The EU and the UK: the absurdity of repatriation of powers

by George Hatjoullis

The EU is now the compelling issue of UK politics in much the same way that it was in the run-up to the 1975 EEC referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EEC. The UK had joined the EEC in 1973 under the government of the europhile Edward Heath but Labour, under Harold Wilson, had campaigned in the 1974 General Elections (there were two) on a platform of renegotiating the terms of accession. The referendum was to put the issue decisively to the British people. The renegotiation was the political subtext and by implication the europhile Heath had given away too much. My undying memory of the campaign was of Tony Benn and Enoch Powell both supporting the NO platform. The British people voted YES by 67% on a 65% turnout.

The EEC has come a long way since the 70s and is now the EU wrapped around a eurozone. The subtext is the same however; repatriation of powers from Brussels. Of course, the powers do not sit in ‘Brussels’ as such. Brussels normally refers to the EU commission which is the ‘civil service’ of the EU (though it can introduce legislation). Power is exercised via the various councils and groups, which consist of representatives of each member state, and by the European Parliament. These representatives and members of parliament are elected in their own nation states.

The voting structure within the EU is based on national populations. However, political influence extends well beyond formal voting rights.The most powerful member is Germany. This is also an important change as until 2010 one might have normally referred to France and Germany. The voice of France has become muted since 2010.

The issue in the UK is much like it was in 1974. There are those that want an unconditional exit (Farage). There are those that want full integration (Mandelson) and those that want to stay in, but repatriate some powers (Cameron). According to Mats Persson of Open Europe (, the majority is in the Cameron camp. It would seem that David Cameron is more astute than he is credited.

The detail that I am waiting to hear is which powers will be repatriated? At a guess I would say that the power to limit free movement of labour is high up the list. The success of UKip is not simply because of the EU. The subtext is immigration and the difficulty of limiting migration whilst in the EU. A single market in labour, goods and capital is of course the point of the EU! If the UK is granted power to limit the free movement of labour then the single market concept is delivered a damaging blow. Moreover, this may well be a two-way street. If EU citizens are restricted in coming to the UK why should British citizens not be also so restricted in movement within the EU? Bad news for all those sunning themselves in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Cyprus methinks. I wonder if they will come back and vote?

The other issue high up the agenda, I would guess, is human rights legislation. Membership of the EU does seem to come with a secular, liberal agenda and strict adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights. This issue is inextricably associated with the free movement of labour within the EU. It would be hard to have different fundamental legal rights in principle across a single market. The human rights legislation has upset Britain because it has restricted the state’s ability to remove people deemed undesirable. Something about babies and bath water comes to mind here.

The EU liberal establishment does occasionally act in a doctrinaire and impractical  manner. The insurance industry has recently been hit with equal gender directives. Insurance underwriting in my experience has no gender bias. It is all about risks. Women live longer and have a different pattern of car accident claims. It is logical to price these differential actuarial risks into the premium. To declare such differential pricing as discriminatory is patently absurd. This is less about repatriating powers than insisting that economic logic is not wholly ignored when discrimination directives are constructed. This might be better achieved by being fully immersed in the EU as it is hard to see how the UK could operate a different gender policy in relation to insurance within a single market.

It is clear form these three examples that the popular notion of staying within the EU and repatriating powers is so inconsistent with the principle of a single market as to make little sense. What powers can be repatriated that will satisfy the British people and yet not wholly undermine the single market?

The conclusion I have come to is that the UK now faces the binary Farage/ Mandelson option; full exit or full entry. However popular the Cameron position might be it is a cake-and-eat-it position and thus in practice untenable and somewhat dishonest. This is all the more so when one considers the needs of the eurozone, banking union and non-eurozone member states (a future blog). On the other hand politics is all about illusion, or should I say delusion.