To Brexit, or not to Brexit, that is Britain's question: Part II
At least not until the weaker countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain, even Ireland, collapsed under the strain.
“Austerity!” cried the EU, while demanding a bigger budget for itself, but magnanimously agreed to bail out the smaller economies on the most draconian terms.
Amazingly, the Greeks caved in and went along with the demands placed on them to be allowed to stay in the same single currency that had to a large extent caused their woes in the first place. Public sector workers salaries were slashed, taxes were raised dramatically and national services and industries were privatized, cherry picked by foreign banks and investors who could hive off the most profitable, depriving the country of the profits it so desperately needed.
Hooray for democracy, forced to do exactly what the Greek people had elected a government not to do, by unelected EU commissioners in cahoots with the IMF and ECB, to prop up the currency that benefits the richest members so much more than the poorest.
One worthy side note is that, a little before the Treaty of Rome, Germany was still on its knees, inflation out of control, demands for war reparations, crippling debt and a worthless currency. This was when Greece (among many others) agreed to write off all of Germany’s liabilities. That generosity played a big part in giving Germany the basis from which to grow into the economic powerhouse it is today. If its financial obligations after WW2 had been enforced, today’s Germans would be living in a very different place.
The official question on June’s ballot paper will be: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The more I think about that, the more impossible it becomes to produce an answer in which I have any confidence.
Of course not everything for which the EU is vilified is actually the Union’s fault. Much of the guilt rests with the governments and civil servants who execute and enforce EU legislation within their own countries. In this regard the playing field is far from level. Go to any farmer’s markets in Italy and the UK and you’ll see massive differences in the way food hygiene regulations are enforced, if at all.
Village halls are another example. Since the EU came into being, there are fewer of them in Britain than there used to be, because of the kitchens! EU regulations dictate commercial food preparation areas must conform to certain hygiene standards.
“Good idea!” you might say; anyone who has ever experienced food poisoning from a dodgy restaurant is sure to agree. Consequently, civil servants all over Europe leapt into action, either to do nothing at all, or to enforce the new health and safety rules vigorously. The regulations very clearly defined what the standards entailed, surfaces must be easy to clean with no dirt traps in which stray spills and dropped morsels of food might harbor germs. The trouble was, those same regulations failed to define what “commercial” meant.
You might argue that the word commercial implies a place of business, set up with the purpose of providing a livelihood. Britain’s army of civil servants though took a different view; they decided en masse that “commercial” meant anywhere that any food of any kind was sold, for any price!
Nowhere in EU rules or regulations does it state a small local charity selling tea and cakes to raise funds for good causes in a village hall should be regarded as a commercial concern, but Britain’s local authorities deemed that it was. Some local communities did find the money, but many couldn’t afford the upgrades and had to shut down their quaint, historic village halls, no longer able to host any event where food or drink might be served.
The civil servants shrugged and sighed apologetically and the grumble, “bloody Europe” echoed through the country lanes, while village halls in many other parts of Europe, where the rules were interpreted differently, carried on as before.
Is Leaving the answer?
It is clear that there is no easy answer to the European question; the Union has its good points as well as bad. None of which really helps me decide how to vote. In an effort to better understand I decided to imagine that different questions were being asked.
Let’s begin with what sparked the referendum in the first place, Cameron’s pledge. The Prime Minister promised to negotiate in Brussels (or Strasbourg) and then ask the public about staying in a newly reformed European Union. He returned triumphant, saying that he’d achieved the changes he wanted (well, more or less) and was now ready to ask the people if they wanted to remain in the reformed EU.
The outcome of the PM’s talks though is a little less triumphant because, a simple read reveals, he hasn’t achieved a single EU reform, not one. What he has negotiated are a few limited concessions relating to Britain’s membership of it, but no ‘root and branch’ reform. There is no reformed EU to remain a part of, and the hard won concessions will expire within a few years, after which, we’re back to the status quo with Europe, as before, heading towards, “ever closer union” (except Britain, the only concession that doesn’t have a time limit).
If the question related to being part of a loose association of like-minded countries that cooperate constructively to facilitate mutual trade and travel, I would shout a resounding “YES”! But that’s not what we have, that, arguably, is what the EU should have been and is certainly what voters in the ’75 referendum believed they were saying “yes” to.
Britain’s membership fees amount to a staggering net figure of millions of euro per week (the lowest estimate I could find was €160 million). Less than Germany it’s true, but Britain no longer has the manufacturing base she used to, Germany does, hence its commitment to the euro and its fees are a small price to pay for maintaining its export potential.
Jokes about corruption and inefficiency in the EU abound. In fact, the levels of both in Brussels (and Strasbourg) are so widely known and accepted that people don’t even complain any more, it’s looked upon almost with resigned fondness, like a mischievous child who will be naughty but, well… it’s just the way he is, and a blind eye is turned because dealing with it is too much like hard work. Go to any search engine and type in the phrase, ‘EU corruption’ - it’s amazing how many results there are, mostly from mainstream media.
Corruption within the EU is so rife that no one’s really even trying to fight it any more.
If on the ballot paper, I was faced with the question, “do you want to remain a part of a corrupt and inefficient institution that wastes billions of (insert any currency you like) every year?” my answer would be emphatic. Of course, no one is ever going to ask that question, are they?
There’s another question that will never be asked, “Can the EU change to become more democratic and root out corruption and waste?” Of course it could, but even that’s not the question, what should really be asked is, “will it?” I have a lot less confidence in a positive answer to that. Change requires agreement and any one of the 28 members can veto any change that they see as being against their interests. The way the EU is structured now, the most corrupt would have to vote to derail their own gravy train for any meaningful change to take place. It would be like asking the Mafia to police themselves and lead each other to jail of their own accord.
I like, no… I love the idea of a United Europe, though I must admit, I do miss getting a stamp in my passport when visiting an EU country, but I loathe what the EU has become - a corrupt, wasteful, over controlling, undemocratic and cumbersome bureaucracy.
It was recently suggested to me that I should vote to stay in the EU so that Britain can fight to change it from within, to make it better. That is as noble an idea as forming the original EEC was in 1957, but I fear the vested interests of too many would be compromised if the EU was to truly change and become what it could, and should, have been.
Of course only a relatively small proportion of the British population will ultimately decide the referendum result; the latest polls suggest that there are practically the same numbers of staunch EU supporters as there are committed euro skeptics, both with such firmly entrenched opinions that nothing will ever change their minds. The decision then will be made by the very few floating voters, the ones who really don’t know yet, like me!
Winning over the “undecideds” is not going to be easy, not least because, from what I see, both sides are steering well away from facts and relying on fear as the prime motivator to vote either way.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a tabloid headline reading, “All Firstborn to die instantly if Britain leaves/stays-in the EU”. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time! Facts are hard to come by when it comes to understanding the issues and consequences of a decision either way, but each side is all too keen to tell me about the inevitable horror that voting the “wrong” way would cause!
The only problem now is, after trying to explore the facts I’m torn between liking the ideals that the EU set out with, and hating what it has become. I also have the nagging feeling that, by procedural or technical manipulation of some kind or another, the UK will remain a part of the EU, whatever the outcome. After all, David Cameron is hardly likely to have allowed the referendum unless he was pretty certain it would go his way.
David Watson is a conflicted British Citizen, film maker, photographer and journalist who works in Moscow.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.