Tales from a Brussels bar – Brexit 2
Stassos was quoting Shakespeare, but in slightly modified form. “Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of European fortune – or to take arms … that’s what you want to do.”
He was explaining why he’d suddenly become a fan of the bard. “It explains perfectly the attitudes of you English – the importance of principle. It hasn’t changed since you owned half of France, and one half of the country supported York and the other half Lancaster.”
“You just don’t like sitting round a table talking,” he said. “You’d rather go out and do something about it.” I sat down, he had an attentive audience. “The trouble is that Europe these days is a complicated place – you have to spend a lot of time talking. And unless you’re paid to be involved in some way, most people just lose interest.”
Paul was there. “Well why should we be interested? We pay our politicians to do that kind of thing – that’s their job. And if they don’t do it well enough, then just sack them and get in another lot.”
Stassos set his glass on the bar. “Ah, but that’s just it – what makes you think the other lot will be any better? Europe has so many competing interests that compromise is inevitable, so there’s no guarantee that a new government will make any difference from the old.”
“Look at Greece,” he continued. “After all our economic disasters we elected an idealist, left-wing government that promised to throw off the European shackles. And have they? No, we’re back in exactly the same place as before.”
“My point exactly,” Paul responded. “As long as we’re in Europe we’ll be dragged down by the ball and chain of European rules. If Britain wants to be economically successful again, we need to get out of the EU.”
“And what then,” said Maj quietly. “So Britain goes its own way outside the EU. What is it going to do first? Establish new trading relationships with the EU, the US and the rest of the world. What will that mean for British exporters?”
“It’ll mean abiding by a whole new set of EU rules,” he continued, “on trade, on standards, on anti-dumping, and so on. In short, no change. What it will mean however,” he waved a beermat for emphasis, “will be delays while new agreements are made, and less favourable terms now that we’re outside the EU.”
“But, but …,” he held the beermat in the air to silence Paul, who was desperate to come back, “let’s not repeat the economic argument from last night. I wanted to introduce you to my friend Kris, who’s spent years watching EU decision-making and has some interesting things to say.”
We turned to Kris expectantly. He put down the cigarette he’d been fingering until Steve the Bar shook his head. “Maj asked me to comment on the democratic angle of Brexit,” he said. “I’m no politician, but our organisation has taken a close interest in the doings of the EU for some time.”
“Many Brits think the EU is undemocratic,” he said, “because, largely thanks to the Tory press, they think that Europe is run by the unelected European Commission.”
“While this may have been true in the old days,” he said, “it doesn’t really apply now. The MEPs in the European Parliament have more power now to influence and even block legislation if they wish, and as you know the real power is held within the European Council, which is in effect made up of the foreign ministers of the various EU member states.”
“So it is your own government ministers who tend to have the final say on the direction of Europe. The limitation, you might feel,” he looked meaningfully at Paul, “is that your government minister is just one among 28, and so has to lobby others whenever he wants a decision to go his way. Which of course usually involves a certain amount of horse-trading. Or … if you want to be blunt … doing each other favours.”
“It’s about compromise again,” he said. “You might almost call it the story of Europe, except that whereas in the past such compromises were reached by feats of arms, nowadays they’re concluded by talking round the table.”
We were listening, so he continued. “The question is, then, is Europe democratic? At the top you can say it is, in that it is your national government that is influencing decisions, and is answerable to you the electorate.”
“But at the sharp end, say in finding out how certain decisions were made,” he said, “there are still lots of problems. Getting access to minutes of official meetings can be difficult. Even where that access is supposed to be available, for example in online access, often the technology doesn’t seem to work properly.”
“And if you want to do anything with that information you’ll have to talk to your MEP, and that’s probably going to be harder and take longer than contacting your local MP. In theory, at least …”
“So,” he said, “if you support the idea that big, central government is inherently less democratic than local representation because it is going to be harder to influence, then yes, you could say that Europe is less democratic than your own national Parliament.”
He looked at Paul, who had a gleam in his eye. “And it’s also arguable that by constructing another set of members of parliament at European level, you are undermining the national Parliaments. In that sense, you could say the construction of the European superstate is well under way, with the national Parliaments ultimately destined to be no more than regional governments.”
Paul was nodding his head and looking almost unbearably smug, as if he’d just swallowed a Belgian truffle.
“My feeling personally is that the Brits have an instinctive distrust of big government,” he went on after a pause. “It is a national characteristic that you share with the Americans, look at the relationship between the US federal government and the States, it also explains why the Scottish and the Welsh are so keen on devolution and their own national Parliaments.”
“Many Europeans share that mistrust,” he said. “But it is noticeable that the places where that discussion is aired politically are in the north of Europe. Perhaps that common Viking ancestry has more of an influence than you think.”
We pondered our Viking ancestry. I signalled Steve the Bar for a fresh round, wondering idly if I could have handled that massive two-bladed war axe. Probably not, I thought, as I managed to spill most of the fresh glass on the floor.
“Perhaps the question you should be asking,” Kris continued, “is who does Europe benefit?” We were listening. “Some believe that it really benefits big business and the wealthy, who are happy to deal with a large centralised bureaucracy that can be influenced to the benefit of established wealth.”
“And when it comes to individuals and small businesses, the benefit is less clear,” he said. “There are so-called kitchen-table entrepreneurs, people working from home, who believe that the much-vaunted European digital single market is more of a handicap to trade than a benefit. And that it was developed more to ensure EU tax incomes than to help digital business in Europe.”
“And if you have spent your life working in several European countries,” he went on,”what happens when it comes time to claim your pension. I know people who have worked for fifty years, paid all their deductions properly in that time, but in different EU countries. Now they get only the bare minimum as pension.”
“Of course we know that such mobile workers have benefited from contact with other languages and cultures,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that they should have to suffer financially.”
“Contrast their lot with those who’ve spent their lives working for a local commune in one country,” he said. “Where is is the benefit for them in the single European employment market?”
“I’m not surprised many Brits want to vote to leave,” he concluded.”If I were British I’d be tempted to do the same.”
A long silence fell – even Maj was quiet. I thought to myself, yes, I don’t really know either. All these years working in Brussels, and I’m really not sure whether the real benefit is there or not.
Mercifully, the football schedules intervened at that moment. The Cup Final was starting, and political quandaries had to gave way to sporting promise. I’d have to postpone the decision until another night. There would have to be a Brexit 3 – just like Brussels really ….
© Philip Hunt, 2016.
Brexit 1 – To Brexit or not to Brexit – that is the question
Brexit 3 – Or take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them …