UK-US TRADE DEAL TO BE SHROUDED IN SECRECY

UK-US Trade Deal I Front Page

This is the morning’s front page that greeted me on 21 December 2017. Several things immediately spring to the forefront of my mind:

  • We weren’t supposed to start trade negotiations until after we’ve left the EU; so what is the Department for International Trade doing discussing transparency – or rather the lack of it – with the US? Shouldn’t they be looking into the complex issues of what the trade relationship with the EU needs to look like post-Brexit at this stage?
  • And how are our representatives in Parliament supposed to assess any trade deal that might be struck between the UK and the US if they don’t get to see the detail?
  • And why is there a need for such secrecy? The shadow of TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Development Partnership) looms in the background of this headline. This, too, was going to be negotiated in secret and it was only massive public protest that opened up (and arguably scotched) that deal. And why was the public up in arms about it: because TTIP opened up the risk of the NHS being open to the US private healthcare market; because TTIP opened up the risk of our (in this case EU but the UK has the same) food safety standards being undermined; and because TTIP enshrined the Investor State Dispute Settlement process into the treaty. That treaty hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to happen in this form. But that is no thanks to the UK government. Indeed, the UK was one of the cheerleaders for it.

Some things are already clear. If we leave the EU (and although there might be some chance that this foolish decision could be reversed but I don’t rate that chance very high) there will be a move to enter into a trade deal with the US (and with many other countries). That, in itself, is not a bad thing in those circumstances. It is a necessary thing.

What is also clear – through the story behind this headline – is that our government does not want public scrutiny of what it negotiates arguably on our behalf and for our benefit. This is seriously bad news. We need to know that any trade deal, be it with the EU, the US or anyone else, is good for people and good for the planet.

Taking just the three key issues which were the trigger for mass opposition to TTIP, those risks are still there and very much at the core of any trade deal with the US:

  • Opening up the NHS to competition from US Healthcare companies would likely undermine the nature of the NHS even more than the marketization and creeping privatisation we have seen over the last few years have already done. There are powerful forces at work who will not rest until we have an insurance based system that means people will have to pay for health care at the point of delivery and their access to healthcare will depend on the type of insurance they can get and/or afford. This is the exact opposite of what the NHS is about and we need to be vigilant in the context of trade negotiations
  • It is near enough a certainty that the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism will be part of any such trade deal. This essentially gives foreign investors – for which read multinationals who want to muscle in on our markets to the detriment of local companies – the right to take our government to private, secret arbitration panels (they call them courts but they are anything but) to curb regulation and exact high fines for any regulations the multinationals don’t like. There is no appeal. Essentially it is a tool for multinationals to take over government by blackmailing the elected governments into doing what they want or fleece them. The other side of this ISDS nightmare is, of course, that local companies have no access to such arbitration panels and therefore are disadvantaged in their own home markets. There is only one way to describe this: it stinks to high heaven.
  • In the UK we have very high standards for food safety and animal welfare. They are nowhere near high enough; we still have battery chickens and we still have large-scale factory farming for cattle, dairy and no doubt other sectors. But our standards are much higher than those in the US. A secret trade deal could allow our standards to be compromised so that we can import US agricultural products that are of a lesser standard than ours. Chlorine washed chickens won’t be on the fresh poultry counters of your upmarket supermarkets; but you can bet that they will be in any ready meal made with chicken. High levels of antibiotics in US beef will, one way or another, get into our food chain through cheap burgers and the like.

These risks are just for starters. There is likely lots more that can be hidden in a secret trade deal that we definitely wouldn’t like if we knew about it. Why are they going to be kept secret if there isn’t likely to be significant opposition to them?

And if TTIP is anything to go by, discussions with industry and multinationals did happen – also behind closed doors – so that the very people that look to their bottom line as the only measure of decency, the very people who see ordinary folk as fodder for their marketing without much reflection of what is good for people and planet were the ones who did see the small print. But the taxpayers, citizens, users of services, customers of shops and so on, the people whose lives will be affected greatly by such a deal weren’t included in the debate.

So, we have been warned. Now is the time to get organised. I don’t support Brexit but Brexit was fought on the slogan of ‘take back control’. Well, that’s what we have to do: challenge our government to put control back into the hands of ordinary people via their elected representatives.

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Posted in Behind the Headlines, NHS, Politics in context, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, UK Trade Post Brexit | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

National Park City

It’s a strange concept to talk about a National Park and a city in the same breath. But for some time, there has been an initiative in London to get the city declared a National Park City.

