Sunday, 21 February 2016

EU've Brought Me Back..

Yes, I know, it's been a while and a lot has happened.

Sometimes you just need time to think and sometimes you need an issue or a comment to galvanise you back into action.

On June 23rd, the people of Britain will be asked whether we wish to LEAVE the European Union (EU) or REMAIN in the EU. This was the result of a renegotiation carried out by Prime Minister David Cameron begun after his election victory last summer and concluded over the weekend.

The battle lines have been drawn and we now have 122 days of "the campaign" to enjoy/endure (delete as appropriate). It's going to be a long spring if the first 24 hours are any guide.

I'm a member of a party which supports and will campaign for REMAIN but I am increasingly considering voting LEAVE. Why ?

The Liberal Democrat policy on Europe isn't simply to stay in and be members - it's to stay in, take a leading role and work toward a fundamental reform of how the EU operates in terms of the roles of the Commission, the European Parliament and the flow of powers from national Parliaments as part of an overall package of devolution putting powers where they belong and where they are needed, not where it suits some countries and politicians.

As an example, pollution is a Europe-wide issue while trading hours are at best national and arguably a local matter. Workers should have the same rights and protection wherever they are in the EU and not be subject to the arbitrary whim of national Governments.

Cameron hasn't shown any interest in any of this in his renegotiation apart from protecting his allies in big business and the City. The hedge fund manager is more important to him and deserves more rights and protection than the person cleaning that manager's office. To be fair, the EU itself struggles with the notion of institutional reform but at a time of humanitarian crisis and pressure, it's probably not its highest priority.

But it should be.

The sclerotic, ambiguous and unaccountable Commission has too much power, the representative Parliament too little - we know this but it suits the heads of national Governments to maintain the current system.

The question then becomes - IF the EU is beyond reform or has no desire to reform to provide the devolution and accountability which should be the foundation of a fair political system, what's the point ?

The EU Referendum is already being covered as the war for the soul of the Conservative Party. Millions of people did not vote Conservative last May - far more didn't than did - but it seems they do not matter and all that matters is the Conservative Party and its internal wrangling. I've no love for the Tories and I note some important and respected figures on the Labour side such as Frank Field, Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey are advocating LEAVE.

Those who support the Liberal Democrats will be dismayed if Tim Farron becomes Cameron's sidekick on the REMAIN platform - it will remind too many people of the bad old days of the Coalition. It's possible to be internationalist and seek to work with other countries while at the same time recognising the inherent failings of some of these multi-lateral institutions.

Now we have the absurdity from both David Cameron (REMAIN) and Iain Duncan-Smith (LEAVE) that it's all about security. Both these cretins are as bad as each other claiming voting for the other side makes us more vulnerable to terrorism. Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of how this campaign will be conducted - as the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 showed, a little bit of Fear goes a long way and a lot of Fear even further. Neither LEAVE nor REMAIN has a terribly positive message to offer so both will spend an inordinate amount of time claiming effectively that the world will end if the other side wins.

If we are voting on leaving NATO, I could understand security being raised as an issue and it would be an entirely legitimate area of concern but no one on the LEAVE side, as far as I know, wants us out of NATO and the EU, for all its many activities, isn't a military organisation. It's perfectly possible to be in NATO and outside the EU (we were from 1949 to 1973 and Turkey is now) and in any case the threat of terrorism is nothing to do with our membership of the EU in any way shape or form and our absence wouldn't make a scintilla of difference.

There are legitimate questions about migration and outside the EU we could apply the same scrutiny to EU citizens in terms of eligibility for entry as we currently can for non-EU citizens. We must encourage those with skills and those with something to contribute to see Britain as a place to do business and make money but not as a "soft touch" for those determined to live on charity (including Government charity in the form of benefits). The impact of large-scale migration on medical services in East London is obvious and the Poles and Romanians drinking themselves to death on our streets will be our mess to clear up.

LEAVE lacks a coherent vision - we will still need to have a relationship with the EU, ideally to preserve what is best about EU membership - health benefits, free trade but if the EU doesn't want to do that, we'll have to negotiate a new relationship possibly via a rejuvenated EFTA or similar.

That I find myself on this Sunday afternoon potentially agreeing with the obnoxious trio of Farage, Galloway and Boris nauseates me beyond measure but the truth is the EU is not an organisation designed to work for its citizens - if it works for anyone, it works for national Governments and bureaucracies. Yet it provides a measure of worker and employee protection and my only reason for voting REMAIN is I fear the trampling of rights to maternity and paternity leave, the right to appeal unjust dismissal and the right to fight workplace bullying if we are left to this majority Conservative Government.

The next four months won't be easy and they won't be pleasant - Conservatives may believe once this is over, it will be as if nothing had happened but life and politics don't work like that. Cameron has enjoyed a disproportionate share of luck in his political life but in ceding the referendum under pressure from UKIP, has made a monumental error of judgement.

If the result is as close as many think it will be, the issue won't be closed - it will continue to fester within the Conservative Party much as it did within Labour which split in 1981. There will be Conservatives who will want a second vote as a commitment in the 2020 election manifesto to head off the renewed rise of UKIP and whoever succeeds Cameron will have a job akin to all the King's horses and all the King's men.

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