It only rains twice a year in Britain, from January to June and from August to December.
Partly Cloudy With Scattered Showers
I don’t care what anyone says, I love the weather in Britain. I live in Somerset, one of the wettest counties in England, but also one of the sunniest (unlike Lancashire, which is just wet… and wet). That’s why we grow apples and make cider and hang out in muddy fields around Glastonbury.
What does “partly cloudy with scattered showers” mean exactly? That’s the meteorological equivalent of “I’ve got no *!&?ing idea what’s coming”. As the boys around here say, “noo point listenin’ to them forrrrecast son, you just look at them Mendips an’ she tell you al’ you need know”. My house sits on the edge of a village perched on the Somerset Mendip Hills, it looks over fields and forest but beyond that rolling green horizon, it drops down to the West coast of the Britain. Next stop New York. So the weather comes in from the Atlantic un-filtered, unrestrained and variable, very variable. But it makes for an interesting life. Today I meant to mow the lawn, but it was raining. Looking over the hills I knew it didn’t have legs and that we’d get some sunshine in the afternoon so, instead I stayed inside to write this post and mowed the lawn after lunch. See? Life could be worse.
But on this lowly, rainy island there are clouds gathering on the political horizon. It’s about Europe… and its “ever-closer” political union. Just like the British weather, it’s proving remarkably difficult to call. So I’m ditching the forecasters, the pollster, the media commentators and the politics of the situation and I’m just looking at the hills. In the skies of an EU referendum, from my house in Somerset, this is what I see; raw, untamed, without the complex political analysis or deep philosophy.
Most of you will wonder what has happened. One minute I’m talking about monetary inflation and the next European politics. But they’re related, of course. Wayward economic policies of the twentieth century were a precursor to the devastation of war. After WWII, Europe, devastated, came together at last and vowed never to let it happen again. They signed the Treaty of Brussels in 1948 and the Treaty of Paris in 1951, both of them could be summed up in one sentence “let’s stop spending all our energy making weapons to annihilate each other and try and do something productive for all of us”. And so the European Project began. Historically, the European union (with a small “u”) can be seen as an accumulation of treaties between European countries. So, you see, the economic predicament of Europe in the 1900’s has everything to do with the EU referendum. I just haven’t got enough time in the day to tie the two stories together articulately. Sorry…
A few short years ago the idea of Britain Exiting the EU, the “BREXIT” idea was a speck on the political landscape. A tiny piece of cloud, a wisp of stratocumulus drifting aimlessly, helplessly in the North Atlantic destined to be burnt out by the omnipresent heat of the sun. Somehow, between then and now, conditions aligned and it gathered energy, force and mass and now resembles something of a geopolitical hurricane with a path predicted to hit Western coast of Europe with great violence next month. So what happened? How did this come about? I’m examining the tailwinds to the BREXIT idea and how this wisp of a cloud managed to garner so much political energy.
On the face of it the likelihood of BREXIT seems absurdly low. The official manifesto of the Conservative Party, or Tories, in Europe is pro-EU, indeed, David Cameron has pretty much staked his job on it. But also the second, third and fourth most powerful parties (Labour, Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats) are distinctly pro-EU. That leaves only the, very poorly-represented (and diminishing), UK Independence Party and a few Tory back-bencher dissidents feebly holding up the BREXIT campaign. To add to this, the UK voters are generally quite conservative bunch, who grumble and groan but generally only vote for change when the stress has stretched to palpably painful proportions. If life is OK, don’t bother changing it.
This is a non-issue right? The “RemaIN” campaign will win hands down, it’ll be a wash-out. Why are we and the markets even contemplating the notion of a BREXIT? What happened? I’m setting out on a voyage of discovery to find the answer to this question, and it starts exactly two years to the day, May 22nd 2014.
Why the BREXIT Campaign has gained traction in the UK
Reason 1 – political incohesion
The pro-EU juggernaut in Britain has a much more powerful political army and a bigger arsenal than the Eurosceptics. Perhaps the most famous “Vote Leave” campaigner, and London Mayor, Boris Johnson is right, this is a David versus Goliath match up. In choosing to part from Goliath (and his Prime Minister and party leader, David Cameron) Boris Johnson too has staked his career on the EU referendum.
