East Midlands Green Party Blog

The EU debate, democracy, and economic localisation – some thoughts



So David Cameron has finally come out with his big Europe speech. And yes, it’s clear his policy is a mess of competing interests, many of which will be somewhat unsavoury to green tastes, from the little Englanders on his party’s right to his banker friends in the City of London. It’s also likely that the referendum he talks about will never ultimately come to pass, most obviously if ungrateful voters should for some curious reason choose not to reward his spectacular governmental record with a clear majority at the next election.

But actually, in theory I have nothing against either the repatriation of selected powers, or with a referendum on whether we should be a part of the EU. Certainly I’m extremely reluctant to throw in my lot with those who argue we can’t hold a referendum on the grounds that the uncertainty may spook the market. I’m afraid democracy is inherently uncertain. This is not an argument against it, it’s an argument against the free market forces that increasingly try to dictate the limits of what is democratically acceptable.

Unfortunately, it’s those same free market forces that Cameron et al (and that et al includes Miliband et al) want to enshrine as the very heart of the European project. This is very far from the green position. The powers we must most urgently reclaim are those which have been granted to market forces (or more precisely, to an international financial elite who make daily decisions about billions of pounds of investments) and have thereby been removed from democratic accountability anywhere. We must reclaim the powers needed to pursue the re-localisation of our economy, and with it, a real empowerment of society at a grassroots level. This is what green politics is all about.

But I deliberately say we must ‘reclaim’ these powers rather than ‘repatriate’ them, because it may well be the case that in some areas extra powers have to granted to international institutions in order to challenge the rule of the market – paradoxically we may need to internationalise in order to be able to localise. Certainly the alternative route to localisation, a unilateral throwing up of trade barriers, from capital controls to tariffs to import quotas, is distinctly unattractive. The green localisation agenda is emphatically not about cutting ourselves off from the world and throwing away the benefits of international co-operation. Without international co-operation we will never be able to effectively regulate international financial markets; we will never be able to stop the super-rich playing one state off against another in a global race to the bottom on taxation, environmental standards and much more. Similarly without international cooperation we stand no chance of ever being able to fight the profound threat of climate change.

We should also recognise that localisation in no way implies that absolutely all economic activity can or should be carried out locally. For example certain raw materials may only be available in limited geographical areas and must be traded globally or done without, or to give another example, renewably sourced electricity may be much more viable with an electricity grid that covers the whole continent of Europe and even further afield, this geographical spread would held to even out production of intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar energy. Another case is food security – for all the clear benefits of food sovereignty, it is also clear that without the ability to fall back on a functioning international food market, any country or region is at much greater risk of acute food shortages in the event of localised crop failures, which are only likely to become more common with ongoing global warming.

All these challenges can be best faced if we work together with other countries. Obviously the EU isn’t perfect. There is too much of an urge to centralise power in the EU for centralisation’s sake. Power should only be exercised at an international level where it will essentially be ineffective at a more local level. Also, if the EU itself isn’t democratically accountable then there’s little benefit it granting it powers to challenge the market in democracy’s name – and at present the EU is clearly not democratic enough. And the EU does do some good work even at present, for example much valuable legislation on workers and human rights has been passed at European level (just one of the reasons the Tory right wing dislikes it so much!) But regardless of what you think of the current set-up of the EU, we must recognise that voting to leave it would not be seen as a clarion call for a better kind of EU to be created, it would simply be seen as a turn inwards, away from the rest the continent, and that we cannot afford to do. It is only through participating in the EU and in other international organisations that we can hope to change them, and only by doing that can we begin to hope to change the world.

Author: Nick Martin

Gedling based green with a particular liking for squirrels.

6 thoughts on “The EU debate, democracy, and economic localisation – some thoughts

  1. The proposed referendum year, 2017, is significant in that it’s after the next general election. If Cameron was serious about an in-out vote he’d have it now and deal with the consequences. They’ll renege on it. The problem I have with any referendum is either the illusion of choice or a choice between the status quo and an inadequate alternative (like the AV referendum).

    The whole problem with the EU debate is how oversimplified the arguments are. The main reasons spouted for leaving tend to come from xenophobia and nationalism, talks of foreigners in the commission making our laws, opposing immigration etc, but for staying in it’s almost always the benefits to big business and using the EU to resist the decline in Britain’s control of the developing world (or ‘influence on the world stage’ if you must).

