Beware the Eurocrats’ agenda

By Claire Fox | 06 April 2016
  • Claire Fox

Despite EU referendum weariness and the fact many local government official bodies are remaining neutral or silent on the issue, Key Cities Group chair, councillor Paul Watson, is right when he says the vote in June is significant for councils.

One thing that bemuses me is why – where local government think-tanks and organisations have ‘come-out’ – they seem so committed to a ‘remain’ position. Why is there not more passion for Brexit in local government circles?

In the decade or so I have been writing for The MJ, there has been incessant moaning about losing power due to top-down impositions from Westminster, hyperbolic pleas to throw off the shackles of dictatorship from a hyper-central government, a ‘cry freedom’ message associated with localism, devolution and regional autonomy.

Surely these complaints about a central governance structure defanging elected democratic bodies ring some bells of recognition in relation to a critique of the EU? After all, there’s far more validity in characterising the Brussels machine as an oligarchic, anti-democratic bureaucracy spewing out regulatory decisions made behind closed doors and leaching away power from its members than wielding the same accusation against Parliament. MPs are elected, unlike the unelected European Commission or European Court of Justice.

The EU’s response to every crisis, from the Euro debacle to the migrant catastrophe, is always to accrue more authority to its own institutions and then impose ‘solutions’ on national governments.

Local government remainers seem indifferent to the plight of national governments, arguing there is ‘more to democracy than national elections’ and complaining that Brexiters tend ‘to consider questions about sovereignty and political agency purely at the level of the nation state’.

The problem with the EU is that its very existence is in defiance of popular sovereignty and it is designed to contain it. Surely this is a matter of concern to local government democrats?

This is not a technical matter. There is heated dispute over the proportion of UK law that comes from the EU but whether it’s 13% or as much as 70% misses the point. Whatever the percentage, these regulations are dictated by an elite, without any possibility of accountability to the demos. Not only is the EU’s sole elected body – the European Parliament – an impotent, toothless vessel, the main decision-making bodies do not derive their authority from popular mandate but from inter-governmental ones.

Let’s not forget the EU ignored the national electorates of France and Holland in 2005 and Ireland in 2008 who dared to vote against it in referenda. It has since imposed technocratic governments on Italy and Greece because the electorates of those countries were assumed to be untrustworthy.

Why aren’t local government democrats up in arms about this? Pro-EU-ers justify their stance by focusing on specific council-friendly policies, such as public health and environmental regulations, security measures and worker’s rights.

Perhaps local government feels more comfortable negotiating policies in rarefied EU committee meetings with like-minded Eurocrats rather than having to persuade awkward members of the public wielding their franchise?

One popular remain policy is that the EU is good for local economies, misleadingly portrayed as internationalism. This seems a cynical bid to retain access to European subsidy slush funds.

The Welsh Local Government Association worries about ‘losing the scale of financial support that has been made available in Wales over recent years’ – often based on its abundance of socially deprived areas – while Liverpool’s mayor Joe Anderson tweets a list of regeneration projects that would never have happened without European cash.

This reduces local government to dependency status, seemingly unable to conceive of wealth creation beyond filling in grant applications.

A more proactive economic growth strategy requires more than taking handouts and would require a more grown-up outward-looking relationship with world markets.

Leaving the EU is not a magic bullet. If councils want citizens to support their campaigns for more freedom from government interference they should be preaching a braver message about liberty and agency for the rest of us. Otherwise, we may conclude their demand for autonomy is little more than a self-serving mantra.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas

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