One view I often hear from Euro skeptics is how we don’t need to be lectured to by the EU nanny. That if Europe comes up with something that’s a good idea (regulations on vehicle safety, environmental protection, etc.), we can opt to implement it or maybe not. Why do we need Brussels to tell us these things, why not let us decide? This video blog is a good example of this sort of view. A similar argument is that won’t lose EU grant money, because we pay billions to be a member of the EU anyway (not quite true that one as I discussed in a prior post). This is perhaps a very naïve view of politics and ignores certain realities. And thus it is worth spending some time debunking it.
For starters, the above is a bit of a contrarian argument, you could equally use it to argue in favour of anything, or even use it to argue in favour of getting rid of government altogether. After all think about it, since the UK joined the EU while we’ve paid billions to them to “make up laws” (you know, like ones banning children from working in factories or making sure car are safer). But we’ve equally given trillions to the UK government to do the same. Why do we need the government telling us what to do? I know not to steal or speed, I recycle. Perhaps we should just get rid of government altogether and if we see someone else setting some good life rules to live by, then we are free to copy them if we want. What could possibly go wrong (hmmm….cos there’d be anarchy!).
The fact is that we don’t live in a perfect world, there’s a certain proportion of the population who have to be told to do the right thing and our politicians aren’t perfect (shock horror!). Sometimes people need a bit of a nudge. Take smoking bans in pubs. The evidence that passive smoke is harmful has been around for sometime, yet about ten years ago, you went to a pub and you’d come home smelling like you’d rolled around in an ashtray. And spare a thought for the people who worked in pubs, who had to stand around having smoke blown in their faces all night. In any other industry it would be quickly deemed unacceptable to expose workers to known carcinogenic fumes as part of their job.
Now while the EU never banned smoking in pubs (contrary to what Farage might have you believe) they did bring in legislation that obliged member states to protect workers health. This eventually led to smoking bans in many EU states. It hadn’t happened before because governments were reluctant to take on the powerful lobby groups working for publicans and big tobacco. In Ireland for example the idea of either a smoking ban or some sort of segregation within pubs was talked about for years. But every time it was quickly killed off by lobbyists. It is difficult to envisage that such legislation would have been enacted without the EU, even though a majority supported it, simply because politicians were too scared of a very vocal (and well funded) minority.
And European legislation has also improved safety in many jobs, as I discussed in a previous post. In Ireland when I was a lad (which wasn’t that long ago), work place accidents were sufficiently common that you could expect to attend a few funerals every year of some young fellow who had been killed on a building site. Again, governments often failed to act because of pressure from lobbyists. EU legislation gave a sufficient nudge to governments and this has greatly improved work place safety across the EU. This also avoided a “race to the bottom” whereby transnational corporations pair one government off against the other in an effort to get them to compete to see who can curb environmental protection or workers pay and rights the most.
Politicians can face pressure not just from corporate lobbyists, but also other special interests. Take the issue of gay marriage. Not only was gay marriage not legal in Ireland (until recently) but until 1993 it was illegal in Ireland to even be gay. As the result of the recent referendum on gay marriage should demonstrate, this was not necessarily a law the majority of the population agreed with. But politicians had dodged the issue for quite sometime, as they were afraid of any criticism from the catholic church, which could cost them votes. The law was only changed because the government realised that this would put it at odds with changes to human rights legislation the EU was then contemplating and they wanted to avoid the embarrassment of being forced into doing it (not least because the law in question was a 1861 act of Parliament….meaning the British Parliament, yes they sat on their hands and let an English law stand for 70 years after independence!).
And some issues are simply too big for any one government to tackle. Climate change is one example. The atmosphere is a global commons and there is little point in one country cutting emissions if the other major powers do not. It is difficult to envisage any progress having been made on this issue, if it weren’t for the EU. And by leading by example, the EU has gradually managed to persuade the American, Russian and Chinese governments to begin to take action. And its no surprise to learn that many leading members of the Brexit camp are also climate change deniers.