    As dull as the Europe debate is, we really need to be part of it, to highlight to real positives of membership (free movement of all European people, cultural exchange and languages learnt, labour and human rights, environmental legislation) but highlight the things that absolutely must change (the undemocratic commission, journeys to Strasbourg, eurozone austerity, unfair competition laws). It needs drastic reform to become a people’s Europe rather than a corporate Europe, and it’s a debate that’s desperately needed, but that we’re just not having.

  2. I think the only real choice in a UK referendum is in / out to be fair. Which is inadequate in so far as there are a lot of other issues around the sort of EU we want which need debating, but they really can’t be decided by a UK referendum. I would support an EU wide referendum on more substantial issues, but am sure all the bigger European countries would veto such an idea at present.

    One other caveat to my piece above, which is that the perspective on the EU is obviously very different in countries like Ireland, Portugal and Greece, where the EU is currently enforcing dramatic cuts. This is primarily a problem of monetary union, not something I want to go into now, apart from to point out it was never the correct form of integration to be pursuing, and hence was always opposed by the Green Party of England and Wales, along with many other groupings on the left. However, I do want to clearly acknowledge that the obvious fact that in those countries the terms of debate are very different, and I would not have written the same piece.

  3. Excellent points, well argued and very relevant! Thank-you Nick, I look forward to future blog posts from you!

    At a meeting late last year hosted by Caroline Lucas on the Sharing Ecomony many of these areas were discussed. I would recommend anyone interested to look at Share the World’s Resources at http://www.stwr.org. There are interesting directions for sustainable and cooperative economics to challenge poverty, climate change, resource scarcity / access and food insecurity.

    I agree, Stuart, that there is an illusion of choice here. That is a very common thing in present politics, we live the farce of being asked to choose which necessities are most necessary and which necessities are not needed. We are given dilemma in place of democracy too often. Unfortunately, many people will be wary of referendum, due to the wastefulness, red tape, lack of information or real choices offered by the recent police commissioner elections. It is a time when many become apathetic, insular, tribal. A perfect time for false promises.

    So, posts and discussions like this one are vital for putting forward what we want from the EU; what we are saying yes and no to. What the abuses, inequities and re-appropriations of power are. What the benefits and potential are for human rights and security, resource sharing and tackling shared threats such as climate change, tax injustice and ill-conceived austerity measures.

    Keep writing! 🙂

  4. I agree with various points made by Nick, Stu and Antonia.
    I think it is vitally important to have an objective debate about the EU including all advantages and disadvantages. I will not get further into these, since both of you have mentioned various benefits and difficulties.

    However, I feel that the current national debate is clouded by an emotional aspect that remains unspoken – the “elephant in the room”. I believe that being part of the EU alongside other politically and economically powerful countries may appear threatening for some to our British identity. Historically Britain has been a great super-power, being in charge of the Empire. Times have changed, but some seem to struggle to adjust.
    I wonder if the euro-sceptic right would oppose an international regulatory system as long as Britain was in charge, similarly to the Empire?

    A referendum could be a valuable opportunity for a sound, honest and objective discussion, but I fear that politicians are using this possibly emotionally charged question on the EU for their own opportunistic advantages. I am therefore dubious about a referendum on the EU in regards to in or out. However, I would welcome a referendum on the governing, regulation and execution of the EU and its powers.
    Cameron is playing a political game by proposing this referendum for after the next election; he wants to please the far right (fearing more could change to UKIP) and to attract general voters. I actually do not believe they will seriously facilitate such a referendum due to the difficult consequences if we left.
    If I am wrong and we do have a referendum about if we should remain in the EU, I would have some serious concerns about our future.

  5. I actually think that if there is a referendum, people will ultimately vote to stay in. The fact that there’s already some polling suggesting a shift in public opinion on the issue (see http://liberalconspiracy.org/2013/01/21/is-opposition-to-eu-membership-collapsing-or-is-it-just-bad-polling/) may even have given Cameron the confidence to commit in the half-hearted in four years time and only if you vote for me sort of way that he did.

    The fact is that most of the political and business elite would campaign to stay in the EU, and even if most of the arguments they put will be bad ones based on the free market and playing on people’s fear of an unknown future should we quit, I think we’d see a little bit more space for progressive and genuinely internationalist arguments than there has been in recent years, and actually less space for the worst type of opportunistic Europe-bashing, which may stop being seen as the easy tool of distraction that it is at the moment and start to be seen as a dangerous habit with potentially damaging consequences.

    Basically I don’t think we need to be scared of a referendum. And a flawed democratic debate framed by cynically manipulative politicians is still better than no democratic debate at all.

  6. An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment.
    There’s no doubt that that you should publish more on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but generally folks don’t talk about such subjects.
    To the next! Kind regards!!

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