We need to talk to Yanis


We’re fighting hard to stay in the EU in this campaign, and we’ve got a good fighting chance of winning it. But it’s important to remember that this has been the campaign that never should have happened. What we’re fighting against isn’t just the lacklustre waffling of a Tory-led Vote Leave campaign that’s largely been hijacked by a fluffy-headed careerist Etonian. That would have been no problem. The real enemy is a drip-feed of decades of anti-EU propaganda and domestic politicians deflecting blame to Brussels – which is in turn made possible by the catastrophic scale of voter disengagement with European politics.

And that’s at the heart of why we should take the leftist reformers of Another Europe is Possible seriously.

The EU needs reform. This oughtn’t be a controversial statement to make; it’s self-evident that in most European elections voters have been wholly disengaged from the issues upon which they were electing their MEPs, and that’s not largely the fault of the voters. It doesn’t help that the appointed commission wields a great deal of authority with little direct accountability, and the tendency of national politicians to use European elections as mid-term referenda on national governments compounds the problem.

We, as Liberal Democrats, must not only defend the EU and its achievements in international cooperation, peace, and economic strength; we must seize the moment to build a stronger, more democratic, more liberal union. Establishment political forces are weak across Europe – this brings danger in the form of the populist right, but it also brings opportunity if we have the courage and strength to throw ourselves into grasping it. We have a unique chance to topple vested interests, to engage people with a pan-European democratic process, to build a more egalitarian economic status quo; this will, if we can achieve it, strengthen the European project for the long term.

In this fight, we must look to the left for allies, for two reasons. Firstly, we have no others; Europe’s centre-right is too wedded to the interests of the already powerful, and in the forms of Merkel or Cameron it is digging itself into trenches to defend an indefensible status quo. Secondly, we need the left to believe in reform in order to build a wide enough coalition across the continent. Leftist isolationism is a very real issue and something we should fear if we want to maintain and build upon an internationalist Europe that seeks to collaborate rather than to tear itself apart.

Constitutionally we can collaborate on building a programme to shift the EU towards more direct accountability and transparency.  We can agree to shift to fighting European elections more properly on European platforms (perhaps even as European parties), so voters actually know what they are voting for. Electorally, this will help us to regain ground at the European level and differentiate us post-coalition from the constitutional stasis and corporate economics of Cameron’s Tories, letting us stand as a party of a Europe-wide localist and decentralised social economy in an informed and reformed European Union.

If we cannot reform Europe, then in the long run eventually the nationalists will manage to take advantage of a disengaged, disaffected public and will break it apart. The consequences of this would be grave. Our differences with the emerging leftist reform movement will of course remain on some issues, but that must not stop us working together. Europe, and the potential for its liberal future, is too important for that.

* James Baillie is a member and activist from Breckland and a former chair of the Lib Dems' Radical Association. He lives and works in Vienna, Austria, as a historian specialising in digital methods and on the history of the Caucasus region. He blogs about politics at thoughtsofprogress.wordpress.com.

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  • James Baillie 31st May '16 - 2:53pm

    Peter – I (clearly) disagree, mainly in that I think you’re greatly overestimating the extent to which returning to nation-states is a) possible and b) will lead to anything other than very severe and unpleasant geopolitical fractures across the continent.

    Joe: Of course that’s true in the immediate context, this article was mainly looking to after a hopeful remain victory – the difference between leftist and rightist separatism is less the inherent issue here than the difference between leftist and rightist remainers. You’re of course right that nationalism can spring up on both the left and right, but the facts on the ground are that the socialist and social-democratic left, with its present leadership, is by and large coming round to rejecting nationalism, and provides far more fertile ground for a platform of European reform than the moribund centre-right. Genuine extremists could of course damage such a coalition, but that’s not relevant here (unless you count people like Caroline Lucas as “extremists”, in which case you’re using a rather different version of the word to me!).

  • The Labour and Liberal Democrat campaigns have been dreadful, virtually non existent. The only person taking any sense of a real popular lead is the London Mayor. The only thing we, as a party. should be commenting on, writing about and above all shouting about every day in the media is the referendum. The way things are going it will be lost.

  • James Baillie wrote, “we must seize the moment to build a stronger, more democratic, more liberal union!” and “We have a unique chance to topple vested interests, to engage people with a pan-European democratic process, to build a more egalitarian economic status quo; this will, if we can achieve it, strengthen the European project for the long term.”

    Firstly I don’t think the EU is undemocratic. OK we could reform it to allow MEPs to propose laws. I think it was clear from the last UK EU election that the public can change who their MEPs are. There are lots of places in the UK were voters have little chance of changing their MP.

