Making Brexit Our Own

People think this is the end for Britain. More than a week on from the surprise result of Britain’s referendum on its continued membership of the EU, those around me have barely calmed down. In all fairness, the black hole that now exists in Westminster, in place of leadership or a plan, certainly isn’t soothing any nerves. But more on this later.

We’ve had one week of sweary Facebook and Twitter tirades against the ‘idiots’ and ‘racists’ who have destroyed ‘our future and our children’s future’. Early polling analysis has only fueled this bitterness, with surveys showing a strong bias towards Brexit among those without degrees. Moreover, the results breakdown by district show provincial England and Wales dragging left-leaning (supposedly) Scotland and the younger, better educated cities out of the EU. Cue some absolutely breathtaking snobbery about ‘small minded people from small towns’.



The referendum reveals a divided Britain. The toxic rhetoric surrounding the result is dividing it further.

At some point, a large part of the country lost the sense it was valued and listened to. It would take a whole book to consider the nature and causes of this feeling properly. However, a few trends can be quickly seen, First, thirty years ago the solid jobs and industries that underpinned a strong working class were dismantled. But while devastating to the North and Wales, at least a strong welfare system and growing, meritocratic economy could ease the pain. A change of government in the nineties brought a few more sticking plasters: a minimum wage, ‘regeneration’ in poor areas, a shiny new school or hospital here and there. A personal credit frenzy even maintained the illusion that we all were getting more prosperous.

But the rot was setting in. EU expansion and a generous immigration policy brought a surge in immigration. I’m glad that as a nation we welcomed these hard workers and great people, but the ruling classes made a grave error in handling it. It seems reasonable now to acknowledge that rapid changes in the population of a local area can strain public services and unsettle established residents. But what the response to legitimate, if sometimes misdirected concerns about mass migration amounted to was the rich and powerful telling the poor and marginalised to stop being racist.

And that’s easy to say if isn’t your kid in a mobile classroom, or without a school place, because there aren’t enough to go round. It’s easy to say if higher housing demand just means a bigger rise in the value of your house, rather than paying exorbitant rents for an overcrowded flat because the social housing waiting list is six years long. It’s easy to say if it isn’t you who is unemployed because you can’t compete with the eastern European workers employers are willing to exploit.

Little wonder, then, that resentment at a wealthy elite was beginning to simmer. But once the economy crashed, services and infrastructure were undermined and the drastic undermining of social mobility became clear, this resentment became really widespread. A few genuine racists emerged in the form of the BNP, though fortunately the country gave them little support. Options to force change through the electoral system were limited, so despite the erosion of the two party system in favour of Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and populist UKIP, a growing number of people just don’t bother voting any more.

Should we really have been surprised that the country grew tired of being bullied by this distant elite? This elite which tried to blackmail the country with threats of job losses and further housing shortages unless the country opted to remain in Europe. Incidentally, this is the same Europe our politicians had blamed for nearly every problem they couldn’t fix! Whatever the Remain campaign might have been trying to do, it ended up looking like a bunch of privileged figures trying to secure a status quo that enriched them and impoverished the disadvantaged.

The vote for Brexit was an expression of anger and a rejection of the status quo. Those demanding Parliament unpicks Brexit by stealth, or simply ignore the referendum result, are playing with fire. If the people cannot be heard on this simple, fundamental issue, how can they ever trust their politicians to govern on their behalf?

Many of those upset at Brexit worry about Britain’s impending isolation. They also fear our being outside the European Union and the protections it offers its citizens. I urge these people to adopt a more sophisticated and realistic response than seeking to override the country’s democratic decision. Let’s fight for a Brexit on our terms.

Free movement of people across Europe was a key issue in the referendum and it is clear Britain does not want it. We must accept that, despite threats from EU leaders that this will cost us access to the Single Market. But note that Britain is not negotiating with Europe from a position of weakness and inflexibility. I think our large economy and market is essential to the EU. If we were to agree to a common regulatory regime with the EU (thus protecting us from a right wing deregulation-crazed government) with a fast-track visa system for EU-resident professionals, we would be in a prime position to protect our financial and industrial sectors in a far-reaching trade deal.

Right now, there are a large number of EU citizens resident here who worried about their rights. It would not take much political pressure to see through the passage of legislation guaranteeing right of residents for those living here.