But, let’s leave Barack Obama, the European leaders and all the large corporations aside for the minute and examine just the domestic political landscape in the simplest terms. With the four most powerful domestic parties in the UK all wanting the same thing (RemaIN) you’d think they’d come together to deliver a powerful and meaningful message together, in unity, in solidarity. I’ve been waiting for this to happen. But so far it has not. At times it’s as though incumbent politicians here are so vehemently against agreeing with anything the “opposition” party has to say that, even on the things they agree on, they choose not to be even in the same room as one another. Perhaps they are saving this moment of union until the eleventh hour when the campaign will suddenly explode into life… but they are running out of time, it is now the eleventh hour and the 58th minute.
On the flip side, the political minnows on the Eurosceptic side (officially the “Vote Leave” campaign) of the fence seem to be delivering clear, succinct messages and are focussing, at least temporarily, on their commonality rather than their differences. There is nothing to corroborate this subjective, cloudy argument. It’s just my opinion. But, if the logic of causality is not there, the results certainly are, because in May of 2014 something quite strange happened.
Reason 2 – poor turnout
On May 22nd 2014 Britain went into Local Elections but also, concurrently European Elections, which are held every 5 years around Europe. What is characteristic of both Britain and, indeed, the whole of Europe, was that turnout to European elections is woefully poor. Not only is it poor, it’s getting poorer and has been getting poorer for generation after generation of voter. As the allegedly independent EU media broadcasting site EurActiv informed its readers in a piece, It’s official – last EU elections had its lowest ever turnout:
The updated numbers, published on the Parliament website, show that turnout struggled to reach 42.54% in 2014, well below the 43.1% initially announced.
Diplomatic pencils will be being snapped in despair at the lowest public enthusiasm for an EU poll since 1979, when elections were first held.
Turnout is seen as a litmus for the EU Parliament’s democratic legitimacy by many but it has fallen steadily, from 62% in 1979 to 43% in the 2009 election.
Worryingly for europhiles, the new low will call into in question the legislative credibility of the European Parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the lead candidate for the liberals and a convinced federalist had initially hailed the marginally-higher turnout estimate, saying the new Parliament “will be more representative than the previous one”.
However you quibble the numbers, the trend in the charts is apparent; even in the “Pillars of Europe” – countries like Germany, France and Italy. Lower turnouts mean that radical parties, both to the right and left tend to get higher representation. Eurosceptic parties are often to be found in the politically peripheral tranches within European states.
But this bears another, perhaps more worrying predicament to the European project, something which the Eurosceptics have been quick to pounce on. Europeans, all Europeans, not just the British, are simply disengaged from the political process and the politics of the European project. Why is this? Is it just too boring? Is it too complicated? Is it by design or by accident? What is unquestionable is that, while over the decades the power of the European Union has increased, public participation in that power has waned. This is a structural shift in the fundamentals of European democracy and it’s easy to see how a Eurosceptic would be quick to jump on this argument as indication of something more sinister beneath the surface.
Reason 3 – the mechanics of the voting system
On May 22nd 2016 a party which only has only one seat in the House of Commons (one seat out of 650 seats) rose victorious at the European Elections and triggered a political earthquake in Britain. An earthquake whose aftershocks would be felt on the other side of the Globe for years to come. The party was called the UK Independence Party or UKIP. No prizes for guessing what their agenda was towards Europe – the clue is in the name!
There’s a little quirk in the European voting mechanism that basically states that, provided proportional representation is used to determine the European parliamentary seats, it does not matter which method, specifically, is used.
Firstly, the point about proportional representation. Britain doesn’t have it. Not for general elections at least. We have a First Past The Post (FPTP) system. Take a simplistic and crude example: imagine you have a country with 100 constituencies representing 100 seats in parliament. Imagine you have two parties; Party A and Party B. If in every single one of the 100 constituencies Party A just eeks ahead of Party B by the skin of its teeth, then Party A ends up with ALL the seats in parliament. Not one single seat is attributed to Party B despite the fact it may have won 49% of the votes, proportionally. As far as seats, and thus legislative power is concerned, Party A has a 100% majority, Party B has absolutely nothing. This method has its advantages – favouring two-party systems and thus simplifying or adding clarity to the public political debate and it suppresses destructive extremism. However the main criticism of FPTP is that huge numbers of votes are often thrown away, wasted, ignored and thus it is not a true representation of public opinion or feeling.
