The Brexit debate is deeply divisive with negotiations are so bogged down in detail that it is in danger of blinding the public (in England and Wales at least) to their seminal importance. It is also taking place against the backdrop of a huge but largely neglected contradiction.
‘Take back control’, demand the Brexiteers. What does this mean in an age of powerful tech companies such as Google and Facebook, of international – dare I say supranational – corporations, of spooks or fraudsters in cyberspace, when anything that determines the climate or the spread of disease pays no attention to national boundaries?
It is now pretty much universally acknowledged that last year’s EU referendum vote was a protest against the assumptions of the ‘cosmopolitan liberal elite’ and the arrogance of Westminster and Whitehall, compounded by concern about immigration fuelled by media rhetoric. It was a protest by the ‘forgotten’, those, the subject of David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere, who want to preserve roots and traditional communities they feared were being eroded.
For Brexiteers, Brussels is the villain, promoting both a ‘superstate’ and ‘federalism’. That is the contradiction. A superstate suggests a centralised and anti-democratic megabureaucracy controlled by unelected officials, Eurocrats in this case.
True federalism means the effective distribution and sharing of power between different levels of self-government, from a parish or commune, to a city, through to a region or county, to the democratic institutions of a nation or state. And then, only then, to an international organisation such as the EU. And it is supported by the rule of law overseen by local, national, and international courts.
The arrogance of Westminster, Brussels, and of other national capitals (including Edinburgh in the past?) has created a ‘democratic deficit’ fuelling resentment in a growing number of nations and regions in Europe. Its latest manifestation is Catalonia and in northern Italy where the people of Veneto and Lombardy are demanding more autonomy though, in contrast to Scotland, the demands there are fed by resentment at contributing what is seen as too much to the coffers of a central state and to subsidising poorer regions.
Federalism is about power-sharing at different levels of government. It will not work without a consensus about sharing money. This can only be achieved by a healthy, active, democratic process. Federalism is not enough, but it is the essential building block.
A thoughtful MP put it this way in a recent issue of the Royal Society of Arts Journal. ‘Our charge’, wrote Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan, “is not simply to redistribute wealth but to restore power to those who rightfully own it…” She added:
In a global world, democratic control is only made possible through international cooperation. Perhaps Barack Obama’s most lasting legacy will be the use of international agreements such as the Paris Agreement on global warming and trade deals to advance progress. At federal level, city mayors cooperate to regulate apps like Uber to ensure they are used for collective good, not as tools for exploitation.
Nandy describes how California has responded with what she calls ‘state action’ such as tax incentives and regulation to stream private investment into Silicon Valley to promote green and cheap energy systems, and how a “People’s Plan in Barcelona has engaged its citizens in designing and running their city and where the mayor has ‘taken control of water and energy, halted evictions and taken action to reclaim the streets for women and the LGBT community”.
She appeals for courage “to reject an isolationist interpretation of Brexit in favour of the clear commitment expressed on doorsteps across the Leave-Remain divide for continued global cooperation but much more democratic control”. Instead, we are faced with the extraordinary prospect of less cooperation with our immediate neighbours, even a situation where borders are restored within an island – now referred, even by English politicians, to the ‘island of Ireland’ – divided many years ago by a cowardly British establishment.
Tribes and clans should be understood and their loyalties respected, everywhere in the world. They have a genuine place in any true federation. Federalism also means recognising and responding rationally to genuine fears and prejudices, including those which have led to ‘nationalist’ governments in Poland, Hungary and Austria. Constructive debate between nations and international cooperation, including the sharing of resources, are the only constructive ways to cope with the pressures of migration and stop it from becoming an ever-growing source of conflict.
A coda: it is ironic that Brussels, widely regarded in the UK as the centre of a developing European ‘superstate,’ is the capital of perhaps the most federal member of the EU. It has a federal – ‘national’– parliament, a Flemish parliament, and a Walloon parliament. Article 1 of the Belgian constitution reads: ‘Belgium is a federal state, composed of communities and regions’. The monarch is King of the Belgians, not of Belgium.