Over the past couple of weeks, many of us have been engaged in discussions with EU critics; we’ve avidly read opinion pieces and followed referendum chatter on-line. This letter is an attempt to refute the many lies and misunderstandings peddled by EU critics.
Initially, there was an emphasis on facts, but as the referendum draws to a close these are giving way to emotion. Understandably! The referendum is an important decision which will determine our identity as a nation and our future for the next three generations. However, there is an old saying, “My mind is made up. Do not confuse me with the facts!” We hope the following facts will help you towards a rational decision and goes some way to mitigate the “story” the Leave campaigners are peddling.
Dear Fellow Citizen
You ask is the EU democratic?
Our answer is yes. Here’s why.
First, look to Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union. It states, “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”
Is there anything in the wording of this Article that you find alarming? We find it comforting to know that we are part of a continent that values these important sentiments. Article 2 is supreme law. No member state can write a law that contradicts these values. It applies equally and unequivocally to each and every member of the European Union. This is one of the main reasons David Cameron is right when he says that Turkey will not become a member of the EU. It is too undemocratic under Erdogan to even be considered. In fact, the EU is currently fighting Poland over the independence of their judiciary, potentially compromising the rule of law in Poland. That is how seriously the EU takes Article 2. In every good relationship – be it marital, working, or friendly – it is not our differences that divide us – it is our values that unite us. So too the EU. The EU is a mismatch of different countries, with different languages, cultures and histories. This does not matter. It makes life interesting. It is the values set out in Article 2 which is the glue that binds the EU.
You ask – but what about the EU itself. Is the organisation democratic?
Yes. The emphasis on democracy is not limited to the member states. The European Parliament, which is equal to all other EU institutions, is democratically elected. Everyone over the age of 18 and of sound mind in the United Kingdom (and across the rest of the EU) has the right to vote for their Member of the European Parliament. For Nigel Farage to accuse the EU of being undemocratic is plain wrong, he is, himself, a democratically elected member of the European Parliament. He campaigned against a Conservative, Labour and Lib. Dem. candidate and won the vote. How is that undemocratic?
But doesn’t the European Parliament just rubber-stamp diktats from the European Commission?
We want to assure you this is categorically not the case. MEPs are democratically elected politicians who are not yes-men. They take their duties seriously, attending committees, voting through amendments and voting in plenary. All, that is, apart from UKIP who do not attend plenary sessions, who do not vote but who like to take their wages and expenses home with them at the end of the day. For the rest, MEPs form coalitions and alliances with other parties and learn their brief well before voting.
The European Parliament has the right to table amendments, prepare reports and to vote in a plenary. Often these reports and amendments are at odds with the European Commission. The recent glysophate debate is just one example. The Parliament has stood up to both the Council of Europe and the European Commission over data privacy and it has always acted as a powerful break on the introduction of GMO produce in the EU. It is not a “yes-man” and guards its rights, as set out in law, very carefully. Finally, the European Parliament does have the right to veto the whole legislation. This rarely happens but it does have the right.
We think it is vital that people understand that the EU decision making process in no way resembles the Soviet Union. This categorically is not the case with the EU. If you are interested you can follow every proposal from beginning to end, every step of the way and you have the right to contact the EU setting out your concerns. We are the first to admit that unless you have a particular interest in VAT transactions or derivatives the whole thing may make you want to fall asleep – but being boring and dull is not the same as being undemocratic or intransparent.
You ask, is the European Parliament ranked third after the Commission and the Council?
No. There is no ranking of the institutions. They are all equal but have different roles to play in forming and shaping legislation.
What about the European Council? Is that not just a cabal of industrial interests and corporations?
Only a national minister sitting in government has the right to attend Council meetings. Currently, only Conservative ministers from the UK have the right to attend these important meetings where legislation is shaped because the Conservative Party won a majority at the last election. Not a representative from the Labour Party, not a newspaper magnate, not a CEO, not a corporation, not an NGO – only a minister sitting in government. Their role is to represent the national interest – and they do.
What about the European Commission? Isn’t it an unelected bureaucracy proposing ever more legislation that it can impose on the rest of Europe?
No. At the very top the European Commissioners are chosen by their national governments. They are selected by the Prime Minister who himself/herself has been elected. New European Commissioners must first be vetted by the European Parliament, which you elected, before they are allowed to take up their appointment. It is a tough vetting process. Some are rejected.
The institution itself, however, is not democratic. It can be compared to Whitehall. In the same way that Whitehall is staffed by civil servants to aid and assist ministers so too the European Commission is staffed by public servants who aid and assist Commissioners.
