Amid the celebrations, dejection, hopes, foreboding, possibilities, instability, treachery, transformation and general uncertainty that has followed the outcome of the EU referendum, one thing has been generally overlooked, which is unsurprising as it hardly featured in either the campaign to leave or to remain: the desperate need for fundamental reform of Europe’s political institutions. This imperative would not have disappeared if the decision had been one to remain (which it could so easily have been, given the very small margin), but it has not disappeared either with the decision to leave. Reform of the EU is possibly the only hope for a peaceful and prosperous Europe in the future.
There was something demeaning, lazy and spiteful about the way in which the campaigns leading up to the referendum were run; the incessant focus on whether we would be better or worse off financially had a distorting effect on our judgement, forcing us to see everything in terms of self-interest, both individually and as a nation. This is no doubt a contributing factor in the rise of xenophobic abuse since the vote. Like it or not, regardless of the outcome, we are bound to Europe through geography, ties of blood and history, and the fate of Europe is one that we will share. The case for reform of the EU remains as compelling as ever.
I believe the Remain camp lost in part because it was so complacent about one of the most corrupt political institutions that has ever been foisted on a population. We may have had a pax Europa for the last 50 years, but at what a cost! We have been offered bread and circuses while our fundamental freedoms guaranteed by such things as the supremacy of parliament and an independent judiciary have been systematically undermined by the existence of an unelected European Commission, a rubber stamp European Parliament and a European Court of Justice that has arrogated to itself the right to override any legislation passed in individual states (Evans-Pritchard, June 8th, 2016).
One the other hand, the Leave camp blithely proclaimed that the successful future of a small corner of the European continent would be guaranteed, supposedly on the basis of its past imperial glories, shorn now of the troublesome ties of Europe. They reimagined themselves in the romantic past of British pomp which they projected as the future; this in a world which is profoundly interconnected and which is becoming more so. The past week has presumably had a sobering effect on their short-lived exuberance. In the long-term they might be proved right, but it is already falling to steadier hands to make the reality match the promises. Part of that will be to negotiate a new relationship to Europe. Even though Britain has been protected from many of the currents of mainland European history because of its island status, it has always been affected by events there and usually involved. Is it imaginable that the EU could collapse catastrophically and the UK remain untouched? However, it should be incumbent on whatever government negotiates terms not to go with a begging bowl but to demand fundamental democratic reform.
All European nations have had appalling histories, but Britain has been a particularly successful model of political evolution. By the end of the 17th century, through the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, the political structure of Britain changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy based on the supremacy of parliament. It is the idea of parliamentary sovereignty which is the basis of modern democracy in the UK, a model much copied around the world. Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle which “makes Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law” (parliament.uk). Moreover “…the courts cannot overrule its legislation and no Parliament can pass laws that future Parliaments cannot change” (ibid). It is on the basis of the British model of parliamentary sovereignty that fundamental reform of the EU’s institutions needs to take place. The relationship of the Commission and Parliament must be reversed so that law is made by elected representatives to Parliament and the Commission or its replacement, whether elected or not, functions as a corrective, revising body. National bloc voting should be replaced by genuine trans-national political parties. The European Court should be confined to a constitutional role in interpreting acts of a European parliament. This would not be the end of reform, but unless such a fundamental change is instituted there is little future for European democracy.
Of course, it could be that the future of Europe will be different and that it will revert to a nineteenth century model of independent states and principalities in constant tension and shifting alliance. I doubt this though; the geopolitical and existential threats facing mankind require new forms of European – and global – cooperation. The EU has been a way station on the road to the emergence of a permanent European political and economic alliance, which is necessary if there is to be permanent European peace and the creation of a shared prosperity. At its best the EU has contributed to a more open, internationalist and mobile population. However, the EU has stalled and declined precisely because it is the wrong model. The right model necessitates giving real democratic power to European institutions, making them fully accountable to the people of Europe. The question remains to what extent nations would tolerate any further loss of sovereignty that this might entail.
The UK has decided in the referendum to claim back its sovereignty ceded to the EU over the past 40 years. It now finds itself in a state of flux in which it has not yet begun to find its new place in the world. Its great strength is its particular form of democracy, which should never again be compromised in any negotiation, and commitment to reforms along similar lines should be a required condition of all those with whom it negotiates. The best outcome would be the emergence from this crisis of democratically accountable European institutions with a flexible membership policy. That is something that I could imagine the UK might be willing to rejoin at some point in the future.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Britain’s defiant judges fight back against Europe’s imperial court. The Daily Telegraph.
Parliament.uk, Parliamentary Sovereignty. Available at: https://www.parliament.uk/about/how/role/sovereignty/
Timothy Garton Ash, As an English European, this is the biggest defeat of my political life. The Guardian.
Michael Petley, The vote that ended whingeing to eternity. The Daily Telegraph.
Mary Dejevsky, The leadership vacuum following the Brexit vote shows the UK is not as stable as we like to think. The Independent.
George Greenwood, Can the EU survive Brexit? CapX