On Saturday, The Observer revealed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recently appointed chief of staff received around £235,000 of EU farm subsidies over the course of two decades in relation that his family owns. Dominic Cummings is often portrayed as the mastermind behind the successful referendum campaign to Leave the European Union. So he is currently enemy no.1 among remain-supporters.
I am unconvinced this latest line of attack plays in Remainers’ favor (I was a marginal Remain voter in the referendum and still hold out some hope for an eventual EEA/EFTA arrangement). Instead, this story serves as a reminder of probably the worst feature of the current EU: the Common Agricultural Policy.
The CAP spends more than a third of the total EU budget (for a population of half a billion people) on agricultural policies that support around 22 million people, most of them neither poor nor disadvantaged as Cummings himself illustrates. Food is chiefly a private good and both the interests of consumers, producers and the environment (at least in the long-term, as suggested by the example of New Zealand) are best served through an unsubsidized market. But the CAP, developed on faulty dirigiste economic doctrines, has artificially raised food prices throughout the European Union, led to massive over-production of some food commodities, and denied farmers in the developing world access to European markets (the US, of course, has its equivalent system of agricultural protectionism).
These economic distortions make an appearance in my new paper with Charles Delmotte, ‘Cost and Choice in the Commons: Ostrom and the Case of British Flood Management’. In the final section, we discuss the role that farming subsidies have historically played in encouraging inappropriately aggressive floodplain drainage strategies and uneconomic use of marginal farming land that might well be better left to nature:
British farmers currently receive substantial subsidies through the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. This means that both land-use decisions and farm incomes are de-coupled from underlying farm productivity. Without the ordinarily presumed interest in maintaining intrinsic profitability, farmers may fail to contribute effectively to flood prevention or other environmental goals that impacts their output unless specifically incentivized by subsidy rules. If the farms were operating unsubsidized, the costs of flooding would figure more plainly in economic calculations when deciding where it is efficient to farm in a floodplain and what contributions to make to common flood defense. Indeed, European governments are currently in the perverse position of subsidizing relatively unproductive agriculture with one policy, while attempting to curb the resulting harm to the natural environment with another. These various schemes of regulation and subsidy plausibly combine to attenuate the capacity of the market process to furnish both private individuals and local communities with the appropriate knowledge and incentives to engage in common flood prevention without state support.
Our overall argument is that it is not just the direct costs of subsidies we should worry about, but the dynamics of intervention. In this case, they have led not only farmers but homeowners and entire towns to become reliant on public flood defenses with significant costs to the natural environment. There is limited scope for the government to withdraw provision (at least in a politically palatable way).
Turning back to The Observer’s gotcha story, it isn’t clear to me that Cummings is a hypocrite. I think the best theoretical work on hypocrisy in one’s personal politics comes from Adam Swift’s How Not To be Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed. In it Swift argues that the scope to complain about supposed hypocritical behavior, especially taking advantage of policies that you personally disagree with, can be narrower than intuitively imagined, mainly because of the nature of collective action problems. Swift’s conclusion is that, in some circumstances, leftwing critics of private schools are entitled to send their own children to private schools so long as others continue to do so and burden of doing otherwise is too strong. Presumably, this also means that strident libertarians are not hypocritical to use public roads so long as a reasonable private alternative is unavailable.
In an environment where every farmer receives an EU subsidy, it might be asking too much of EU-skeptic farmers to deny it to themselves. Instead, it seems legitimate and plausible to take the subsidy while campaigning sincerely to abolish it.
- Europe’s Ancien Régime returns Jäger and David Adler, London Review of Books
- Monetary imperialism in French West Africa Ndongo Samba Sylla, Africa is a Country
- In defense of George W Bush Feaver & Inboden, War on the Rocks
- Justice Ginsburg on Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh Jonathan Adler, Volokh Conspiracy
Denmark Maastricht Treaty: after a referendum rejected it, opt outs were negotiated and the Treaty was approved by referendum with the opt outs
There was no referendum in Italy on the Nice Treaty, or if there was evidence appears to have disappeared from the net. Maybe it’s a beneficiary of the right to be forgotten law.
France and Netherlands: Constitution was dropped. Replaced by less ambitious Lisbon Treaty.
Italy: same comment for Lisbon Treaty as for Nice Treaty
Greece: Euro bailout referendum The rejection of the bailout package was a referendum held in Greece only for an agreement affecting all member states of the Eurozone. They did not wish to change the terms of the bailout and how would it be democratic for a vote in one state to override the wishes of the elected governments in other states. The elected Greek government was free to choose to leave the Euro if it was not willing to accept the terms for a bailout, The elected government and the national assembly chose to stay in the Eurozone and continue bail out negotiations on terms acceptable to the other states.
All states choose freely to remain in the EU apart from the UK, which has not provided a brilliant example so far of the advantages of withdrawal. When the UK voted to leave, the EU respected the result and entered into negotiations while the UK Parliament failed to agree on a withdrawal plan. States which stay in the Union are to some degree constrained by other stages of the union, as applies to the member states of the USA or the states which make up federal Germany.
There is no populist right anti-EU surge. Voting participation increased. The old centre-right and centre-left in the European Parliament declined but the centre holds with a stronger role for Greens and Liberals. The European Union is not anti-democratic and does not impose its will on member states. Its decision-making is complex, but that is to achieve consensus, not to eliminate democracy. The EU and the Euro currency are more popular. At least for the moment, the EU’s institutions, democracy, and projects are strengthened.
Elections for the European Parliament (the Parliament of European Union) the took place between 23rd and the 26th of May this year. The official results can be found here. The turn out was the highest since 1994 at 51%. This is higher than for the US Congressional Elections of last year, though that was the highest turnout in an ‘off year’ (a year in which the President is not up for election) for over a century. There is no equivalent figure to the President of the United States in the European Union. Roughly speaking the US President is equivalent to a combination of the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council, neither of which are directly elected, and have a tiny bureaucracy compared with the machine of the United states federal government, at their service. There is no reason then for European Union elections to generate as much voter participation as US elections when the President is elected. Even so, such elections in the United States have only generated marginally more participation than EP elections, 55.5% in the 2016 election. It seems reasonable to conclude that the European Parliament has had some success in establishing itself as a representative institution, even compared with an elected body as old as the Congress of the United States.
Political Groups in the European Parliament
The European Parliament is mostly composed of Members (MEPs) who sit in transnational political groupings, which usually have a transnational party, essentially serving as a framework for co-operation between national parties. The political groups in the European Parliament are prone to change in their political boundaries and composition, but the four biggest groups have existed in a mostly stable way over multiple elections. They are:
- European People’s Party (EPP, also referred to as Christian Democrats, centre-right),
- Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D, often referred to as the Socialists, centre left),
- Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE, also known as the Liberals, containing classical liberals, left liberals, various moderates and centrists),
- Greens/European Free Alliance (G/EFA, often referred to as the Greens, left leaning environmentalists plus leftwing regionalists).
The other groups, which have been less stable so far or have not existed for very long are:
- European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL, left socialists, communists and left-wing greens),
- European Conservatives and Reformists (Eurosceptic right),
- Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD, Eurosceptic right and centrists),
- Europe of Nations and Freedom (EFN, nationalist right).
I take results from here, focusing on percentage of seats as the easiest way to understand the proportional support of these groups both within the EP and the EU electorate. It makes comparison with the last Parliament (elected in 2014) easier as the number of seats has slightly increased (from 749 to 751) and most importantly because defections, expulsions and reconstruction within and across groups means that a comparison with the seats for political groupings of the 2014 parliament at the end of its term is easiest. Percentage of seats in the outgoing EP in brackets.
- EPP 23.83 (28.84)
- S&D 20.37 (24.70)
- ALDE 13.98 (9.21)
(This result relies on assuming Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list in France and and the Save Romania Union will join ALDE though this has not been confirmed. It does seem overwhelmingly likely. )
- G/EFA 9.85 (6.94)
- ECR 8.39 (10.28)
- ENF 7.72 (4.81)
- EFDD 7.19 (5.61)
- GUE/NGL 5.06 (6.94)
(the remainder is composed of non-aligned MEPs)
Stories and Trends
The big story in the build up to the election was whether there would be a populist right/eurosceptic breakthrough. The political groups that could be classified as such are ECR, ENF and EFDD. Their total at the end of the 2014 Parliament was 20.7%. Their total now is 23.3%. There was a swing in this direction, but only of 2.6% of seats which is a good deal less than a breakthrough. It is a long way short of the 30% which might have enabled them, presuming they could co-ordinate, to block the EP from progress in the wrong direction, from its point of view, though the way committee memberships and chairs are distributed. GUE/NGL is sometimes classified as left populist/eurosceptic, though it contains a variety of views. It fell back and if we add it to the right-wing eurosceptic seats, we still only get a total of 28.9%. There is little prospect of the right-wing groups co-ordinating closely and none at at all of close co-ordination of these three plus GUE-NGL.
The big story as the results came in was less the right-wing eurosceptic swing than the swing within the groups which support the EU with as much power as it has now, or movement towards more EU powers.
There was a notable shift from EPP and S&D to ALDE and G/EFA, so from the centre-right and centre-left to the liberal centre, greens, and regionalists.
Generally speaking the EPP has moved from previous domination by a grand coalition of EPP and S&D to a more fragmented or pluralist situation in which a centre ground, pro-EU middle ground requires ALDE for a majority and is also likely to bring in G/EFA, with the place of the Eurosceptic right consolidated.
The Liberal swing is largely based on Liberal Democrat success in the UK and the new Macronist list in France. The Green swing is based in northwestern Europe. S&D remain comparatively strong in Spain and Portugal, with a good result in the Netherlands. ENF is dominated by the League in Italy and the National Rally in France. ECR is dominated by PIS in Poland.
Traditional centre-right and centre-left parties had very bad results in France and the UK. The radical and populist left has fallen back, particularly in France, Spain, Greece, and Ireland.
Despite what some reporting might lead you to believe, hard Brexit did not win in the UK and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally did not have a big success in France. The Brexit Party was the single most popular party in Britain, but even if its vote is combined with the United Kingdom Independence Party (from where its leader Nigel Farage came from), the no-deal hard Brexit vote (33.8%) was distinctly less than the combined vote for second referendum and remain supporting parties (39.8%): Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK, Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, Alliance Party (Liberal Democrat partners in Northern Ireland). The European trend for the traditional centre-right and centre-left to collapse was heightened by the inability of both the Labour and Conservative parties to find a clear direction on Brexit and achieve internal unity on the issue. UK participation in the election was the result of the failure of the pro-Brexit Conservative government to find a Brexit policy with majority support in the UK Parliament.
In France, despite transforming the National Front into the National rally with the aim of broadening support, Marine Le Pen lost ground compared with the 2014 European election. National Rally was slightly ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list, but given Le Pen has not increased her base and given that Macron is clearly ahead of all non Le Pen forces, it is likely that the next Presidential election in France will be between Le Pen and Macron again, with another victory for Macron.
Democracy, Law, and Bureaucracy in the European Union
Two ideas circulate widely about the European Union that cannot both be true, though the same people often state both. 1. The EU Parliament has no power. 2. The European Union imposes over-regulation and bureaucratisation on member states to an oppressive degree. As the European Parliament’s main role is as co-legislator in matters of regulation, it is a major actor in this issue. It co-legislates on regulation with the European Council, an assembly of government ministers from member states varying according to the policy area in question.
The European Council and the European Parliament act under the direction of the Council of the European Union, which is composed of heads of governments of member states and the heads of EU institutions. The European Commission drafts legislation. It has the sole power to initiate legislation, but only under the direction of the Council of the EU and with the agreement of Parliament and the European Council.
Despite what is frequently assumed, the Commission is not an oligarchy of unaccountable permanent civil servants commanding a vast expensive, complex bureaucracy. The Commission is nominated by member states and is very largely, if not entirely, composed of commissioners who have been elected politicians at a senior level and not civil servants. The Commission has to be confirmed by the Parliament which can also forced the Commission to resign. The Commission did resign in 1999 before the Parliament could force it to do so. The Parliament has the right to suggest legislation to the Commission, and since it can sack the Commission, it cannot be ignored. The bureaucracy of the Commission is no greater in numbers than the larger units of local and municipal government in the UK.
The EU structure of decision making is complex and indirect. It is not anti-democratic rule by bureaucrats. Laws and decisions are made by bodies which are either directly elected by the citizens of the European Union or are made up of members of elected governments. The Commission can only exist through the will of elected member state governments and the Parliament. The President of the Commission tends to be the public face of the European Union, though recently that has been shared with the President of the Council of the EU. This public role tends to create confusion and exaggerated ideas about the power of the Commission. Though in EU thinking, the Commission is the civil service of the Union, it also a political body appointed to guard the treaties that have constituted the EU. The role of defending agreed basic law is not obviously an anti-democratic conspiracy, it is surely part of a stability of law necessary to the functioning of any political institution. Clearer lines of decision making would be preferable in some respects, but is difficult to achieve so long as the EU operates on a consensus between member states.
