So far, the Brexit debate has hardly been inspiring. The Remain side has struggled to come out with facts that resonate with the public and that are also accurate. The Brexit side is split: some want to leave the EU because they want a free Britain looking out to the world; others want more protectionism and to put the shutters up when it comes to migration.
At least there has been some attempt by Brexiteers to paint a picture of life on the outside. The Remain side, on the other hand, lacks any vision or imagination. So what could they say about how they might like the EU to look in 30 years’ time?
First, a reformed EU would do more than pay lip service to the principle of subsidiarity enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty. The principle was easily recognisable to Jacques Delors because it is a key principle of Catholic social teaching and Delors was a devout Catholic. However, the way it is described in the treaties inverts the original meaning of the term. The treaties state that the EU is obliged to act where it believes it could be more effective or could achieve desired policy objectives better than lower tiers of government. In one of the explanations of the principle in EU documents it states that action should only be taken at local level “where it proves to be necessary”.
This is not what the principle should be about. The idea of subsidiarity is that the higher level of government should only intervene if necessary or if the lower level is not capable of acting. Furthermore, the higher level of government should only intervene in such a way that it aids the lower level of government and does not dictate to it. If the function can be carried out by civil society or other organisations, the government should not get involved at all.
How might this be operationalised? Let’s take the example of labour market regulation. The objective might be decent working conditions. If the principle of subsidiarity applied, we would ask whether this objective was already achieved via market and civil society mechanisms (for example, trade unions, mutual aid societies and so on). Insofar as market mechanisms do not suffice (perhaps relating to the protection of children, to take a relatively uncontroversial area), local or national government could intervene. When we look at the problem this way round, it is difficult to see any justification for action at EU level.
Of course, the EU is nowhere near approaching problems in this way. But the UK government and the Remain movement could give us a vision of a new EU instead of basing their argument only around the idea that life outside might be a little bit frightening.
In any new model, the principle of subsidiarity would be paramount – and this would require changes to the way the EU is governed.
A complementary plank of a reform agenda should involve “variable geometry”. When it comes to regulation, a subset of countries should be able to act together without regulation being imposed on all the others. In other words, the EU needs to become a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” institution: this would be especially relevant for financial regulation.
Of course, those arguing that we should leave will say that the EU is so intransigent and so far from taking such a liberal approach that meaningful reform is a lost cause. They would probably be right. But both sides could do with injecting a bit of “hope” and “change” into their campaigns. This is especially true of Remain.