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Europe Day

Europe Day

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Yesterday was Europe Day, though not that you would know here in the United Kingdom. Europe Day is an annual celebration of peace and unity across the European Union, be we weren't observing it here as we were too busy celebrating a transient victory over old enemies rather than a lasting peace between new friends. Which I think says a lot about Britain and its attitudes towards the European Union.

Britain sees itself as separate and distinct from the rest of the Union, a unique special snowflake in contrast to some homogeneous European other - and in two years time we will, if our Prime Minister is to be believed, be given a choice to vote whether to remain within the Union or to leave it and cut ourselves loose. If I might be completely frank, this scares the hell out of me. There is so much euroscepticism here in the UK, especially in England that I really worry how the vote might go. It is my deeply held belief that our future along with that of our European neighbours lies together as part of a close union, not apart, all fighting for ourselves and against each other.

The Union gets a lot of flak in the UK, and we get told a lot of things. We get told it's run by "unelected technocrats" ... I've never been sure who these people are, though, are they the European Parliament, who are elected by us? Um, nope. Maybe the European Council, then, but no, wait, they're just our leaders who are, uh, elected by us. Ah, but what about that awful European Commision then? That would be the one whose president is proposed by our own leaders elected by us and voted on by the European Parliament who are elected by us, and the commissioners themselves who are appointed by the national governments we elected. No, I'm still not quite seeing it.

We get told how we have to pay massive amounts of money to the EU - well it's actually about a half a percent of gross national income for the UK, about a tenth of what we spend on defence and somehow there's always enough money for that. Even on top of that we get a generous rebate back, in any case.

We get politicians complaining about "health tourism" and people coming over here to use our wonderful NHS - don't get me wrong, I absolutely love the NHS and I think it's one of the best things about the UK. But don't forget that we also have that brilliant reciprocal health arrangement where we are entitled to state healthcare across the EU courtesy of the EHIC. So it cuts both ways.

We get told that "Europe" meddles in British affairs, and that's awful. Leaving aside for the moment that we are part of that same Europe, what meddling do we get exactly? The Conservatives complain about the European Court of Human Rights deciding against the UK, telling us that we can't do things like retain DNA samples from people accused of a crime but later acquitted, or deport people to countries where they might be tortured or executed, or denying our citizens the right to vote if they're in prison. Here's some more things the ECHR has decided, see what you think.

As well as this, our membership of the European Union gives us freedom of movement anywhere within the Union, freedom of settlement and the free movement of goods. I sometimes wonder how the UKIP voters in the South-East will feel if we cut ourselves adrift from the EU, when they decide to go on their booze-cruises to the Calais hypermarkets and find that they can bring back only up to a duty-free allowance.

If the UK leaves, I wonder how our students will feel when they find out they can't take part in the Erasmus programme any more and can't go and study abroad in other European universities.

If the UK leaves, I wonder how the 1.8 million UK nationals living permanently elsewhere in the European Union will feel when their lives suddenly become rather more complicated as their right to movement and settlement is pulled out from under them. I wonder how my own parents, living on the Mediterranean coast of Spain will feel about that.

If the UK leaves, I wonder how our businesses will feel when their imports and exports with the EU are suddenly hit with tariffs and protectionism? I wonder how many of them will leave? I wonder how many UK citizens will leave?

Let me put this as plainly as I can - I will as you have probably guessed by now be voting "Yes" to remaining in the EU at any upcoming referendum. You're entitled to your own vote and I won't criticise you whichever way you decide. All I ask is that you read up, think hard about what you're deciding on and then vote based on what you think is best, rather than what anyone else might tell you. If you vote no, do it because you believe in it, don't do it to stick two fingers up at Brussels or Strasbourg, because that would be a really bad reason to vote for anything.

One more thing - if the UK waves goodbye to the European Union, it can wave goodbye to me as well. Those UK nationals I mentioned earlier who might leave? I'll be among them, on the first train, ferry or aeroplane out of here.
  • To state the obvious, Europe and the EU are not the same thing. Europe is a continent full of amazing countries, fantastic culture and wonderful people. The EU is a customs bloc / political institution which has its usefulness but is also corrupt, undemocratic, self-aggrandising and in desperate need of reform.

    I have no emotional attachment to the EU. I feel no closer to (say) Spain or Germany for being fellow EU members than I do to Norway or Switzerland who are not. I can't imagine the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration ever capturing the public attention in the same way as commemorating those who gave their lives to liberate a continent and defeat the evils of Nazism.

    I don't think Britain is a special snowflake. Obviously as an island nation we're always going to feel slightly separate, but the EU has caused a lot of misery and I don't think it works properly for any of its citizens. Just ask the Greeks. The political movement right now is towards greater devolution and localisation, not more centralisation. "Ever closer union" looks like an outdated, disconnected dinosaur.

    Through my job I've seen member states constantly fighting the Commission in court, and the UK frequently allied with Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands in particular. I've been to international conferences where there was a palpable relief in the room once the Commission representative left, as the rest of us became free to talk openly without fear of infraction. I've also seen how our relationship with other Commonwealth countries has been affected by having our hands tied by the EU on what we can offer them bilaterally.

    About the "unelected" bit - The European Parliament is pretty impotent as parliaments go, and having Prime Ministers able to appoint their cronies to the Commission does not make it democratic. Imagine Westminster if only the House of Lords had the power to propose laws, and all the Commons could do was vote aye or no on them. It's like that.

    That's not even the worst democratic deficit. Pretty much all the mainstream politicians in the member states are more pro-EU than their electorates, which means you get the growth of loony groups like UKIP here and the Front National in France as the only EU-sceptic alternatives. Obviously such groups are only ever going to get limited support. This means that the majority of people can be opposed to what the EU is doing, but pro-EU parties remain in power. Then you have to look at what happened with the Lisbon Treaty - rejected three times in national referenda, yet every dirty trick in the political book was pulled to ensure it still went ahead. I'm not sure I want to be part of an institution where those tactics are considered acceptable.

    We need this referendum. The EU has become such a festering political issue that we need to have a say. By the time 2017 arrives, no one under 60 will have had a vote on whether to be part of what was then a very different union.

    I really hope Cameron achieves some reforms. I'm slightly worried he's going to blow all his negotiating capital pushing for changes to free movement which he's never going to achieve, but I think his overall tactic - negotiate with the clear message that the UK will leave if it's voters don't like what they get - is the right one. Despite what you may read, other countries want us to stay. Partly for the net income we provide, but we're also seen as a good counterbalance to Franco-German political dominance, and we're well regarded as being a force for making the EU less insular and more open to building stronger trade links with other countries outside it.

    Even if we leave (which I think is unlikely - most surveys put "in" voters a significant way ahead, and folk tend to vote for the status quo in referenda), it wouldn't be the end of the world. We're a big economy, and the rest of the EU sells more to us than we do to them. There's no way we wouldn't maintain some sort of arrangement with the EU in the way that the Swiss do, for example. The real question is how much power we'd retain to shape that relationship.

    I want to see meaningful reforms that would push me firmly into the "stay in" camp, but if there was a referendum tomorrow I honestly don't know which way I'd vote.

    Edited at 2015-05-12 07:14 am (UTC)
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