The general election in December 2019 resulted in the Conservative Party, under Boris Johnson, receiving a landslide majority of 80 seats. This was the mandate he was hoping for to ‘get Brexit done’. Was it ‘Brexit fatigue or the lack of credible opposition, or was it his campaign slogan?
Taking back control of our borders, our money and our laws. The title of a ministerial document signed by the Prime Minister dated November 2019.
In this post, it is appropriate to use these headings in understanding the reasons behind the UK leaving the EU.
Taking back control of our Borders
This flows from the economic relationship with Europe and embraces some of the main principals of the European Union. That is; the free movement of people, goods and services (including money). All as enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, as well as in most of the Schengen Agreement, although the UK opted out of the latter in order to retain control of its borders, it still had to accept the principals of ‘free movement’.
The UK had traditionally been a melting pot of peoples and cultures. This owes much to its colonial past and the ability to bring in labour from the colonies in times of need. To its credit, Britain has often accept refugees from Europe and beyond, but this was always under its own governmental control and the openness required by the Maastricht Treaty did not sit well with the Home Office; which is the department responsible for border security and immigration. Immigrants were not always treated well in Britain, certainly not as equals, even in recent years.
The UK Home Office hostile environment policy is a set of administrative and legislative measures designed to make staying in the United Kingdom as difficult as possible for people without leave to remain, in the hope that they may ” leave voluntarily” or not come at all. The policy was first announced in 2012 under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. It was widely seen as being part of a strategy of reducing UK immigration figures to the levels promised in the 2010 Conservative Party Election Manifesto.
It has notably led to significant issues with the “Windrush generation” and other Commonwealth and European citizens being deported after not being able to prove their right to remain in the UK, despite being guaranteed that right. The policy has been cited as one of the harshest immigration policies in the history of the United Kingdom, and has been widely criticised as inhumane, ineffective, unlawful and that it has fostered xenophobia within the UK. We can recall many examples and in some cases the simple act of driving a “foreign registered” car in the UK can evoke abuse.
The Brexiteers managed to take advantage of this xenophobia by suggesting that the freedom of movement allowed EU workers to take jobs away from UK workers for lower wages. They famously suggested that, if the UK stayed in the EU, Britain would be overrun by thousands of Turkish workers; a completely false statement as Turkey was not in and was unlikely to join the EU.
There were of course many “Europeans” working in finance, business, research, education usually centred on London, but the vast majority took low paid work in, hospitality, healthcare, food processing, cleaning and agriculture; which most British people did not want to do anyway!
By leaving the EU (to quote form the government’s document):
“Free movement will end, with our own Parliament deciding our domestic immigration policy in the national interest. New controls will be put in place as part of a fairer immigration system, which focuses on a person’s skills, not where they come from. The brightest and best will continue to be welcomed, serving the interests of the whole of the UK and reflecting the needs of businesses and communities.”
To trust this policy to an institution such as the Home Office is risky in the extreme!
As we have seen, British governments have always had a problem with the idea of free movement of workers if only because they felt that they had no real control over who entered (or left) the country. However remaining outside Schengen kept their ability for border and security checks which, as an island nation, were easy for the UK to implement, except for the Irish land border which is another problem.
We have seen several industries benefit from the free movement of people, goods and services and that so much of this has been facilitated by common laws and regulations.
The implication of the Governments statement is clear. The UK would be able to pick and choose as it wanted, as in the past, perhaps from the former colonies. Although there are pressures to allow such freedoms of movement within new trade negotiations with other nations, they hoped to regulate this by introducing a ‘points based system’ and tightening immigration controls.
Some British industries had been utilising the free movement of workers to mitigate the shortage of local or seasonal labour. This was predominantly the case for work in agriculture, transport, construction and hospitality, although many European workers were permanently integrated in other services such as health and social care.
They were all contributing to the UK economy, but were they undercutting the wages and depriving British people of their livelihood as some have claimed?
The answer to this started to become evident with the xenophobia created during the 2016 referendum and the hostile environment which flowed from the result. Many, especially the seasonal workers, had come from the poorer countries of Eastern Europe and worked away to provide for their families back at home. Clearly these European workers felt unwelcome and unwanted in Britain and as the value of their earnings in sterling diminished against the Euro, they started to go home or find work in other European states.
