All the news this week is about Europe. On 23 June we all finally get to say about Britain’s future in or out of the EU. It’s a big decision and one on which there is no going back once it is made.
I hope the British people vote YES to staying in the EU. We all want to see a reformed EU…the problem is not everyone agrees how it should be reformed. Some of the concessions made by our EU partners in negotiation with Mr Cameron may be less than earth shattering but actually other EU countries want to see the UK stay in. And that’s not surprising: UK is Europe’s second largest economy. A vote for Brexit would be bad for Britain and potentially cost us millions of jobs but it would also be bad for the rest of the EU who would lose one of their major trading partners.
But fundamentally, my main reason for wanting us to remain in the EU is not about economics or trade at all. It’s about the reason the then European Community was formed in the first place. Six countries in Western Europe who had been literally torn apart twice in the first half of the 20th Century in two World Wars. Tens of millions of people saying that it should never be allowed to happen again. Opting for a future based on co-operation, discussion and working towards a shared purpose, rather than settling their differences on the battle field. And this year, on the 100th Anniversary of the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, two of the bloodiest episodes of slaughter in human history, that message is even more poignant and resonant now than it was 60 years ago when the EU came into being.
David Cameron talks a lot about restoring powers to the UK Parliament. But the irony is he presides over one of the most centralised states in Europe. Our Tory Government says it is delivering “devolution” in England but powers are only to be passed down to councils or so called “combined authorities” if they do exactly as Mr Osborne and the Treasury wishes. In our area, Peterborough was in talks about a Cambridgeshire Combined Authority. But now Government seems keen on an even larger entity including Norfolk and Suffolk. And whatever we end up with, Mr Osborne says it must have a directly elected mayor. Now having mayors does make some sense in cities like Manchester or London but a mayor of East Anglia? We did have one man in charge of East Anglia back in the 8th Century…. He was called a King. It’s not good to have so much power in the hands of just one person.
But there is one state not far from here even more over centralised than the UK… it is called Scotland. Scots used to have regional police forces…now the entire country has just one based in Edinburgh. Scottish councils used to run Scottish education. Now it is largely run by the SNP centrally from Edinburgh. The message here is that Nationalism is not the friend of democracy and decentralisation but its enemy. What is needed is a more radical and different approach.
How about a concept called Federalism? It’s the basis of how they run things in Germany and in the USA. It means deciding at which level of government particular decisions should be made and having a written constitution which enshrines this in law. Every power which any council of devolved assembly has in our country could be taken away in an instant by the UK Government and Parliament. In Germany regional governments (the “Lander”) have a constitutional right to exist.
Some things are best done at the EU level such as trade agreements, some aspects of defence and foreign policy, environmental protection and some major initiatives to tackle international crime and terrorism. Other things are best done at the level of the nation state, although probably a lot less than at present. Much of the UK Government’s powers could be exercised more efficiently and democratically at a regional level and local councils need to be given more say and an ability to pay for services required by local people. And councils need to devolve power too to parish and community councils so that really local decisions are made close to where people live and work.
And finally we need to strengthen democracy at all these levels. Have a more powerful European Parliament, national and local governments elected by a fair proportional voting system and decision making at all levels opened up much more to public scrutiny and involvement. So it might be about in or out on 23 June. But the need for change in the way we are governed should go much further than that simple decision.