Brexiters’ faux-populism is a sham. They don’t want to ‘take power back from the elites’

Gove, Johnson and Duncan Smith are harder to sack than EU Commisioners


We hear a lot about the ‘unelected, unaccountable elites’ in Brussels. Often this accusation comes from Tories, who are all too happy to stuff our own unelected second chamber, the House of Lords, full of their own cronies.

A typical recent example was Michael Gove’s waxing lyrical about the beauties of British democracy. Gove and other leading Brexiteers have produced a number of dog whistle phrases, suggesting they are involved in a fight on behalf of the downtrodden citizens of Britain against an elite conspiracy.

This is now common Brexit currency: exploiting the loathing for politicians the Tory government has engendered to attack a separate and quite different political structure.

So who are these ‘unelected, unaccountable elites’ that Gove and his colleagues refer to?

There are three main EU institutions – the Parliament, which is democratically elected under a PR system every five years; the Council – made up of ministers and heads of states from each and every EU government; and the Commission – made up of 28 commissioners, one put forward by each country in the EU and who oversee just shy of 30,000 civil servants.

Interestingly, this compares to the 400,000 ‘bureaucrats’ employed by Whitehall, who work as the expert civil service: some on drafting laws to curb air pollution; some on dividing up EU funding to deprived regions; some on re-evaluating existing laws on VAT, and so on.  

No one would claim the EU Commission is perfect. For instance, as part of the Green Group in the Parliament we were highly critical of the choice of Commissioners, including the selection of Cameron’s place-man Jonathan Hill as Finance Commissioner, a man with a former career as a lobbyist for the financial sector in the City.

But this was a mistake made in Westminster, not Brussels, for which we must hold our own Cabinet – of which Gove was a member –  accountable.

However, whether or not we approve of the choice of Commissioners, they are not distant and unaccountable. As a member of the European Parliament I regularly question them and we also have the power to sack them, on behalf of those who elected us. I do not have this power over the British Cabinet who were elected on a flawed mandate and are there for five years.

I also have the ability to meet those Commissioners whom I am working with in drawing up legislation.

Just this week, for example, I met the Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Pierre Moscovici, to discuss my main area of work: tax policy.

He was able to reassure me that the UK will have the ability to abolish VAT on tampons in an agreement to be reached shortly and that legislation to exempt small businesses from the very destructive unified VAT system known as VATmoss will be published before the end of the year.

I doubt I would have been able to have such a constructive and open meeting with a Whitehall official working on tax.

I have also met and questioned Margrete Vestager, the Competition Commissioner, to discuss the deeply flawed Hinkley nuclear project. (And yes, I have met Jonathan Hill, who happens to be one of my constituents since he lives in Salisbury!) 

When it comes to decision-making in the EU, national governments have opportunities to oppose legislative changes.

Decisions made by the Council usually require a qualified majority and can be blocked when at least four countries vote against. There are also exceptions for certain issues such as decisions about new members, for example Turkey, when a unanimous vote supported by all countries is needed. 

Perhaps even more shocking than the hypocrisy of Brexiteers over democracy and systems of governance is the spectacle of doublespeak we are having to endure, where the very politicians who have attacked, downgraded and privatised our public services are masquerading as its defenders.

The NHS is a classic example. Gove argued for privatisation, Boris Johnson has suggested we should pay for the service, while Ian Duncan Smith has suggested moving to a US-style insurance system to replace our national health service. 

When I see a group of Westminster politicians, many of whom are privately-educated, many of whom live off private incomes, campaigning under a ‘take back control’ banner, it seems to me that it is they themselves who are a threat to democracy and I think we should ask very carefully who exactly is taking back power from whom.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England and a former Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton. Follow her on Twitter @MollyScottCato

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