Friday, May 29, 2009

European Union: facing a choice

In the face of the ongoing attempt by the Daily Telegraph to portray MPs in the worst light possible no matter what their actual sins, it has been easy to forget that there is an important election campaign now taking place.

I have had the option of voting in the European elections here in Estonia or where I am still registered to vote, in the UK. I have had to think hard about where I should vote. I am friendly with several of the leading political figures in this country and know several of the candidates for the European Parliament personally. In many ways I am closer to the Estonian version of Liberalism than the version of the party of which I am a member- the British Liberal Democrats. By voting in the UK, I could also be undermining my claim of Estonian residence in the eyes of the British tax authorities- and in the face of the Blitzkrieg unleashed by Alastair Darling in the last budget, that is not an insignificant consideration.

Furthermore, the European elections usually get greeted with a yawn of indifference in the UK. The general strain of scepticism towards the EU institutions also ensures that anti-Europeans turn out in disproportionate numbers. Thus UKIP, which has very few local councillors and fails to get any members elected either in Cardiff, Holyrood or Westminster, is still able to use the more proportional electoral system for the European elections to get several MEPs elected. That these MEPS do not have a very good track record- with splits and expenses issues all clouding their activities- does not seem to dissuade those who oppose British membership of the European Union from voting for them.

Of course the UK is in many ways becoming the odd one out in European Union collaboration. the arguments about membership of the Euro are one thing, but of course Britain opts out of vast swathes of European Union collaboration, from labour laws to measurement. The most irritating opt out, for me, is the fact that we are not members of the Schengen area. Whenever I have to fly to London I have to go to the area of the airport terminal designated "Non Schengen", which is usually cramped and without the facilities available in the rest of the air terminal. If I take a connecting flight, I will need to allow at least an extra half hour connection time in order to show my passport to enter or leave the "Non Schengen" area of the terminal. The cost in time and money to complete these pointless formalities is extremely irritating. As an Estonian resident I can travel freely throughout the Schengen area using only my Estonian documents. To go to the UK- the country where I was born and of which I am a full citizen, I need my passport and to be prepared to run the gauntlet of long lines at immigration followed by an interrogation by an immigration officer- a farrago that does not seem to have reduced the supposed "immigration crisis" in the UK one wit.

In Estonia, and much of the rest of the European Union, taking up the full benefits of EU membership has not been incompatible with the retention of national identity. Estonians can still hunt for their- extremely numerous- bears, despite a ban elsewhere. One of my close friends is an MP here who was the leader of the "No" campaign in the referendum on whether or not Estonia should join the European Union. Five years later he says, wryly, that he was against a super-state but that he now sees that the European Union's problems are actually the result of a lack of coherence, rather than too much coherence. As a result, he is now standing for election to the European Parliament committed to clarifying and reforming the structures of the European Union, of which he is now a cautious supporter.

So why should I take the time and trouble to vote in the UK? After all here in Estonia I can vote electronically and it will take 30 seconds, whereas- since I could not get a postal vote- I will need to fly to London and physically go into the polling booth. When all is said and done, even the Conservatives do not advocate that the British actually leave the European Union. Despite all of the poses that David Cameron strikes- withdrawal from the EPP (the pan-European alliance of right-wing parties) and all the hostile rhetoric against the Lisbon treaty, the fact is that the Conservative Party manifesto will not advocate leaving the European Union. Cameron even hints that he could accept some renegotiated version of the Lisbon treaty.

And that of course is the point: only UKIP and the Libertarians actually do oppose British membership of the EU. Even though a substantial number of Conservative voters will vote UKIP in the European elections, surely our membership of the European Union is not at threat?

Well, the reason why I will fly a thousand miles next week in order to cast my ballot is that the European debate in the UK has entered an advance state of schizophrenia. The general attitude is that the EU is an over-mighty and rather corrupt institution that- if we are to maintain our membership at all- must be made weaker. Any reform that simplifies the EU is taken to be an attempt to increase its power, and must therefore be resisted. Yet, as my Estonian friend has noted, the failure to reform is what has created the lack of accountability where corruption can flourish. The Lisbon treaty, and the Constitutional treaty before it, were attempts to codify and simplify the vast number of treaties that underpin the European Union edifice. To an extent, both treaties were seeking to simplify the current state of affairs, and the proposals for giving the EU a separate legal personality, represented by an elected President of the Commission and a more powerful external affairs commissioner are relatively modest compared to that which already exists. Furthermore an elected "President" would go a little way to fixing the democratic deficit that clearly exists amongst the EU institutions.

