Let’s start with a quick time-line:
This table of contents comes from Wikipedia on ‘Events of the 20th century’. It’s war, war and more war. It’s violence and discord.
Interestingly, the European Union doesn’t feature on this list. So let’s fill in the gap.
Of course, there had been attempts at uniting the continent of Europe (however you may wish to define it) before the 20th century. Being entirely biased in highlighting a few of these attempts, I would have to say that William Penn – a well known Quaker, writing in 1693 came up with an idea that presaged some of the structures of the European Union, albeit in the context of principalities and kingdoms rather than democracies.
But none of this happened seriously until the 20th century. And then it needed two world wars and a combined death toll of well over 100 million people to bring politicians in Europe to their senses – at least in part.
So, immediately after the end of World War 2, France, Beligum, Luxembourg and the Netherlands on one side and Germany and Italy on the other started discussions on how to avoid future wars.
They set up the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. The idea was that if there were common rules and trade across borders in the commodities of war (which at the time were coal and steel) then this would lower the likelihood of war.
In 1957 – just 60 years ago – this widened to the European Economic Community (the Treaties of Rome were signed) and since then there has been a gradual expansion of the European project both in terms of geography and in terms of the scope of it.
Has it been all good?
Far from it. As an economic bloc the European Union has promoted unfettered capitalism for a number of year. It has not had an altogether benign impact on countries outside it. The trade terms it imposed on African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (the former colonies of some of its member states) weren’t always wonderful – and probably still aren’t.
It has been dominated by the interests of big international corporations.
But it hasn’t been all bad either. In fact, it has done a lot of important things that are good.
It has enhanced the ability of people to meet and travel between countries. The freedom of movement of people has had a lot of bad press lately; but it is, at least in part, the reason why holidays in the Med and city breaks to Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen have become common place for many.
It has generated a level playing field in terms of education and academic credentials across the EU.
It has supported the development of democracy in Spain and Portugal, in Greece and in Eastern Europe – through the prospect of membership and the benefits of that.
It has supported economically weaker regions.
It has brought about protections for workers, consumers, animals, and the environment.
It has imposed standards on pharmaceutical products that safeguard health.
And it has achieved something that [i]nothing else could (or did) before: it brought about peace within its borders that has lasted for over 60 years. As a result, there are now at least three generations of people in Europe who did not grow up with the experience of war on their doorstep.
Just a few facts:
The European Union is governed by a number of institutions:
The European Council sets the broad strategy. Who are the members of this? The Heads of State/Government of the member states. It is not them who impose rules on us, it is us who impose rules on ourselves through the agency of our Heads of State/Government who we elect.
The European Commission drafts the rules on the basis of instructions from the European Council and the Council of the European Union. This is a more complex institution but basically it has a political tier (the commissioners) who are nominated by the member states governments and confirmed (or otherwise) by the European Parliament. But they do not impose rules. They draft them, for agreement by the Council of the European and the European Parliament.
The Council of the European Union is one of the two legislative bodies which debates, amends and agrees the rules/legislation. This is made up of the relevant ministers of the governments of the member states or their civil servants depending on the level of detail at which the debate is happening. Like the European Council, it is not them who impose rules on us, it is us who impose rules on ourselves through the agency of our Heads of State/Government who we elect.
The European Parliament is the other legislative body. They, too, debate, amend and agree the rules/legislation. We elect them directly on a country by country basis. We can hold them accountable for what they do.
The European Court of Justice ensures that the rules/legislation once agreed is implemented correctly. Its jurisdiction is restricted to European legislation. So it doesn’t tell us what we can and can’t do. It simply adjudicates about whether we as individuals or as a country have been treated fairly under European legislation and whether our government has applied European legislation (which it has agreed to freely) fairly.
I just thought I’d set out the actual machinery in the simplest terms possible to remind us that any talk of ‘them’ telling ‘us’ what to do and undermining our sovereignty is hogwash. The principle of the European Union is sharing sovereignty for the greater good and to maintain peace.
So why is today a dark day?
Today, the UK government is invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This article allows for a member state to withdraw from the European Union. Of course, this day was
bound to come after 23 June 2016 when as a country – and by a narrow margin – we voted to do this.
I was and I am a firm supporter of remaining in the European Union.
I do not accept that because of the vote in June last year we now have to shut up and stop voicing our opinions about this regrettable and retrograde step.
In my view, we are turning our back on the most impressive peace process that has occurred in living memory. We are turning our back on decades of social progress: for workers, for consumers, for the environment, for health and safety and for diversity. We are embarking on uncharted waters for a future we cannot predict. We are shutting the door on our main market without knowing how that will play out. But more importantly, we are closing ourselves off from a serious, long-terms project to bring about greater cohesion between diverse people; an experiment that – in the long term – could stand as an example to other parts of the world in desperate need of models for peace.
And we are giving up – seemingly willingly – our not inconsiderable influence over how this project will develop into the future, risking in the process not only our own fate but that of the whole project.
At a time when populist nationalism is on the rise again – the very cause of much of the carnage of the 20th century, we are prepared to isolate ourselves on the basis of trying to regain a lost era and an identity firmly based in the past.
Our children and grandchildren, when they weep over the next lot of war dead in Europe, will not thank us.
[i] Picture Credits:
The Main EU Institutions: image created by the author