I have been broadly in support of this from the moment I heard it although I haven’t always paid as much attention to the natural environment in London as that support might imply. It was more a matter of political support. For example, the initiative’s supporters are trying to get local ward Councillors to endorse the idea and therefore are asking supporters to contact their local Councillors to ask them to do so. Of course, by now, many have done so, so your ward might already be covered, but just in case, you can still check this.

On Sunday 30 July this year, Countryfile covered this initiative. The focus of the programme was the city, its environment and the importance of ensuring that city environments are looked after. We learned that the London National Park City initiative has established that 49% of the surface of London is green space: gardens, parks, wetlands, riverbanks and the like. If every household in London added 1 m2 of green space – by digging up some hard landscaping in the garden or on the drive for example – this would be more than 50%. That’s pretty impressive and something a lot of us can do.

The programme featured a wetland in Hackney, which has been opened to the public relatively recently (in late 2016). I had never heard of it but decided to go and explore it.

So on Monday, off we went to Hackney.

It turns out that this wetland, the Woodberry Wetland, is within easy walking distance of Manor House tube station, less than half an hour on public transport from my doorstep.

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It is quite an amazing place located in an area otherwise occupied by a range of different types o

f housing developments. Some of these are not very picturesque in themselves but it is obvious that the residents must have a fabulous view. Sometimes what you see from the inside of a home looking out is as important or more important than what you see from the outside looking at the building. And in a particular light, the unprepossessing tower blocks create a mirror image in the water that makes them look quite attractive.

P1040710In a city the green spaces are located within built architecture much more than would be the case in more rural locations. So taking the architecture into account in enjoying and interpreting the space is important. From one particular vantage point we looked at a view of a range of housing stretching from probably the 50’s (or earlier) to the very recent past.

We live in difficult times.

It is important that we see and appreciate some of the things around us that simply are, that simply are beautiful and simply lift our spirits. So I want to share some of the photos I took when we walked around the Woodberry Wetlands and along the New River Path.

P1040671This heron was sitting there for a very long time and moved very little. It exuded calm and a sense of just being there. Then it flew off – I missed that moment so no photo of a heron in flight – and we didn’t see it again that afternoon.

There were lots of gulls on the water.

 

 

P1040702They congregated around some logs or a sandbank or some structure they could sit on and fly off from and they did so all afternoon. I took loads of pictures but most of them were totally out of focus because the gulls are so much quicker flying off than I am pressing the shutter.

 

The ducks and moorhens were on the New River (which is neither new nor a river, by the way) and again, we saw some really wonderful sights of them just doing what they do. Here are a few pictures:P1040734

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I’m sure that some of you will be able to tell me exactly what birds these are – I’m no expert in these things, though I’m pretty sure we’ve got a swan and some ducks here.

The wetland is also full of lovely wild flowers – I could have taken hundreds of pictures but one will do:

P1040695

And we saw common squirrels running around freely. I didn’t get a still photo of them, just some video footage which I can’t add to this blog but will put up on Facebook along with some footage of a nest being tended.

Why am I writing all this on this blog?

This isn’t about rational thought, is it? Well, yes I do think it is. What we need to be clear about is this: we have to protect our environment in such a way that the whole ecosystem can sustain itself. We have to do that in the city as much as we do in the countryside. We have to embrace this as part of what makes life worth living and therefore it has to be part of the public discourse. If we don’t embrace it, if we don’t make a point of enjoying it, if we don’t let our politicians know that this matters to us and that we are willing to give it priority in terms of spending and decision-making, they won’t do it.

Creating a national park city in London would be one really important step in this direction and it is important that all of us pull in this direction so that it will happen.

 

 

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A one-sided contest

I am so grateful to the EAs for going to witness the daily reality on the ground and for reporting on it. We need to make sure that (a) we hear their testimony and share it widely and (b) our political leaders and our political representatives hear this testimony, too, and act as a result of this. Please share; please send to your MP; please send to your MEP; please take note!

EAPPI UK and Ireland Eyewitness Blog

By EA Andy, Northern West Bank

Muhammad looks at me, exasperated: “Imagine how you would feel if 70 hooligans turned up out of nowhere and started throwing rocks at you and your house?”

