Wednesday, 22 July 2015

"British" Influence

One of the most obviously spurious arguments for our continued EU membership is the claim that remaining in this organisation gives us "influence" over the formulation of European Union regulations. There's even a lobby group called British Influence, dedicated to telling us how great the European Union is for Britain.

The most obvious way in which this argument is flawed is that we don't really have any influence at all. Every British government since before we even joined the European Community in the early 1970s has said they will push to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and yet still this dreadful, inefficient monstrosity lumbers on, producing expensive food, appalling waste and environmental damage.

In fact so weak is our position that it was heralded as a "significant victory" last week when the government managed to get assurances that British taxpayers’ money would not be used for the Greek bailout. At a time when the British government is still running a budget deficit and our own economy is slowly recovering from a major recession. To fund the Greek bailout would amount to Britain borrowing money to pay Greece's debts, for the dubious benefit of a currency we are not a part of.

If it takes "tough negotiations" to achieve this modest goal, how on earth do we expect to influence policy in our favour on any more substantial matters, where no such obviously correct principle exists? Apart from preventing additional squandering of our own money by the EU itself, what have we influenced?

However, the even more important way in which "we" in Britain have no influence in this foolhardy venture brings us to the question of who "we" actually are. We, it turns out, are represented by our sole European Commissioner Jonathan Hill, or Baron Hill of Oareford to his friends. Hill is currently the European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets. This means he has far reaching responsibilities for ensuring a stable banking system, establishing and implementing a banking union and a capital markets union across all member states by 2019.

You might not remember voting for any of this, or for Baron Hill to be the man to implement it. You might not have even known it was happening. But happening it most certainly is, and "we" are implementing it through Baron Hill of Oareford, and presumably stamping "our" influence on it.

So who is Baron Hill? So far as I can tell, he is a long-standing Tory party apparatchik who has never actually won an election in his life. After leaving Cambridge he joined the Conservative Research Department in 1985. He moved around with Kenneth Clarke in the late 1980s before joining the Number 10 Policy Unit in 1991 and working with John Major through until 1994; supporting the Prime Minister in the Maastricht negotiations and the subsequent railroading of that treaty through parliament. He was awarded a CBE for his troubles in 1995, and then went on to work in public relations consulting, ultimately founding Quiller Consultants in 1998. He was created a life peer in 2010, becoming Conservative leader in the Lords in 2013, until his appointment last July as European Commissioner. Didn't "we" do well?

On the face of it this sort of background is not that unusual for a Conservative politician. And indeed Hill doesn't appear all that unusual. Indeed, he may well be a competent, hard working and conscientious individual. He may have useful experience and even genuinely be dedicated to serving what he perceives as Britain's best interests at the highest level of the EU. However, he may not be any of those things. He may equally be beholden to all kinds of corporate or political interests. He may be lazy, dishonest or incompetent. He may be an ideological zealot or plain old corrupt.

The point is we will never know about any of this because as a European Commissioner he wields his massive power with no meaningful public scrutiny whatsoever.

If you are a major corporation or a particularly well-funded lobbyist you might be able to get access to Hill or any of his colleagues, but in this rarified world I have little faith that they will conscientiously fight the corner of the small businesses and individuals of Britain, or any other country for that matter. His former clients such as HSBC, or the government of the United Arab Emirates might be somewhat more comfortable with this arrangement (and I insinuate nothing untoward about this, except that we have no way of scrutinizing it), but to me it's an affront to the very idea of democratic government. Policies should be formulated and debated by elected representatives and open to public scrutiny at every stage, not ushered through in remote bureaucracies by party appointees.

And Hill, remember, is only the most visible of "our" representation in the European Commission. The vast ministry beneath him contains legions of functionaries from across the continent, existing in a parallel universe where the people of their own country, never mind those of the other 27 member states, are a distant abstraction, rather than being the point of having a government in the first place as they rightly should be in a democracy.

So there we have it. An unelected Tory party aparatchik who you may well never have heard of is the pinnacle of "our" influence in the European Union, and he does indeed wield considerable power over the banking and financial services industry across the continent. He may, or he may not have British interests at heart. He may or may not have good ideas about how to achieve his objectives. His 27 fellow commissioners covering Security, Energy, Trade and all the other major policy areas a government would cover, do so with exactly the same absence of scrutiny and an identical lack of any sort of a democratic mandate to do so.

This whole situation makes an absolute mockery of any claims of European democracy. The decades of fruitless tinkering at the margins of the European project are merely one symptom of the remote and corporatist nature of this venture. Talk of "reform" or of reducing the "democratic deficit" - as though autocracy were some bad habit you could scale back - is nonsense. The European Union is undemocratic to its core and only its complete disestablishment will remove the danger it represents.