What would it mean for Britain to leave the EU?

Talking about an EU referendum now is the wrong thing, at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons.

It is truly remarkable to hear the discussion around an EU referendum at this particular moment in time. As the global economy is dealing with problems of Herculean proportions, as the British economy is at the verge of a depression, a small number of nationalist, right-wing politicians and the tabloid press are obsessed with trying to remove the UK from the biggest single market in the world.

Never before has Britain’s membership of the EU been as important. As we fight for market share in an increasingly globalised and competitive world, being part of the biggest trading block offers us clear negotiation advantages. According to the FCO the UK is benefiting already from EU Free Trade Agreements. The recently signed South Korea Free Trade Agreement alone is expected to save European exporters £1.35 billion annually in tariff reductions. It is expected to benefit the UK economy by about £500 million per annum. The EU is also negotiating Free Trade Agreements with India, Canada and Singapore. Completing all the bilateral trade deals now on the table could add £75 billion to Europe’s GDP.

In a time when exports are imperative for the well-being of our economy, being part of the EU’s single market gives our exporters access to 500 million customers across Europe, creating jobs and growth at home. At the same time we are afforded a seat around the table where the common rules of that market are decided.

As a member of the EU the UK gains also in foreign policy terms, has more influence in international forums, like climate change talks or world trade rules, and is a more attractive partner for our American friends.

So it beggars belief that the prime minister and others toy with something as important as the country’s membership of the EU. It is clearly a game of political football, where all parties try to score goals against each other, using the EU question as a ball. But this is highly irresponsible and it does not serve the national interest. It only placates a minority of nationalist MPs and a handful of newspapers which, as the Leveson Inquiry has so clearly demonstrated, have their own agenda when it comes to the EU.

It also contributes to a sense of uncertainty; markets, global investors, our international partners (not least the US) are looking closely and perceive this tendency towards isolationism with concern. Leading figures in the City voiced fears last week that talk about leaving the EU can only damage one of the most important British industries.

The irony is that the prime minister does not want to leave the EU. Nor the majority of Tory MPs, who might dislike the EU but understand the economic benefits that come with it. Even Fresh Start, the eurosceptic group of MPs, accepts that all other available alternatives, including the Norwegian, Swiss and EFTA model, pale by comparison to full EU membership and do not suit Britain. But what they suggest instead, a nebulous and poorly defined re-negation of British membership, is impossible to materialise. In many ways what they are asking for means the unravelling of the single market.
What is to stop other member states from calling for exceptions from core elements of EU legislation? There are member states that wish to protect their national champions from EU competition rules, others that would like to raise barriers to imports. These are all things that will harm the single market (and British interests). So such re-negotiation is not possible and will push the UK towards the exit, something they have admitted they do not wish to happen.

So here we are, engaged in a pointless debate about something that can only harm the national interest. What politicians from across the political spectrum should be doing, what they should have been doing for a while in fact, is engage the electorate about what EU membership actually means.
Instead of allowing the debate to take place on the front pages of tabloid papers or be high-jacked by shadowy vested interests, they should be leading the discussion, not least during local, national and European elections. Openly, fairly and in a manner that aims to inform, instead of grand-standing and trying to score cheap political points, for internal political consumption, before or after EU summits.

The British people rightly want to be involved in what British membership implies. They are not eurosceptic, they do not want to leave the EU. Their appetite for a referendum is born out of a frustration that for far too long their elected representatives have not discussed with them the rights and responsibilities, the many benefits and inevitable costs that emanate from being a member of the EU. The sooner we make that conversation part of the normal political discourse the quicker the debate around EU membership will become a normal political debate and will start focusing on how to make the EU work even better and deliver even more for citizens in all member states. Until that happens we will remain stuck in this perpetual and populist discussion about whether to hold a referendum or not.

Petros Fassoulas is the Chairman of the European Movement UK

 

A press room is seen through an EU flag during a European Summit. Photograph: Getty Images

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage