Thursday, 27 March 2014

Debating Europe

I was interested today to see an item from Sir Richard Branson, stating his belief that the UK needs to stay in Europe. He makes a good economic case for it, and he is not alone. I note that the body that represents the major British companies makes the point that thousands of jobs and a large amount of the UK's income would be in danger if the UK decided to leave the EU. Not unexpectedly, on such a polarised subject, the comments appended to Sir Richard's well thought out argument range from the downright rude and typically 'anti-wealth' sort, full-on anti-EU in any form, through the 'it's-all-a-Nazi-plot-and-we'll-beat-them-again-in-a-fight-for-our-freedom', to the supportive.

We do need to get a more balanced debate going on this. I note most of the extreme anti-EU/anti-anyone-pro-EU comments seem to come from typical 'tabloid' type readers, but I dare say this is a generalisation which may be unfair. There are, of course, some very well informed people on the anti-EU side of the argument, and they are worth reading and engaging. At the other end of the spectrum there are others who feel the debate can't be had at all, and shouldn't be, and the whole does seem to be complicated by our politicians inherent ability to obfuscate, conceal motives and generally not play with a straight bat. Plus, the Whitehall penchant for using every EU Directive to 'gild the lily' and gold plate their badly written and often conflicting 'regulations'.

There are good arguments on both sides of the debate, not least being that the Pound Sterling is a very strong currency at present, and any attempt to bring it into the €uro is likely to cause major problems. There is also the problem of England's, in particular, ancient legal system which is at odds with the systems in use in Europe. The funny part of that is that many in the UK think that the European systems do not have the same 'protections' built into them as is the case with English Common Law - and they are wrong. If anything most European systems are stricter and more demanding on standards of evidence and protection of the innocent. Some even give the victims of any crime a say in court with the victim having counsel alongside the Prosecutor. Where there is a misunderstanding on this in the US and the UK is that there are no Juries, but there is an extremely rigorous review of the evidence for a prosecution at each step of the way - so when someone is finally accused and brought to trial, the evidence is generally pretty strong. Of course there are failures - but show me how the English or the US system is free of error.

Put simply, the UK system allows the courts to determine what the relevant law means in most cases, and builds up a body of 'Case Law' which is used in all future cases involving that legislation. In Europe the law means what it says and the application of it is left to local enforcement, with the court acting in a more refereeing capacity to determine the 'degree of guilt' involved in the breach of it. Thus, while most EU member states take a 'directive' and paste it into their statute books, in the UK a two page Directive can become a hundred page document full of if, but, maybe and 'wriggle' space. As a lawyer friend once remarked, it is the principle of English Law that if it isn't specifically forbidden, it is permissible, and regulations are always read looking for a way to avoid compliance. I suspect this is what frightens many on the 'anti-EU' side of the debate - they don't want to give up being able to evade complying with anything they can.

Recently there has been much debate about the UK taking the same position as Switzerland or Norway and being 'affiliated' to the EU as part of a trading bloc, but not within it. That does overlook a couple of elements, the first being that Switzerland is now having to open up more of its activities to scrutiny, without really having much influence in the affairs of those demanding it. The reason is that they have enjoyed being a Tax Haven, and now the chickens have found a roost. Germany bought a CD quite openly and discovered the extent of tax evasion by people who, frankly, should know better. One has now been convicted and will spend three years in jail, and repay the €28 million he evaded. Even Norway is finding itself having to comply with EU regulations in return for its 'special' status, and I am convinced that they and the Swiss will eventually join up fully.

A part of the argument that, for me, makes much more sense, is that of sheer size as a trading bloc. Britain has lost almost all of its heavy industrial capacity, for reasons I won't enter into here, and is no longer self-sufficient in food or energy production. It is possessed of a welfare system that is more generous and more expensive than anyone else's and its politics and the penchant for boycotts, sanctions and so on among sections of its body politic, have isolated it from many of the markets it enjoyed up to the 1950s. Yes, we are a nuclear power, and we have the four ISBN submarines to prove it, even though, under Mr Blair, and now Mr Cameron, we don't have a full outfit of missiles for all of them and none actually carry a full complement of warheads anyway. Our Fleet has been run down and reduced to the point, almost, of being a coastal defence force, with fewer Type 45 destroyers than we actually need, and most of its ships so specialised they are probably not suited to the types of operation they are now called upon to conduct - such as anti-piracy patrols. Our Army is being further reduced, from 102,000 to 82,000 and the plan is to increase the 'part-time' soldiers of the TA to 30,000 to make up the difference. Then there is the question of the RAF. Some of their aircraft cost almost as much as a small ship, and they've been cut as well.