Another example is tax and tax avoidance. For many decades the world’s wealthy have been able to stash their money in offshore tax havens. It was pressure from the EU that has helped wear down many tax havens into signing data sharing agreements that has helped to tackle this. Even Switzerland signed onto another such deal last year (this is the latest in a long line of such deals between the Swiss and the EU). While one can understand Switzerland’s desire to not get cut out of the world’s largest collective economy, its difficult to believe they would have been as open to similar pressure from the UK.
Indeed, its worth contrasting the consequences of finding oneself on the wrong end of the tax authorities in the UK and the US (another large collection of states, not unlike the EU). In the UK you get a series of strongly worded letter from the Inland Revenue asking you to pay, which you will probably ignore (if you’re rich enough), until after a few years they agree to drop the matter on condition you pay half of it. By contrast, in the US, cheat on your taxes and a guy with a badge and gun shows up at your door, tosses you over the bonnet of your merc and hauls your butt in. Indeed, while the response from Cameron is too make excuses regarding the Panama papers, the response of the Americans has been to launch a criminal investigation (and woe to anyone who gets swept up in this dragnet).
This is of course because the US has, by and large, delegated tax collecting authority to the federal government. And ultimately that federal government has a lot more authority and reach than any individual state. While one could accuse the US of often being slow to act on some issues (often there’s various white millionaires they should be arresting, who they don’t….largely because they are a country run by white millionaires!). But it is a generally accepted fact that if you cross the line with the US government, the Fed’s will come after you and there ain’t nowhere on this earth you can hide from them and there’s nobody who is too big for them not to be able to take down (as I suspect Sepp Blatter will be contemplating from his federal prison cell in a few years time!).
Now while the EU perhaps lacks the teeth of the US federal government (i.e. the guys with a badge and a gun), that’s not to say corporations or the rich and powerful don’t take it seriously. Cross the EU and you run the risk of being locked out of the world’s largest collective economy. There are few who can, or are willing to take that sort of risk. Take for example the recent changes to mobile phone roaming charges. Had the UK or Ireland asked mobile phone companies to lower their rates, they’d have been laughed out of the room. But the EU has managed to get these charges reduced.
I’m not suggesting the EU is a perfect institution. It needs reform, but a lot of the reform would require more European integration and the major obstacle to that are the very eurosceptics who are complaining about the EU. The EU also has perhaps a bit of an image problem. As noted, they often don’t get credit for the positive things they do, but quickly get the blame anytime things go wrong, as national politicians seek to deflect blame from themselves. I recall, an American commenting, upon seeing the EU constitution, that it looked like a telephone directory and read like an insurance policy. He suggested they have another go with a quill pen, some goatskin and start it off with some prose…. such as “we the people”. Of course, one of the complaints about the US constitution is that its far too vague (the 2nd amendment being an excellent example).
And it is interesting to see how the traditional critics of the EU, the hard left, have in this referendum allied with the likes of Osborne and centre right neo-liberals. Why? Because both sides understand that leaving the EU would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. There is only one group throughout Europe who has remained consistently opposed to the EU – Fascists. There reasons are all too obvious, they want to be able to discriminate against one group or another….plus they are all allies of Putin.
And as for leaving the EU saving the UK money, well this assumes there will be no impact on trade or tax revenue, which does seem unlikely. It also ignores that certain key industry’s in the UK get a disproportionate level of funding from the EU. University’s and research institutes in the UK for example get a lot more than others on a per capita basis. UK farmers also get quite a lot of money from the EU, which is often vital to support certain types of farming (notably traditional hill farming).
Would the UK government really pick up the tab for these costs (likely putting up taxes or cutting services somewhere else) if the UK left? Probably not. One has to question whether they would be willing to take on such costs given that it would mean cutting back in other areas (e.g. pensions, healthcare, etc.). Consequently it is expected that if the UK does leave the EU, universities will be decimated, many small high-tech start ups will leave and certain types of farming (notably traditional hill farming) will stop altogether.
In short, the whole logic of the EU is that the sum of the parts are greater than the whole.