But how many EU nationals are still working or a least resident in the UK? The best estimate by the Office of National Statistics put the number at 3.5 million around the time of the referendum. This was thought to be inaccurate since it was based on voluntary information provided by people entering the UK! Although it is accepted that many EU nationals left the UK immediately after the referendum and more returned to their families in Europe because of the pandemic, applications for UK residency under the “EU Withdrawal Agreement” approached 6 million! A few multiple applications can not account for this huge discrepancy.
None the less, as Britain attempts to rebuild its economy, a shortage of labour is creating major problems for farmers and other sectors such as transport, hospitality, health and social care. Is the pandemic hiding the reality of loosing European labour?Time will tell, although there may very well be sufficient local labour to redeploy and re-train. For example, as the travel industry shrinks, is it too facetious, or silly to think of airline pilots retraining as HGV drivers and their aircrews working in hospitality and social care. The unwillingness of workers to redeploy into less well-paid jobs would prove the point that the UK had indeed been enjoying cheep labour from (Eastern) Europe.
On the cultural side, many of us have enjoyed freedom of travel throughout Europe. Perhaps a package holiday in Spain, a cheep weekend flight to explore a city, or just the pleasure of jumping in the car and crossing borders for an impromptu visit to friends and family. We can not underestimate the personal benefits of travel. The relaxing break from working life, visiting the wonders of other countries and opening our minds to other cultures, languages, foods and above all the people. Without doubt, restriction put in place by most governments due to the Covid pandemic, have hidden the true effect of new restrictions on European travel.
Regardless of these new restrictions or even because of them, many British people remain attracted to the idea of relocating to (mainland) Europe, France, Spain are still popular.
Of course the travel industry is as important to the UK as it is to every European country. It is clear that things will change for the British visitors both too and from Europe.
The early days of Britain’s departure from the EU has thrown up many surprises. They may not be specific to the UK but are normal global requirements, which British businesses and travellers had avoided as members of the EU. Tax and duty free goods, boarder delays, work permits and limits to visa free travel will become normal once again.
Taking back control of our Money
There is little doubt that the UK has achieved economic benefits from its membership of the European Community or Union. So much so that it quickly became a nett contributor to the European budget and even with the “rebate” remained among the top few contributors as the Union expanded. The concept of richer nations supporting the poorer ones is laudable and makes both economic as well as moral sense.
The Brexiteers view is that: “vast annual payments to the EU will end and the UK will leave the EU budget. Money can now be invested in domestic priorities, including the NHS. Every part of the UK will benefit, with billions in extra funding for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales”.
This oversimplifies things and we need to look on the side of the famous red campaign bus start an analysis. The bold inference was that the UK paid £350 million a week for its membership of the EU., money which could be spent on the British health services. This “estimation” was based on a UK Treasury gross estimation of £17.8bn for the year 2015. It had to be and estimation because the gross amount of £348 per week was never actually paid. This annual figure is purely hypothetical, however, since Margaret Thatcher negotiated Britain’s rebate in 1984, the UK has been required to pay significantly less than the 1% of national GDP that member states are normally expected to pay into the EU’s collective budget. The same Treasury figures clearly show Britain’s EU budget rebate for 2015 was £4.9bn. Deduct that from £17.8bn and you get £12.9bn – or £248m a week. This is the sum now recognised by the independent fact-checking.
But even that lesser weekly sum does not fairly reflect the cost to the UK of EU membership, because it ignores EU spending on the UK. Again in 2015, the Treasury estimated these receipts from Brussels at £4.4bn, money spent mainly in the private sector but also distributed by public bodies, to farmers and poorer parts of the UK, such as Cornwall and South Wales. This equates to a nett contribution of around £136m a week which would be available to spend on public services after leaving the EU, unless a future Westminster Government decides to stop spending money on British farmers, scientific research and the country’s poorer regions.
The question remains if this is too high a price to pay for access to the Single Market and Customs Union? One can also argue that the Westminster Government and not the European Union that ultimately controlled the direction of all UK’s budget which starved the NHS and Local Authorities of funding (affecting the care sector) by imposing austerity policies following the banking crises of 2008.
Taking back control of our laws
“EU law in the UK will end, as will the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European
Union (CJEU). The laws that we live by will once again be passed by our elected representatives in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London – who are fully accountable to the people of the UK. UK courts will no longer refer cases to the CJEU, with our Supreme Court truly supreme.”