Those who are most hostile to the idea of a fully federalised European Union with strong decision making powers are also those most likely to claim that the EU is a bureaucratised conspiracy against member states, lacking clear and direct lines of political decision making. Decisive decision making by directly elected bodies would go beyond what is politically feasible now or in any feasible future. Such clear decision making would require a far far larger bureaucracy and much more intervention in member states. The EU works by consensus between member states and institutions. Unfortunately at any one time it tends to suit some people to claim that the EU is a conspiracy against member states, or a member state supposedly under siege from other members state, or the Commission turned into some monstrosity of unaccountable power which has no basis in reality.
I would certainly welcome less enthusiasm for regulating from above in the European Parliament and other institutions. The drive to the administrative and regulatory state long precedes the European Union and is a universal phenomenon across the globe of the last two centuries. There is no reason to think the member states of the EU would be less regulatory outside the Union. By creating common regulation, the EU at least ensures that regulation does not impede continent wide trade.
The EU does things to promote trade that no existing free trade agreement has ever done. It has uniquely achieved a single market in services and human capital (that is labour), as well as goods, over a continent, over hundreds of millions of people. The creation of regulation at the EU level is a necessary aspect of this, which still leaves considerable scope for countries to have a relatively less statist approach, with a wide variety within member states regarding the scope of the state in the economy. This can be confirmed by careful examination of the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index.
The Political State of the European Union
Despite fears and hopes of a eurosceptic ‘populist’ right surge in the European Union leading to its weakening and possible disintegration, these political forces have stabilised at less than one-quarter elected seats in the EP. Support for the European Union and for the Euro currency (frequently pronounced dead in the past by sceptics) has increased in recent years. The continuing political confusion regarding Brexit in the UK has discredited claims about the benefits of leaving and have made it increasingly uncertain that the UK will leave.
Participation in European level voting has increased. The EU has been strengthened in credibility in recent years. Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for trade wars, and bypassing the World Trade Organisation, has undermined claims that the UK could seek a place in the world after Brexit based on free trade with the US. An EU trade agreement with Japan soon after Trump pulled the US out of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership, which includes Japan, has undermined the idea that the UK would be better off outside the EU in pursuing world trade. Trumps’s tolerance (along with Congress) of an ever increasing federal deficit in the US looks highly imprudent compared with the fiscal prudence imposed by Euro currency institutions and regulations.
Not everything is great about the EU, there are certainly some things the US does better with regard to innovation and regulation, but the EU is increasingly popular and and weakening or breakup would weaken a single market under a unified, predictable regulatory regime. The concentration of powers in national governments is not advantageous to liberty, as the Framers of the US Constitution recognised when they turned thirteen ex-colonies in a loose confederation into components of a Federation based on balance of powers and consensual decision making across institutions.
Bill Wirtz does a great job reporting, in the American Conservative, on recent developments in European politics. Basically, the “populists,” who are socially conservative by European standards and anti-immigrant, are not actually opposed to the European Union. In fact, these right-wing parties are building international coalitions as you read this in order to better wield the dormant power of the EU; nobody is “actively seeking to leave the EU.”
Wirtz concludes that the anti-immigrant populist parties will spell the end of the European Union as we know it, but how can this be if these populists now want to use the EU rather than leave it? Wirtz is a great reporter but I think he wanted to mock Europhiles and the dreams of Euro-federalists rather than think things through. I’m happy to pick up where he leaves off, though.
For example, what if these populists succeed in federating Europe, rather than breaking it up? It’s not as radical as it sounds. The populists are small-d democrats. The populists are actively working with each other in an internationalist framework. The populists share the same anti-immigrant goals. The populist parties of Europe share the same opinion of Western civilization and believe their way of life is under threat. The populists realize that the EU can help them achieve their goals, and they share an affinity for some semblance of local (“national”) sovereignty. The ideological underpinning of these populist parties seems to be, then, that their way of life – their freedom – is under threat, and that they are not united and therefore susceptible to outside threats, and that the European Union is a great way to help them achieve some semblance of unity and security. Why not federate? Why not cure the mischiefs of faction?
