The UK Prime Minister last weekend opened the door to a possible referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU. POLSIS’s David Toke argues that from a progressive perspective, it would be better for the UK to leave the EU altogether than for it to undermine the democratic basis of the Union by renegotiating its terms of membership.
The EU should say ‘no’ to the ‘renegotiation’ of British terms of EU membership – even if it means the UK leaves the EU. The English Conservatives are gearing up to demand ‘renegotiated’ terms of UK membership of the EU, but the EU should firmly reject such ideas on grounds of democracy, EU coherence, and also social equity. Of course a key part of EU legislation that the euroskeptics would want to jettison are environmental laws and Directives such as the Renewable Energy Directive.
The background to this is that the Conservatives are under pressure from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) who are competing for right wing nationalist support with the Conservatives. The Conservative right do not like a lot of EU social and environmental legislation anyway. However, the business community is in favour of continued UK membership on economic grounds – they want access to EU markets on the same terms as the businesses from the other member states. Hence the Conservative leadership are looking for a compromise. They want to negotiate away social and environmental legislation and stay in the EU, also retaining their voice on matters related to the ‘Single Market’ of the EU, something which Mrs Thatcher agreed to join in the mid-1980s. As David Cameron said earlier this week: ‘Whole swathes of legislation covering social issues, working time and home affairs should, in my view, be scrapped.’
Last autumn former Conservative cabinet minister John Redwood commented on his blog: ‘In areas like energy, environment and business we are effectively governed from Brussels for much of the time’.
There is some logic in all of this from a Tory point of view. The euroskeptics may well be aware that if the UK leaves the EU then the UK will have, in any case, to adopt laws and regulations to enable the UK enter and compete in EU markets. So, if we leave the EU the UK will be worse off (in the Tory sense) in that the UK will still have to adopt lots of EU rules, it is just that the UK will no longer have any say in what the rules are. The UK Government will be unable to promote the positions that British industry and comments wants to see adopted in EU policy. A cliche comes into mind. They (the Conservatives) want to have their cake and eat it!
However, from thereon the logic begins to develop holes. In particular, why on earth should the EU allow the UK, retrospectively, to opt out of ‘whole swathes’ of EU legislation? Indeed, short of a wholesale restructuring of the EU as a whole, this is analogous to what Trotsky once called ‘a transitional demand’. It is a demand that the system (in this case the EU) cannot possibly deliver. It would strike at the very point of the EU of having a democratic union where states agree to pool their sovereignty over commonly agreed areas of policy. This does not allow for member states to pick and choose which laws to go along with. Of course countries get derogations, usually on a temporary basis, but these have to be negotiated at the time the laws are made, not agreed retrospectively on the basis of political blackmail.
Of course, the constitutional strengthening of the bonds between Eurozone countries could, in theory, leave space for the EU countries outside the Eurozone to ask for a sort of ‘outer EU’ status with a looser set of arrangements than exist now. But this assumes that the other (now 11) non-Eurozone EU states actually want this. This seems unlikely. We may be left in a position where, after some ’re-negotiation’, the UK gets some very superficial (note the word ‘very’) face-saving changes in new agreements being negotiated. Of course it is now almost certain that there will be a vote on UK relations with, and/or membership of, the EU. It seems likely that the UK will be asked to vote on new Treaty changes. However, it is very unlikely that the EU will let Britain secede from ‘swathes’ of EU legislation. I for one, would very much urge the EU not to let any British Government get away with this, especially if environmental and energy legislation is up for grabs. Clearly the Conservatives do not like being told to try and achieve strict targets for renewable energy deployment and so on, but that is part of the bargain about getting some of your priorities in exchange for letting other people have theirs.
I am very much in favour of the UK staying in the EU which has authority over energy, environmental and social affairs, but what I am very much against is the prospect of the Conservatives having their cake and eating it. That is maintaining a say on the things they would have to adopt anyway, whilst opting out of laws that might improve the environment or social equity. The whole point of democracy is that everybody has a right to have a say in laws, but not on the basis of choosing what laws they should or should not be bound by.
Indeed, if such a ‘have your Tory cake and eat it’ proposition was negotiated, then I would probably vote ‘no’ in any referendum for the UK to stay in the EU. There would no longer be any progressive point in British membership. EU laws would be better without the often reactionary input of our own government, and the laws that we would be influencing would be ones that we would have to adopt anyway for trade reasons. Without the UK, the EU would be more coherent and be able to adopt more progressive rules in the economic sphere. In short, the EU, the UK, and the world will be better off without the British being EU members if the British actually acheive a ‘renegotiated’ membership on Tory terms.