Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Britain and the EU

Tomorrow, as those of you living in Britain will know, is 'Super Thursday', the joint local and European elections day. One of the quirky (and few) advantages of being a Commonwealth citizen living in Britain is that I am allowed to vote in the elections. So, who will I be voting for?

At the local level I'm ambivalent. My political philosophical leanings suggest that I should vote Tory, but I voted Green in the last local election and will probably do so again tomorrow. I have no real affinity for the Greens but local politics is about practical and pragmatic matters and the Greens have a couple of ideas about the future of Oxford that I find compelling. These number, inter alia, the introduction of trams and natural gas powered buses, and a strategy for coping with Oxford's chronic housing shortage. They're also committed to introducing some sort of congestion charging scheme to reduce the amount of traffic in central Oxford; an idea which is, frankly, long overdue.

Nevertheless, it is not the local elections that are interesting but the European elections. And here I've known for some time (as my suffering friends who've been the recipients of various sermons on the subject will attest) who I expect to vote for. My vote will be going to the UK Independence Party.

On the face of it this may seem a strange decision. Why vote for a small, single-issue party that can't hope to have any real impact on local politics. In part my reasoning is strategic, I hope that if the UKIP can garner a significant share of the vote (recent polls are suggesting around 20 percent) then the centre of gravity on this issue will shift in favour of UK withdrawal from the EU. The other point is that a vote for the UKIP is a way of registering disgust with the failure of the major parties to offer a clear and constructive debate on this issue. Polls since the early 1970s have repeatedly shown that over 40 percent of UK citizens are in favour of withdrawing from the EU with only 20-something percent in favour of remaining in. That the UK is still a member is testament to the ambitions of the UK's elite (both left and right) and the fact that they see the EU as a way of furthering their own interests. And what might those ambitions be? Why might the governing elite be prepapred to sell UK sovereignty down the river so readily?

The answer to this will depend upon which side of the political spectrum you hail from. Left wingers (who tend to be more sympathetic to the EU) see the project as a way of building a counter-weight to the power of the US. People of this ilk identify readily with Jacque Chirac's talk of establishing a multi-polar world order. A strong federalist EU state, it is suggested, will offer a centre-left example to the world to counter the rampant right wingers from across the Atlantic. Secondly, the EU is seen as a way of smuggling socialism into Britian through the backdoor. The Thatcher reforms of the 80s effectively killed socialism in Britain and, more importantly, demonstrated that the average Brit was against the whole socialist project. No openly socialist party could hope to win an election in 21st century Britain but if the electorate could be persuaded to support further integration with Europe (a winnable battle, apparently) then there might yet be a chance for socialism, or at least the watered down version that prevails on the continent, to re-establish itself in the UK.

So much for the left, what about the right? Here the debate mainly turns on economic arguments. The UK needs to be part of the EU in order to derive the economic benefits of a single currency and access to a major market. Right-wingers, particularly the nostalgic sort, sometimes also see the EU as a way for Britain to once again play a dominant role on the world stage. Britain, perhaps in consort with France, and backed by the full might of Europe could be a major world player for the first time since 1956.

What are we to make of these arguments? I'd like to point out, again, that polls conducted on this issue have consistently shown that a plurality of voters are against EU membership. Are we to conclude that they are mis-informed? Hardly. The truth of the matter is that on this issue, as on most others, the public knows what's good for it. As far as Britain and the EU being a counter-weight to America goes, I think that the average Brit finds this both laughable, hubristic and offensive. This is an idea beloved of the French and the Islingtonian Left but it is not something that most Brits want. The UK and the US have been partners since 1941 and agree on almost all important issues. On trade, foreign policy, economics, the legal system and the conception of the role of the state there is much agreement between the two. The idea that Britain should seek to ally itself with a project which is openly anti-American and which indulges all kinds of strange paranoia's about the maliciousness of America is laughable. And in any case the average Brit is sensible enough to realise that even with further integration the EU will never be strong enough to act as a counter-weight to the US. US military spending vastly exceeds the combined spending of all of Europe. The US economy is larger than Europe's, even after the recent accession of the Eastern European members.

As for sneaking socialism back into Britain, most Brit's cringe at the thought. Margaret Thatcher was hardly a widely liked politician but she won again and again because the alternative was a party espousing values that, really, have never found much favour in Britain. This is a country of pragmatic individualists, the people acknowledge that the state plays a vital role in certain areas but, unless I'm very much mistaken, they certainly don't regard the state in the same light as say the French, Germans or Scandinavians do. And as it happens, Britain appears to be moving ever further away from Europe on many issues, the recent introduction of top-up fees being a prime example.

What about the right? As far as I'm concerned the economic arguments simply don't hold water. The theory that Britain needs to be part of the single currency area has already been dealt a major blow by the fact that since the introduction of the Euro, British growth has been almost double the rate achieved in Europe. This should hardly surprise. The idea that a single interest rate can be good for everyone is simply bad economics. As Germany is finding to its great cost, it is all well and good to be part of a stable currency area but if that comes at the cost of interest rates that are too high (or too low as would be the case for Britain if it joined) then your economy will suffer. Secondly, it is not clear that the Euro will be significantly more stable than Sterling. Certainly if the last 4 years are anything to go by then the Pound need not feel embarrased when compared to the Euro. Finally, given that the Bank of England is an independent body, currency movements in Britain should be seen as a good thing. When Sterling moves, that movement represents an adjustment to some economic shock, it is simply the market responding and as such is hardly something to be feared. Currency movements can be a worry when the primary drivers are political sentiment but in Britian politics really doesn't play the major role in determining the value of the currency anymore. As for being part of the free-trade area, Britain can still have access to the common market without having to sign on to the whole EU project.

Should Britain be seeking to join as a way of re-establishing itself as a great power? I think this argument is mis-placed because it assumes that if Britian throws its weight in with Europe, Germany and France will happily accept it as a third member of the axis and that it will be able to exert influence accordingly. The reality of course is that France has no intention of cedeing power and influence to Britain. As Britain is finding, on major foreign policy matters it is usually at odds with its continental counter-parts. Hardly a sound basis upon which to assert world-wide influence.

This is the reality of Britain's relationship with the EU and, but for the fact that the British elite has repeatedly ducked the issue and prevented real debate from taking place, it seems likely that Britain would either never have joined in the first place or would have withdrawn by now. So this is why I'll be voting UKIP tomorrow. It is time that the country's leaders face up to their responsibility to the people. No more obfuscation, no more lying. The average Brit is deeply sceptical of Europe and, but for various elite projects, would probably have said goodbye years ago.

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