The EU and Democracy (making some reference to the referendum)
The debate about the EU has in many ways similarities to that in respect of the Scottish independence referendum. The SNP argument could in essence be summarised as "we can do a lot better on our own our problems are caused by London." The Leave argument is "we can to a lot better on our own our problems are caused by Brussels".
In any rational sense the wheels fell of the financial argument for Scottish independence as the price of oil plummeted. Although I expect oil prices to go back up (and there may even be a spike as a result of the cuts in investment) it remains a really tenuous argument.
The narrative on this issue, however, is difficult because it is easy for the Scottish Executive to blame everything on the UK parliament. The fundamental political debate that creates much division is about how to respond to the financial crisis of 2008 and the cut in GDP that resulted. There are many people (myself included) who do not like the consequences of cutting public expenditure on people. However, there are practical limits on what government can spend. We are, in fact, operating a Keynesian demand boost by running a continuing, but reducing deficit. However, public spending cuts in real terms are an inevitable consequence of the errors in public spending policy (increasing spending at a higher rate than the economy expands) prior to 2008. I have written about this in detail on this blog.
Hence were Scotland to be independent they would have to implement quite similar policies on a macroeconomic level even if they had enough oil taxation (which they would not have).
This in a sense highlights one of the difficulties of the merits of the debate in the public arena in respect of politics. There is reality. The Executive (normally the government) has to deal with reality. Reality is often not that popular. As reality is not that popular politicians are not that enthusiastic about defending reality in any detail and often reality gets left out of the public discourse.
Hence we have a public debate which is badly informed and leads to debates about structures (Scottish Independence, leaving the EU) which often would have no impact on the issues that cause the tension.
One big issue with the EU is that of migration. I can understand the difficulties for David Cameron of persuading the Eastern European political leaders to accept that we should stop subsidising migration to the UK from Eastern Europe.
I personally think that subsidising migration is to be avoided. It undermines the poorest in society in the area to where migrants are moving and often creates tensions between people. For example there are thousands of people who have moved to the UK to sell the Big Issue. This is subsidised by providing Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit and Housing Benefit to the people who do this. I have difficulty in finding any public policy benefit from this.
However, the fundamental problem is that we have been offered a deal by the other members of the EU. Realistically if we leave the EU we would be likely to be looking at an option similar to Norway. That is of being with the EEA (which is the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein - and temporarily Croatia whilst a candidate for EU membership). This has the same rules on availability of in work benefits as the EU. Furthermore the people we are negotiating with would be the same people as currently is the situation. To think that we might get a better deal on this issue (which must be one of the biggest) is not a rational position. The financial argument that we would save money by leaving is silly as can be seen from the fact that Norway pays a lot for access to the common market.
The problem with the public debate about the EU, however, is that again reality is often left out of the debate.
For example the EU is criticised for having rules about what shape a good quality banana should be. Well, if the EU is supposed to be a trade area obviously there has to be rules about what qualifies as a good quality banana. The distinction was made between Extra Quality, Class 1 and Class 2 bananas. Should we really have different rules in different countries about how to classify bananas? The EU rules are in fact much more picky about cucumbers.
Inherently having a trade area where the rules are the same throughout the trade area requires those countries that participate to agree on common rules. That means that the rules may not meet 100% support in each of the countries. Indeed that is quite unlikely.
The question then is whether we are likely to get more flexibility remaining in the structures of the EU or shouting on the outside. In the end we are likely to have a take it or leave it option. We would then be forced to take it as we need to be in the system in order to export. Importing is not a problem as a rule.
One of the biggest questions is how rules need to change before any expansion of the EU or EEA occurs. At the moment we can veto expansion until rules changes occur. However, in the EEA we would not be able to do that. This is really the killer argument against leaving the EU.
There are a lot of problems with the EU. We can put aside the debate about Human Rights as that is not relevant to the EU. The debate about Human Rights relates to the Council of Europe which is a completely different body. I personally am supportive of the 1998 Human Rights Act although critical of the lack of democratic accountability of the European Court of Human Rights (which should be subject to some guidance procedures in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, but is not). However, I will not look at this in any detail as it is not relevant to the EU debate.
Again we come back here to the question of how decisions are made and how separation of powers operate. The Executives (governments) are often quite remote from the legislatures and the public debates. Often very few people will properly defend the policies of the executives frequently because they don't understand the issue properly. Often the proper information is not really available. Hence the debate is dominated by the legislatures.
The UK model has a strong executive. The EU model has a much stronger executive where the legislature is really quite weak. Hence people tend to ignore the European Parliament.
There are many things wrong about how the EU operates. However, the alternative to its structures for a common market is much more opaque and resistant to challenge.
We can see this in the discussions about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Rather than policy papers that are discussed publicly and can be followed through the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament everything is being cobbled together in secret (as is necessary given the nature of the negotiation). If we leave the structures of the EU we will have to accept compromise, but it will be a compromise cobbled together in secret.
The change proposed to the way in which national parliaments can block EU legislation has been a long time coming and the movement away from talking about "ever closer union" are both good. One opens up the national debates on changes to EU rules. The latter puts a line in the sand against continuing centralisation. One of the difficulties with subsidiarity has been that it is good to say that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level, However, the problem arises with the question as to who decides what is the lowest possible level. Continual pressure for "ever closer union" leads to more and more decisions being taken centrally. We must resist this.
Hence unenthusiastically I will be voting to remain. The structures really do need changing to introduce greater accountability and transparency would follow from that. However, the alternative would be much worse.