    Secondly petermartin2001 states the truth – the EU is the worst of both worlds. My preference is to abolish the Euro and return to national currencies with their own national central banks. However I don’t think this will happen, so we need to get the EU to agree that no more countries can join the Euro unless their people vote in favour in a referendum. Then we need to increase the EU budget as petermartin2001 suggests so that the rich countries pay more and this extra money is spent in the poor countries or regions as a process of economic equalisation. After all as liberals we want to see more equality and less inequality and the economic sphere is a vital area to address. Thirdly we need the EU Parliament to decide where this money is spent.

    Fourthly we need to reform the European Central Bank so that its main aim is economic growth in the poorer regions and is not bothered by the rate of inflation in the richer areas. Then we will be toppling vested interests, and building a more egalitarian economic EU. And thus a liberal EU.

  • James
    Suppose you package your reform ideas into a presentation. You give this presentation to 28 EU Commissioners, ( J Claude Juncker included ). After your presentation Juncker, speaking for all of them says to you……..

    ” Interesting ideas, but anything that takes power from the Commission, is not something we are looking to approve”

    Apart from the proverbial ‘pitchfork moment’, I can see no legal or democratic EU mechanism that you can use to even budge them, let alone reform these immovable people.? So, I ask seriously,….Have you built within your reform ideas, some ‘plan B’ which can be implemented in the face of a deeply intransigent Commission, that just says…Sorry James… NO!,… no reform here, not now,.. not ever.? Is this not the democratic deficit dilemma, that Remainers are just not willing to face up to.? These untouchable people will simply not reform, [why would they.?], given that there is no democratic structure to make them reform. Frankly James,…. if there were any credible means to force EU reform, would we not have invoked those means by now?

    The EU cannot be reformed, not least because there is no Commission appetite for reform, and there is no threat to their position of power, if they simply refuse.?
    Leave, is the only rational option.

  • James Baillie 31st May '16 - 6:37pm

    Michael: whether or not the EU is undemocratic in how it is constituted, it is far more self-evidently undemocratic in practice, thanks to the complete disengagement of voters. The centre-left, left, and liberal parties of Europe can do things, both working together and working individually, to fix that – we need more media focus on the day to day work of Brussels, we need to start fighting European elections as European parties so voters are better focussed on the issues, and we need increased transparency in numerous areas. I think you’re right that central banking reform will be needed, certainly in the medium term, but I don’t think that’s by any means the only part of defeating vested interests.

    theakes: I agree we’re having problems, I think it’s hard to say how much of them are of our own making and how much it’s a media feeding swarm on the Tory party that we’re just unable to cut through. The fact that the Tories have had nearly eight times as much TV coverage as Labour in the EU campaign is absurd (and we’ve had essentially an asterisk!). I honestly don’t know how we solve that though; more big stage-sharing events might be a way to try and grab attention, perhaps, and hopefully coverage will start to balance a bit when the debates get going though I imagine the Tories will still be over-represented on all sides.

  • James Baillie 31st May '16 - 6:47pm

    J Dunn: Yes; the plan is that, in the event of an intransigent commission, one replaces the commissioners or the commission. New commissioners are appointed on a regular basis by national governments, so there is turnover there, and the European Parliament can also for that matter call a vote of no confidence upon the entire commission if necessary. The idea that the commission are constitutionally bulletproof is a myth.

    The reasons that reform hasn’t happened yet are numerous, it’s partly that the nationalists actively don’t want reform – by fighting insurgent, reformist European election campaigns across Europe, the centre-left, left, and liberals can, I think, gain momentum and put together the force they need for this.

  • Richard Whelan 31st May '16 - 7:34pm

    Tell me. Is the Leave Campaign Broadcast broadcast tonight legal? It seems to be suggesting that if you correctly predict who will win each match of the European Football Championships you could win £50 million. Isn’t this at best unethical and at worst downright dishonest? Shouldn’t they be reported to the Advertising Standards Authority and/or the Electoral Commission for this?

  • David Blake 31st May '16 - 7:59pm

    Richard, not just that, but most of the ‘facts’ in their ‘broadcast’ were dodgy. And I see that both BBC and Sky have programmes with Gove and Cameron. All other parties are being squeezed out.

  • Stevan Rose 31st May '16 - 8:27pm

    I agree James, the Commission can be budged with the will of the Council and/or the Parliament. Or the threat of either/both.

    It is odd to mention a stronger and more democratic union. Where is your evidence that a majority of citizens in the EU want a stronger union to emerge from reform. The evidence in the UK seems to point at a majority wanting either out or a reformed weaker union, the basis of Remain. Elites in some EU members undoubtedly want ever closer union, but do the people? Very doubtful – have a democratic vote on it.

