I have always felt a bit ignorant about European issues. But I don’t think it’s just me. With the European elections fast approaching, it’s difficult to get any sensible information on the European Union. What goes on in the European Parliament? Is being in the EU a good thing?
I was, perhaps naively, looking forward to the Nick Clegg v Nigel Farage debates on our EU membership, and I was expecting to get more in-depth arguments rather than the simplistic one-liners that we’ve been used to. But I was disappointed. There was very little, if any, in-depth discussion, and it was basically just a highlights package of the rhetoric and points scoring that we’ve been hearing for the last few years. Apparently Nigel Farage won. But I think we all lost.
On one hand we hear that the EU has brought too much immigration to the country, and that our laws are no longer in our own hands or democratically implemented, and on the other hand we hear that immigration is good for the economy and the country as a whole, and that the EU allows for better cooperation and trade between countries.
I will start with the question of democracy. We hear all the time that our powers are being taken by the EU and that too many of our laws made there, although there seems to be little agreement on what proportion of our laws are set by the EU. We elect MEPs, and these MEPs pass laws in Europe just as national MPs do in Westminster, so there is a level of democracy, although how democratic the system is is disputed. However, one reason for the poor perception of the EU’s democratic status is that there isn’t the same media coverage for the European Parliament as there is for the national Parliament. So if our powers are silently slipping away, the media have to take their part of the blame for this. MEPs are elected and then disappear into this black box. Obviously some MEPs, such as Nigel Farage, do get media coverage, but not for what they do in the European Parliament. If there were more media coverage of what went on in the European Parliament, then the public’s views on the EU would be more informed and we would be able to see it for what it is, without everyone individually having to do their own research or make baseless speculations.
Then there is the question of immigration. We hear the economic argument for immigration. But increasing the size of the economy or even the average wealth per person doesn’t mean that everyone individually gains from this, and if those who lose out are already the poorer members of society, then this isn’t something that can’t simply be ignored.
For example, many British workers are concerned that there are fewer jobs available for them because the jobs are going to immigrants, partly because they work for lower wages. Most of those that would consider themselves to be affected are lower paid workers, who are already marginalized by the inequality that we have in our society, (I have discussed inequality here and here), so if the country worked towards having a more equal society generally with a properly enforced higher minimum wage, we should be able to improve this situation without having to place further limits on immigration.
There is still a legitimate question over how much immigration is good for the country. If there is no limit, then that would be an argument to open the borders to people from all countries, which I don’t think many people would agree with. Otherwise there must be a point where more immigration would be bad for the country, and there’s no reason to suggest that the optimum amount ties in with the amount we get from other EU countries. So clearly it is overly simplistic to just argue that unconstrained EU migration is a good thing on the basis that immigration is good for the country.
Having said that, I think any talk of a population crisis is premature. But population increase generally, whether through net immigration or the birth rate being higher than the death rate, needs to be properly managed, through improvements in infrastructure and building more houses. Everyone needs affordable accommodation.
One argument for more controlled immigration is that we should be able to just take the “brightest and best” from other countries. But a lot of the countries that these people would come from are much poorer than the UK, so this could create a “brain drain” and cause these countries to suffer, and could delay their development as nations. We shouldn’t just be looking at the selfish interests of our own country. We should want to be part of the wider international community where we look out for each other’s interests. Immigration shouldn’t be about poaching talent from other countries and leaving them to suffer the consequences.
This is not to say that skilled workers should not be allowed to emigrate from poorer countries. But their ability to do so could be offset by better incentives for people to help out in poorer countries, to develop their infrastructure and provide vital services. Many people come to the UK because conditions are better than in their country. If there were more international cooperation to enable all countries to reach higher standards of living, it would help everyone out, and migration between countries would then become more balanced. I think this would be a better long-term approach than to leave the EU for good because of the 2014 levels of immigration.
We also get a warped sense of perspective of the EU and in particular of immigration from the overexposure of Nigel Farage and UKIP in the UK media, including on the supposedly neutral BBC. People’s views are formed in part by what is in the papers and on television. The rise of UKIP isn’t simply a response to the public’s views; their level of media coverage has turned many people against the EU and immigration, and it’s hard to see what justifies the level of coverage that they’ve received. In contrast to UKIP, the Green Party receives relatively very little media coverage despite having an MP (unlike UKIP) and also having MEPs, albeit not as many as UKIP.
International cooperation is clearly a good thing, but is the European Union the right institution to provide this? Well, I think the name is limiting because I think international cooperation should be encouraged to grow globally and ultimately shouldn’t be dependent on location. But that’s not to say we should throw away the EU based on its current name. It should ultimately be open to all countries that fit the relevant criteria and be open to a name change at some point.
I’m not going to get into the details of what all the relevant criteria are, but EU countries are subject to all sorts of regulations and this is seen as undemocratic, and this is one reason why some people want the UK to leave. We need to look in detail at exactly which regulations are required for the continued functioning of the EU. Arguably the EU is too undemocratic at the moment and has more powers than it strictly needs to over countries’ laws, but these are areas that could be reformed. International cooperation on matters such as climate change and global inequality is very important, and the EU is a very good starting point for this. It might not be perfect, but it’s better to work from this platform than to start again with our international relationship with individual European countries from scratch.
I’m not going to discuss the pros and cons of every party, but I think the Green Party probably takes the most reasonable stance on Europe of the main parties. It is in favour of staying in the EU while acknowledging that there are changes that need to be made, and they support a referendum on our continued membership. If I were to give my support to any party in the European election, it would be the Green Party.