Six weeks ago, Muhammad was with two of his daughter at his home in the West Bank, in a small town near Nablus, when he realised rocks were being thrown at his house. His first thought was for Badi’a, his 68-year old mother-in-law, who was with her sheep in the nearby olive grove. The attack was coming from that direction, so he knew she was in most danger. He immediately went to her aid, and helped her towards the house. Shortly afterwards he heard the cries of his teenage daughters, calling from the garden. They had rushed outside as stones crashed through the windows only to find themselves being stoned in the small garden. Muhammad faced a…

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Tax – it’s not a fee for services

There is a prevailing sense that paying tax is something everyone naturally wants to avoid. I think it is a pernicious undermining of any kind of social cohesion to give this view too much credence.

It is made worse by the fact that it goes hand in hand with the view that the rich – because their income and assets are often quite mobile – can avoid paying tax and would be stupid not to whereas less well-off people whose income and assets are less mobile (and, because they consume more of their income they pay a lot of tax through consumption anyway) are the patsies that can’t get round paying tax but would love to find ways of doing it.

Income-tax-Flickr-630x400Indeed, even in the game ‘Monopoly’, taxes are seen as something to be avoided.

This then leads to the accepted ‘wisdom’ that taxes on the rich will lead to the rich and their money running away and therefore it is better to tax people who can’t run away or to tax consumption (or land) because it is easier and therefore more certain in terms of the tax take.

All of this fails to see that tax is actually something we should not avoid.

What is tax for?

Why do we pay tax at all? Historically rulers raised taxes to pay for their wars. Those are the sorts of taxes I’d be the first to run away from. But in modern society, taxes are raised for different reasons (although we still pay for the military through our taxes, but that is a separate issue).

First, taxes are there to provide a budget for the state (national, regional, local government) for them to do the things we want them to do. In a democracy, ideally, election campaigns would be about what different parties are planning to do and how they are going to pay for it so we can make an informed choice.

So taxes pay for the health service, the education system, security services including the police and fire service, social care, parks and other public leisure amenities, welfare for people to ensure no-one goes hungry or homeless, decent infrastructure (water, power, gas, transport, etc.) and support to the economy where it needs it. There is a certain amount of ‘interfering in the markets’ involved in this, but that is no bad thing. Anyway, that’s an idealised version of what tax might be for.

But taxes can also have a redistributive purpose and impact – i.e. closing the gap between the very rich and the less well off. For example, Sweden is a country known for its high taxes and it is therefore a country with significantly less income inequality. And we know that less income inequality leads to better social outcomes across the board[1] and IS THEREFORE BETTER FOR ALL MEMBERS OF SOCIETY.

Paying for Services

If we look at taxes as a way to pay for services, what should this look like? There are two ways of paying for services: paying foSnakes and ladders board.r what you actually need and paying into a pot that covers your needs whatever they are. So it’s a bit like a game of Snakes and Ladders.

There are some services where it is perfectly clear that you can’t ‘pay as you go’ for what you need. Street lighting would be a good example. How would you measure what any one person or household needs or uses? So those services have to be funded out of a common pot. They are ‘public goods’ in economics speak. That means, we all need them but the amount each of us needs isn’t quantifiable.

There are some services where this isn’t so clear. Take transport, for example. It only works if the infrastructure is there (the rails, the roads, the rolling stock, the system, the network, the timetable and all that. But those people who use transport also make defined journeys that are measurable and can be charged. And we do have a hybrid system. Taxes pay for some of the infrastructure and pricing of tickets pays for part of it, too, and for the variable costs arising from actually running the service. For road transport – i.e. using roads – the cost is entirely met by taxes, though some of them are taxes on the cost of transport, such as petrol/diesel and the like.

Finally, there are services which some people need and others don’t. But the provision of these services is still in part a public good. Having hospitals is a good idea even when you don’t need them yourself. Having schools benefits society as a whole because education contributes to society (whether you have children or participate in courses at any given time or not).

So then the question arises: should we pay taxes to make sure services are there when needed for the people who need them; or should we pay fees for the services we use; or should we have a hybrid system.

Social Care in the Spotlight

There’s been much in the press about the so-called ‘dementia tax’ or ‘death tax’. What is it about?

Dementia Tax

Essentially, the Conservative Manifesto is proposing that people who need social care in their old age who have assets – in this case we are talking principally about the family home – have to contribute to the cost of that care out of their wealth until they have only £100 k left.

The idea is that this would apply to the cost of care whether it is provided in ones own home or in a residential care setting.

