Sunday, 27 April 2014

A Referendum: Refounding the Case for Europe, by Kevin Meagher

The case for Europe needs completely refounding. We can start with a referendum. 

It was a choice my 19-year-old self made without a second thought. Keep on canvassing the night before the 1994 European elections or go home and revise for a crunch exam the next day.

As an instinctive pro-European, carrying on fighting the good fight was a no-brainer.

Revisiting my decision two decades on, I think I would have prepped a bit harder for my ‘European policy and policy-making’ paper instead.

I still recognise the benefits, but I’ve grown tired of hearing the same tendentious propagandising for the EU.

Weary of hearing calls for reform that never seem to lead anywhere.

Sick of the waste, incompetence and drift and wondering why no-one ever seems to be able to change direction.

Particularly the European Parliament, which lacks the basic dynamism even to change itself, ending, once and for all, the costly shuttle backwards and forwards between Brussels and Strasbourg.

Now we are just weeks away from the dismal, quinquennial ritual of elections to the European Parliament. 

There will be no discussion about lofty geopolitics. No mention of how the EU deals with the Russia-Ukraine crisis. No remedy for the crisis of youth unemployment scarring large parts of the continent.

No mention, either, of the consumer rights, clean bathing water or urban regeneration that Europe has brought us.

Tip O’Neill’s dictum that all politics is local is never truer than when it comes to the European elections, used, as they are, as a proxy for the state of British politics.

A chance for voters to have a pop at the Tories and Lib Dems, cock a snook to Labour and flirt with UKIP, safe in the knowledge that it is all a harmless, consequence-free act.

All the power in the EU sits with the unelected Commission and the remote Council of Ministers - and that will never change.

The European Parliament is like one of those soft play areas in McDonalds, a place to keep the kids entertained while the parents talk.

MEPs are to all intents and purposes, invisible. Many would ruefully concede this.

Nobody knows who they are or what they do. Even I had to double check the current Labour group leader is.

To be fair, they are hobbled by the wretched regional list system, an utter disaster in terms of public accountability.

The voters are presented with a list of 10 people they have never heard of, can’t choose between, and know next to nothing about.

And if any MEP quits, the next, unelected person on their regional party list takes their place without a vote. It’s enough to make the appointments secretary to the Soviet Politburo blush.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The EU is, and always has been, the preserve of a rarefied elite. Centrist politicians. Business leaders. And Eddie Izzard. It couldn’t be more remote from the people if it tried.

For me, the recent Clegg-Farage debates brought it all home.

Nick Clegg, a former European Commission official, the apotheosis of the rootless Eurocrat, making the same, stale managerial arguments for the EU that so many centrist politicians before him have done over the years.

As a result of Clegg and other pro-European panjandrums’ taking British public opinion for granted, it is hardly surprising that voters see Europe as an unwanted and unhelpful appendage to their lives.

Less than a fifth of UK voters ‘tend to trust’ the EU, with two thirds actively mistrustful of its schemes, according to the latest Eurobarometer findings.

Yet calls for a referendum on Europe from the Labour side of politics are not (in many cases) to get us out of the EU.

Rather, it’s an expression of frustration, borne from the self-evident fact that Europe remains a putrifying sore at the heart of British politics.

This is why the case for Europe needs nothing less than refounding in an in/out referendum.

The onus is on fellow pro-Europeans to show why the European ideal – co-operation between nations that have found themselves homicidal enemies twice in the last century – still matters.

To move beyond Clegg-ite blandishments designed to curtail debate and to throw this hot potato into the laps of the British people to decide. 

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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