    The current nature of democracy within the EU is a very clever, even ingenious, balance that ensures supreme sovereignty remains with national parliaments and the institutions complement rather than compete. There is virtually nothing you could change that would not adversely affect that balance and cause conflict. Anything that strengthens the mandate of an EU institution reduces the influence of national parliaments.

    I completely disagree with the concept that voter disengagement somehow undermines a democratic institution. It is my absolute democratic right to withhold my vote for any reason, and I understand that in doing so I accept the result as 100% legitimate. Not voting is a democratic choice. A significant reason why many people withhold their vote is because they do not trust the integrity and motivation of the candidates. And with the broken pledges it isn’t difficult to see why this party has a lot of making up to do still. Another reason is that parties often seem to be talking to themselves not to voters.

    No-one really cares about the workings of Brussels. If you have kids you care about the quality of education and childcare costs. If you are getting on then pensions and bus passes are important. Householders care about the price of energy. Students about tuition fees. Etc. Not about the European Sheepdog Unified Whistled Command Directive. Yet if you want free movement of sheepdogs then the EU’s your man or woman. Europe is excellent at the necessary technical standards stuff but it’s boring.

  • Stevan Rose 31st May '16 - 8:39pm

    http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/05/vote-leaves-50-million-question/ explains the purpose of the 50 million exercise. It is a data gathering exercise and is structured to make a jackpot winner more or less impossible, 8 billion to 1, exposing them to only £50k with the balance insured with Lloyds. Apparently fully compliant with electoral law (amendment to law needed).

  • James Baillie 31st May '16 - 8:43pm

    I didn’t necessarily mean “more integrated” by “stronger”, Stevan, “more stable and durable” was more what I was getting at.

    Not voting is of course a valid choice, but I disagree with you on how engagement correlates with legitimacy. I do firmly believe that a very large part of disengagement with Europe emanates from a lack of understanding what goes on there – if people have that understanding and choose not to vote, fine (though I think mass apathy still weakens the legitimacy of the institution, an individual’s failure to vote should not be necessarily assumed to be an informed acceptance of the result). I feel that your “sheepdog directive” comment is a misrepresentation, the EU has huge impacts on the direction of environment policies, some aspects of tax policy, trade policy, academia etc. As I see it, we and other parties bear a lot of responsibility for disengagement with Europe, which is primarily caused not because people have simply decided it’s boring, but rather because people actually haven’t got a very clear idea what the EP does, what the different MEPs will do if elected, and thus what their vote will end up doing. We can cut past that and regain momentum in European elections if we’re seen to be a party that will work with others to challenge the centres of power in Europe, with an agenda combining a real boost in democracy and transparency with clear policies that link back to people’s actual lives.

  • Stevan Rose 31st May '16 - 9:25pm

    James, I studied EU law and European Political Cooperation to degree level. I could bore for England on the wonders of the EU. I understand what goes on in Brussels better than 99% of the general population. But after 30+ years of evangelising I admit defeat. It really is boring to the vast majority. The policies you mention are implemented at national level and that is what people are interested in. The EU is the building control function, critically important at making sure the building doesn’t collapse, but not the interior designer or landscape gardener that people get excited about. But good luck!☺

  • Eddie Sammon 31st May '16 - 11:54pm

    If the centre-right is “moribund” and the left where the future is then why did the far right nearly win in Austria and why are 10’s of millions of Americans set to vote for Trump to be president (even though I still think he will lose).

    You say the centre-right is too wedded to the already powerful – in France last week we had almost a single trade union take the country hostage and threaten to cut off its energy supply. It is not as simple to say “the left stand up for the weak and the right for the powerful”.

    Let’s talk to Yanis, but don’t make the mistake of writing off the right and the centre.

  • Eddie.
    The far Right nearly won in Austria because they are the far right not centrist, The elephant in the room is immigration and the reality that politics is decided on national rather than on international issues. Trump is again a strong advocate of the nation state not an internationalist. What we are witnessing is the death throws of globalism because of a) the 2007-2008 financial collapse and b) globalism’s failure to actually engage the electorate. It seems to me that variations on austerity are leading to discontent at home which highlights the reality that, no matter how wonderful it sounds, most people do not really see themselves as citizens of the world not even when they emigrate. People are sort of tribal and more interested in their home than the rest of the world.

  • James Baillie 1st Jun '16 - 2:28pm

    Yes, the “centre right” and “far right” (at least as I’m using the terms) are distinct groups that should not be considered on a clear spectrum from one to the other.

