my partner. But I do love it, and this is personal. I believe in the EU. I work as an EU public servant because of that belief – it is, to use an unfashionable word, my vocation. For at least thirty years it has been the leitmotiv to my life. And now my homeland has rejected it, possibly fatally wounding it. I am beside myself with anger and grief. This isn’t the euthanising of a loving but flawed relationship, nor the end to a loved one’s terminal suffering. This is a cold-hearted killing. The trigger was pulled by people who had no real understanding of what they were doing, and the gun was being pointed by cynical, manipulative narcissists and psychopaths. Around me I see shocked people in denial, anger, grief. I don’t know if I will ever progress to acceptance.

[Guest Post] Late Republican Rome and the UK today: a few thoughts

A bit of a departure for this blog – and a very exciting one – here is a guest post by my friend and fellow former classicist, Katie Low, on parallels between modern British and ancient late republican Roman politics.

As a British citizen living in Brussels, I have observed the events in the UK of the past week with dismay and, from Thursday afternoon onwards, utter horror. Some very striking historical parallels have been drawn: most notably, many people have compared the ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled by UKIP on Wednesday with images from a Nazi propaganda film. A consciousness of the past is only one of the many things that will, I hope, prevent what happened in the 1930s being played out again today: the apparent simplicity of such parallelisms is both helpful and unhelpful. History leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Being a western European born in the mid-1980s, however, with all the privilege that implies, I am struggling to find a frame of reference for what is happening. In no context have I ever witnessed the febrile atmosphere, the stunts that go beyond parody, the  hateful rhetoric expressed both in formal contexts and in a thousand different variations in the streets and online – and what now looks like the willingness to kill for (abhorrent) ideological reasons – that have gripped the UK. In my previous career I studied Roman history and historiography, and it is in the ancient past that I am trying to make sense of all this.

As I read about the past week’s events and the opinions they have generated I keep thinking of one particular period: the late Roman Republic, roughly the years between the defeat of Rome’s main rival Carthage in 146 BC and the civil wars ultimately won at the battle of Actium in 33 by the man who became the first emperor. Of course, as with the 1930s, ancient Rome cannot be easily mapped onto the present, and it is highly unlikely that the UK will end up with an Augustus of its own. But there are many individual points of comparison.

Several ancient historians supposed that the defeat of Carthage meant Romans could no longer focus on an external enemy and thus fell to fighting each other: in the UK, while polarised politics are of course nothing new, the ‘reliability’ of the Cold War has been replaced by perceived and real threats from many different sources. Then, as the first century BC drew on, powerful leaders such as Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar outgrew the confines of the hierarchical political system that the republic had maintained for centuries and began to establish their own popular power bases. Finally, while making a glib link between the unutterably tragic death of Jo Cox and the assassination of Caesar in 44 would be entirely wrong, I would stress that the latter event foreshadowed subsequent  political murders of emperors that achieved no systemic change and were generally carried out for less than noble motives.

It was another assassination, however, that the terrible thing that happened on Thursday first brought to mind. In 91 BC, another Roman politician was murdered, the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus (once again, I am not drawing  a detailed parallel with recent events: the specific cases are far more different than similar, but the broader similarities are what interest me). At this point, Rome was a troubled place. After the attempts of the 130s and 120s by the reforming tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus to ease inequality in Roman society had ended in civil unrest and their violent deaths, tension had continued to build, and additional strife was brewing amongst the city-states on the Italian peninsula who were allied to Rome but did not enjoy the privileges of citizenship.

Drusus, who as tribune represented the common people but, like virtually all magistrates, came from the upper classes, seems to have pursued a mixed programme. He proposed measures to reinforce the authority of the senate, but also a law that would have provided land for the impoverished working classes, and he also intended to grant citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies. The sources for this period are not comprehensive and his motives not entirely clear (he was not a straightforward popular champion), but his assassination by an unknown assailant unleashed armed revolt by the allied cities who saw no other way of gaining full recognition from Rome. The subsequent Social War (socius is Latin for ‘ally’) lasted three years and was destructive and bloody. Historians have disagreed over whether the independent confederation established by the allies was their ultimate aim or simply a base from which to fight for citizenship, but although it was eventually granted to them, the conflict segued into a full-blown Roman civil war, a precursor to the ones that ended the republic itself.

Once again, I do not believe this will happen in the UK: 91 BC and AD 2016 are very far apart in all kinds of ways. But I can’t help thinking they have elements in common. Inequality and disenfranchisement, mass and elite alienation, identity politics – indeed, the dichotomy between the Italian allies wanting to join Rome but on their preferred terms, and seeking to ‘go it alone’ as an independent nation, looks oddly familiar amid the current debate over British membership of the EU. As I said, history tends to provide more questions than answers. It suggests, though, that once conventional political stops offering solutions, things may never be the same again.

The Age of Unlightenment

This was the advice from my friend Mary this morning:unlightenmentA snapshot of where we are on the morning of 14 June 2016: a disturbed man apparently driven to self-hate murders fifty people in a club; populist politicians clamber over the corpses to score points; religious fundamentalists claim the atrocity for their own. A law firm boasts of its victory over families trying to secure a future for their children who have already been dealt a shit hand by life. And my country seems intent upon an unimaginably stupid act of self-harm, egged on by charlatans, liars, demagogues, and self-serving narcissists.

I feel as if I’m watching our civilisation’s lights dim. The Age of Unlightenment.

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.

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.

murdoch

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!

 

btl

 

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