The Commission has the sole right of proposing legislation and that does, indeed, give it a certain advantage because it can shape the proposal. The Commission, however, is bound by law to look at the whole picture and not the interest of an individual member state. When drafting legislation, the European Commission is obliged to prepare Impact Assessment Reports justifying why it has the right to legislate, if the legislation is really necessary, what alternatives to legislation exist and how to ensure the legislation is as efficient as possible and not simply burdening stakeholders. If the proposal passes muster – and sometimes it does not – it is forwarded to both the European Council and the European Parliament for further consideration. During the decision making process the Commission’s role is to act as mediator between the Council and the European Parliament to try and find compromise or agreement in cases of dispute. Interestingly, one point that is often lost in this debate, is that the EU is now proposing far fewer rules. The European Commission’s better regulation agenda limits new regulations and even withdraws existing ones. Most other EU members also want less red tape!
To sum up, the EU is so democratic it will respect the British voters’ decision whatever the outcome and not impose a legal challenge or military intervention. Your vote. Your decision. Your future.
Could the EU be more democratic?
Potentially, but this would mean power draining away from national parliaments. The right-wing element in the Conservative Party, which is currently accusing the EU of being undemocratic, is the very party that has vociferously resisted any moves to introduce more democracy.
How far reaching is EU law?
The EU can only create laws where is has been assigned the right to do so. EU powers are clearly set out and specified in law. If the right to legislate is not in the law book they cannot and do not legislate. They are forbidden from over-stepping their powers. Thus, for example, the Treaties do not grant the EU the right to legislate on:
- Foreign affairs
- Defence spending
- Running the justice department
- Criminal sentencing
- Health spending
- Taxation (other than VAT within bands for the Single Market)
The EU has no interest in these matters. EU law is designed to ensure good relations between neighbours.
Yes, but isn’t the EU legally obliged to grow and take over more powers from national governments in many of the areas you think are safe guarded?
To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher: No. No. No. The EU categorically is NOT legally obliged to grow and take over more powers from national government. This is totally untrue. As already said, the EU can only legislate in very specific areas set out in the EU Treaties. If it is not in the law book it is not law. This is very well monitored and looked into. Any attempt by the EU to exceed its powers would be challenged by the member states and, as we say above, any EU legislative initiative does have to undergo an Impact Assessment where the right to legislate is set out by reference to the appropriate treaty article.
When Vote Leave talk about more powers going to Brussels they are referring to something that might happen in the future that has not yet been decided. Every ten years or so the EU Treaties are revised which is the point when potentially new powers could be introduced. It should be emphasised that treaty revision requires unanimity – that is to say every single member state must agree or there is no treaty revision. The UK has used its veto in the past and it can do so in the future should it feel there is too much power being given to the EU.
Is Westminster sovereign?
Yes. Parliament is still sovereign over all domestic matters. It is the highest decision making body in the United Kingdom.
Is EU law supreme to British law?
Yes – but only in the area where it has been given the power to legislate.
This supremacy of EU law is important for the functioning of the Single Market. The EU is not prepared, for understandable reasons, to compromise on this. The European Court of Justice has found in Britain’s favour on numerous occasions where either a Member State or private company has not been applying EU law fairly. Remember Westminster cannot over-rule EU law but then neither can Germany, France, Italy, Poland etc. It applies equally to all members. There is no cherry-picking to suit national interests.
Can the EU be reformed?
Of course it can and yes it does reform itself all the time. The Treaties themselves are reformed every ten years or so. The last time this was done was in 2008 which updated the Treaty of Maastricht and the new treaty is referred to as the Treaty of Lisbon.
Regarding EU policies – from agriculture to fisheries, from food safety to financial services they are constantly being updated and reformed to match our changing world.
Does Britain have any influence in Europe?
Yes. A lot. To name a few examples: The drive towards privatising the electricity, telecoms and water markets across Europe was not a French or Italian initiative. It was Britain’s desire to see the European market liberalised that resulted in former state-owned utility companies across Europe (and not just in the UK) being privatised. Without Britain’s influence many of these companies might still be state-owned.
It was the Conservative Party under John Major and later the Labour Party under Tony Blair that pushed for rapid EU expansion into the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. Many other member states had qualms about the scope and pace of this expansion. The British, nevertheless, pressed for it. The British got it.
On animal welfare the British government pushed for a reform of the way animals are transported across the EU. The EU listened and stricter safeguards regarding animal welfare standards were introduced European wide.
Britain has a lot of credibility within the EU. There is a huge amount of respect for Britain’s huge sacrifices and efforts during the Second World War. Britain is viewed as fair, honest and law abiding. She is seen as bringing a certain gravitas to the table. When Britain partakes in the EU she is listened to. When she ignores the EU and does not join in the debate she is in turn ignored and ends up having little influence on the policies being shaped. Influence ebbs from the UK and drains towards Germany.
