UK – in or out of the EU – how will we decide?

The old European debate

The fact that the debate in the UK about whether or not we are part of Europe and what Europe is has been going on and on and isn’t news. The UK has the reputation in other parts of the European Union that it is Europhobic and this sometimes means that it isn’t taken seriously in the debate. That doesn’t help anyone, least of all UK citizens.

With the increasingly loud shouting from UKIP and in particular from its leader, Nigel Farage (who, incidentally may be terribly anti-EU, but still sits in the European Parliament drawing a salary and expenses for his pains) the debate has become almost toxic. And it’s not helped by the fact that the debate is based on much ignorance, lack of facts, misuse of statistics and a general wilful dismissal of reality.

For example, we hear, over and over, that it is Europe’s fault that the UK has difficulty in deporting some fairly dangerous individuals because their human rights would be infringed if they were deported and because Europe imposes on the UK the obligation to adhere to these human rights.

What is often lacking in this debate is the fact that the Europe in question here is not the European Union but the Council of Europe. Yes, they are two very different institutions with different roles, powers, and remits. The latter – of which Winston Churchill was an enthusiastic co-founder – is indeed where the matter of Human Rights (the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights to be precise) sit.

The promised referendum in context

The government has promised an in-out referendum on the EU after the next election. The basis on which this is supposed to happen is that the government will have renegotiated the relationship between the EU and the UK and that it will have achieved a rebalancing of competences which will allow us to stay in without losing out to the decision-makers in Brussels who impose their (ill) will on the UK.

There are some flaws in this approach; first, the UK does not have a simple relationship with the EU. The EU is a Union of 28 Member States (since Croatia joined on 1 July 2013) and all of them relate to the Union in broadly similar ways; i.e. they are all bound by the legislation they have jointly agreed upon (except where legislation was agreed prior to a Member State having joined; in that case, that Member State will have had to agree to and implement that legislation as a condition of joining). But given that the UK has been a Member State since 1973 (40 years – it’s an anniversary we could be celebrating this year!) there has been legislation agreed over 40 years where the UK has had a full say in what that legislation says and what its effect is.

So it won’t be that easy to renegotiate. Furthermore, there is still no clarity on exactly what the UK wants to renegotiate. And this is where the ‘Review of the Balance of Competences’ comes in.

What is the Review of the Balance of Competences?

First: what is a competence? The normal use of this word suggests that someone who has a competence is good at a particular skill: a competent swimmer, cook, nurse, doctor, etc. But here, the word doesn’t mean that. What is meant is: who has the legal right to do something; so there are areas of policy where national governments can act; there are areas of policy where local governments can act; and there are areas of policy where – as a result of the Treaties which the EU Member States have entered into with each other – the EU can act on behalf of the Member States and it does so in a way that binds the Member States.

Of course, it’s not as simple as this sounds; there are some areas where the EU has sole competence; but these are rather rare; in most cases, there is shared competence, i.e. the EU can and must do some things, and the Member States can and must do others.

So, the review is intended to look in detail at where that balance lies.

What is the point of the review?

On the government website where the information about this process can be found, there is the following introductory statement:

The government is carrying out a review of the EU’s competences, which the Foreign Secretary launched in July 2012. This is an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK. It is important that Britain has a clear sense of how our national interests interact with the EU’s roles, particularly at a time of great change for the EU.

This begs the very important question as to what is the national interest. This is an ill-defined term. And more importantly, the government does not appear to want to define it for the purpose of this review. In my view, that is a major problem in the formulation of the review. Questions asked in the calls for evidence refer to the national interest and ask respondents to say whether they think the status quo is or is not in the national interest. But they do not require respondents to say, either, what they understand the national interest to be. So any discussion about policies and their relationship to the national interest in this review must remain extremely vague.

How is the review happening?

Each government department responsible for the areas to be reviewed is tasked with putting together information about the current balance of competence and to seek evidence from a range of actors (or in the words of the review website: ‘requesting input from a range of interested parties, including members of the public with relevant expertise or experience’. The fact that members of the public (with relevant expertise or experience) are singled out in this way suggests to me that they expect most of the evidence to come from vested interests – the industry lobby and the like. There is, again, no definition of what ‘relevant expertise or experience’ means, so my view would be: if you are a member of the public and you are interested in this discussion and you care about the outcome of the referendum, then involve yourself in the review.

That’s certainly what I am doing.

The Time Frame

The review is currently taking place. It is divided into 4 semesters and different policy areas are being reviewed in different semesters. The first semester has passed (Autumn 2012 to Summer 2013) and the call for evidence has taken place. The areas that were covered in that semester were:

  • Internal Market (synopsis)
  • Taxation
  • Animal Health and Welfare and Food Safety
  • Health
  • Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid
  • Foreign Policy

Unfortunately I didn’t catch onto this process early enough to engage with the reviews in the first semester. I am assuming, but so far there is no sign of this, that the relevant departments will publish reports setting out what the calls for evidence and their own review process have produced and will propose what – if anything – among the competences needs to be re-balanced.

When that happens, I will try to review the results and provide additional posts on this blog.

We are in the middle of semester 2; the areas under review in this semester are:

  • Internal Market: Free movement of goods
  • Internal Market: Free movement of people
  • Asylum and Immigration
  • Trade and Investment
  • Environment and Climate Change
  • Transport
  • Research and Development
  • Tourism, Culture and Sport
  • Civil Justice

The semester is timed from Spring to Winter 2013; however, with calls for evidence published around 16 May there are at least some of them that require responses by early to mid-August.

In separate posts, I will outline the responses I am making to those areas of policy where I think it is important to inject a pro-peace, pro-justice perspective.

Semesters 3 and 4

The areas to be reviewed in the final two semesters are:

Semester 3: Autumn 2013 to Summer 2014

  • Internal Market: Services
  • Internal Market: Capital
  • EU Budget
  • Cohesion
  • Social and Employment
  • Agriculture
  • Fisheries
  • Competition
  • Energy
  • Fundamental Rights

Semester 4: Spring 2014 to Autumn 2014

  • Economic and Monetary Union
  • Workplace health and safety and consumer protection
  • Police and criminal justice
  • Education
  • Enlargement
  • Cross-Cutting areas of EU competence
  • Subsidiarity and proportionality

And Finally…

I hope that many of you will engage with this process; only if the government gets the clear message that citizens are interested in rational debate on this issue are we likely to get a sensible process and a framing of the referendum campaign that isn’t just between UKIP and those who fear UKIP enough to want to overtake them on the right.

More to follow….

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About martinaweitsch

I'm interested in politics and rational political debate which isn't afraid of the facts or the complexities and contradictions inherent in most important issues.
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3 Responses to UK – in or out of the EU – how will we decide?

  1. Pingback: Borders and Visas – UK or EU competence? | rationaldebate

  2. Pingback: Migration within the EU – or our Freedom to Move | rationaldebate

  3. Pingback: Environment and Climate Change – Is the EU a help or a hindrance? | rationaldebate

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