There are problems with this approach:

  • This approach puts the bulk of the potential risk of needing care on the individual rather than society; that is the direct opposite of how the NHS works in terms of being free at the point of need. As a society, we need to decide whether we want to approach social care needs in this way. Needing social care is a burden quite apart from the cost of it. It’s a bit of the luck of the draw.
  • Valuations of properties vary over time. It is hard to see how a system could be devised that would guarantee £ 100 k left over at the end.
  • The only way people could stay in their own home and pay for care out of the asset is to go for an equity release scheme, a kind of insurance policy that signs the asset over to the insurer (less the £ 100 k we presume). But will the insurance premium (i.e. the cut the insurer would definitely want to take) be taken out of the £ 100 k? And could the executors delay selling until they have achieved a decent price – or at least the price on which the deal was based? Because until all this is clarified, this looks like an insurance mis-selling scandal waiting to happen.
  • Under the proposal, the partner is protected, i.e. if a couple live in the house and only one of them needs care for a period and the other survives that partner, they can remain in the house. But what if, say, a daughter or son lived with an aging parent and provided some of the care. Would they be turfed out of their home with maybe less than £ 100 k left over after the insurers have had their cut. And where would they go? And what responsibility would the local authority have to find them accommodation. Some of these daughters and sons are not young themselves and may have given up careers to look after their parents.

These are only the most obvious pitfalls. Would it not be preferable if there were a way in which those who are asset rich paid into a pool (all of the people who are asset rich, not just the ones who need care, that is) and the care for those who need it is then paid for out of this pool. I’m quite in favour of some form of inheritance tax that moves significant amounts of such assets to the public purse for this purpose.

Fee for Service?

Equality, Justice and Reality

But this is only one example of a stark choice between a tax based or a fee based system of paying for necessary services.

Governments are also about providing the framework for the sort of society we want to live in, the framework in which our values can be reflected in day-to-day choices.

So we need a basic social contract that determines what people can expect from society – education, health care, social care, infrastructure, welfare, security, and the like, and what people expect to put into the pot to ensure that all these things are available for anyone who needs them – tax.

And any service that is provided, or that we want to have provided in this way has to be run in the public sector because it would be odious to think that tax would feather the nest of private enterprise and multinational companies. That is why privatisation of the health service goes against the grain; that is why privatisation of education goes against the grain; that is why charging tuition fees goes against the grain.

The society I want to live in is one where we all contribute, cheerfully, in accordance with our means and receive in accordance with our needs. That calls on each of us to maximise our potential to contribute because it makes sense and gives everyone a sense of worth.

[1] The Spirit Level, accessed at: https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/the-spirit-level on 26 May 2017

Image Credits

Monopoly Income-tax-Flickr-630×400.jpg

Snakes and Ladders 503001-snakes-and-ladders-board.jpeg

Dementia Tax FullSizeRender.jpg

Equality, Justice and Reality Cb5z_y_WwAAs46G.jpg

 

Posted in Equality, GENERAL ELECTION, Politics in context, Tax Matters, Welfare | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

An Economy That Works for People and Planet

It is almost impossible not to see that the approach that we as a society have taken to economic development, to the way the economy is shaped, hasn’t worked for many people and is devastating the planet.

Why is that?

Or more to the point, what is the economy for and how does it need to function in order to serve people and planet?

Of course, it is not possible to answer these questions in a short blog; nor do I have the answers. I’m not an economist (which, given the current state of the world may be a relevant qualification to attempting answers to the questions) and I couldn’t possible try to even map out a comprehensive answer.

But it is essential that these questions are answered; it is essential that ordinary people try to contribute to the answers; and we won’t get any sensible answers if we leave it to economists who are bought into the model that doesn’t work.

So here are some basic questions.

Does money grow on trees? Well, no, it doesn’t. But it might as well. Because it is basically created out of thin air by banks. Most of the money in circulation is in the form of credit (or debt). These two things are broadly the same thing unless you have cash your pocket. And even that is, in a way, credit/debt because you can only use it to exchange it for goods and services.money-growing-trees-form-many-large-bills-path-included-43035759

One of the fundamental problems with our economy is this: we have forgotten that money is a means of exchange and it is based on trust between people and organisations. It is not a commodity that has any actual use value: you can’t eat it, you can’t drink it, you can’t heat your house with it (well, not very efficiently, anyway). But because we think of it as a commodity, people hoard it and feel they need more and more and more of it. And that drives greed. And that drives inequality.

