By Jonathan Lee
Lots of people are probably feeling quite deflated at the moment, after the United Kingdom finally signed the Withdrawal Agreement and officially left the European Union on 31st January. Liberal Remainers are certainly making their grief known to the world, crying from the digital rooftops and tearing their virtual hair out. Meanwhile the most fanatic Leavers are probably wondering why all the foreigners are still here and why milk and flour still comes in litres and kilograms. It’s all fiction of course. We’ve not left the EU yet in economic terms, so until the end of the year almost nothing will change.
People on both sides of the political chasm which now splits the UK have been operating under fundamental misconceptions about the nature of the European Union. For the most sycophantic of Remainers, the EU quite literally represents European identity, and all that is liberal, progressive and morally just on our continent. Meanwhile many Leavers believe some pretty obvious untruths and outright lies about the EU, which have already been relentlessly mocked by liberal commentators (serving only to further entrench Leavers). Things like straight bananas, EU driven political correctness, Muslim immigration from EU states, and even criminalising imperial measurements are red herrings which are quite easy to dismiss. The more abstract criticisms and misconceptions about the nature of the Union itself are not so easily waved away however.
So, it’s time to do some myth-busting to try and address some of the most deep seated misconceptions Leavers and Remainers have held about the European Union.
The United States of Europe
Many Leavers believe the EU has gone well beyond its original mandate and in fact now constitutes a federalised supra-national state. Whilst this may be the aspirations of certain camps within the EU, it is far from the reality of the EU today. The recalcitrant nature of states like Hungary and Poland as they keep breaking EU laws and regulations demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the EU to a certain extent. The inability of EU institutions to control these rogue states when they blatantly flout the will of Brussels shows that the power to affect national contexts lies, for the most part, with the national governments of the member states. Whilst the EU has a great deal of power, this power mostly derives from the consensus of its member states.
Many Remainers harbour the same perception of outsized EU centralised power. Anyone who has worked or lived in Brussels is prone to getting caught up in the EU bubble and believing notions of outsized EU power compared to the reality. The result is an unshakable belief in the supremacy of EU structures to uphold some moral, liberal worldview against the increasing advances of the populist right. In reality, the European Commission, in its role as the enforcer of EU treaties, has neither the capability nor the intent to stand up to far-right populist leaders in member states.
EU laws deny British sovereignty
Many Leavers frequently parrot the famous “we want our laws back” argument against an EU which passes sweeping legislation across 28 European countries. In fact, EU laws have been agreed upon by a representative parliament made up of members from every member state. Additionally, the political clout of British MEPs within the parliament meant that many EU laws could only be passed in the first place with the blessing of British support within the EU Parliament. Aside from this, legislative sovereignty certainly exists within the EU, and the UK in particular opted out of quite a few EU laws during its time in the union. It is a rare Brexiteer indeed who can actually name even one EU law that they are looking forward to the UK being free of come January 2021.
The EU is undemocratic
Despite the presence of British elected MEPs in the parliament a deficit of democracy in the EU is an accusation often thrown about by Leavers. Whilst the European Commission has something of an accountability crisis due to its lack of direct democracy, this is really no different to the way that most nation states operate (with the existence of an upper and lower house). In the United Kingdom this is best typified by the House of Lords, to which peers are recommended by politicians, not by the electorate. This is much the same way that the Council of the EU and the EU Parliament select European Commissioners.
The Infamous Overpaid Brussels Bureaucrats
Brexit has revived a whole vocabulary of clunky, old British cliché expressions which had until now been confined to great aunt’s living rooms and pubs that haven’t changed since the 1970s. Swan songs, snake oil salesmen, babies with bathwater, crocodile tears all the way to the bank, and the Brexiter favourite – the gravy train. When footage of British MEPs crying and singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on their last session in the Parliament emerged, the most common comment was something like:
“The gravy train finally finished for this lot! 😂 Time to get a real job!!!🇬🇧 🇬🇧 🇬🇧”
The idea that the EU exists only to provide high paying jobs to international technocrats is not an unfair criticism necessarily, but it speaks more about politicians in general than MEPs in particular. The salary of a Member of the EU Parliament is approximately £90,000 per year. The salary of a Member of the UK Parliament is approximately £80,000 per year. Bluntly put – being a politician is a good job, and it pays a lot of money wherever you are.
The focus on taxpayer’s money going to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels distracts from the huge net economic benefits that go the other way towards the UK, particularly in deprived areas, every year. The attention paid to the large sums of money paid to MEPs, the work of which the general public is mostly unaware, is an easy and disingenuous way of framing the EU as a costly waste of money to ordinary working people. Like everything to do with Brexit, it polarises the discussion and leaves no room for opinions other than “hard-working internationalists, serving the people” versus “unaccountable, tax-funded scroungers”. The space in the middle where genuine, critical discussion on the nature of the EU could have been conducted has unfortunately been fully occupied by militants on both sides of the debate.
Continues in Part II.
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