So how do those who argue that 'Britain will stand alone again against the Fourth Reich' propose to do so? With what? The days we could turn just about anyone into a sailor, soldier or airman, churn out destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers, tanks, bombs, shells and aircraft in weeks or months are gone. The shipyards, factories and resources are gone, and even in WW2 Britain never actually stood alone - she had all her colonial and Dominion and Empire Forces totalling almost a million men, plus their factories and resources to call on. It really is time to drop that particular pipe dream. Those days are over, we are a small, overcrowded, and probably over governed island, a small and increasingly insignificant fish in a world which sees one of our former 'possessions' now operating a larger and more powerful fleet than our own.

As I see it, Britain needs to think again about our relationship with Europe. We can be a part of it, and yes, it does need to be restructured and reformed, or we can be a small and largely annoyingly irrelevant offshore refuge for tax evaders and destination for tourists. True, we have some oil and gas reserves offshore (and possibly on land) but then there is that welfare bill to pay. If we join Europe properly, and play it to our advantage, we can continue to exert a powerful influence in the world alongside the rest of Europe. Together Europe has a better punch in terms of Defence, in economic clout (why do we think the US finacial markets expend so much effort talking down the €uro?), in terms of political punch and in manufacturing output. But, we need to look very carefully at what does work for everyone in the UK, and what could be made better. Our biggest problem is we think in the short term only, this month, this quarter, this year - we need to break that mould and find a better way to think and plan. We need a vision.

Sir Richard's 'vision' (with many other entrepreneurs and businessmen) is to stay in Europe and to find a way to make a United Europe work for everyone. We can embrace that, or we can turn inward, to a pre-Tudor "Little England". I know which one I prefer.


  1. You make the mistake of seeing the EU only in terms of trade, managing to miss the point that the EU also dictates how we are governed, and we ARE governed from Brussels - make no mistake about that. Moreover you cannot fundamentally reform the EU. If it were to be fundamentally 'reformed' it wouldn't be the EU anymore would it? Joining EFTA would enable us to remain part of the single market BUT, crucially we would be politically entirely separate. Europe does NOT have a better punch when it comes to trading arrangements. An EU rep negotiates for all EU members. Norway for example, also present at the same table negotiates her own. It needs to be said over and over again that membership of the EU is not necessary to trade with it. I urge you to read Richard North's blog - you might begin to see that there is another way, a better way. What we do have to do though is to leave the EU.

  2. I have read Richard North's blog, and I would agree with his arument that we need to change the current EU bureaucracy completely, we also need to reform it as a 'political' institution, but I disagree on the leaving it completely. Yes, the EU is a 'political' entity, and much more than just a Trading Bloc, and it is a very complex one at that. I would also agree that the Commission is a very powerful body, still not sufficiently under the full control of the European Parliament, and NOT elected by the voters, despite the claim that, as they are appointed by our elected Ministers, we have some say. Rubbish, that is yet another part of the illusion our political system promotes.

    I will risk being provocative here and say that our much vaunted belief that we can 'rule ourselves' is an illusion. Take just the example of immigration. The problem is not so much EU migrants, but the tide of people from outside Europe our politicians brought in - as a Blair aide has now admitted - purely to force 'the Right' into accepting a Multi-culti fait accompli. That didn't come from Brussels. Much of the 'Human Rights' nonsense and our inability to deport undesirables leeching off the welfare system and evading justice for sometimes utterly repulsive crimes, comes from UN Treaties we signed up to quite freely.

    At present the EU doesn't punch at the levels it could or should, largely because, although it is said to have more control over its member governments than the US Federal government has over the States, this is not entirely true, since we (the UK) have a range of 'opt-outs' which allow us, among others, to make a nonsense of 'collective' agreements. The non-elected 'president' and 'Commission' also mean that there is a lack of credibility as well - not helped by individual member states sticking an oar in on occasion.

    The third point I would argue is that our political system of 'first past the post' is broken. It has been broken for some time, but is sustained by the illusion that it allows us to remove an unpopular government. It doesn't and it can't, all it can do is temporarily rearrange the seating in the House of Commons. The 'tribal' voting means that around 20% of the seats can never really change 'ownership' no matter how good or bad the sitting MP or his/her Party. It also means that everyone who doesn't vote for that Party is effectively disenfranchised, and no, the 'winner' does not represent their views - they cannot, since no matter what the voter thinks, says or wants, the Whips will ensure the MP votes as they tell him/her. That is further compounded by the Civil Service - the 'real' government in many ways, since it is they who determine how policy will be imposed or interpreted. Mrs Thatcher was right when she said "Yes, Minister" was a documentary.

    1. You raise a point UKIP and Richard North keep raising, that we can re-establish trade with countries outside of the EU and independent of it. Yes, we probably could, but they also have memories of trading with us in the past, in which we didn't always deliver, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes because one or more Unions had decided to embargo work for a 'foreign oppressor' and sometimes simply because we didn't deliver on time. Plus, over the last 40 years, we've pretty much told them to push off. Having worked to try and win overseas business and contracts it isn't anywhere near as easy as it may sound in the offices of the Daily Mail, UKIP or anyone else.

