Opinion: On the EU, the UK referendum, and reform – part I

It is likely that this year the UK will hold a referendum on its continuing membership of the EU. Part 1:

The consensus from EU political leaders is that the UK referendum on continuing membership would be bad for both the UK and the EU. These are strange comments from what is supposed to be a democratic union of independent nation states. Unlike most member states, no UK government has directly involved its population over membership or treaty changes since it joined the original EEC in 1975.

Now it is told that after 41 years, confirming (or otherwise) continued membership is “undemocratic’” Possibly because this could at least show that the stated principle of “Ever Closer Union” is not set in stone. At worst, it could show that there is indeed an exit door that can be used, or threatened to be used. The political elite are angry and frustrated, but still cannot understand the core of the problems that are not just limited to the UK, but a concern for the majority of EU citizens.

However, when various media agencies around the union ask the opinion of their own citizens regarding a UK exit, the responses tell another story, which I believe is much closer to the truth. The theme of responses tend to be as follows: (From Le Monde, Die Bild, Stern, RDF TV etc; The author can also state from his own experiences that this is precisely what he finds in Bulgaria).

“The UK has a particular geography, culture and history that is, at its heart, tolerant but certainly not welcoming to ‘foreigners’. In recent years this became a ‘grudging tolerance’. Now it is evolving into an active dislike”.

“The UK is only happy in the international arena if it directly or indirectly holds a controlling position”.

“The UK will never adopt the euro currency. It believes strongly that whoever controls the money, controls the people”.

“The EU is moving steadily closer to a Supranational Federal Authority with policies and decisions being driven from the Commission rather than the Council of Ministers; with population weighted voting placing power in just a few member states. The idea that the UK, of all the membership, would or could quietly go along with this is laughable”.

“The UK has already negotiated so many opt-outs from EU laws that it will make little difference”.

“The UK has no threat of invasion or conflict with its neighbours, and as an island nation, trade alone is its only interest. Which is why it joined the original European Economic Community (EEC), but has since fought hard and consistently against all other common rules”.

It would seem that the ordinary “people in the street’” within the union have a greater understanding of the UK than their political elite. They hold no ill-feeling toward the UK; just a simple understanding that the EU is, and may never be, the form of association within which the UK could be a full, active and positive member. The widely-held belief that the UK joined only to split the French from the Germans and ensure the whole plan became a dog’s breakfast is unprovable – but not without some humorous merit.

The potential result of the referendum is at present too close to call, but an exit is very much a strong possibility. Even a close result to remain within the EU would simply polarise the nation, and place the constituent countries of the UK against each other for years to come.

One may ask how this situation has been allowed to develop. My own opinion is that blame can be apportioned 60:40, with the EU unfortunately carrying the larger share.

The EU has become seriously undemocratic, with an all-powerful European Commission; a qualified voting system that gives immense power to a few members; a weak and toothless European Parliament; and a seriously wasteful financial system. Indeed the EU institutions operate within a flawed but unchanging system that cannot react quickly and flexibly to any crisis; and of course the ‘stronger’ members changing, or just ignoring the rules as it suits them (Germany and migration is a recent case in point).

Example 1: The idealistic venture of “Open Borders and Freedom of Movement” is a good example of political dogma overriding simple common sense. The freedom for any EU citizen to travel within the union for work and leisure is a principle that must be retained. However this right cannot and should not be available to non-EU citizens. Those who are external migrants or asylum seekers should be limited to the specific member nation that accepted them or one that has agreed to host them from any other member nation. It is simply not acceptable for Germany to “host” some 800 000 migrants, and then permit them to freely move on to other member states. Even without the current migrant crisis, the open borders philosophy has been abused for decades by criminals and terrorists. [They can travel freely over a border, but the police have to stop]. Simple border controls would not damage our freedom of movement, just as it does not restrict those members outside of the Schengen area.

Example 2: The euro currency difficulties continue, with growth just 0.3 per cent in the third quarter of last year, while unemployment in Spain is 23 per cent. In Greece it is above 25 per cent. The EU institutions and Central Bank governance cannot resolve this relentless economic crisis because they are the problem. The single currency was never a really an economic initiative. On the contrary, it was a political instrument to further a more federalist agenda, and to impose internal controls on member states that would not be possible within the wider EU laws. Forcing together economies as disparate as Germany and Greece was always doomed to result in debt, bailouts and paralysis.

And what of the UK?

The natural and historical antipathy of the average UK citizen to foreigners is now enhanced with the growth of more isolationist groups and political parties.

Couple this with falling educational standards; an entitlement mind-set based on the all-encompassing welfare system; and the resulting magnet effect for migrants. The UK simply cannot cope socially or financially. Unlike our fellow EU members, the UK electorate has been denied a say regarding any treaty changes for more than 40 years, and now feel that they are governed by an unelected and faceless group from Brussels. It is also believes that by not adopting the euro, it and the other eight non-euro nations are being sidelined on critical issues.

The UK electorate are also confused as to who or what governs the EU. From their viewpoint it seems to be Chancellor Merkel of Germany. While I would disagree in principle, the constant flow of “Merkel Insists”, “Merkel States”, “Merkel meets with other EU Leaders”, makes it difficult to argue that the Council of Ministers is a group of equals. Of course we must take into consideration that the UK has a somewhat difficult “history” with Germany that can unfairly colour public opinion.

Many Bulgarians also note with bemusement (and some resentment) how UK citizens living in Bulgaria call themselves “expats”, yet they call a Bulgarian in the UK an ‘immigrant’; Unfortunately a clear indication of how many British living here have a less than equal view of their hosts.

(Photo: Phillip Bramble/sxc.hu)

Opinion: On the EU, the UK referendum, and reform – Part II



Jonathan Mills

The author is a UK citizen, who lives permanently in Bulgaria. Although pro-EU, he is not blind to the need for some serious reform in its institutions.