* IMPACT Article of the Month *
All we seem to see of the EU is their authoritarian stance on vacuum cleaners and their annoying insistence that we keep letting immigrants steal our benefits. Almost universally, the rhetoric of the EU is couched in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’, rather than proceeding with an awareness that we are actually part of the Union. The scale of an institution that spans a continent was really brought home to me when I visited Brussels recently, and it left me questioning our place in it and, ultimately, whether it was friend or foe.
The timeline that you are met with at the beginning of the European Parliament’s museum tells the story of a continent wrought with division and conflict. The unimaginable loss of life that resulted as two world wars ripped the continent apart, and then the division that ensued, embodied in the Iron Curtain. Above anything else, the EU exists for peace – and without any major land wars for 70 years, it appears thus far to be doing alright.
There are, however, numerous legitimate concerns about the EU, first and foremost of which appears to be the cost. UKIP’s favourite claim, that the EU costs us £55 million a day (equalling around £20 billion a year), whilst actually small change in the face of an entire economy, is actually very cheekily cherry-picked, completely ignoring the £6 billion or so the EU gives back each year in a rebate (with even this being a conservative estimate).
The other big axe to grind over the EU is the free borders policy alluded to earlier, which, awkwardly again for UKIP, has been proven time and again to create a net economic boost, further reducing the accuracy of the ‘£55 million a day’ claim. We deserve more than cherry-picked statistics propping up simplistic arguments if we are to debate about the EU.
Democracy is another of the issues people have with the Union, and here the Eurosceptics are on to something. Many of the things we should really be pushing for if we want a more democratic and accessible Union were enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 that strengthened the role of the Parliament (that we elect) and for the first time ever set up proper procedure for states to be able to leave the Union.
There are, however, still many undemocratic elements in the EU, not least the alarming proximity, both in policy formation and geographical location, between EU officials and professional, corporate lobbyists.
Quite literally a stone’s throw away from the Parliamentary buildings, we were taken on a tour of corporate lobbyist buildings by the ‘Corporate Europe Observatory’. Our tour guide informed us that there were roughly as many lobbyists as there were EU officials, and that quite often lobbyists were treated as ‘advisors’ for overworked MEP’s who lack the time or resources to bone up on subject-specific knowledge. The reach of these lobbyists is unprecedented, and a real threat to our democracy. As Molly Scott Cato, the latest Green MEP for the South West, pointed out to me during my trip: given the amount of money corporations are spending on lobbying, it must be working for them.
These, along with deeply disturbing developments such as TTIP, never seem to be talked about by UKIP or other Eurosceptics. These are, by far, the biggest dangers to our democracy, and yet not a word is said about it by those elected on a mandate to fight for our democracy and freedom.
When I sat in on a parliamentary session, the EFDD section of the Parliament (where UKIP sit) began banging their hands on their tables and shouting rudely because a German MEP had gone slightly over her allotted speaking time, reflecting on the horrors of a fractured Germany during the Cold War. This culminated with Farage and another member walking out in a huff. With UKIP MEP’s acting more like baboons at a zoo than representatives of one of the world’s largest economies, having them be the majority of what other European officials see of Britain is, quite frankly, embarrassing.
Whilst many voters will be sitting back smugly after having given Westminster a severe thrashing in the European Elections, the ‘alternative’ they elected is meanwhile quickly destroying any positive impressions Britain has managed to leave on the European stage (when they bother to show up), aided by an increasingly desperate and reactionary Prime Minister. As was pointed out to me on my visit there, the Parliament’s museum gift shop’s ‘Xenophobe’s Guide To…’ series was only printed in one language: English.
For anyone interested in democracy, TTIP and corporate lobbying need to be at the top of the agenda. Molly also told me that she ‘didn’t have time’ for people lobbying her to support the arms trade or TTIP, and that instead: “politicians should learn to prioritise their constituents and 'Just say no'”. If we expect them to do that, we need to get more vocal and reclaim our European citizenship.
This doesn’t mean we all have to start eating croissants and taking siestas - by ‘reclaiming’ our citizenships, I mean actively engaging with the system and demanding change from it. The EU has incredible potential to change the world for the better, but here in Britain, by electing childish MEPs, we’re squandering the opportunity presented to us, allowing the public interest to be massively drowned out by the corporate instead.
By Bradley Allsop