Today the art of politics is to take public concern, anger or bigotry and create a channel for it so that like flood water you can destroy one place or group while protecting another. Mr Cameron and his flag waving concern to restore Britain’s lost sovereignty is a case in point. The Conservative party has, for years, loved to hate Europe. Their rallying cry, now, is to claim back sovereignty from those johnny foreigners in Brussels.
Imagine the righteousness of reclaiming what was lost. Like a modern Henry V riding out to meet the dastardly French on the field of Agincourt. And yet…
This concern for sovereignty rings very hollow to me. Because whatever sovereignty this nation has ceded to Europe, and it has, it is little compared to that which we gave away without a murmur, without discussion to what is now the WTO (World Trade Organization). And no one, ever, talks about offering the people a referendum about that do they?
When Britain signed the Uruguay Round of the GATT agreement (The General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) it set us on a course to help create the WTO and to give it powers over us. Do people even know what powers it has? The WTO and the agreements which it oversees are by far the most powerful and far reaching constraints on what we can and cannot do economically and in some ways politically as well. We gave away far more of our sovereignty to the WTO than we have ever given to Europe. But no Conservative, nor Labour nor LibDem will ever say so.
I suggest that David Cameron’s’ motivation in Europe is not about sovereignty. If it was he would be arguing to repatriate powers given to the WTO first and foremost. But he is not. His concern with Europe lies elsewhere. The answer, I suggest, is easy to see if we just look at what powers he mentions when speaking about Europe. Always on his lips and those of his ministers are labour laws. He mentions the need for the UK to be able to be more ‘flexible’. We all know what that means.
I think what Cameron and his ilk hate about Europe are those few remaining aspects of the European Experiment which are to do with enforcing minimum standards and protections for working people – the legal underpinnings of what is often called the Social Market model. The model largely followed by Germany after WWII, which sought to mix and temper the market with rules and protections for labour. This model is the only challenger in the Western world to the Anglo-Saxon, Free-Market model of Reagan-Thatcher, London-Washington fame.
I do not believe Cameron has any great concern for the supremacy of British sovereignty except where appealing to it can generate jingoistic anti-European sentiment. His aim is to channel that sentiment and use it to undermine the ability of organized labour to use the European rules to stem the pressures for lower wages, longer working hours, easier hiring and firing, fewer regulations of any kind but especially concerning working conditions and appeals to tribunals as well as pension rights and any sort of collective bargaining. All these things find support of some kind from Europe. The ‘sovereignty’ Cameron and Co. want to reclaim, is the ability to destroy all those social market restrains on the ‘Free-market’.
Cameron has zero interest in reclaiming any powers from the WTO. Has anyone ever heard anyone from any party suggest there was anything wrong at all with the WTO and its powers over us? Cameron, like virtually all of our present political class, is very happy to be bound by its rules and decisions made by unelected, anonymous ‘panels’ behind closed doors sealed from any direct democratic oversight, scrutiny or appeal. Decisions about what support a nation can and cannot give to its own industries, what tariffs it may and may not set on its trade, what environmental considerations may or may not be allowed or be outlawed on the grounds of being non-trade distortions. NONE of these does he have any wish to question, raise, or have anyone discuss, let alone to reclaim any of these powers to the sovereign nation and its parliament and people. NONE. A referendum on the sovereign powers ceded to the WTO? An in/out vote for the people? The pigs will not fly on that one because they are already the ones in charge.
This is about advancing and achieving a familiar free-market agenda via undermining those powers which the ‘Free-market’ agenda does not like, like labour laws and rights, and leaving safely remote from sovereign, democratic control those things it does like.
And for those who think this push will falter because our European ‘partners’ will not allow a la carte membership, I would not be so sure. There are huge forces within Europe which have steadily transformed the European experiment from something with a social dimension into a corporate charter and playground, who agree with Cameron. Think about how many labour and pension rights are already being rolled back in those parts of Europe where economic conditions ‘require’ them to be.
I think Cameron’s speech was not greeted with howls of anger and cries of ‘perfidious Albion’ because many of those European leaders would be most interested to have the UK spearhead a questioning and re-writing of some of those remaining social market aspects of Europe. I think the discussions will not be about IF such a re-writing should be allowed for the UK but how it could be fed into Europe’s own discourse in such a way that it can be applied more widely.
The real surrender of our sovereignty was and is to the WTO and the plethora of trade agreements which it oversees. Has any party mentioned this? Would any admit it? Would any suggest, let alone support a referendum on that loss of sovereignty? Or are they all very happy for those aspects of sovereignty and democratic control to be removed from us completely and without discussion? I suggest this is the real discussion we should be having. But I believe we will not have it and that fact is, for me the measure and proof that our current political leadership has betrayed us and sold us.