And let’s be mindful of the benefits of the situation we now find ourselves in. Outside the EU, and free from the scary TTIP trade deal, restrictive directives enforcing privatisation and marketisation of public services need no longer be followed. In time and under the right government, Britain will be able to correct market failures such as in the railways with much fewer constrictions.

Depending on our exact post-Brexit relationship with the EU, we may also be able to play our part in correcting a flawed international trade system in which rich countries use pacts and deals to freeze poor countries out of domestic markets. Britain may well have a freer hand to aid the development of poorer countries through fairer trade deals.

It might not be exactly what we wanted, but now Brexit is the future, let’s make it fairer.



Please, Don’t Make an Enemy of Germany

Germany, the US and the UK are supposed to be friends. Since the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, the West German (and latterly the unified German) government enjoyed strong economic and military links with its former enemies. This was key to the reconstruction of a war-torn Europe, and has lent an unparalleled stability to Europe.

So last year’s revelations that the NSA-GCHQ plot to heavily monitor telecommunications extended beyond the so-called ‘security’ agencies’ own territories into those of unsuspecting European governments, came as a shock. Outrageously, the personal communications of European leaders were intercepted. It annoyed a lot of our friends Particularly Germany, which spoke of setting up a Continental communications alliance to evade Anglo-American survailance.

Relations with Germany were thus strained. But that, it now appears, is not the whole story.

The CIA has breached the historic ‘no spying’ agreement that all NATO members sign. The pact obliges signatories to refrain from all espionage measures against other NATO governments, including their intelligence agencies. But, according to the Guardian newspaper:

The BND [German intelligence agency] staffer, a technical support worker employed in a unit dealing mainly with the protection of German soldiers abroad, is alleged to have established contact with the American secret service by contacting the US embassy. Rather than report the contact to their allied German counterparts, the CIA is reported to have paid the agent €25,000 (£20,000) for 218 documents classified as confidential or top secret .

It’s bad form to spy on your friends. It’s stupid to provoke an influential country for the sake of a petty intelligence advantage. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a legitimate reason for the CIA to break rules for relatively insignificant (as far as America’s interests are concerned, at least) information.

Germany is perfectly justified in pursuing a strong response to the news, but the matter is controversial: the government has announced that it will adopt counter-espionage measures, and has of course arrested the BND double agent. But the former move has attracted criticism on two counts. Firstly, creating an intelligence arms race between two powers who remain on the same side seems like a waste of time and resources. This is absolutely true. It also is bound to intensify existing tensions, possibly making enemies of the two nations for no good reason.

Secondly, Merkel’s government should decide what it wants to gain: revenge on the United States, or the cessation of the spying that has caused the original problem. In any dispute, it is horrifyingly easy to descend into a tit-for-tat game which usually creates a lot of ill feeling and leaves the original issue unsolved, even forgotten. Those who exercise restraint and pause to think logically about the issue at hand are much more likely to reach a constructive solution. This applies to foreign relations just as much as it does to day-to-day life.

For a start, the German government could politely but firmly insist on an apology from the United States and a firm undertaking that they will not repeat this betrayal. I know, it’s a little feeble. However, the US would be shown in a very bad light if it didn’t agree to such a reasonable request.

If German public opinion demands something a little stronger, then there are better means of applying pressure to the US government. For example, some politicians have suggested that Germany suspends or torpedoes the TTIP, the Euro-American ‘free trade’ deal: after all, it would be foolish to pursue greater economic co-operation with a country that you can’t trust. (Admittedly, I’d be quite happy to see the TTIP blocked anyway.) The Obama administration would be hugely embarrassed to see one of its flagship economic policies ruined because the CIA was ‘nosey’ about the German military.

Let’s hope that the German government stays on the moral high ground, and doesn’t act rashly to further damage its relationship with the US.

TTIP: The EU-US Pact That Threatens Democracy

Politicians know that one of the best ways to avoid public scrutiny is to make things sound as boring as possible. That’s why the economic pact being negotiated (in secret) by the European Commission and the US government has been given the mundane title of the ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’ (TTIP).

The stated aim of the TTIP is to create an open market spanning a bloc stretching from Anchorage to Athens, encompassing more than half of the world’s economy.  Goods and services would be freely exchanged between 29 of the world’s richest nations, perhaps providing some respite from the relentless industrial competition from the likes of China.

So far, so reasonable.

