Respect and reciprocity: the keys to the future of the EU

What have the following in common?

+ The Scottish 45% YES to break up the UK….
+ The Growth of National Front in France….
+ English anti EU sentiment and support for UKIP….
+ The strength of Tea Party  and the polarisation of politics in the  USA and
+ The growing support for anti immigrant parties in Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands

They have this in common: all these parties want to withdraw from some international commitment or other and shut the doors of their nation to outside influences.

What support for these parties shows is that an introverted and recessive Nationalism is on the rise again. This is a reaction against globalisation by those who have benefited less from it than others did. It should be noted that all have benefited from globalisation through cheaper food, clothes, and cheaper communications. But some have benefited much more than others, and the “others” are expressing their disgruntlement through votes for these populist parties.

These parties want a repatriation of powers to the national level, and even complete withdrawal from international bodies like the WTO, the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights. People supporting these parties say they do not understand how Brussels works, or how Westminster or Washington works. But do they really understand any better how their local council works ?

This is why I am unconvinced that concession of their literal demands would actually remove the discontents that lie behind support for these parties. For example, I am not convinced that an elaborate system of federalism within UK, or UK withdrawal from the EU, would actually assuage the anger being expressed through UKIP votes. The experience of post Franco regional devolution in Spain is not completely reassuring.

In Scotland, the younger and the poorer sections of population were the most alienated, and voted most strongly for Scottish independence . This is despite the fact that public spending per head, on which poorer people depend more, is already higher in Scotland than it is in England. It is £10,152 per head in Scotland, as against £8,529 in England. On those figures, complete fiscal would worsen the position of poorer Scots.


I believe these vote reflect a sense of not being listened to, of not being respected, than they do a demand for particular constitutional or institutional changes. Do Scots feel respected, and listened to, in UK? Do working class voters of the National Front, UKIP, and the Tea Party voters feel respected by metropolitan elites? I fear the answer in “No” in all cases. 


Fear of what may happen in the future drives people in the direction of populist solutions and parties. States have made health promises and pension promises that will become unaffordable, as the proportion of the population that is elderly grows. Meanwhile, many private  pension schemes are underfunded. Another pervasive fear is that of redundancy in mid life. In such a circumstance, it is difficult to know what new skills to go for, and it is equally difficult to move to another city to find work, after a certain age.


These fears feed anti immigrant sentiment. Immigration disturbs the bucolic image some people have of their ideal national environment..forgetting that, if they actually lived in their ideal environment, they would probably find it claustrophobic and boring. There IS  also competition for low skilled jobs, and immigration DOES drive some wage rates down. But automation and labour saving devices are devaluing all forms of low skilled work anyway and probably are more important drivers of income inequality.


The growth in inequality in incomes is also a factor in the growth in support for populist parties. Inequality is driven by many factors. It is driven by technology: technology replaces low skilled workers, while increasing the rewards of the higher skilled people, or insiders, who control the technology. One should not ignore the importance of celebrity in causing inequality. Celebrity brings disproportionate increases in relative income. Celebrity footballers, and celebrity CEO’s, represent the same phenomenon. A firm’s stock price is driven partly by the reputation of its CEO and that means a well known CEO can command a higher salary package. Inequality is also driven by access to financial leverage, and assets that can be used for leverage.

Thus high financial sector incomes evoke particular concern. These are all issues that need to be dealt with by national governments, through the tax system. But they should not be used to justify turning away from the EU or from the benefits that globalisation has brought.


We are not going back to a world of Empires in which Europeans, or people of European ancestry, could make the rules of the game to suit themselves. We can perhaps limit the pace of immigration, but we cannot stop it.

So we need updated civic education of ourselves, and of immigrants to our shores, on questions like “What does it mean to be British?”, “Can one be British, Scottish and European all at the same time?”, “What does it mean to the Irish and European, but of African ancestry?”, ” What are the values that underlie these statements?”


We also need to work out the practical implications of reciprocity as a principle of international relations.

Let me illustrate this by reference to debates now taking place in the UK. If EU citizens immigrating to UK to work are to have restricted access to state benefits, how might that affect the entitlement to health service of the 2m UK citizens living in other EU countries? If the UK want access to an EU Single market to sell its goods and services does that means accepting  common EU standards for those goods and services, even fiddling rules on thing that seem  not to matter, unless we all recognise everyone else’s standards regardless which could be bad for consumers?

In particular, the UK wants a single EU market for services; but services are provided by people, and these people may need to travel to another country to provide those services, which gets you back into the immigration debate

If Britain wants a veto on certain EU laws, rather than have them decided by majority, 27 other countries will also have to get that veto too. If, as some Conservatives propose, the UK withdraws from the European Convention on Human Rights, what effect will that have on the hard won agreement on policing in Northern Ireland, which depends on access for police complainants to the EHCR? Is the plan just to take England out of the EHCR, or to take Northern Ireland out as well?


If the EU is to survive, EU citizens need a sense that they can cast a vote to change the men or women at the top in the EU, in the same way as they can change the people at the top in Dail Eireann, in Westminster, in Birmingham city council, or in their local tennis club. It is not that citizens want to get into the details, but they do want a vote on the EU’s direction of travel. 

Globalisation has been taking key decisions above the level of individual states for a long time. That is nothing new. But the time has come to make it more democratic. The International Telegraph Union dates back to 1865. The International Court in the Hague dates back to 1945. Traditionally the rules, governing bodies like these,  were negotiated in private in the form of inter state Treaties, between diplomats, and later interpreted by judges. Elected people were often only involved at end of process in saying a simple YES or No to result, by ratifying the Treaty or not.

The EU is different. In the EU, politicians in the Commission initiate laws, and politicians in the European Parliament  and the Council decide if these laws will come into effect. In this sense, the EU is MORE democratic than virtually all other international organisation in the world, but it’s not democratic ENOUGH. 

I believe the direct election of the President of the European Commission by the 500 million people of the EU, not simply by the 28 heads of EU Governments, is needed. Only in that way will we  create a well informed democratic EU public opinion. That would be the best answer of all to the populists.


Gorbachev’s advisor Alexander Arbatov said in 1989 at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union to a western diplomat: “we have done you the worst of services, we have deprived you of an enemy” Since then, the lack of perceived external threat has led to weak economic management in Europe, to an unnecessary war in Iraq,  to increasing debt,  to weakened military strength, and to the making of insincere promises that could not be fulfilled when to going got tough.

Now, that period is over. We now see, thanks in part to ill considered promises of eventual NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, that those countries have suffered pre-emptive annexations of parts of their territory by force by Russia. The UN Charter and the Helsinki accords on territorial integrity of states have been binned. In Eastern Ukraine we are now witnessing I recently heard a US general describe as “a new kind of warfare”.

Meanwhile, the growing strength of China’s navy distracts US from Europe, and European and US interests are diverging because the US is  becoming energy self sufficient, whereas Europe is not.

And productivity in Europe is lagging. According to the OECD, EU labour productivity is  growing at 0.6% pa, while productivity in the rest of the OECD is growing at 1.2% a year.


Rather than contemplating separatism, Europeans should be thinking about our precarious position in the 21st century world and uniting to do what we can do about it.

[Based on a speech delivered at the Textile Services Association National Conference 2014, Dublin]