Conservatives have a long track record of supporting radical change if it suits their worldview, too. The best example of this in politics is Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian diplomat who patched together a unified German state in a federal manner, but you don’t have to stop there. Examples abound everywhere.
The populists and could-be federalists aren’t going to usher in a new era of fascism, either. Today’s anti-immigrant sentiments are very different from the anti-Semitism that has plagued Europe for centuries. While I am disappointed that the European elections were essentially won by the anti-immigration faction, I am not surprised. I would not be surprised, either, to see a strong federalist push by these populists.
What is the difference between a conservative and a reactionary? A conservative knows when she has lost.
A conservative respects the status quo for the sake of stability. The reactionary rebels against it. Unfortunately, it is the reactionary impulse within Brexit that now threatens to hem in the liberties of British citizens, and threaten the rights of foreign residents, for a long time to come. A looser but productive relationship that Britain could have had with the European Union was lost, first at Maastricht in 1992, then again at Lisbon in 2007. A conservative recognizes this loss and adapts her politics to the new landscape. The reactionary tries to reconstruct those lost pasts in vain as the chaotic debates in Britain and the increasingly disappointing outcome illustrates.
Does this mean that referendums are bad? Do they only embolden radicals and reactionaries? It depends. If referendums are used to rubberstamp the decisions of a party in power, or as a way of deferring political judgement, then they are useless at best, dangerous at worst. By contrast, if they are part of the fabric of a democracy, and act as a real veto on constitutional change, rather than a populist rallying point, then they can be enormously valuable. They act as an additional check on the political establishment that might be irrationally fixated on some new governance structure. It ensures that every major change carries with it some level of majority support.
Ten years ago, I wrote a monograph Total Recall: How direct democracy can improve Britain. I advocated supplementing representative democracy with a norm or statutory requirement for referendums on constitutional issues and new local initiative powers. I focused on direct democracy in US states that mean that US state elections often involve both voting for representatives and on propositions. Referendums are required for state constitutional changes. In some states, citizens can initiate new legislation through propositions.
There are parallel constitutional requirements in force in parts of Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Norway and Ireland. It is hardly a coincidence that direct democratic mechanisms have slowed down European integration wherever they have had statutory rather than merely advisory force. Ireland had to go to the polls several times to get the ‘right’ answer but at least this meant that a majority of Irish eventually accepted the new EU arrangements. By contrast, Switzerland and Norway, against the wishes of their political establishments, took European integration only so far before settling with generous trade relations and much more limited political integration. The cost-benefit calculus of their arrangements are up for debate, but few would deny their legitimacy. Britain’s future position, by contrast, may turn out to look much worse and all because its people never had the chance to say ‘no’ until long after the facts on the ground changed.
It’s the ability to say ‘no’ that’s important, with the implication that the status quo must still be a viable option. A people cannot be legislators. Mass votes can’t add up to complex judgements to inform actionable law. Hence the Brexit referendum for leaving the EU for an unknown alternative was bound to lead to chaos which, in the long run, may undermine the legitimacy of representative government, let alone popular democracy, rather than strengthen it. There is no status quo ante to return to.
At the time I was writing Total Recall, the spirits of referendums never voted on haunted British politics. Referendums were promised on adopting the Euro and the European Constitution. Both were abandoned when the Government realized they would almost certainly lose. So we stayed out of the Euro but signed what became the Lisbon Treaty. This turned out to be a deadly combination that eventually led to Brexit. The Euro is quite badly managed as an economic scheme. As a political mechanism, however, it binds members of the Euro much closer together. Leaving the European Union, as Britain is doing, is perilous and costly. Leaving the Eurozone would be even more difficult as it would involve establishing a new currency from scratch. If New Labour had been serious about putting Britain in a federal united states of Europe, it should have gone all in with the Euro from the beginning.
So Brexit could have been avoided but not by ignoring majority sentiments. If British referendums were constitutionally mandated rather than the random outcome of internal (in this case, Conservative) party politics; if referendums were required to change the status quo rather than a mechanism for a belligerent minority to relitigate past losses, then, like Switzerland and Norway, we would be in a much better position now.
Will our political leaders learn this lesson for the future? That I doubt.