This post is by Andrew Adonis and is based on his book Saving Britain: how we must change to prosper in Europe, co-authored with Will Hutton.
Brexit is the antithesis of the Conservative Party’s pro-European tradition, exemplified by Churchill’s post-war commitment to a united Europe, Heath’s passion for taking Britain into the Common Market and, indeed, Mrs Thatcher’s early enthusiasm for the single market. Brexiters pretend that once outside the EU, the world becomes an economic Eden raining down free fruit. There are no hard decisions or trade-offs. Britain, long thwarted by its dalliance with the EU, can freely gorge. This is cynical dishonesty based on willful ignorance. It is time to get real.
No country in today’s world can enjoy democracy, global economic integration and untrammelled national sovereignty free of international organisations. It is fool’s gold, because they are incompatible goals, unless the country concerned is willing to don the straitjacket of voluntarily doing all that global markets want: deregulation, small government, super-low taxes, a bias against trade unions, and minimal public health, education, environmental protection and welfare. Of course that is what most Brexit leaders privately long for, but it is not an expression of sovereignty but of subservience. What comes first are the needs of the world’s multinationals and capital markets. That is where ‘control’ resides.
If you want to exercise democracy in a global economy, making genuine political choices, sovereignty has to be pooled, otherwise only two other options exist: sign up to whatever global markets demand, or systematically withdraw from global markets and engagement, to grow insular and poor. There is no third way outside the EU.
The genius of the EU, the product of the best of European civilisation, is that it comes as near as any institution in the world to allowing its democratic member states to manage the trilemma of reconciling sovereignty, democracy and reaping the benefits of global trade.
All the intense and growing flows of goods and services in the EU happen in a democratic framework. Every signatory to the EU is a democracy. The elected ministers of all EU states, on a basis of equality, meet regularly in the relevant European Council in Brussels to discuss their readiness to reach agreement on trade proposals put forward by the European Commission, itself appointed by elected governments. Every country has the opportunity to decide whether the gains from the new proposal offset any losses, so that any qualification to its sovereignty is premeditated and democratically validated.
This process takes time and involves protracted negotiation, but it is one by which the EU has created the deepest free trade area in the world, congruent with democracy and sovereignty.
The UK was the principal architect of popular laws
And here lies yet another Brexiter canard. Laws are not imposed by unelected bureaucrats in the European Commission, as they claim. Rather it is the Council of Ministers, made up of ministers from elected national governments, and the elected European Parliament that turn the Commission’s draft propositions into law, or decline to do so. Moreover, the UK has rarely been outvoted. Between 2009 and 2015, it was on the winning side 87 per cent of the time, notwithstanding we were the member state most likely to vote against the majority. Scorn about the shape of fruit masked the reality: the UK was the principal architect of the world’s most important rule-making body.
The rules that the UK has shaped within the EU are immensely popular: opinion poll evidence is overwhelming that there is solid public support for EU standards on vehicle emissions, renewable energy, bankers’ bonuses, consumer rights, limits to working hours and conferring rights on temporary workers. Indeed the popular – even populist – demand is to extend them.
Benefits of EU legislation has shaped this country before our very eyes. The River Thames, rated as biologically dead fifty years ago, is now home to 125 fish species, as well as seals and porpoises, in no small part because of the EU Water Framework Directive. The EU Emissions Trading System, covering more than 11,000 installations, is the world’s most ambitious effort to create an emissions trading scheme that caps the level of emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, cleaning our air.
The ability to uphold these standards will be lost if Britain leaves the EU.
Brexiters claim that Britain can choose post-Brexit whether to shadow EU law, do less or more, as it thinks fit. But the environment is the quintessential area where across-the-board international collaboration is vital. Birds, fish, water and wind do not respect national frontiers, while national governments are unable to provide the long term signals or the sheer size of the market that young companies incorporating low carbon technologies require in order to overcome the reigning dirty technologies.
Countries have very different approaches to standards in, say, insurance, health, construction, engineering or education. A sovereign government can certainly overrule those democratically expressed preferences to cut a trade deal, but in so doing it abrogates democracy. For what that entails in practice, as already the preliminary skirmishes with the US have shown, is demands that Britain surrender its principled approach to regulations of food or health in return for further market access.
Betraying voters’ deeply held preferences
If it wants to cut ‘quick and simple’ trade deals with far more powerful countries like China and the US, Brexit Britain will have to betray a host of deeply held preferences among British voters: not, say, to eat chlorine washed chicken, not to buy goods made by children, not to surrender personal data to Chinese and American social media companies.
But destroying environmental, worker, and consumer protections are of course why many Brexiters want to leave. They damn EU regulation as burdensome and worthless. Here prominent Brexiters sound just like those ‘freedom-loving’ Victorian industrialists who fought restrictions on child labour and limits on working hours as shackles on commercial enterprise, in opposition to Lord Shaftesbury. They have so little regard for the EU’s achievement, so much libertarian distrust of the preferences and values that have created it, that they reject even a Brexit in which Britain continues to reflect these advantages through a deep free-trade agreement: so-called ‘regulatory alignment’. This, they claim, would make Britain a ‘vassal state’. Their real agenda, as we argue throughout our book, is the triumph of ‘Thatcherism in one country’.
If we leave the EU we will be wielding our sovereignty only to surrender it. In this respect the EU represents a triumph too little understood because it is too little explained. The EU is the modern solution to reconciling democracy, sovereignty and prosperity.
This post is one of a series of views on Brexit and the environment we are featuring from leading commentators.