The Economist Blog has a good graphical representation of this (the solid blocks representing real seats, the hollow blocks representing voting proportion not allocated as parliamentary seats). It is undeniable that FPTP favours larger parties and suppresses the votes of smaller (allegedly more radical) parties. The pros and cons of voting mechanics is not up for debate in this piece. All that concerns us is the fact that the British are not used to electing powerful governing bodies by proportional representation. But in European elections member states are required to use proportional representation and Britain opted to use a method known as D’Hondt method, named after the Belgian Mathematician and creator Victor D’Hondt. The D’Hondt method is a, rather beautifully simple, mathematical method of counting votes. Like a Blackjack dealer flinging cards across the table, seats are sprayed across the parties by a sort of round robin method based computationally on voting share. I won’t go into too much detail, only to say that this BBC explanation is pretty good.
In May of 2014, the tiny UKIP party stormed to victory due, in part, because the mechanics of the voting process favoured smaller, more radical parties. Of course, UKIP voters would suggest that, actually, it is the current British Parliamentary voting system that is flawed, not proportional representation – the method by which they claimed victory. In the last election the Labour required 34,244 votes per seat in The House of Commons. The Conservatives could feel slightly aggrieved, they required 40,290 votes per seat. A full 6,000 votes more than Labour. UKIP’s ratio was 3.9 million votes per seat. Ironically, while UKIP voters would argue vehemently that proportional representation is actually a fairer way to vote in Europe, it is a case they may not wish to argue too passionately for – after all it was the Big Bad EU that enforced proportional representation on EU voting – thus giving them a voice in Britain in the first place! But let’s face it, proportional representation helps the BREXIT case and there is nothing more proportional than a referendum.
Reason 4 – immigration rhetoric
There is no question that the immigration crisis has helped campaign Vote Leave and the BREXIT folk. As Der Spiegel, reports – handling of the immigration crisis has even cost the Great Merkel a great deal of her power. There is a nationalistic element of the Vote Leave campaign which has jumped onto the immigration bandwagon as vindication of how the EU system “simply doesn’t work” and will not ever work for the British nation. But this is not solely nationalistic, there is the antagonistic element that simply points to this as a demonstration of bureaucratic incompetence and political arrogance. That said, the timing of the immigration crisis is unfortunate for the RemaIN cause and will be a thorn in their side right up until election day.
I think these are the main reasons why the BREXIT campaign has gained traction over the last few years in Britain. There are of course other reasons; Vote Leave would point to the billions of tax dollars which Britain has exported to the continent as the “cost of membership” but this is balanced by the obvious argument of the economic benefits that have come with free trade, liquid labour and enablement of a “common passport”. I’m not getting dragged into this and other, quite valid, arguments at this stage, only to say that this referendum may be closer than it appears on paper for a variety of reasons.
You could thus far describe my post as describing simply the headwinds to the RemaIN campaign. It’s quite one-sided in this respect. But I believe both sides of the arguments have weak points, Achilles heels, which has rendered a strange sort of political stalemate and rhetoric which gives excessive focus on immigration and bizarrely contorted stand-off positions over the philosophy or culture of the European Union as a political establishment.
Hold tight now, dear reader, this is where I offend everyone and show my political naivety. My simple brain buckets UK EU referendum voters into a number of categories ranging from vehement Union-haters to roaring pro-Union fundamentalists.
- Nationalist-leaning (ANTI EU – Vote Leave). A romantic notion of UK independence from Europe. We never wanted to be part of the European Union never mind an “ever-closer union” going forward. We want to preserve 100% of British sovereignty. The European project is fundamentally broken and always will be – we don’t want to be any part of it. Embodied by, Nigel Farage of UKIP.
- Libertarian-leaning (ANTI EU – Vote Leave). A romantic notion the best way to affect European policy is to vote to walk away from the status quo. We like the idea of a closer Europe facilitating trade, but the European Union is simply not working and it places too much power in the hands of the governing bodies in Europe. It has to change and the only way we feel our voice will be heard is by voting to exit until suitable reform is made. Embodied by, Boris Johnson of Conservative Party.
- Moderate Right (PRO EU – Vote RemaIN). A romantic notion that we can change the EU once we’re in it. We are EU reformists, we think the European Union is flawed, perhaps fundamentally so, but we have to be IN the Union to reform it and ensure that reformations are favourable to the British people. Embodied by, Prime Minister David Cameron of Conservative Party.
