As Britain and the EU continue reeling from the Brexit vote in June, policy-makers are trying to have their cake and eat it too. For instance, Theresa May wants to cut immigration but also remain part of the EU single market. However it appears that some in the European Parliament are trying to do the same on the other side of the debate. Luxembourg liberal MEP Charles Goerens proposed Amendment 882 to the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, which will publish a report on potential changes to the structure of the EU. This proposal will make the current grey area of Brexit negotiations even more so.
The amendment that Goerens has proposed is an intriguing thought experiment, irrespective of whether you voted to leave the EU or not. If you were a Remain voter then it would allow you to retain what the amendment called ‘associate citizenship’, which would allow you the same freedoms that full EU citizens have. Also, one could easily make a pragmatic case for Leave voters also taking advantage of this perk. For example, if was an employee of a company going through financial problems, irrespective of my ideological view of the EU I may take associate citizenship of the EU so I could get a job overseas without much hassle. Personally I think that this is a tad hypocritical but if a Leave voter did this in order to provide financial security for his family I’m not going to criticize them, even though there is a fairly obvious counter-argument to such a decision.
The reason I believe it’s interesting is simple: all my arguments against the EU were concerned with what I believed was best in the long run for society as a collective entity. I think that if Britain left the EU it would give us the freedom to choose to introduce socialism. But again these premises were all contingent upon the decision of the referendum impacting everyone in the country. The idea of EU citizenship being given to some people who opt-in is a whole new intellectual exercise.
However, as I said in the introduction, I do not think that this amendment can be adopted for a number of substantive reasons. Firstly, let’s say that such an amendment was adopted, and the following situation arises. An employer dismisses an employee in a way that is legal under British law but violates an EU directive. What happens next? Conceivably, the worker has the protections of EU law that are not on the statute books in the UK, however the worker cannot defer to European courts because the employer wouldn’t be bound by their judgments. Here’s a comparison. If I lent you money and you decided to pay me back in paper tokens that I don’t acknowledge as worth anything, the situation remains unresolved. If the worker has the protections of EU law and the European judiciary, but the employer didn’t opt-in they surely wouldn’t be constrained by these regulations.
Here’s another hypothetical example. Let’s say that in a business the employer and all the employees have opted-in to be associate citizens of the EU. Does that mean that the business is bound by EU regulations? Presumably the answer is no because it is a separate legal entity, but my question is about what could happen as a consequence of this line of thinking. If EU protections are no longer determined or applied at the level of nation-states, why could businesses wishing to have access to the single market not opt-in to abiding by EU rules? Indeed you could flip it around. What if a business was allowed to become an ‘EU business’ but all the workers were not EU citizens. Does this mean that the business could be bound by EU law decisions, but the workers who have to carry them out would not be?
Thirdly there are questions around the concept of sovereignty. In political science an institution is sovereign if it is the supreme body of governance over a geographical territory, and as such can coerce citizens through laws and agents like the police. Can we really have a situation where some parts of the country have different legal and political rights and responsibilities than others, especially given that we decided this decision democratically? Can Parliament be sovereign if half of the country decides that it will live according to the rules of Westminster alone, and the other half by what Westminster and Brussels say is the law? I would argue no.
Finally there are questions about the fragmentation of society. Politicians on all sides are essentially calling for unity after the Brexit vote, but how will letting some people essentially ignore the referendum result heal the divisions in our society? I know many people who were passionately in favour of remaining the European Union but the fact of the matter is that the referendum didn’t go their way. Here’s a similar situation. In 2014 Scotland voted to remain part of the UK, but what would we say to those who voted for independence if they wanted to unilaterally leave the UK on an individual capacity? We’d say that such an idea was ludicrous. Why? Because if someone who was an ‘associate independent Scot’ was arrested for murder, and they said to the police ‘I don’t recognise your authority’, the response from everyone else would be ‘you’re a stupid bastard, it doesn’t matter because you killed someone’. Admittedly this is a bit exaggerated but the principle remains the same only with the roles reversed. Society would not move on from this issue if half the country opted-in to having EU citizenship, which we can all agree sounds like hell on earth.
In normative and pragmatic terms there is no way that associate citizenship would work as the grey areas between different legal entities and questions about democratic legitimacy are too extensive. It’s an interesting thought experiment, as international institutions have always been comprised of participating nation-states rather than individual citizens, however it cannot feasibly work. Also, what’s the point of living in a democratic society if the losing side in every situation ignores the result and does whatever the fuck it wants? Surely we no longer live in a democracy.
One of the beauties of democracy is that even if you think the other side is wrong, the experience educates everyone. If you enact a policy that turns out to be terrible, we all know not to do that in future. If you agree that associate citizenship of the EU is a good idea then I honestly question your ability to think critically. There are so many massive questions that would take forever to work out that the only justification would be that such a measure would delay Brexit for a number of years. But even in that situation I would question your commitment to democracy, because if you lose a vote and then try and redefine political concepts so you don’t have to be bound by the result you’re not a democrat.