Brexit by John Robson

It was remarkable to be in the UK when the Brexit referendum results were announced. We stood on a high hill looking out over Blake’s pleasant pastures and verdant green where the spirit of self-government lived on to the dismay of our latter day King Jameses and King Johns. (In this teaser clip from our upcoming documentary on fixing the Canadian Constitution (see, John Robson explains how the Brexit vote shows that individuals can resist the “tide of history”.

Much elite scorn has since focused on the decision as the result of sausage-fingered xenophobes, abetted in part by the curious apparent unpreparedness of leading Yes figures for the result. But instead of asking why it happened, despite the weight of elite political, financial and cultural opinion, the general tone has been “see, you just can’t trust the people.” Here in Canada, it has prompted surprisingly blunt comments to the effect that we can’t hold a referendum on, say, electoral reform, because the Brexit vote shows what the overheated rubes get up to when given a ballot paper and a pencil.

Only Chris Selley to my knowledge has observed, in the National Post, that voters often do strange stuff in elections too but no one is calling for their abolition. Well, not yet, I reply. Or at least, not openly. But if you follow the logic you get there surprisingly fast.

No one condemning the British decision has been able to do what the Queen evidently took to asking for in the run-up to the vote: Give three good reasons for staying in the EU.

Some have spoken of the tide of history. But as Chesterton says, only dead things go with the tide.

Others have noted the advantages of free trade with continental Europe. And it is indeed a big trading bloc. But no one was, or is, saying Britain should not trade with the EU. As for those now saying the EU should not trade with Britain out of pique, as Nigel Farage pointed out to juvenile jeering and catcalls in the European Parliament, it would be cutting off their noses to spite their faces for European nations to refuse to trade openly with the world’s fifth-largest economy.

Finally, speaking of the European parliament, there’s the big argument no one made, the dog that conspicuously failed to bark in the debate. Nobody argued that the EU governing structure was a good one, let alone better than the traditional British system.
It would be hard to defend Britain ceding sovereignty to a transnational government with a functioning parliamentary system, in which it would hold a fairly small minority of the seats, allowing Germans, Spaniards and Hungarians to dictate how Britons should retail bananas. Or, indeed, for Hungarians to let Britons, Germans and Spaniards determine their immigration policy.
There is no rational policy that could be suggested from Brussels that could not be adopted by Westminster, and no irrational one that should be. But in any case no defender of the EU has dared say it has a functioning parliamentary system because it conspicuously, and deliberately, does not.

The EU’s governmental structure, which the EU itself describes as “a unique institutional set-up,” is mind-bogglingly complicated, sufficient reason alone to avoid it. But essentially it has an executive appointed by various member governments and not “responsible” to the legislature, which cannot bring down ministries by refusing to fund them.

This executive is not the “European Council” consisting of heads of state or government whose job is to provide “policy direction”. Nor is it the “Council of the European Union” (see below, if you can stand it). Rather, it’s the “European Commission” composed of one appointee nominated by each member state jointly with the Commission’s own President and supposed to act in the European interest rather than their own nation’s. The European Parliament, to which we will stagger eventually, gets to interview the various Commissioners, but then votes yea or nay on the entire body. To vote nay is to throw everything into a cocked hat. But once they vote aye they cannot bring it down by a confidence vote. Nor can they advance an agenda contrary to that of the executive because in the EU, crucially, it is the executive European Commission that drafts all laws and has a near-monopoly on proposing new bills. Parliament is just there for show.

Yes. Parliament. There is one. But the European Parliament is not the whole legislature. Heck no. There’s also an appointed upper house, the “Council of the European Union,” which attracted remarkably little derision in Brexit commentary from those who find Canada’s appointed Senate an affront to political decency. Oddly, the “Council of the European Union” is known informally as the “Council of Ministers” because it consists of one minister from each member state, changeable depending on the topic (if the CEU is discussing agriculture, it consists of the various nations’ agriculture ministers). So these are executive branch members parachuted into an upper house that has more legislative and budgetary power than the elected lower house, which wouldn’t be hard, but still doesn’t have much.

Ah yes, the elected lower house. Finally we get to a thing called the European Parliament. It is elected by the people of Europe, or more properly the non-people as there is no “European people” in the loose but significant sense that there is a British or American or Canadian people. But it is not a real Parliament, just as “new and improved” on the box does not mean the cereal inside actually tastes better than it used to or indeed ought to be eaten at all. It is not a real Parliament because cannot do two critical things that evolved in Britain in the Middle Ages and have been jealously guarded ever since.

First, it cannot bring down ministries with whose conduct of executive affairs it disagrees. Neither of course can the American Congress oust an administration, except through the drastic process of impeachment. But Congress can totally frustrate a president and cabinet and routinely does because it controls the legislative agenda. And in our system the legislature must either sustain the ministry’s program actively or boot it out.

The European parliament need not do either. Indeed, it cannot. Nor can it, like our Parliament, the British one or the American Congress, initiate legislation, a power the English parliament seized long before there even was a Great Britain. English MPs were presenting kings with petitions from the earliest proto-parliaments, before Montfort’s 1265 Model Parliament invited in the commons. And they were insisting by the time of Henry V in 1414 that when the king was granted “supply” (money) in return for granting the wishes of parliament, he could not subsequently alter the wording of what essentially then became legislative acts if given royal assent.

Without the power to initiate bills no legislature is anything but an adjunct of the executive, reacting feebly or compliantly to its lead. And thus the EU’s “unique institutional set-up” gives a clever veneer of electoral legitimacy to rule by the elite over people not to be trusted with management of their own affairs, personal or public.

Obviously such an arrangement cannot be defended out loud. That’s why Brexit opponents never dared tackle the central question whether the EU had a better governmental structure than Britain.

Like King James or even King John, they are not consciously villains. But the disdainful response to the supposed ignorant vulgarity of the Brexit vote, including from those now insisting that Canadians cannot be allowed near a referendum on fundamental matters, confirms that they do not trust the people.

What shone forth from those clouded hills on June 24th was that in turn the people, when consulted, do not trust such elites. Nor should they.