Michael Gove emotively argued that the EU lacks democratic accountability and that Britain should therefore leave it: a ‘Brexit’. This argument would only be valid if the EU were in some way governing Britain, but the reality is that Britain and other members have only agreed to allocate some aspects of governance to the EU. For example, the EU has no jurisdiction over most aspects of tax, government spending or going to war. It affects only those aspects of British governance which have an impact on other European countries. Some ambitious and over-confident politicians, though, find it irksome to yield to any external regulation. They would prefer to negotiate multiple bilateral agreements, despite the time and cost of doing this with every country in the world.
If an agreement is negotiated between several countries, the accountability for it is shared. No single country’s electorate can dismiss the appointed administrators, or reverse collective decisions, but all the countries involved have oversight of the decision-making process. The EU provides a collective framework for regulating trade within a large and diverse geographical area, with some implications for human rights and the environment. Multiple regulations are required, springing largely from the desire for a single market.
The Great Depression in the 1930s was largely caused by protectionism: countries put up trade barriers against each other and thereby restricted economic growth for all of them. That experience illustrated the benefit of collectively removing the barriers to trade, requiring trading partners to agree standards and regulation. Europe’s diverse cultures and tendencies towards conflict present a very difficult arena in which to take collective decisions but the benefits of free trade are well-known. Britain, with its history of being a trading nation, eventually joined the Common Market to reap those benefits and its economy improved dramatically as a result.
Free trade can, if unregulated, adversely affect workers. It is possible to have a race to the bottom: for companies to try to cut costs by exploiting people. Workers want to be protected but commercial companies chafe against the resulting regulations. It doesn’t help the workers if a company is driven out of business, but it can be too easy for companies to exploit people’s need for work and their reluctance to move far away from their family and friends. Those politicians whose parties receive large company donations have a conflict of interest in such matters.
The free movement of labour within the single market is an essential safety valve for both employers and workers. Successful companies need more workers, who may not be available locally. Some workers want to be able to move if they have inadequate employment prospects where they live. Given that technical change is happening increasingly rapidly, and that globalisation is resulting in some industries becoming uncompetitive, employment prospects are constantly shifting; the free movement of labour within the EU is therefore essential and there is no reason why its members would agree to Britain having an exemption.
Freedom of movement requires agreements on some aspects of human rights across Europe: people would be effectively prevented from moving if they had inadequate socio-economic rights in the destination country. The overall scope of European Human Rights is, however, much wider and is not directly linked to EU membership. Russia, for example, has signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights and submits to the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights; those rights were agreed after the Second World War, as a safety mechanism against fascism, to prevent governments from oppressing minorities.
The environment also needs some collective regulation within Europe to make the single market work properly. Without regulation, companies could start a race to the bottom on environmental standards in order to compete with each other. A company might save money by dumping effluent into a nearby stream, for example; that would adversely affect the people living nearby, or in adjoining countries, whilst the company concerned would undercut the costs of more tightly-regulated competitors.
Some politicians and some companies want to have the benefits of free trade with Europe without submitting themselves to the associated collective regulation. This is unrealistic. Certainly, trade would continue if Britain leaves the EU – but not on such favourable terms. If, like Norway, Britain agreed to the regulations without participating in defining them, it would then pay a slightly reduced subscription. The various trading options have been published.
Michael Gove’s characterisation of the EU, as democratically unaccountable, is misleading; its accountability is not solely to the British electorate because it is dealing with matters which have to be collectively decided. It only deals with matters that affect more than one country. Britain has as much control over the EU as any other member, and could play a leading role if it chose to be a good team player rather than behaving like a spoilt child.