      Finally, the EFTA situation does have its advantages, but there are also a number of restrictions as the Swiss are discovering. Will the UK (possibly minus Scotland) still enjoy the full freedom to do as it pleases as an EFTA member? Probably not, remember there are some very clever lawyers making a living out of getting courts to determine case law on 'International Law' contained in Treaties signed by our government, and the EFTA nations must sign treaaties with the EU - ergo, agree to EU laws.

    2. Slim Jim says: I agree with Anonymous above. I think that you are being rather naive about the EUSSR (yes - it really is!). There are 2 things that need to be made clear: number one is 'ever closer union'. That is, the United States of Europe is the ultimate aim of the 'project'. Number two is the vast democratic deficit which you actually acknowledge. As far as immigration is concerned, it matters not where it comes from - as long as it is controlled. Are you suggesting that it is? There is a real reluctance to equate immigration with welfare and housing stock. That would require joined-up political thinking, strategy and policy. It's far too late to reform an institution that is fundamentally corrupt. I would also question why there is a reluctance by the political class to offer us a referendum. As one N. Farage put it rather well - would anyone vote to join the EU now?

    3. Slim Jim, I think you both give russels too much credit. Our own civil servants and politicians pass far more legislation than Brussels 'imposes' and all of it 'domestic' and concerned weith theior need to be seen to be 'governing' us. Much of it duplication, far too much of it badly drafted, and wide open to abuse by crafty lawyers, and most of it unnecessary.

      No, we probably would not vote to join the EU now, but disentangling ourselves is going to be far more complicated than simply 'leaving'. It is naive to think otherwise.

    4. Slim Jim responds: I don't give Brussels any credit! I also did not mention the effect of EU Directives on national legislation, but I do agree that the UK 'gold plates' too much. In the recent debate with Farage, Clegg claimed that only 7% of UK law emanates from the EU. Lying bastard, and he knows it! It may be the amount of primary legislation that it precipitates, but as you know, there are many more regulations that cascade from those laws. Even Gordon Brown (remember Bozo?) acknowledged that the figure was nearer 50%.

      Let us not forget the fact that we have to comply with the ECHR, and I'm sure I don't need to tell you how that august body has been infected and perverted by the neo-fascistic human rights brigade. We are prevented from deporting undesirable aliens in many cases, and 1 in 8 of our prisoners are foreign nationals. No problem with immigration? Think again! You are correct that it would be difficult to disengage from the EUSSR (I'm sure you're familiar with 'acquis communautaire' and its effect). I do not think it is naive to think we can leave (you forgot to mention Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, signed by traitor Brown), but it is obvious that the cosy consensus of the Europhiles is being disturbed, and about time too! I will repeat my question - why is there a reluctance of the LibLabCon to give us a referendum?

    5. In answer to your question, Slimjim, it is my beliefe that successive government's since 1974 have signed up to a wide range of things such as 'mutual defence' and other 'little' shares of industrial distribution for instance such as steel production, certain heavy industries (like ship building) and so on which allowed them to cut our own defence spending, or get rid of industries which were nurdensome because of Union problems, or massive subsidies necessary to make them pay. As a result, leaving the EU will expose these and leave us with huge gaps we will have to find ways to plug very rapidly. One reason our Welfare System is abused is that it is more generous than anywhere else - a fact the EU itself has identified and suggested we rectify.

      With respect to the EHCR, no one else in Europe has a problem deporting these foreign criminals - only the UK. Why? Because the UK has allowed itself to be suckered by our own HR lawyers into accepting the myth that the Convention of Human Rights means we may not deport or extradite anyone to a country where they may face 'torture' or a death penalty. That is NOT the ECHR, that is British Courts, and British lawyers being plain damned stupid. Blair's botched Human Rights Act was an attempt to negate appeals to the ECHR, when all he really had to do was withdraw us from its jurisdiction. Even now the HRA could be largely 'fixed' by including as an 'article' the words "Nothing in this Act shall confer upon any person who suffers, injury, death or other loss during the commission of a crime, to deamnd or claim restitution from the intended victim" and as a sub-article: "Nothing in this Act shall be deemed to entitle any person accused of a serious crime from immunity from prosecution in any country in which the crime was committed."

      In terms of primary legislation and Parliamentary time, Clegg is about right at 7% coming from the EU, but, once again, Whitehall then expands that in Regulations which make up a considerable proportion od the around 40% that actually hits the statute books. Even then, a considerable amount of the H&S regulation would be enacted anyway, simply because most of it is driven by the International Labour movement. As you know, I have long commented that the legal profession in the UK has a large lobby now which loudly trumpets 'International Law' (meaning any UN Treaty or Directive that suits their purpose) as being binding on us and, even if we bailed out of the EU, I suspect that 90% of the legislation you complain comes from the EU, would not only remain, but probably the other 10% would be replaced by UN inspired law. An example is the crud on Climate Change which seems to apply only to 'Western' countries and not to anywhere in the Third World.