Does Britain always get what she wants in the EU?
No. The United Kingdom is not an imperial power in Europe. Britain has influence and standing but not an army poised to impose her laws on the continent. Her concerns are often taken into account (see above) but she cannot always force her way of thinking if there is not a favourable majority view. Being a member does, however, mean she can try and persuade her view to be endorsed. This can and does happen (see above). The current government, however, has chosen to side-line and ignore the EU rather than engage and participate and so our influence in recent years is diminished.
Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world. Can she go it alone?
No. Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world in part because she is a member of the European Union. The rights and privileges granted to us by being a member has pushed us into this pole position. The United Kingdom acts as a portal into Europe. If , on 23rd June, we vote to leave this portal is closed and the UK looks a lot less attractive.
If we leave in order to take back control we close the gate. Germany and France have made it clear they will interpret an out vote as the sovereign wish of the British people. The EU is, as explained above, a democratic body and it does and it will respect whatever decision Britain makes. Standing alone, Britain is a small market of 65 million. Non-EU countries are unlikely to show much interest in investing in a country that does not meet EU standards. They will gravitate towards the bigger continental European market. Ask yourself: if you had the choice of investing in a market of 430 million or a closed market of 65 million which one would you choose?
It is true that Britain has excellent contacts with non-EU countries in North America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. But investors in these countries are only interested in the big prize: the European market. Take that out of the equation and the United Kingdom looks small and insignificant.
Could we negotiate a trade agreement and still stay out?
Yes. But what is the point? Britain would still be expected to pay towards the EU budget, we would still have to accept EU laws on standards and free movement as a condition of access – but we would have no say in how those laws are shaped. EU law would still be supreme. We would be like Norway, sitting on the side-lines with no say in the game. The Swiss model is about to fall apart and Canada is still negotiating its trade agreement with the EU – seven years later.
Do we really send £350m per week to Brussels?
No. This is plain wrong. According to the FT, our annual contribution is expected to be £13bn in 2015. Of that £4.5bn is returned as farming subsidies and regional development funds. A further £1.4bn comes back in grants to the private sector. This means that in fact we send £136m a week. The cost of membership is less than 30p per person a day (about the cost of an apple).
What about immigration?
Critics of the EU claim that the UK has no control over our borders. This again is plain wrong. For anyone who has taken the ferry, plane or Eurostar into the UK they will be aware that there are a lot of controls vetting those who come in and out of the UK. The UK is not a part of Schengen, so unlike travelling, say, between Belgium and France or France and Spain, it is simply not possible to move freely into the UK. Everyone has to show their passports at the border including British citizens.
What the UK cannot stop is the free migration of EU economic migrants. This works both ways – British citizens are free to find work in any EU member state and vice versa. Even if there is a Vote Leave this is not likely to change. Further, EU economic migrants should not be confused with refugees or asylum seekers from outside of the EU as Nigel Farage does with his infamous poster. Nor should they be confused with economic migrants coming from outside of the EU such as from North America, Australia, Africa or Asia.
What about defence – is it true the EU wants to take defence away from NATO?
The EU is a “soft” power which is not interested in military adventures or interventions regardless of what Vote Leave would have you believe. The EU is happy to leave that side of things to NATO. It’s not because both NATO and the EU are based in Brussels that they are in competition with each other or looking to replicate each other’s role. NATO is for defence. The EU for commerce. There are no concrete proposals afoot to dismantle NATO and replace is with a European army. This is Project Fear in reverse.
One thing that is important to understand though is that whilst the EU is not in the least bit interested in branching into military defence and adventures the fact that the EU boosts prosperity has led to an unprecedented period of peace in Europe. If the EU collapses what is the alternative? No one, least of all Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage, have put forward an interesting alternative that is worth considering. In fact they have no alternative other than a retreat back into the nation state and isolationism – and when that was the case inevitably Europe descended into war.
To conclude, we hope that the above reassures anyone going to the polls on Thursday that they have little to fear from the EU – and everything to fear from a fragmented, broken Europe in which right-wing sentiment is on the rise. We do not have night sweats over the EU and nor should you. We do have night-sweats over a future in which right-wing demagoguery is once again the major political force.
No one is suggesting for a single moment that the EU is perfect, that it does not have its flaws or that all is rosy in Euro-land. Far from it. The EU, like the rest of the world is facing challenges from immigration to economic stagnation, from the rise of global despots to the breakdown of peaceful countries on our borders. These challenges can only be faced if we stand together to find common solutions. Let us face the future together confident that the shared European values expressed in Article 2 are the final litmus test for a peaceful, prosperous future.