    Glenn: agreed up to a point, and I’m going to be writing a blogpost or LDV article (or perhaps both!) in the next few weeks to elaborate more on the problems of engaging voters sceptical of international trade and institutions and bringing them behind a reformist rather than isolationist agenda.

  • @ James Baillie

    Just because people do not vote, does not make it undemocratic, because it is part of democracy to have the freedom not to vote. You really need to think about what issues people think are important during elections: Managing the economy, Immigration, NHS, Education, Benefits, Foreign Policy, Membership of the EU, Unemployment, Taxation, Care, Defence, Pensions, Law and Order, Housing (https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3447/Economy-immigration-and-healthcare-are-Britons-top-three-issues-deciding-general-election-vote.aspx#gallery%5Bm%5D/0/)
    The EU parliament decides none of these, which is the way it should be.
    However if the EU parliament had a role in managing the economy then more people will see that it is important to vote for its members. (National governments control the level of taxes, the EU only sets some stupid rules.)

  • David Allen 1st Jun '16 - 6:29pm

    Yes, EU reform is vital, yes, there are forces stacked against it, so yes, progress may be slow. But let’s not be seduced by defeatism, and kid ourselves that by pulling out, we will set Europe on a magical road to recovery. We won’t.

    Pull out, and we shall diminish ourselves, stuck with bad trade deals, the City brought low by a Europe determined on revenge, a balance of payments crisis, devaluation and relegation to the economic third rank. Pull out, and we lose all opportunity to reform the EU, which will do what it always does – muddle on, badly.

    Trump, if he wins, will “make America small again”. Brexit, if it wins, will do the same for Europe. Western prosperity is not a given. We could all be about to bring it to an end.

  • James Baillie 1st Jun '16 - 11:53pm

    David Allen – very much agreed.

    Michael, an badly informed democracy with low participation – which is what EU elections consist of – is a weak democracy. I have nowhere said that people should be forced to vote, but the fact remains that if people choose not to vote, regardless of their reasons, we should be trying to understand that and counteract it. Low engagement and understanding is exactly what’s provided UKIP and the populist right with their ability to hammer Europe unchecked; the fact that people have a right to not vote has never been in question and I’m not sure why it’s getting raised, the issue is that poor turnout and poorer understanding have created the very openings we are struggling against. Also, particularly in terms of long term growth and development, the EU does have a huge influence, and it also decides many things which, whilst not in the obvious “top choices” really do affect people’s lives in all the different walks of life I live and work in. It may be easy for you to dismiss EU tax regulation as “some stupid rules”, for example, but reform of some of these could be a huge boon for some freelancers and small businesses especially in the digital economy. We can’t just bury our heads in the sand and fail to accept that we need to tackle EU disengagement and EU institutional legitimacy; the established order is too unstable to stand, and we will either build a better Europe or, I fear, we will end up sitting in the smoking ruins of the old.

  • @ James Baillie

    Democracy is about constitutions and structures. It is wrong to talk of a badly informed democracy when you mean a badly informed public because of the free press and there being no rules about Newspapers only printing what is true. It is your belief that low participation is bad for democracy – however it makes it easier for those involved to change their representatives and every vote is worth more the fewer people who choose to vote. Is not a democracy a contest for popularity?

    The reason a political party can make attacks is because we do not have laws to insist that political parties only tell the truth and don’t misrepresent it (as we have been known to do with our bar charts). There would be no need for there to be fact checker sites for claims made by political parties if they were heavily fined, imprisoned and banned from ever being involved in elections if they published or stated sometime that was not true or a misrepresentation of the truth.

    I am not against increasing voter turnout in EU elections, but this will only happen if the public see the issues that the EU Parliament deals with as important to them, educating them about the work of the parliament will not do it (but would be a good thing in itself). This is why I have concrete areas I would like to give to parliament in the hope that these new responsibilities would increase voter engagement. It might be a good idea for the EU parliament to have its own VAT raising powers and so reduce the amounts paid by national governments. My “stupid rules” were referring to taxes. It is my belief that the stupid rules on VAT were agreed by the national governments. There should be no restrictions on a national governments deciding rates of VAT, the number of rates and if they wish to move an item from a higher rate into their zero rate.

    Please give me an example of an EU tax regulation you would like abolished to help freelances and small business? Please give me one example of something the EU Parliament has agreed that has increased economic growth (it is hard enough for the UK Parliament to do something) excluding single market rules? (I recognise that the way it setup the European Central Bank was to reduce economic growth.) The Brexit people will agree that there are lots of areas where the EU affects people’s lives, but my point was people don’t see them as important as the 14 things I listed.

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