- Moderate Left (PRO EU – Vote RemaIN). A romantic notion that the EU is roughly on the right track. Yes there are political and structural flaws to every political system but it’s a complicated challenge. Europe needs to change, but the European project is a long game easily derailed by political short-termism. We’re in and we’re willing to do our part and collaborate with European members. Embodied by, Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party.
- Pro-Euro Activists (PRO or ANTI ???). Arguably the biggest romantics of all, calling for immediacy over European political harmony. Ever-closer-union is good but it’s not happening quickly enough with the EU. I want the Social Democratic United States of Europe and, enough already – get on with it, I want it now!
The final category of people who are so pro European integration that they simply don’t think Europe is moving quickly enough is a hard category to define. I’m not sure who they are or even if they exist, perhaps the younger voters? It’s a wild card. But both sides have Achilles heels which they’re trying desperately to conceal. What I think is interesting about this category is that they are so much in favour of European integration that they may actually be democratic puritans and could conceivably be pushed into an anti-EU stance… that’s the bit that makes us come full circle on the EU debate.
Achilles Heel of Vote Leave
Vote Leave actually has two Achilles Heels, one of which is within their control.
The first is the immigration rhetoric. Immigration has become a strong part of the argument, but, as the heat turns up its in danger of turning too nationalistic and they risk losing the moderate Libertarians and will lose all hope of taking Moderate swing voters. This is why I think, ultimately, the RemaIN will win. There are simply not enough Nationalists and Libertarians to get across the line, even with proportional representation. Part of me feels that it’s only a matter of time before a desperate and delinquent member of the Vote Leave campaign says something obnoxious about immigration which turns the Moderates off.
The other Achilles Heel for the Vote Leave campaign is so subtle it barely exists. It concerns the lack of an alternative plan towards a pro-Europe initiative. Because I believe some Vote Leave campaigners are actually pro-European integration of some form. It’s just that they are against the EU, specifically, as the mechanism to achieve this integration. Let’s face it, this is, specifically, an EU referendum, not a necessarily a pro-European integration referendum per se. But this faction of Vote Leave simply cannot present an alternative to European integration as it would be political suicide. They would lose their nationalist core and open themselves to the same criticism they are venting towards the RemaIN candidates, picking holes in the fabric of an inherently complicated political integration plan.
So the tactic is to deliver forceful, yet carefully measured rhetoric on immigration policies of the EU while simply saying that the “EU isn’t working” without ever suggesting a viable pro-European alternative. Putting the onus on the RemaIN campaign to respond.
Achilles Heel of Vote RemaIN
The Vote RemaIN campaign have one leading Achilles Heel. Simplifying greatly (as I always do), it basically concerns the answer they must give to the BREXIT slogan “the EU isn’t working”. No doubt, cross-border trade has been liberated, transport and travel has been lubricated along with the positives of a liquid labour force. But, let’s face it, while Europe can claim some of the credit for closing out the Cold War, most of the growth over the last 30 years has been from a rising tide of globalisation lifting all boats. By this measure Europe, crippled by chronic Eurosclerosis, has fallen woefully behind the US and other First World counterparts (including the UK, in isolation) on a relative basis. Of course, the economy isn’t everything, but from an economic perspective, it’s hard to fight the Vote Leave toe-to-toe that the EU is actually working.
But the “EU isn’t working” is a shrewd double-edged sword that the Vote Leave campaign is wielding. Because there is a structural argument about the democracy of the European experiment. In order to answer this question the RemaIN campaign cannot simply say “no, you’re wrong the EU does work”, because they know exactly what the follow up question will be. They must explain how it works, the very fabric of European democracy under the EU vessel. This is wonkish, it’s complicated, it’s not a topic to be taken into open and public debate. So the tactic is, rather than answer this head-on, to grin and bear it as the Vote Leave campaign ask the question again and again, knowing that each silent response adds volume to the Vote Leave thunder cloud. Instead the focus from RemaIN is on the economic credibility of the Vote Leave campaign, citing the potential economic turmoil that could result from an isolationist Britain.
It’s a funny sort of dance our politicians do. But, if anything I think this corroborates that a simple YES/NO vote does not mean a simple political debate. Anything but…
But I’m going to try and address the question of “how the EU works as a democracy” head on… that’s for another post.