    6. Slim Jim replies: Ah, so our defence relies on the EU, does it? There was me thinking we were part of NATO. If we left the EU, we would still be able to trade with other countries, as well as sitting at the table as a sovereign nation at EFTA, and other organisations. As for the decline in our manufacturing capabilities, we are in much the same position as other 'advanced' western countries, i.e. we import too much from the developing nations. The entire Western capitalist model is in serious decline, I know. As for welfare, the EU will try to prevent us from reducing access to welfare for foreign migrants; but of course, you are correct in stating that we are too generous. You will be aware of the noise generated by the coalition's attempts to reduce the welfare bill, so basically we are between a rock and a hard place when the migrant comes to claim benefits. I know that most come here to work, but those on minimum wage or less will be entitled to working tax credits and possibly housing benefit. You are also correct in that successive governments (the LibLabCon!) have signed up to treaties and agreements they probably should not have done. What sticks in the craw is the ceding of powers to a mainly unelected supranational body. Heaven knows that political class of this country is not fit for purpose, but the EU is not the answer! The Euro is just a spinning, wobbly plate, and when it crashes, that will signal the end of the EU as we know it. I think the Monk downplays the role of the ECHR; after all, they are trying to force us to give votes to prisoners for example. Finally, I think it is ironic that Cameron and chums have agreed to give Scotland a referendum for independence, yet they are bending over backwards to prevent one on EU membership!

    7. Slimjim, we are members of NATO, as are most members of the EU. NATO is set up to deal with a major East versus West conflict, and most of its planning, manning and equipping has been predicated on that. Back in the 1960s the Defence Review figured out that we could do without aircraft carriers and major warships because the US had them and would supply them - a stupid folly exposed by the Falklands war. It has taken until now to reverse that and start building two carriers - but now we have to buy almost everything we need for them because our ruling and moneyed classes sold of all the indutries and the secrets for a fast buck in between. Much the same thing has been happening across the EU, with politicians cutting back their military on the grounds that 'together' we have the means to take on any likely major threat - except of course, in cases like the Falklands where half of those 'forces' could be playing for the other side. But then Whitehall had hoped to just quietly cede them to Argentina anyway and no one would notice. Blair tried to do it with Gibraltar and got a bloody nose. The trouble is, they have been quietly cutting and adjusting now for so long the 'integration' may be irreversible. Only the French have managed to keep full contol of their armaments industry and a fully balanced military.

      As to the ECHR, the UK is not the only country that has problems with it, though it must be said that our badly written legislation is partly to blame for that. Whitehall's insistence on providing more loopholes than a fishing net is very largely the problem. That is coupled by the fact the judges appointed to the ECHR are seldom top flight judges in their own countries, in fact most have not been judges before and most are specialists in Human Rights cases as defenders or advocates for it. Plus our legal teams are, I think, by and large not used to the lack of theatric opportunity in European courts and fail to realise that they deal with fact, and fact alone. Grandstand plays cut no ice, so you have to play an absolutely straight down the line presentation of facts backed by credible argument and credible witnesses.

      As to the Commission, our leaders argue that as the commissioners are 'elected' and 're-elected' every five years by the Council of Ministers, whose members are 'elected' by the national electorates - the Commission is 'democratic'. I would disagree, and would wish to see the commissioners elected by general plebiscite, but I appreciate that there are difficulties with doing that as well - just look at what happens in the Eurovision Song Contest ...

    8. I think the time has come for Britain to have a formal written Constitution, and for Parliament to be made subject to the Electorate. Parliamentary "Sovereignty" is used too often to ram through unpopular and possibly unconstitutional measures that, if subject to external scrutiny, and to a plebiscite of the people would be rejected. I do believe that matters of national interest and importance - defence, welfare, health, justice, etc. affected by new Treaties or agreements - should be subject to approval by the populace. Referenda should be required by law when any major shift of sovereignty or our ancient rights and freedoms are impacted. All too often the mask of 'Parliamentary Sovereignty' is abused by our moneyed and political classes safe in the knowledge that something contentious rammed through and onto the statute books early in a Parliament, is forgotten by the majority by the time an election comes round. The one major reform I would like to see is for Parliament to be subject to the scrutiny of a Constitutional Court as many are in Europe where legislation can be 'referred' and which has the power to strike down elements and demand changes. I would also like to see it become manadatory for a Referendum to be held where our rights, freedoms or matters of sovereignty are affected.

      Adding a fixed term (say 5 years) and getting rid of 'career' politicians would also be good - but perhaps not going to happen in my lifetime.