Derek Campbell argues that support for the EU is not entirely unthinkable for Libertarians.
The political and media reaction to Cameron’s in/out of Europe speech has been generally predictable along party lines: delight from the eurosceptic Tory right and UKIP and their media supporters, less enthusiasm from the LibDems and Labour.
In broad terms it is accepted that the EU needs some reforms. The structures that it used at inception need to be revised as the membership has grown and its areas of competence have expanded. At the same time, the long standing issues of accountability, the “democratic deficit”, should be addressed and the way that the EU apparently usurps national sovereignty has been a particular concern of the political right.
Against this background it might be assumed that a Libertarian position on Europe would be generally hostile. A supra-national government on top of the existing national executive might appear to be wholly unwelcome. But I would argue that despite some serious difficulties, overall Libertarians can find much benefit from the EU.
The first area of appeal is that the EU appears to diminish the power of national governments, and generally less powerful governments are preferable to more powerful governments. Since it is unlikely that any party in government would seriously seek to reduce their power, the EU is effective, at least to some extent, at placing a curb on the UK government. The fact that some Tories bemoan the loss of sovereignty and wish to repatriate power is ample evidence of a general Conservative desire to see power concentrated in Westminster. It is not a Libertarian position to see more power in government.
The second area of appeal is the fact that one of the outstanding features of the EU at the moment is that it effectively has no enforcement mechanisms. Although there is a lot of huff and puff about the power of bureaucrats and the courts etc., there are no Europolice, no Europrisons. There is no coercive apparatus to enforce compliance with EU rules. Contrast that with what national governments have at their disposal and I am far happier with the Euro version of the Leviathan than the all powerful ruler that Hobbes and most UK governments would advocate. Despite reports to the contrary, there is cooperation with and within the EU since there are in fact limited means by which the EU can force anyone to do anything. A non-coercive government sounds like a very Libertarian solution.
But when considering the lack of force that the EU has, it seems reasonable to ask: “how does the EU achieve sovereignty?” The answer is twofold.
In the first instance the reduction in national sovereignty is more of a myth than reality. Despite rumours to the contrary, Europe is not a state. UK politicians run the UK (insofar as politicians can be said to run anything!) Certainly it is not the case that UK politicians receive their orders from Brussels.
Second, a combination of laziness and mischief would lead people to believe that the EU is deciding every detail of British life. Two examples spring to mind:
An article in the Daily Mail on the eve of the Conservative Party conference (6 October 2012) suggested that charities reusing jam jars for preserves was contrary to EU law. The Women’s Institute and churches advised their members not to sell home made jam in second hand jam jars. Clearly the bogey-man here is the EU. But in fact no such law, regulation or rule exists to outlaw such a practice. (See Vicarage Cat blog for details)
Similarly, The Daily Telegraph reported that the EU wanted to have the power to sack journalists. Douglas Carswell suggested that having the EU oversee the British press was “quite simply intolerable”. Nigel Farage thought the proposals “outrageous”. Unfortunately the title of this “Orwellian” report from the EU is “A free and pluralistic media to sustain
European democracy”. Whilst it would be untrue to say that everyone would agree with all of the high level recommendations it is equally true that the report is concerned with maintaining media plurality, wants journalists to be professional in their work and that those that cause damage should be held to account. (Thanks to Hardo Müller post on the Pirate Party Facebook site 23 January)
To summarise, the EU is far from perfect and reform is overdue. However, the EU is not as malign as some in the press and some politicians make out. There are cases where the rhetoric and the evidence are difficult to reconcile and, not unsurprisingly, it is the evidence that is more robust. On the face of it the EU lacks power, it is not a state, it has few if any coercive forces. Finally, the EU has been effective at encouraging the nation states of Europe to work together cooperatively and has at least to some extent diluted the power of Westminster. All in all, from a Libertarian perspective the EU appears to get some things right!
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