Power to the people, not to Brussels

The momentum of the European Union, even when it was a mere community dedicated to free trade, was always towards greater centralisation. This was not just because of the political ideals and ambitions of its founders. Nor was it mainly because any central bureaucracy is naturally inclined to accrete more powers to itself. Far more important than either of these is brute logic. Bring down the trade barriers and a company can locate where tax rates are most advantageous while retaining its access to a continent-wide market. National governments therefore compete to lower their taxes on companies - as Ulrich Beck has pointed out, politicians used to fear foreign military invasion; now they fear foreign corporate exit - and that is the long-term trend in Europe, with Ireland leading the way and enjoying unprecedented prosperity as a result. Bring down the barriers to labour mobility, and the well-off will migrate to the countries where personal taxes are lowest, the poor and destitute to those where social security is most generous. Adopt a common currency and investors will choose the countries where they get the highest returns on their capital - which inevitably means those where business has the most freedom to hold down labour costs, to ignore trade unions and to practise what is euphemistically called "flexibility".

Thus, the pressures for tax harmonisation, for common principles of social security and for charters of labour rights come not so much from the grandiose visions of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the chairman of the convention that has drawn up a new European constitution, as from the fears of national politicians and civil servants. If the EU fails to harmonise, then its member governments, no matter how devoted to a strong public sector and vigorous regulation, will be forced slowly to shrink their tax bases, scale back social security and reduce the scope of business and employment regulation. For national politicians, there is no choice between giving up or preserving their control; the only question is whether they surrender it to private corporations or to Brussels. Conservatives, who dislike active government, will not find the answer difficult; lower taxes, less social security and less regulation are what they would choose in any case. For the left, it is, or ought to be, more tricky.

France, Germany and Italy may now look like attractive "social market" countries, more committed to welfare than the increasingly Americanised British. But the trends are in the opposite direction. The further power gets from ordinary people, the less likely it is to be used in their interests. Social democracy tends to flourish in small countries - Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and, despite its brief and catastrophic surrender to neoliberalism, New Zealand - not in large ones, still less in federations, as the United States shows. Some of this is now evident in the EU. Its rigid fiscal rules, for example, allow governments limited scope to run budget deficits - for the same reasons as Britain's national governments prohibit local authorities from substantial borrowing - and so threaten pensions and other benefits. Other EU rules drive governments to open up public services to private sector competition or prevent them from favouring the small local producer. Given its remoteness from any democratic pressure, the EU in its present form seems far more likely to become the instrument of big business than the tool of the crazed socialists who feature so largely in Tory imaginations.

The real importance of the draft EU constitution, then, is the extent to which it can create some kind of union-wide democracy. If all the convention is doing is tidying up - as British ministers claim - then it is a waste of time. More than a third of Westminster legislation already originates in Brussels; this fails to stir public interest only because so little of it directly affects people's daily lives. That is bound to change as the EU acquires more powers, particularly over economic policy; Brussels will have an effect, if only by omission. But the convention's draft is not encouraging. It offers not a single proposal to strengthen the powers of the directly elected European Parliament or to democratise the European Commission. The chief reason is opposition from national politicians, who fear that their dwindling power and legitimacy would be compromised by rivals in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Since the British last voted on Europe in 1975, centralisation has grown with no corresponding growth in democratic accountability. British ministers are wise to keep the subject away from the voters. If this constitution were put to a referendum, they and their fellow EU ministers would be told in no uncertain terms that they must do better.

That's enough Orwell - Ed

Since his death more than half a century ago, George Orwell has become like the Bible. People claim to find in his works support for every position from deep-dyed romantic conservatism to utopian socialism. He is, as Scott Lucas writes on page 52, "all things to all people". In some quarters, not even Shakespeare is so much quoted and discussed; indeed, a search of the Guardian/Observer archive reveals more uses this year of "Orwellian" than of "Shakespearean". Is it therefore time to ban references to the great man, and particularly to his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four? This may seem a harsh proposal from a journal whose pages he once graced, but he has become almost a cliche, a lazy resort for writers with axes to grind and weak arguments to support them. Let them buy new dictionaries of quotations, or freshen up their reading with other 20th-century writers. Orwell deserves better than to become a hack's prop.

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