If you take the view, as many people do, that the European Union is just a big club, then any club must adopt rules, regulations and procedures for the benefit of its membership. And it must also have a means of arbitration to resolve any disputes.
Over the years the EU has developed a complicated structure, through which all its members can have their input, in as equal and democratic way as possible. With a seemingly endless list of institutions, The European Parliament; European Council; Council of the European Union; European Commission; Court of Justice of the European Union, plus numerous committees, it is no wonder that some view the EU as burdensome and unnecessary. However it has all grown from the desire for equality and democracy, perhaps too much democracy for some British parliamentarians and industrialists!
On the face of it through the participation of representatives from all the democratically elected governments and directly elected members of a European Parliament the setup is as good as it could be.
One can argue that, as a political institution, it is actually more democratic than the British parliamentary system by virtue of its proportional representation; there in lies the problem. By accident or design much of the UK has considered electing MEP’s as irrelevant, with low funding, publicity and therefore low voter turnout. This was a situation that, played into the hands of the nationalists whose only objective was to disrupt the European Parliament. In 2014, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) won 24 of the 73 seats and 27% of the popular vote greatly influencing the Cameron Government in holding the 2016 referendum.
When the European Parliament first met in 1952 (then known as the Common Assembly of the ECSC), its members were directly appointed by the governments of member states from among those already sitting in their own national parliaments. Since 1979, however, MEPs have been elected by direct universal suffrage. Earlier European organizations that were a precursor to the European Union did not have MEPs.
Each member state established its own method for electing MEPs – and in some states this has changed over time – but the system chosen must be a form of proportional representation. Some member states elect their MEPs to represent a single national constituency; other states apportion seats to sub-national regions for election.
Therefore when the United Kingdom joined the European Community on 1 January 1973 it became entitled to send thirty-six representatives to the European Parliament. For the first six years of Britain’s membership – from January 1973 to June 1979 – these members were nominated from the two Houses of Parliament and hence held a dual mandate. From January 1973 to June 1975 only twenty-one British members, Conservative, Liberal, Ulster Unionist and a cross-bench peer, attended the Parliament; Labour members attended from the first session after the referendum on British membership of the European Community in June 1975.
The allocation of seats to each member state is based on the principle of degressive proportionality, so that, while the size of the population of each country is taken into account, smaller states elect more MEPs than is proportional to their populations. As the numbers of MEPs to be elected by each country have arisen from treaty negotiations, there is no precise formula for the apportionment of seats among member states. No change in this configuration can occur without the unanimous consent of all governments.
For example in 2014 there were 751 seats. Germany was allocated 96 seats, France 74, Italy and UK each held 73 seats while Finland and Denmark held13 each. Naturally the success of any member or group within an organisation depends on enthusiasm and commitment. There is no doubt that many of UK’s politicians were enthusiastic and committed to the EU and the influence of the majority of UK’s MEP’s on European Legislation should not be understated. In fact as one of the “Big Three” along with France and Germany, the UK shaped European Law to such an extent that it had to be transpose into English Law in order to fill the legal vacuum as the UK formally left the EU!
The idea was that, anything deemed inappropriate could be revise as needed. Ironically, the government of Teresa May assumed that all this legal work would be nodded through at executive (Cabinet) level, but the English and Scottish Supreme Courts made it clear that the UK Parliament was the only legislative authority. This precipitated months of political uncertainty (even turmoil) since the only way that the May government could be sure of a majority in the House of Commons, was (literally) to buy the loyalty of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Meanwhile negotiations on EU Withdrawal Agreement (WA) were grinding to a stop over the problem of the border between Northern Ireland and The Irish Republic. Following the surprise Conservative majority in the December 2019 election, an eleventh hour deal was struck by agreeing to some form of border in the Irish Sea which was something Johnson himself had said must never happen. However he now had a sizeable majority and could sideline the DUP to get his deal done!
So the UK exited the EU on 31 January 2020 and entered an eleven month transition period during which a future trading relationship had to be agreed. Britain turned ‘full circle’, a good time to refer back to Winston Churchill’s suggestion of a “United States of Europe” and the comments made in DeGaulle’s Veto of 1963.