Does a free market economy work? Lots of people will counter this question by saying that there isn’t a better model rather than answering it. We need to remember that the free market (and all other economic mo
dels) were created by people. It’s a bit like anything else designed by people: there are alternatives and over time things tend to be changed (and often the reason to change is to improve things, although it doesn’t always work that way).

The same is true for the free market economy. Classic free market theory is based on a lot of assumptions. When I took some Economics classes at university (albeit a few decades ago), the first thing we were presented with was the law of supply and demand. The lecturer said (I kid you not): the theory of supply and demand, which governs price is based on the assumption that all buyers and all sellers have perfect knowledge of the market.

Supply-and-demandWell, it doesn’t take a brainbox to debunk that one. So you want to buy a broadband and phone package. Have a look on the Internet and look at the options. There are so many, and they are so not comparable, perfect knowledge is a pipedream. That’s just one example.

If this assumption is false, doesn’t it follow that the theory sits on hollow feet? And should we therefore change the assumption to one that stands up to scrutiny in the real world? And formulate an economic theory that therefore more closely resembles the lives we live?

Do we value the contribution of different factors of production correctly? What do we mean by different factors of production: land, capital, resources, and labour.

factorsofproduction-150827181746-lva1-app6892-thumbnail-4It is that simple. Although some argue that the fourth factor isn’t resources but entrepreneurship. I’d argue about that because that is only one specific form of labour which is put into a separate category to ensure it gets valued differently. And don’t let them tell you it is different because it involves risk taking. Tell a coal miner or someone working as a fisherman in the high seas that they don’t take risk. But they’re not considered entrepreneurs. Rather, the person sitting behind a desk getting them to do these things is the entrepreneur!

It strikes me that there are very different rules that apply to the value of any given unit or type of any one of these four factors.

One of the important issues is: how much of one of them does someone control and does that give them more control than others who have less?

Of course, all this is very complicated once you get into detail. But in essence, and because labour comes packaged as individual people offering a strictly limited amount of labour each, they can be controlled by other factors (or by the people who own the other factors) unless they band together to fight a joint corner. And what has happened to Trade Unions in the last 40 years? I leave that one for you to work out.

The most mobile of these resources is capital, especially in the form of money (remember: that is debt/credit). You can take it anywhere and so you can dictate to those who have less mobile factors at their disposal the price at which you’re willing to pay for theirs. That introduces an imbalance. And often people who have capital have it because they inherited it or because they were very lucky or because – for one reason or another – they have got themselves into a position where they are paid way more than others.

So why do some people get paid more than others? You could imagine (just for arguments sake) that each unit of labour – irrespective of what you do and what the outcome of that unit of labour is – is valued at the same level. Imagine: someone who cares for people in a care home gets paid the same amount per hour as someone who designs complicated financial products in a bank. Or someone who cleans a school or cooks the school dinners gets paid the same amount per hour as the person running the school. I know, you’ll say that’s idiotic, not fair, doesn’t provide an incentive to ‘better yourself’ etc., etc.

Fair wagesSo how should we value labour? What is the rate for the job? People will argue that factors such as education, training, responsibility, the complexity of the job should all factor into this.

But what about looking at how important for society a given job is as a determining factor for pay? So, is a nurse more important than an investment banker? Is a teacher more important than a racing driver? Is the person who keeps public toilets clean more important than a footballer? Is the tax collector more important than a pop star? Just asking!

Where does any this leave us?

This isn’t the place to put forward a totally alternative economy. But one thing seems clear to me: we need an economy that works for all. And that gets back to the question: what is the economy for? For me there are a few essential pointers:

  • It should provide everyone with a basic decent life (that is everyone, not just everyone like us)
  • It should ensure that we consume what we need (that is only what we need, not what we want to make us feel better or more superior to our neighbours)
  • It should ensure that all that we produce for consumption is produced with the minimum input of natural resources; even less of them if they are rare or finite or contribute to pollution and climate change
  • It should ensure that services that are essential are valued properly and that those who provide them have dignity and respect
  • It should ensure that the fruits of our labour are harnessed for our communities and not drained away by multinational interests
  • It should ensure that taxes are levied to pay for public services that contribute to this type of economy: social and care services, health services, public low carbon transport, good education and so on and so forth
  • It should ensure that there is a balance between work and leisure time; that means that the available work is distributed as fairly as possible – all those who can and want to work have some work, rather than some people having far too much work and others not enough
  • It should ensure that those who can’t work are cared for with both resources and services that they need

Time for ChangeYou get my drift.