Nevertheless the British attitude to the EU is now something analogous to the current attitude towards our MPs. Failing to note any difference between silly, greedy or downright fraudulent claims on expenses has meant that all MPs, irrespectively, have been tarred with the same brush. Most MPs have not even been named in the scandal, and even those that have, have been condemned with a visceral hatred without even acknowledging that MPs should surely not have to run their offices or own second homes, either in their constituency or at Westminster, entirely out of their own pocket. The attitude of the Daily Telegraph - the originator of this political lynch mob- is now totally irresponsible. A similar irresponsible attitude pervades when talking about Europe.

Instead of thinking rationally about the pros and cons of the European Union, the debate has been framed by those who fulminate over the failings of the EU and will not acknowledge any positive points about it whatsoever. It is these people that David Cameron makes his anti-European nods and winks to. The problem then comes when he tries the political contortion of following through on his promise to veto Lisbon in order to satisfy the UKIP fringe of the Conservatives and then faces the fact that the other 26 member states decide to call his bluff. Cameron then faces a choice: damage the standing of the UK and put our continued membership of the EU at risk in order to satisfy the Conservative right wing or damage his party in order to make a deal with the other member states.

I think that this is playing with fire.

The pro-European voice in Estonia is common currency, but in the UK it is a minority. Therefore As a pro-European, I will come to vote in the UK for the only political party that emphatically supports our membership of the European Union and is prepared to work constructively to improve it, rather than simply following the politically cowardly route of making repeated and idiotic opt-outs for Britain. I will come to vote for the one political party in the UK that supports our joining the Schengen area, and that supports genuine reform of the European Union, in order to give it greater coherence and simplicity.

I believe that the contribution that the UK can make to the European Union is a positive one, and I believe that membership of the European Union is also a necessary and a positive political and economic feature of the UK.

I will be voting for the Liberal Democrats. Even if, as seems likely, the combination of low turnout and domestic political factors help the anti-Europeans, I at least will have done my duty.
By voting for a positive, constructive and intelligent attitude towards the European Union, I will have made my point against the increasingly vindictive, bad tempered, nasty and shrill nature of the political debate in the UK. I will have made my personal statement against what I consider to be the irrational Euro-hatred of UKIP and the rest.

After all, I still have the choice. If the anti- Europeans have their way, then the only way that I could vote at the next European elections would be as an Estonian citizen.

13 comments:

Newmania said...

By voting for a positive, constructive and intelligent attitude towards the European Union, I will have made my point against the increasingly vindictive, bad tempered, nasty and shrill nature of the political debate in the UK.

Or

By voting with foam flecked zealotry for an undemocratic and dishonest attitude towards the European Union, I will have made my point against the increasingly informed rational and sensibly proportional response in the political debate in the UK.


Tsk tsk CS I hate to be childish but

YOU STARTED IT

hibernia said...

The UK, under successive governments, since Margaret Thatcher signed up for the Single European Act in 1997 (because she saw it as a window to creating the free trade area that is the ultimate UK policy objective), has followed a failed obstructionist policy with regard to the EU.

Cameron is quite clearly unaware of this history, being concerned solely with avoiding a split in the Conservative Party on the eve of a likely historic electoral victory in the next general election.

However, turkeys - even British ones - do not normally vote for Christmas. With the collapse of its financial services sector, the UK has simply run out of road. An interesting test will will be the UK reaction to the likely endorsement by the European Council in June of a new pan-European system of financial regulation. The contradictions in UK policy inherent in trying to have its cake and eat it will be very evident in whatever gloss Brown chooses to put on the outcome.

hibernia said...

Oops. Date of SEA should, of course, have read 1987.

Cicero said...

Well, Newmania I didn't start it: I think the EU is a net positive and want to stay in it. Your party tries to have its cake and eat it. At the bottom line, is cameron prepared to put billions of investment and no little part or our national credibility at risk by withdrawing from the European Union, or not? If not, then he needs to stop hinting that he might, if yes, then he needs to be challenged to justify his position, because it looks to me that he would be putting party ahead of the national interest.

What do you support: In or Out?

J said...

"I will come to vote for the one political party in the UK that supports our joining the Schengen area, and that supports genuine reform of the European Union, in order to give it greater coherence and simplicity."

You will fly a thousand miles (think of the carbon footprint!) to vote for a party whose most recent actions on the EU have been to promise one thing in a manifesto and then immediately do two different things in Parliament.

I will continue to consider Liberal Democrat candidates at local and national level, but Clegg's contortions over Lisbon mean that I cannot consider them as worthy of a vote in European elections.

angry voter said...

Latest polls indicate that the Greens are close to pushing the Lib Dems into 5th place next week,payback time for the lies about the referendum.

Anyone tell the Lib Dems that the voters don't like porkies?

Newmania said...

You did you did , and you have gone native haven’t you .Its understandable ,from 2007 to 2013 Estonia got nearly £3 billion of EU Funds which for a country of about four times the size of Croydon,(1.2 million,) is one yummy sweetener.
Do they thanks us ? Do they heck fire .We throw £6 billion a year down the Euro plug-hole for which we get virtually nothing . 75% plus of our laws we do not even get to see debated let alone have any say in, no more say than the Estonians
Now to me that’s not right . No doubt that sentiment is mysterious to you but honestly , I simply cannot recall being invaded by Estonia ? Would one notice ? At all events I do not wish to consult their views on anything , no offence , but its not their country
After all plucky little Estonia has spent most of history under foreign rule , what do they have to lose ?We have been rather picky on that subject , we have democracy accountability freedom identity history culture independence free trade and things to be proud of .

As Blair said ,“ The CAP is the wrong policy its anti free trade, it’s a waste of money” .No shit and that’s half the money . Good start and it goes on ,The Euro fighter …why ?Galileo ….why ? Silly anti Americanism which I dislike and resent paying for . Believe me I could go on and what about the corruption , its epic !

I do not see the future as consisting of unwieldy 19th century white only Empires ,their medieval regulations, puffed up officials, idiotic nostrums and sclerotic socialism . I shall be voting for the Conservative Party in the National interest but not UKIP because I am a cautious chap and like a little flexibility and pragmatism in my pottage.



(Wales 1 Estonia 0)

DocRichard said...

OpenEurope has published an important league table of MEP performance here: http://www.openeurope.org.uk

MEPs have been ranked using two main categories:
‘Transparency, openness and democracy’ and ‘Fighting waste and misuse of EU funds’.

I have gone through the data for UK Greens, Con, Lab, LibDem and UKIP and summated their scores, then divided by the number of MPEs. The lower the score the better.

Here are the results :

Greens - 51

LibDem - 116

Conservatives 152

Labour 205

Ukip 343


This survey is vitally important for the electorate. People are understandably angry with the three Westminster parties, and at the moment, due to deficient information, UKIP is the main beneficiary of the disaffection, polling 10-16% at the moment. This research shows that voting UKIP in protest at MP expenses scandals is to jump from the Westminster frying pan into the Brussels fire.

hibernia said...

What an utterly insular discussion but par for the course! 'Fog on the Channel etc.'.

Cf. Guardian article for where such a blinkered debate is likely to place the Conservatives in the European Parliament.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/29/david-cameron-european-union-grandees

The only real test of a foreign policy is whether it is successful or not.

Cicero said...

The Estonian people did not give up their national identity in the face of Stalin's murderers, even when a third of them were shot or exiled to Siberia or fled. They are hardly likely to do it just for some agricultural transfer payments and development funds either. In fact they idea that they would is frankly pretty insulting to the dead that virtually every single Estonian family has to mourn.

"Angry Voter" in the same way that you should "call no man happy 'til he's dead", I would be careful about making such extreme predictions. You may notice that the *latest* poll shows the Liberal Democrats above Labour and not that far behind the Conservatives, we shall see, won't we.

Hibernia- The Conservatives abandon logic when thinking about Europe, so I think we can overlook a little of their provincialism.

J- well, if you are a true Lib Dem, and not an astro-turfer, perhaps you might compare Nick Clegg's position with the twists and turns of that of David Cameron, and I think you will see that contortions are all relative..

Newmania said...

Britain is not a province CS and no-one was suggesting that the Soviet Union under Stalin was comparable with the EU. That is hardly an excuse for a series of lies and obfuscations whereby stealth has become outright diktat as it has over Lisbon.

french derek said...

@ newmania If you look at the "poor" countries which earlier received EU funding you will note they are now paying bak into the system. Given Estonia's culture, I expect they will soon be net contributers, too. NB EU financing has to be matched (at least) by local financing. Something that M Thatcher (and others after her) didn't wish to do - so losing the UK lots of redevelopment money (I know, I was involved).

Anyway, Cicero. You almost - but only almost - made me search out how and where I might have been expected to vote if I were to return to the UK to do so. But it's so long now that I'm sure the relevant UK authorities will deny all knowledge of me! I "went native" even before I settled here in France.

From what I read, Cameron has a problem. He's promised a referendum on Lisbon. This will inevitably lead to pressure for a referendum on EU membership. How will he be able to resist it? What arguments will he use?

thedarknight said...

The reason the Estonians are pro-Europe is that the EU's political culture represnts an advance on their past. The reason why the British are anti-EU is it represents a deterioration in the levels of democracy, liberalism and cleanliness of political life.