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Making the case for a reformed EU


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In just under 6 weeks the nation will be deciding whether it wishes to leave or remain in the European Union. It seemed like an easy enough question to me initially, someone politically uninitiated. A simple choice between a pan European identity that includes perks like visa-free travel across 28 countries and affordable year abroad programs, or a road trip of retrograde nationalism in the backseat of Uncle Nigel’s car, where something as mild as M4 traffic could trigger a rant about immigration and our bloody borders.

I admit I was guilty of reducing the whole debate to these things; I was assessing the proponents of the argument instead of assessing the argument on its own merits. So what are its merits?

Brexit seems to be mainly drawn around the issues of sovereignty and democracy, immigration and identity. On sovereignty and democracy, those who would like to leave the union argue that it is undemocratic. Who are the demos of the EU? Have you as a member of this international organisation ever felt like your voice mattered, or that your views were represented? This to me is the key argument for Brexit; the EU has continuously become disdainful towards democratic rule and accountability, and it is led by a commission of bureaucrats who have a vision for Europe they have not consulted its population about.

This is where the European parliament comes in – or at least should come in. The European parliament consists of representatives for every member state. These representatives are directly elected by the people and are part of the decision making process in most areas of EU activity.

However the parliament, unfortunately, does not have much power and is increasingly becoming an avenue for protest candidates who are avowed Eurosceptics. Voter turnout in the UK for the 2014’s European parliament election was around 36% and has been consistently lower than the EU average since 1979. In order to reap the benefits of democracy one must first participate in it. Then the case can be made for remaining in the EU as an engaged populace, one that seeks the passage of new EU laws through its Citizens Initiative and is concerned about its political direction.

An argument can be made for the lack of autonomy because of EU laws, but complete autonomy is not possible as a state in an increasingly globalised world. There are many international unions that restrict and control the behaviour of its members: NATO has its minimum defence spending requirements of 2% of GDP, the WTO has its rules of trade and restrictions on tariffs and subsidies. Of course NATO and the WTO are extremely beneficial, but so is the EU.

Already there have been predictions by both sides about the economic costs of leaving or staying on individual families, but these are ridiculous claims. It is widely accepted that the British economy would suffer to some extent in the short term, but there is no reason to think it wouldn’t get better. But again this economic leap of faith is unnecessary with a reformed EU.

Valid criticism can be laid against the EU because of its tilt towards big business – it’s no surprise that David Cameron and the rest of the political establishment support remaining in the union, but I do not believe leaving will solve any of our problems. The same political engagement that laid rest to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) – which was fraught with criticism for its secrecy and its possible violations of civil liberties of internet users – is what is needed to reform the EU; the fact that MEPs overwhelmingly rejected ACTA was a testament to the will of the populace. Remaining in the EU and banding together across national lines is what is needed to combat trans-national threats to democracy.

The immigration debate is on the surface, the crucial buttress for the proponents of leaving. It is, unfortunately, one of the most divisive issues of our time and an easy political instrument, especially at a time when Europe is under constant threat from terrorism. The phrase “we have lost control of our borders” has been repeated so many times you’d be forgiven if you forgot that Britain was an island.

It is true that being a member of the EU means the UK must allow for the free movement of peoples. It is one of the four freedoms fundamental to the single market that allows for free trade across European countries. The EU has made it clear that even non-member states that want to take part in this single market must also accept the free movement of peoples. Norway and Switzerland who aren’t part of the EU still have to accept EU migration as a caveat for access to the single market and migration from non EU countries is higher than that from within the EU.

Brexit, I fear, will not solve immigration woes. There is research consistently indicating that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits. According to a study analysing the period of 2001 to 2011; recent EU migrants contribute £1.34 for every £1 they take out. Regardless, immigration has and will always be an easy scapegoat for any complex national issue.

In the context of the ongoing refugee crisis, it is also said that the EU’s management of the situation has been a complete disaster; the open borders approach has been routinely rejected by member states such as Hungary and Poland, but membership of the EU does not absolve Britain’s responsibility to assist in what is a genuine global calamity. This is when Euroscepticism can dissolve from being a valid criticism of an overly pro-corporatist organisation into a miasma of fear-induced anti-immigration sentiment and bandwagon rhetoric. There is also the valid fear that Brexit could lead to a cascading abandonment of the EU, which would bolster reactionary forces around Europe such as the National Front and AfD.

The idea behind the EU appeals to many people because it signals a forward march of progress for humanity; it loosens barriers and unites people across national identities. The same way in which nation states were formed to unite people from various backgrounds and localities, there is no reason to think the same cannot be done across nationalities to create an institution “United in Diversity” as the motto goes.

This view can be seen as naive by some because they view fundamental cultural differences as irreconcilable or even catastrophic; they feel it would involve the abandonment of their identities and history, but I do not see it that way.

This process to me is not one that is forced or put upon nation states, but one that is fostered carefully and slowly by promoting cultural exchange, by learning history and languages from one another, by allowing free trade and ease of mobility. The EU does need reform; it needs to become more representative of the people’s will and transparency needs to become second nature to it. These are reforms that we should take on from within rather than abandoning the whole project.

Ultimately it is up to each person to decide for themselves their vision for Britain in an increasingly globalised world. Despite all my EU cheerleading, I am still undecided with a tilt towards remaining, and this referendum will be a rare moment of direct democracy for the people.

We have the opportunity to fully participate in a crucial and momentous decision for the country. The task for each person is to try to separate facts from ideological propaganda and try to interrogate preconceived positions. A low voter turnout will most definitely signal Brexit – so whatever your allegiances get out and vote.

P.S. The debate has already satisfied Godwin's law as of 15th May thanks to good ol' Boris and his Reductio ad Hitlerum”.

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