Cameron has come back from Brussels with a piece of paper. Most people realise the referendum debate has little to do with what is written on that piece of paper. The point is, when it comes to Europe, are we team players or would we rather go it alone? The principle of belonging to an Economic Union is that we can achieve more collectively than we can individually. Do we support that principle or not?
In any partnership there are always going to be disagreements over the distribution of the gains and losses. Within the EU we may find that one country is in debt, while another has financed the loans. One country may be a net importer of energy, while another is a net exporter. One country may have a large farming base, while another does not. Conditions change. What was once deemed to be fair and reasonable, may no longer seem so fair and reasonable today. The strength of the union rests on how prepared the constituent nations are to be flexible in accommodating the shifts in relative gains and losses. If we quibble about a sum of money that barely keeps an opera house running, some £30 million a year or so, we are missing the big picture.
So what is the point of EU membership? Some perceive it to be a mechanism for ending wars in Europe by forging strong political alliances among the member states. Others see the Union as a ‘common market’ mechanism for industrial collective bargaining vis-a-vis the rest of the world. These mechanisms rely on the principle that rather than competing against one another we can achieve a better outcome by presenting a united front.
Some put international security at the forefront of their arguments. Others see a need for strong, internationally integrated tax systems. Some see in the European Union an opportunity for the advancements of human rights and for consumer protection, as well as for protection of the environment. For some a humanitarian crisis, such as the mass flight from war torn areas on European borders, demands a collective response. In all these arguments, increasing globalisation of capital, labour, technology and communications provides a common rationale for an integrated international response.
The counter argument seems to rest on the idea of national ‘sovereignty’. It might be wise to think carefully about what ‘sovereignty’ actually means. For me that notion of sovereignty suggests a strong attachment to democracy. It means we want to know what is going on in government and we want to have the right to change it if we don’t like it. I would be the last to undermine that notion. However, as long as the principle of honesty, openness and accountability is maintained, whether in local government, national government or at EU level, I am happy to let the government get on with it.
If it makes sense to tackle international people trafficking at a European-wide level then I want the European Union to act collectively to stop that happening. If corporations and private individuals are paying zero percent tax on vast incomes, and criminal organisations, including terrorist organisations, are hiding bank balances in secret accounts and laundering money by buying up national assets, and environmental protection regulations are being openly flaunted by multinational corporations, and the only way to control all these is to have an internationally co-ordinated approach, then I am prepared to let international institutions, such as the European Union, act on my behalf.
In sum, what matters to me is that whatever our institutional system of governance might be, the right of the people to open, honest and accountable representation remains paramount. Those in charge must feel they are answerable to the people. To trust the EU to act collectively without eroding honesty, openness and accountability is no greater a leap of faith than to trust our own national government to do the same. If sovereignty is the key concern we should start by looking to our own national system of governance.
Good government must be held to account by opposition parties. This requires balanced funding arrangements. The attempt by successive Conservative Governments to increase funding from corporations while eroding funding from organisations representing workers is a machiavellian political ploy which poses a threat to the notion of sovereignty. By the same token, any erosion of Short Money poses a threat to sovereignty.
All parties should abide by electoral regulations, any breach, such as those recently uncovered by Michael Crick of Channel Four News, should be taken very seriously. Equally people should be encouraged to speak up without fear of retribution: whistleblowers should be protected. A totally ‘free’ press may be a lot to ask, but one should at least be able to rely on a variety of different voices and on an intelligent level of debate in the media. We should aim for as much independence as possible in our schools and universities.
I fear Cameron has been focussing on the wrong things in his negotiations with the European Union. I am concerned about TTIP negotiations going on behind closed doors that may be passed into law without any proper debate or scrutiny in parliament. I am also concerned about arms deals and secretive foreign policy discussions. When it comes to international solutions to international problems, such as the refugee crisis, security, the environment and tax issues, I am happy to allow for greater co-operation with other governments through membership of the EU, rather than adopting a beggar-my-neighbour attitude and a ‘race to the bottom’. If we want greater sovereignty we must push for greater transparency. International problems need to be dealt with at an international level. We can do this safely if we all hold our own governments to account.