Wednesday, January 09, 2013

UK politics: a redundancy of parliaments

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An interesting piece caught my eye the other day, asserting that politics was dead in the Irish Republic. The Irish parliament, wrote Vincent Cooper, was now "little more than a rubber stamp for the Troika, the generic name for the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union, the three powers to which the country is in hock".

What makes this thesis intriguing is that it could just as easily apply to the UK – and virtually every other country in Europe (and elsewhere). Ireland is not the only country that is seeing the powers of its parliament atrophy. 

On the other hand, the piece also serves as a launch pad for a further dissertation. We can take Cooper's basic premise, that power had been sucked from his country's parliament by a trio of international bodies, but then ourselves assert that far more than three organisations are involved. Cooper is only addressing economic issues, and the problem is far more widespread than that. 

Taking a tangential approach to this, we can look today at the tedious letter from business interests arguing for continued membership of the EU, and note that they concede that the European Working Time Directive needs reform, while rejecting the idea of a wholesale renegotiation of our EU membership. 

Therein lies one of the battlegrounds over which the EU issue will be (and is being) fought, while the treatment and provenance of the Directive –which was adopted in 1993 - serves to illustrate the wider points of this dissertation. 

As to the "battlefield" aspect, those who style themselves "pro-Europeans" would argue that the EU is the ideal forum in which to seek reform of the Directive and, indeed, this process is ongoing. Critics, though, will note that the process of "reform" started in 2003 and came to a halt in 2009 when a proposal for amendment foundered in the EU parliament and has yet to achieve anything substantive, despite a continuing review. 

On this basis, one can venture that relief would be gained by withdrawing from the EU altogether, following which the Working Time Directive, along with other EU legislation, would fall, and our own government could replace it with rules more amenable to British circumstances. 

It is now that we confront the "Cooper" thesis with a vengeance, as the likelihood is that, in the longer term, leaving the EU would not make a great deal of difference. In the fullness of time, we would have to adopt something very much like the Working Time Directive, as a result of pressure from yet another international organisation. 

In this instance, we are talking about the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a treaty organisation set up in 1919, forming Part XIII of the Treaty of Versailles, and absorbed into the United Nations in 1946, of which the UK was a founding member. 

It was in fact the ILO which first produced a working time "directive" back in 1919, as the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919 (No.1). This that time it has taken a keen interest in working time arrangements, having produced this review in 2011 as part of the "Conditions of Work and Employment Programme".

The things to take on board here are that the ILO is determined to update its standards in this domain and, also, that the ILO and the EU work very closely together. It can only be a matter of time before this nexus produce new standards which will effectively implement the Working Time Directive at a level where the UK will still have to comply. 

For the UK, this would have a mixed effect. The downside is that, as a member of the ILO, it would be bound to ratify any new convention. The upside is that any such convention would be agreed by unanimity. The UK would not only be at the "top table" and have a greater say in discussions (as currently, the EU speaks for us at the ILO), it would also have a blocking vote. 

Where the "Cooper" thesis kicks in though is that any negotiations undertaken by the UK at ILO level would be carried out almost entirely without reference to Westminster. And, when it came to ratifying any Convention, the Ponsonby Rule would apply, giving Parliament no opportunity to amend rules which would then have to be adopted into the UK statute book. 

Moreover, that is the way much of the law is formulated these days. Even if comes via the EU, increasingly the requirements originate as diqules, which even the EU can't change. 

What we are thus seeing is not only the globalisation of trade, but the globalisation of legislation and the emergence of a New World Order – of which the EU is only one small part. In many respects, we would benefit from cutting out the "middle man", but this would not change the central problem that far too many of our laws now originate from outside Westminster, and our Parliament is increasingly marginalised. 

Restoring control is essential. However, while leaving the EU would be a start to the process, on its own it would only be a small part of the remedy. We have to deal with the upper levels as well, to where much of the current action has gravitated.