Last week the Quaker Council for European Affairs led calmer conversations with Quakers and the wider public in London, Porthmadog, Liverpool and Manchester. These meetings offered an alternative to the off-putting and largely irrelevant debate in the media. One of these events was held jointly with the campaign group Quakers for Europe (independent of the formal Quaker church in Britain) who have spoken at many more events across the UK.
I have heard many people say they would just like basic information, and not the ‘all heat and no light‘ debate currently being presented. The events were well attended, including by representatives from the Church of England, Momentum, Unite and Scientists for Global Responsibility.
When speaking at these events I simply explained what the European Union is, what works well, and what does not work well. In January, QCEA’s governing Council discerned a position in favour of the UK’s continued membership of the EU, but also decided that the QCEA team should focus on our Quaker advocacy work rather than campaigning in advance of the referendum.
Having joined QCEA from a very different career, I felt that I could usefully share what had surprised me about the EU: what I had found to be different compared with the impression I had as a semi-interested news-consumer in Britain.
National governments are not subservient to EU, they are the EU
One of my biggest surprises was on the question of where the power actually lies in the EU. This is a question that Leave campaigners do not want us to consider. It suits their narrative for the EU to be an indivisible entity run by a mysterious band of unaccountable bureaucrats.
The EU is:
- 28 national governments (all democracies),
- a directly elected Parliament, and
- a civil service (the infamous European Commission).
The European Commission has a significant role in the EU system, but its power has been reducing. It also has little known democratic elements.
Firstly, it is national governments that set the strategy and direction for the EU. The European Council is the name given to the 28 national leaders (Cameron, Merkel, Hollande etc). The Council met 12 times in 2015, hardly a hands-off approach from the national leaders toward the European Commission. Consider last Autumn’s refugee situation. Decisions were made by the Council, with the Commission playing the junior role.
Secondly, the Commission’s departments are led by 28 Commissioners – one chosen by every EU government. David Cameron followed the tradition of most British Prime Ministers and selected an unknown politician, Jonathan Hill from the House of Lords. Eurosceptic British governments do this deliberately to limit the legitimacy and therefore the power of the Commission. Most other EU governments chose well known politicians, giving their citizens at least some hope of feeling connected to the Commission’s work.
Thirdly, did you know that citizens decide who serves as Commission President, chairing the meetings of the 28 Commissioners? As part of the European Parliament elections in 2014, each party grouping (conservative, social-democrat, liberal, green, etc) put forward a candidate for Commission President. Debates between the candidates were shown in most EU countries, but not UK. UK broadcasters decided that people would not be interested.
The UK media are not themselves EU literate enough to help citizens to connect to their EU institutions. On the day Jean-Claude Juncker was appointed as Commission President the BBC’s flagship 10 o’clock news programme announced he had become President of the European Council (the 28 governments).
The European Parliament is 751 MEPs elected by the public. 73 MEPs come from the UK elected in regions, e.g. 8 for London, 8 for North West England. Despite the impression given by some Leave campaigners who have talked about ‘us being outvoted in the Parliament’, MEPs do not sit by nationality. Like Westminster, MEPs work together in party groups. UK voters have elected 24 UKIP, 20 Labour, 19 Conservative and 10 others.
Also like Westminster, politicians discuss and amend laws. A majority have to vote in favour of draft legislation for it to be approved, as they do for the EU budget. Many participants in our calmer conversation events last week were very interested to find out more about the nuts and bolts of how the EU worked.
So, who decides on issues like TTIP?
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade deal was of concern to many participants at our events last week. But few knew that their politicians would have to vote for TTIP for it to be agreed. Even fewer knew that the UK government were amongst the biggest champions of the trade deal. If we vote to remain on 23 June, change is needed to enable citizen to connect with European affairs.
TTIP is not something ‘EU bureaucrats’ are doing to us. Every single government in the EU needs to vote for TTIP for it to be approved, and a majority of the MEPs in the Parliament also need to vote in favour. Like all EU-level policies we are not powerless. We should be engaging with our MPs and MEPs, and voting for the Europe we want to see.
It’s OK to talk about both Good and Bad
I do not have space here to expand on what does and does not work well in the EU system, but my introductory talks concentrated on the following points.
What works well?
- European values: Millions of lives changed as governments build democratic institutions that meet EU entry / association conditions.
- Diplomacy works: EU lead Iran nuclear and Kosovo negociations
- EU protects national sovereignty in a globalised world, where international organisations are the only hope for regulating corporate power.
What does not work well?
- The power of corporate lobbyists
- Limitted transparency and openness for meetings between 28 governments
- Citizens feel disconnected
So far the referendum debate has lacked moderate rational discussion, where we can openly share pros and cons, hopes and fears. Basic information is in short supply, but we do not have to follow the lead of the personality politics and self-interest driven arguments presented in the media.
QCEA has been working on some exciting positive innovations taking place at the EU, that would not be happening if the EU did not exist. One example is the current EU proposal for a circular or ‘zero-waste’ economy (see our related blogs and Around Europe articles).
Many other events have been organised by local Quaker meetings and speakers from Quakers for Europe. The remaining events are in Nottingham (14 June), Reading (15 June) and Glasgow (16 June).
A special Quaker event will also take place after the referendum on 25 June. It will be a chance to reflect on the result, whatever it may be, and an opportunity to share with each other. Perhaps the gathering might also discern what contribution Quakers can make in a spirit of love for all people. The event will take place at Reading Meeting House from 11.00 to mid-afternoon. Do join them if you can.
All images credits: QCEA, May-June 2016.