Think about it. It would mean changing everything. It would mean thinking completely differently. But we can do it. And if you put it that way, doesn’t it make sense?

Image Credits:
Money growing on trees: money-growing-trees-form-many-large-bills-path-included-43035759.jpg
Supply and Demand: Supply-and-demand.jpg
Factors of Production: factorsofproduction-150827181746-lva1-app6892-thumbnail-4.jpg
Fair Wages: 001372acd7d31169dabb02.jpg
Time for Change: 6a10da68d42bd1ce02430fabbbe58aba.jpg
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Please let us come back to our senses!

As per the Guardian, Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell said the burgundy passport had been a source of national “humiliation”.[1]

This was posted in the Guardian on 2 April. Had it been the day before, I’d have put it down to an April Fool.

But what it does show is this: there are lots of people out there – MPs included who should know better – who haven’t the first idea of what the EU is and how it works and who are all too willing to turn their ignorance into media hyperbole.

Are we really willing to have policy made on the basis of that low level of debate?

British_biometric_passportWhen I heard this absurd statement about the burgundy passport being a ‘national humiliation’, I thought: I wonder how long the old blue passport has been in existence. How is it that for some their British identity is so bound up with the colour of their passport?

So it was interesting for me to note that the old blue passport
only came into existence in the Old Blue Passport1920s. And of course, prior to the UK joining the EU, far fewer people needed a passport because far fewer people regularly took holidays on the continent of Europe (or beyond for that matter). No, I’m not saying that this is an achievement of the EU. What I am saying is that international travel has become so much more accessible in the last 40 or so years that having a passport has become so much more important.

So a very large number of people who hold UK passports today will never have had an old blue passport.

The other thing that is very important to note is that of course, it wasn’t some faceless bureaucrat in Brussels who decided that we should all have the same passports and that they should all have the same colour. It took years for the European Union member states to agree on a common passport and on the colour for it. Why did they choose burgundy? I haven’t the first idea. I do remember the endless debates being reported and people saying how silly it was to spend so much time on something so trivial as the colour of a passport.

A European passport was first discussed at a summit of heads of state and government in 1974 – i.e. with the UK present and participating.

The delay in its implementation (it was issued by member states from 1985 onwards although not all of them used this format immediately – for example the UK began issuing them in 1988) was due to differences of opinion on the colour (yes, they too were being extraordinarily silly about this) and about the format and whether it should be machine readable or not.

Even after this agreement was reached, and if you look at the passports of different member states, the actual colours and design of the cover still vary.[2]

What is in place today is not a European passport. All passports within the EU are issued by the member states and are passports of the member states. All that the common format does is to allow citizens of member states to be identified as such quickly and easily at the border.

And yes, of course, when we have left the EU we will have to look at what format our passport should have. It can’t be in the EU common format. And anyway, our passports are redesigned every 5 years (if only marginally) for security reasons – i.e. to reduce the risk of counterfeiting. So yes, let’s have a debate about this by all means. Let’s talk about what is necessary and sensible. But the question of colour of the passport really isn’t top of list and really isn’t about ‘national identity’. Why not have future passports in the shape of a credit card so they fit into an average wallet? It could look a bit like our electronic driving licenses, couldn’t it? Or maybe there should be choice of colour depending on which town or country you’re from (just joking!).

1_unicorn on UK passportLet us not start talking about national humiliation about trivia. And if you look closely at both the images of the UK passports above, the thing they have in common is that they feature a unicorn. So that may be the important pointer to identify that we need to preserve.

 

 

 

[1] Accessed at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/apr/02/uk-passport-dark-blue-brexit-eu on 3 April 2017

[2] Accessed at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passports_of_the_European_Union on 3 April 2017

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A dark day for the UK – and for Europe

Let’s start with a quick time-line:

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 09.05.39

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.

Achievements of EUIt 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:

EU 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?

Article 50Today, 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:

Screenshot of events of 20th century: from Wikipedia accessed at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20th-century_events on 29 March 2017
European Achievements: accessed at: https://www.concertoplus.eu/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/i54.jpg on 29 March 2017
The Main EU Institutions: image created by the author
Article 50: from a European Parliament briefing accessed at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/577971/EPRS_BRI(2016)577971_EN.pdf on 29 March 2017

 

Posted in Behind the Headlines, Constitutional Reform, Peace, Politics in context, UK-EU | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments