Wednesday, 22 June 2016

A final plea on polling day

Today, Britain will go to the polls and decide whether or not we will leave the European Union. The past few months have been one hell of an interesting affair, with wild claims being bandied about on both sides of the argument. There are few people I pity more than those who have been relying solely on the official campaigns for their information, the level of debate has been almost farcical at times and the media spin on all sides has only muddied the issue further still. Given this, I can understand some people making the argument that it's far too complex an issue to be decided by a referendum and that it should be down to our elected representatives to decide. That said, the reason we are having a referendum in the first place is because our elected representatives have ceded power and sovereignty to the EU over the last four decades without once consulting the public, be that in a referendum or making explicit manifesto pledges to do so at a general election.

Fortunately we live in the age of the internet. Of smart phones and social media. This has made it easier to proliferate some of the more questionable claims from both camps, but equally has also made it easier to counter them. Whilst I have been blogging here about the various reasons for leaving as I see them, as well as trying to counter some of the misinformation propagated by both campaigns, I've also spent an inordinate amount of time on social media making the case for a progressive Brexit and countering any misconceptions I've come across. It's felt a little like beating my head against a wall at times (if I see the 'still pay, no say' fallacy about the Norway option one more time I shall need to be escorted to a room with cushioned walls wearing a jacket with extra long sleeves) but by and large the debate has been overwhelmingly civil and some have said that I've helped them understand things they were previously unsure about. It's been humbling, I'm by no means an expert, but I've done as much reading as I can (often hiding out during my day job to peruse articles on global regulatory mechanisms and the various characteristics of the EEA agreement), I feel I've learnt a lot, and I've tried to make a positive, informed case. Before we go to the polls, allow me to briefly summarise it for you.

The EU is an outdated construct. It was formed in an era when trade blocs seemed to be the way forward. But in the modern age of globalisation and the internet, geographical proximity has never mattered less for trade. There is a global single market emerging, with a whole host of regulatory bodies that we do not have an independent vote and veto on thanks to the EU, and indeed our position is often undermined because of our membership. As the 5th largest economy in the world, and using our ties to countries across the globe to build coalitions, we could wield significant influence in the shaping of trade regulations before they get anywhere near the EU, and push for regulatory harmonisation at a global level, facilitating free trade across the world. Freed from the confines of the common external tariff, we can pursue trade deals with the rest of the global markets that are growing exponentially, the benefits of which will be reaped both at home, and world wide. Offering free trade to African farmers for example, will help push down food prices here whilst allowing them to export their way out of poverty, rather than leaving them impoverished by virtue of being unable to compete with European farmers, thanks to the tariffs the EU places on their goods. By removing ourselves from the tariffs the EU imposes on Chinese solar panels, we can more effectively and more cheaply pursue greener energy sources here at home, again driving down the cost of living. Engaging with the world gives us a myriad of these possibilities.

Not that we have to choose between the EU and the world. Because Article 50 only allows for two years in which to negotiate a deal to leave, the only feasible route out is the so called 'Norway option'. This step to the EEA via EFTA maintains full access to the single market, and ensures an economically neutral exit, and a secure platform from which to start disentangling ourselves from the EU. Brexit is a process, not an event, and we cannot undo 40 years of political integration overnight. Contrary to what the Remain side will tell you, this does not mean that we still pay without having a say over the rules. The EEA agreement itself disproves this:

"According to the principle of unanimity applied in the EEA Joint Committee, all the EFTA states must agree in order for new EU legislation to be integrated into the EEA Agreement and for it to apply to cooperation between the EFTA states and the EU. If one EFTA state opposes integration, this also affects the other EFTA states in that the rules will not apply to them either, neither in the individual states nor between the EFTA states themselves nor in their relations with the EU. This possibility that each EFTA state has to object to new rules that lie within the scope of the EEA Agreement becoming applicable to the EFTA pillar is often referred to as these parties’ right of veto.

So far, this right has not been exercised. This is partly because when EU legislation is to be integrated into the EEA Agreement it is submitted to the EEA Joint Committee at the final stage of an extensive process of information and consultation between the contracting parties. The purpose of this process is to ensure that agreement is reached on such decisions. During the negotiations on the EEA Agreement, compromises were found if a state had constitutional objections to the content or could invoke fundamental national interests. Even though constitutional problems are unlikely to arise in the day-to-day EEA work, the will to reach necessary compromises must still be regarded as a basic condition for cooperation." So Norway is consulted regularly via the EEA Joint Committee on any regulations pertaining to the single market and even has access to the EFTA veto.

Nor are their payments anything like as much as ours. Norway's expenditure relating to the EEA consists of several factors. Firstly there is the 'Norway Grants', aid paid by Norway as a form economic rehabilitation of post-Communist countries. These amounted to around €804 million from 2009 to 2014. Most importantly, this money is not paid to the EU.
There are also EEA grants, for which Norway provides 95% of the funding. This brings the total to €1.8 billion for that 5 year period. EFTA contribution to EU programmes affecting the EEA amounted to €1.7 billion, with Norway providing roughly 96% of the cost. Norway also participates in several EU programmes, including Horizon 2020 and the Erasmus research programmes, as well as participating in 26 EU agencies, relating to health, research, and education amongst others.

Norway's contributions are the price paid for a service, and funding is not one way. Norway's net contribution over the period was €620 million, or €90 million per year. Applying this on a pro-rata basis to the UK upon rejoining the EFTA, we would contribute approximately €2.5 billion a year. A large part of this would be for continued participation in many of the same programmes and agencies that we currently enjoy. Finally Norway pays roughly £7 million a year towards the EFTA budget. The UK's contribution in total then, on a pro-rata basis, would be roughly £2.36 billion a year. A saving of nearly £6 billion a year on our current contributions. So whilst being a member of the EEA does involve costs, it still represents a potential 75% haircut on our current financial obligations.
The EEA agreement does maintain free movement - something I'm inherently in favour of, and would like to see an independent UK sign more free movement accords with other countries - but it does offer greater protections than we have now. Article 112 of the EEA agreement gives us access to an 'emergency brake', and Lichtenstein, through various protocols and addendums to the EEA agreement, have set a precedent for quantative restrictions on free movement. Moreover, pursuing independent policies outside of the EU, gives us greater scope to address the push factors that ultimately contribute more to migration.

Leaving the EU does not mean turning our back on Europe. We will still continue to trade with our neighbours on the continent, and co-operate with our friends and allies to tackle the challenges we all face. But we can do so as an ally, as an equal, not as a subordinate to a supranational institution that itself is pursuing all the trappings of statehood. Because make no mistake, the EU is not standing still. The Five Presidents report explicitly sets out future plans for further political and economic integration, including common EU taxation and harmonisation of welfare systems. Even if you believe that Cameron's opt out of 'ever closer union' is meaningful, the only consequence will be increasing marginalisation within an EU pushing forward with federalisation. As the EU expands, welcoming new countries into it's ranks, our influence will be diluted further still. We are on two fundamentally different paths. Far better to get out now and work alongside the EU as a constructive partner.

But ultimately, the economic arguments, and debate about immigration are secondary to the one of democratic accountability. The EU Commission is the sole legislative arm of the EU, and we do not elect the people that comprise it. There's a fundamental democratic principle that laws should not be passed nor taxes raised except by our elected representatives. At the EU level they would be our MEPs but they have no power to introduce, nor repeal legislation. That is the sole purview of the Commission. There are those that argue that we should stay inside the EU and seek to reform it. I admire their optimism, but even when faced with the potential exit of one of it's most important members, it refused to offer any meaningful concessions. Only yesterday Jean Claude Juncker has said that: "British voters have to know there will be no kind of any negotiation. We have concluded a deal with the prime minister. He got the maximum he could receive, and we gave the maximum we could give, so there will be no kind of renegotiation." I don't see how that can be any clearer. The EU just does not do reform. By restoring the supremacy of the UK parliament we have the chance to reinvigorate our democracy. Our government will no longer be able to shrug at a problem and say it's out of their hands, they will have to get to the real business of actually governing us. Knowing that their votes count for more, people will begin to engage once again. One of the positives of this referendum is just the sheer number of people who appear to be engaged with the issue. If it matters, people will care. Leaving the EU could be the first step in revolutionising our democracy. There is an appetite as a result of this referendum, for greater democratic control and we can tap into that and pursue real reform, in the way we elect our representatives, in the make-up of the House of Lords, and beyond.

Far from being an inward looking, isolationist choice, Brexit is the outward, global option. It has the potential for us to pursue a truly global agenda, pushing for real change both at home and on the world stage, and most importantly, it gives us the ability to vote for a government that will do it. Vote Leave.

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