‘Taking back control’ of our money, our laws and our borders is dismissed by many as the jingoistic rallying cry that won the Brexit vote. But in fact it is a genuine and considered critique of how the widening scope of the EU has contributed to growing alienation and silencing of domestic debate. It is time to concede as much.
Of course, the EU has been part of a system that has, by many measures, made the world a safer and more prosperous place. It expands our ability to effectively tackle the most complex and dangerous challenges we face: international terrorism, climate change, the terms of international trade, underhand behaviours of some multinational companies. It can turn yesterday’s adversaries into today’s allies.
But this has come at a price. While most would agree with European co-operation on things like security and trade, the scope of the EU has spread beyond genuine cross-border issues.
This may not matter if, for you, international cooperation is a matter of principle and the broad direction of the EU is one you feel comfortable with. But it matters to those who weren’t swimming with the tide, those who felt powerless against it, left behind by it or who are just drowning. While people benefit from a growing economy, feelings of difference or alienation may not surface. But in harder times, they are magnified: how would you feel about the EU if you lost your livelihood because illegally subsidised Chinese steel shut the local factory – and the EU did far too little, far too late to stop it? Or if the pace of change left you feeling out of place in the town you call home? Imagine if, despite your best endeavours, your income was falling while the EU seemed to busy itself with issues of little significance, or worse, to contribute to your problems through the dogmatic application of freedoms that seemed to be driving down your wages.
When power becomes too remote from people and places, even where there are plausible arguments for standardisation and efficiency, and when it is no longer subject to those communities changing their minds, the legitimacy of that power is fatally undermined. When we bypass domestic politics to forge near-permanent agreements at EU level, we shut out people at home who disagree.
We cannot all see eye-to-eye. But it affects us all when significant numbers of people are not listened to. That is why people voted for Brexit. The leave campaign united people – often with conflicting views – who saw the EU as self-serving, thought ‘this isn’t right’, but didn’t believe change could happen through normal democratic processes. Brexit gave them their chance to say no.
And now the shoe is on the other foot. Those who broadly agree with the direction of the EU, who believe that the benefits of membership outweigh the frustrations; now it is their turn to feel helpless in the face of a seemingly unstoppable political force.
A decade after the global financial crisis there is widespread doubt as to whether politics and the economy are delivering as they should. We as a nation now toy with abandoning fundamental political and economic structures: ‘leave the EU!’ ‘reject capitalism!’. But we must ask ourselves if these really are the only, or even effective, ways to ‘take back control’ or tackle injustice.
What if there are alternative solutions to the problems we face? Alternatives that might be less seductive and more complex, but potentially more likely to succeed – and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Could we help people assert control over life, community and country by, for example, leading the EU rather than leaving it? Challenging and changing it by scrapping the European Parliament, instead giving national parliaments responsibility for scrutinising legislation; giving immigration controls to parliaments and city mayors; stopping financial contributions that would otherwise return to us with EU strings attached; repatriating powers that lack genuine cross-border justification; shutting down EU bodies of questionable value like the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions? We could immediately transform the European Court of Justice from bogeyman to guardian by giving it a clear mandate to strike down any EU legislation that could sit at national or local level.
If we limited the scope of the EU to only those areas where international agreement is in the national interest, if we devolved political decisions down to nations, regions and localities, the EU would no longer stifle domestic debate. Decisions would more often be bound by the ballot box and less often by EU directive. Such an approach would allow us to meet the demands for greater control and democratic legitimacy, whilst safeguarding those parts of the EU from which we gain: extending the single market into new areas to create new jobs; continuing to push the boundaries of our knowledge by cooperating on scientific research; promoting the EU as an embodiment of our values, standards and way of life in an ever more turbulent world.
Of course, reforming the EU would be difficult to achieve. But more difficult than negotiating our departure from it?
Some will point to times when we have tried and failed to change the EU. Others will say we are right to leave an institution which could become more, not less, integrated. But how can we be more certain of our ability to persuade an EU united in disapproval of our departure, than of our ability to work with others to drive reform?
From the creation of the single market, to expansion eastwards and flexibility for different nations, the UK has a long, proud record of reforming the EU. Europe’s politicians are now debating its future. If taking back control is genuinely about answering people’s hopes – rather than an article of faith – we should have a voice that debate.
Of course, pushing fundamental EU reform would involve concessions: from those who would not want to open up EU-guaranteed policies to domestic change; from those who cling to leaving the EU as a point of doctrine. But we must recognise that our collective strength comes because of our differences, not in spite of them. Neither side must be allowed to shut down debate. The legitimacy and effectiveness of both our political and economic systems lie in the creative tension that diversity brings: a fruitful expression of competing, conflicting and complementary ideas giving rise to a better future.
The leave campaign won the referendum, has earned the right to prepare our departure and the government must work towards this end. But as a nation we should not stop the search for better solutions.
In parallel to EU negotiations, we must hold an open inquiry, ultimately setting out proposals on EU reform that can win support both at home and abroad. How? One option would be to bring together former Prime Ministers, Deputy Prime Ministers and Chancellors who have already made ad-hoc interventions. Another could be for an inquiry led in parliament by the Brexit Select Committee.
From such an endeavour I promise nothing. The outcome would be uncertain. But the task is not impossible. For that reason that the calls of ‘betrayal’ would be fierce: ideological advocates of leaving the EU would see their project put under real and effective scrutiny. But politics must do more than give voice to our frustrations.
Likewise, there is no quick-fix. Genuine debates can be frustrating and time-consuming. For every two steps forward comes one step back. But no matter how expedient silencing opposition can seem, in the end it will always be self-defeating.
Questions are never closed; each generation and each community demand the political space to consider its options and give expression to its ideas – and will deal blows to the establishment if its choices are limited.
Unity does not demand that we fall into line, but that we respect the equality of our voices. Because the conversation that emerges is to our collective benefit: it helps sharpen our arguments; presents us with new evidence; encourages us to see things from the other side. It challenges us to think anew.
Though we may divide by values, identities and priorities, we are in this together. And we are forever bound to those who see things differently by a common purpose: to make life better. In Europe, at home, between parties and within parties, stability will only emerge from the clash of ideas through the constant effort to build, renew and evolve a consensus.
In politics, as in the economy, when winner-takes-all, we all lose. So we must preciously guard our diversity by making sure that losers are not excluded, but encouraged to get up and go again. We must understand that our voice is only guaranteed if we are prepared to defend the voices of those with whom we disagree; that our economic prospects are bright only if the opportunity for success is shared by all.
Because in a democracy the public is the ultimate arbiter – and is allowed to change its mind.