However, the negotiations have been conducted in secret, leaving the general public learning about their economic futures through a series of leaks. The European and American governments would not have told the people that they can’t agree on common food safety standards (after all, consumer regulations would have to be standardised). Funnily enough, the EU is reluctant to dilute its regulations to American levels, which were virtually written by Monsanto lobbyists.  We would also have not been told about the inclusion of the dull sounding Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) in the agreement.

ISDS means the establishment of a ‘supercourt’, which can impose crippling fines on governments which do anything to limit the profits of a corporation of industry. Even the risk of being sued will prevent governments imposing inconvenient regulations, even environmental protections. Nationalisation will become virtually impossible, as will protecting strategic industries from foreign ownership. I  wish that I was exaggerating, but sadly I’m not. It is widely accepted, for example, that NHS semi-privatisation would be not only permanently entrenched by TTIP, but American healthcare giants would be able to take over most privatised services.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the principle of ‘mutual recognition’ would be imposed. Business would effectively be allowed to choose which country’s regulatory regime it abides by. Surely, nobody is seriously suggesting that this won’t lead to ‘lowest common denominator’ regulation! We’ve been warned that US banks would opt for lax European controls, for example.

The will of the people’s democratically elected leaders would become secondary to multinationals. The corporatocracy is here.

Image courtesy of Greenpeace

Image courtesy of Greenpeace

The structure of TTIP is being hammered out in secretive negotiations between the American government and the European Commission, an unelected body. However, the resulting treaty will have to be ratified by the US Congress, the European Parliament and the national parliaments of every EU member state. Although there will be a democratic process for approving TTIP, it will be presented as a fait accompli. All or nothing, Given the make-up of the new European Parliament, the right-wing majority is likely to approve it. If there are only one or two dissenting national parliaments, they will come under intense pressure to surrender to the TTIP. The EU has a habit of ‘asking’ member states the same question again and again until the right answer is given.

The TTIP must be either revised beyond recognition or rejected, if elected governments are to retain sovereignty over corporations. With determined campaigning, either of these aims can be achieved. For example, it is difficult to see France- which is so economically protectionist that it recently blocked a foreign takeover of the Danone yoghurt company citing “national security”- really surrendering control of its business affairs. American industry will reject out of hand the toughening of law to meet more exacting European requirements.

The European Green movement is unequivocal in its opposition to TTIP. Many of the populist movements in Europe share that position. Then there are many movements like Labour which are divided. These parties could perhaps be persuaded that TTIP must be ratified by a referendum, given that is in essence a transfer of sovereignty and thus a constitutional reform.  It is only right that the people themselves have the final say on how their lives and their economy is governed.

Europe Must Protect Its Food

For the past few months, negotiators have been busy drawing up the terms of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the free trade zone encompassing the United States and the European Union. While the foremost matter to
be settled is the removal of import tariffs, there are much more complex issues that must be addressed, such as consumer protection and environmental regulations.

A free trade zone is an entirely irrelevant construct if the producer is still blocked from selling their product in another market. In this case, the chasm between European food safety regulations and American ones is proving difficult to bridge. That’s hardly surprising: the EU has created a regime with some of the strongest consumer rights and protections in the world, whilst the US has its pitiful regulations practically written by lobbyists from the vested interests that are supposedly under control. That’s why British beef was banned from the Continent for so long even after BSE was banned. Good regulation can cost, but such costs are necessary: it is vital to ensure that the food on our tables is safe to eat.

Unsurprisingly, American negotiators are offended at the suggestion that their food isn’t safe enough for sale to Europe. They argue that over 300 million of their citizens are absolutely fine having eaten American food for all their lives. They haven’t all become sick, admittedly. But much of the population has been affected by the additives, the high fat and sugar levels, the weak labelling requirements that wouldn’t be permitted in Europe. American consumers are denied the information they need in order to choose whether to eat GM products or not. But worst of all is the risk posed by weaker hygiene standards in American agriculture.

Companies like Monsanto should not be let near our food supply under any circumstances. Yet disturbing farming methods like hormonal engineering are allowed to pollute good American produce. It represents another killer virus just waiting to emerge. The federal government should not be defending this status quo, it should grasp the opportunity to get a better deal for its people.

It is regrettable that  European Union representatives in TTIP negotiations are offending their American counterparts, but it cannot be helped. Europe must never compromise on food safety, regardless of the political cost of not doing so.