Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Why we need a national Forum for Britain in the World

A national “Forum for Britain in the World” could give everyone a say in the debate about the future of Europe, so that we the people can say what kind of Europe we want as the negotiations develop, not just in a referendum after everything has been decided.
David Cameron’s European dilemma is that we need to weave a tapestry but some people only want to use scissors. Weaving is difficult but it takes only a few cuts for the whole thing to unravel. The pattern of Europe will not come in one big picture treaty that can be put before the people like the American constitution, but in the warp and weft of rules for banking, fishing, agriculture, carbon emissions and countless details that make a large integrated market work. Ironically, Europe is creating a constitution in the British style, bit by bit, not a grand constitution that  can be voted on as a single text. Another irony is that English has become the lingua franca of Europe, the dominant language of discussion in its corridors of power. At the end of our squabbles over Europe, we could find ourself cut out of yet another contential power that uses English in ways we do not understand 240 years after our ancestors insisted that the British Parliament alone should decide its rules.
The fundamental question is not "in or out of the European Union", but whether Britain keeps a seat at the table where the rules are decided and how well our negotiators play their hand. Withdrawing simply means we no longer have a say on our terms of trade with the rest of Europe.
The next critical question is what those rules should be. New rules are being drawn up right now which will radically change the EU and Britain’s place in it (see this blog on 21 Sept 2012). So the really important questions are a) what rules do we need to flourish as a country, and b) how good are our people - ministers, officials, MEPs, lobbyists, pressure groups and media - at negotiating on our behalf. Many voices who speak for Britain are owned abroad or have more interests in global markets than the high street.
This makes it essential that European issues are debated thoroughly so that the British public can tell our politicians precisely what they want from our relationships with Europe in every area of our lives, not just trade and finance.  UKIP and other Eurosceptics have done a good job in provoking debate, but now we need a proper forum to have the debate in a way that everyone can take part.
I suggest a national “Forum for Britain in the World” to scrutinise all proposals relating to our place in the world - the World Trade Organisation, UN agencies, NATO and other agreements which bind us in internationally. It is worth remembering that just a 100 years ago, in 1914, our international obligations pulled Britain into a terrible war in Europe. A Forum for Britain in the World would put the EU debate in the wider context of trade, aid, security and the environment.
A national Forum would allow all interested parties (stakeholders) to have a say, so that campaigners for or against any position in Europe (or any other international agreement) would have to justify their views in the face of evidence and argument from others directly affected, not just Ministers or officials. It would give people a place to address specific policies, item by item, as they come up, and have some real influence on them.
Parliament already has several Select Committees dealing with international issues, nine on Europe alone, but hardly anyone outside Westminster knows what they are up to. They do important work on our behalf, alongside the much larger number of working groups and consultations run by Whitehall.  A Forum for Britain in the World could connect these internal discussions with the wider public debate about Europe in a direct, practical way, so that the public can improve official policy through crowd sourcing, drawing on wider experience of specific issues and deepening the debate.

The obvious question is how could such a Forum join up the debate and weave a worthwhile tapestry of Britain in the World, instead of tangled threads and loose ends? 

The Forum for Britain in the World could channel the debate in three ways:
First, an online forum which sets out what the Government does, current policies and proposals, including all directives and draft legislation from Brussels and other international agencies, as well as Government consultations, such as the current review of the balance of competences between the EU and the UK, or the Synoptic review of the EU Internal Market. A lot of the infrastructure for this already exists, through the Parliament Website and gov.uk (e.g. https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/foreign-commonwealth-office:
This could be made more interactive through a system for online comments, rating and even voting on proposals.

Second, a ‘Representatives Panel’ of stakeholders,  including all MEPs, representatives from local government, the devolved assemblies and umbrella bodies of groups affected by European and international issues, from aid agencies and farmers to the Women's Institute and exporters. Groups could register to join the panel, stating their mandate, area of competence and what issues they are interested in. They would get email updates on policy areas they are intersted in (much as info4local does in local government), and opportunities to comment through the online forum. Contributions from the Representatives Panel to the online forum could be flagged up and notified to other panel members.
In addition, members of the panel could nominate and vote for members of a citizens’ policy forum, on the basis of broad interests (civil society, employers,  workers, researchers, etc)

Third,  a Citizens’ Forum for Britain in the World could hold regular public debates on the top issues raised through the online forum. The participants would be drawn from the Panel to representative different interests and chaired by Members of Parliament (MPs and Peers), and report directly to Parliament.  Discussions could be held on a regional basis (e.g. London & SE, SW, North, Midlands, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales), and feed into a national forum once or twice a year.
This process would strengthen the role of Parliament, by giving back-bench MPs a role in chairing the Forum and its working groups, as an extension or addition to Select Committees. It would also strengthen Ministers’ negotiating position in the Council of Ministers and other international negotiations, because it would provide more detailed arguments and evidence as well as broader endorsement as a result of informed public debate.

This could be dismissed as a talking shop, but it would improve both efficiency and democracy in several ways:
a)      streamlining the current process for consultation and participation on European and internation issues would make it clearer, simpler and probably cheaper;
b)      improving policies through crowd-sourcing could save money as a result of better outcomes: many international decisions have a big impact, and bad decisions can be very costly;
c)       strengthening Ministers’ position in negotiations on issues where there is a strong consensus on specific points.

 There is a real danger that short-term electoral considerations and sincerely-held views on Europe could jeopardise Britain’s long-term interests by over-simplifying the issues.  A Forum for Britain in the World could deepen the debate about any EU treaty negotiations as well as the many smaller changes which often add up to something bigger in Europe's unwritten constituion. If we are to have a referendum on Europe, it should be informed and endorsed by a broad-based forum in which many different interests have a voice, following a thorough and informed discussion.  Democracy is more than a one-off vote in elections or a referendum, but a process through which people engage with the issues before coming to a decision. A Forum for Britain in the World would strengthen our ability to take part in all international decisions that affect our lives, which will become much more important as China, India, Brazil and other countries grow stronger.  Britian and Europe are just small parts in a global tapestry that is changing rapidly. How we take part in this unfolding scene matters for us and the world.

A national Forum for Britain in the World is a particular example of Citizen’s Policy Forums as a way of briding the gap between civil society and politicians and improving democratic governance.

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