A vote to leave would be a great opportunity for the people of Britain, and the people of Europe. The European Union was created in 1992 by the Maastricht Treaty, succeeding its former lives as the European Economic Community (Common Market), European Community, ECSC and so on.
People often think of it first and foremost as an economic association. But that is not really true. European leaders chose to cooperate over markets because that was the lowest common denominator that the original six could all agree on back in 1957: trade.
Early wins dried up in the 1970s, though. As society swung to the left governments had to offer their citizens more. National growth strategies were popular at home, but led to European governments arguing over exports and protectionism.
Class conflict petered out in the late eighties. The left was on the back foot. The big battalions of social protest were demobilised. A new consensus emerged around market liberalisation. European governments at the end of the Cold War found they agreed on free markets and the sale of state assets.
The Union offered European governments something else. The new consensus politics did not really engage a large span of the population. The view was growing that it was better not to ‘politicise’ questions like public spending, interest rates, and workers’ rights. If these issues were argued over with national publics, it was thought, they would provoke greater demands.
The Union began to develop a new way of making public policy. In the old model policies were debated in public forums at home, before being put before the constituent assembly. In the new model, European governments would adopt policies that had worked in other countries.
Policy making, more and more, was developed inter-governmentally, rather than in a dialogue between governed and governors.
Governments were scared of the electorate. It was not that they were faced by any serious challenge. It was more that their reactions were a bit unpredictable – at least unpredictable to political leaders. They had less of a relationship with the voters than they had before.
To motivate change, more and more political leaders would claim that they were just following European rules. So it was that the French pushed through austerity measures, the Italians dismantled the ‘scala mobile’ wage model, and the British ‘locked in’ obligations to limit spending.
Eurosceptics often argue that the European Union is too powerful. But that is not really true. The Union has no great power over nations except the power they give up to it.
Running away from their own voters, European governments have invested the Union with great authority, and continue to behave as if they were not responsible for what it does. It is a bad habit, and the best way to get out of it would be to abandon the Union.
The Union suffers from the basic weaknesses that you would expect of an organisation that grew up to fill the gap left as governments became more distant from their publics. It is not very popular. More, it is not very good at making policy – because it does not engage a wide enough body of people in the argument over how that policy is made.
Some people think that we should make the Union more democratic. But that would not really work. To be democratic, the Union would have to be a part of a continent-wide debate over policy – one that engaged the greater mass of people, much as the American election is doing, or the European referendum is doing in Britain.
If Europe were one Republic arguing about its future, it would make sense to have a European Parliament, with legislative powers. But if that singular polity were to emerge, it would have to overthrow not just the nation states, but the European Union, as well.
Because the Union is talking to too small a span of people its decisions are often bad. All political questions are flattened down into technical ones, that officials might hope to decide by following rules and procedures. The negotiations that engage not just the issues, but also the constituencies that those issues address never happen. Power, dispersed through national parliaments and governments, European Parliament, European Commission and the European Court of Justice is much harder to pin down, and so much harder to hold to account.
You can see some of the bad decisions that the Union makes in Greece, the Ukraine, and in proposing its own constitution. These mistakes are never properly addressed or fixed because the Union has little capacity to reflect on its own course of action, or sense of responsibility for what it does.
Voting to leave is a great opportunity for British people to get out of the Union. It would be a great thing for Europe, too. Europe without the Union would have to take more responsibility for its decisions, and the laws it passes. They would have to think about their impact in the world, and stop chugging along on autopilot. Citizens would have to address their own duties to hold governments to account. This is why I’m voting leave, for a real democracy.
James Heartfield is the author of The European Union and the End of Politics, Zero Press, 2013, and the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, published by Hurst and Oxford University Press later this year.
Image: The Hemicycle of the European Parliament in Strasbourg during a plenary session in 2014, [Wikicommons].