The rest of the world is decentralising – why is the EU so out of step?

The rest of the world is decentralising – why is the EU so out of step?

The epic film Gandhi is well worth watching if you have three hours to spare. Sir Ben Kingsley is outstanding in the lead role and there are some enduring political messages. At one point, during a meeting, a British official warns that without their expert administration India will face chaos. Gandhi’s reply?

“I beg you to accept that there is no people on earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power.”

Of course, he was speaking of Empire in the last century but it is a principle that still applies in so many places.

Since leaving London’s City Hall in 2016, I have visited a number of countries and seen how they are decentralising power from their own governments to locally-elected councillors. Often this process is driven by fear of a voter backlash. In some countries, people who feel that big government is remote and out of touch are turning to extreme political parties and even extreme religious groups. There is real danger of democracy being usurped by totalitarian government.

Even where big government isn’t corrupt or incompetent and genuinely has good intentions, the ‘one size fits all’ solutions it imposes fail to work for many people. Local people understand local needs. They know which services need to improve and the local experts who can provide help and advice.

The newly elected councillors I have met in the Middle East are filled with enthusiasm. They want their towns to stand on their own feet and are seeking to develop tourism and industry to boost their economies. What has worked for us in the UK won’t always work for them but whilst it is a good thing to learn from your own actions, it is even better to learn from the experience of others.

In every case they want more money from government and more powers – but they recognise that to get these they have to manage their existing responsibilities with competence and imagination.

In London, I observed the administrations of both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson from close up as they took over control of transport, policing and planning from central government. Both men were political opposites and they had very different styles, but each was keen to build trust and expand the powers of London government. During their terms of office, the government devolved further powers over housing and public safety.

As Deputy Mayor, it was part of my role to meet delegations from countries who wanted to invest in London and build links with the UK. I spoke to politicians from India, the USA, Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, South Korea, China, Vietnam, Russia and even Somalia. There is a big world out there for us to work with and cultural and trading opportunities that simply didn’t exist when Ted Heath took us into the European Common Market. London’s diverse communities from all over the world make our city particularly well suited to making the most of these opportunities.

How disappointing that the current Mayor, Sadiq Khan, is more interested in playing to the gallery. His recent report complaining about Brexit was a wasted opportunity, when he could have been creating a positive plan for London to capitalise on its global links and boost its economy. His constant, institutionalised whingeing about government cuts actually makes devolution of more powers less likely, for who wants to hand more responsibility to a politician who is so unwilling to accept it.

His sniping at Donald Trump pleases his supporters but could damage wider relationships with the USA. Bigger men of the centre left like Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau have swallowed their personal distaste and hosted presidential visits for the longer term good of France and Canada.

Against the worldwide move to decentralise powers, the bureaucracy in Brussels looks increasingly out of step. Calls for EU taxation, an EU army, tearing down national borders and ever growing expenditure are alienating people across Europe. In Eastern Europe extreme nationalism is on the rise.

The UK chose Leave to reconnect our elected representatives to the people who vote for them. Brussels needs to learn from the rest of the world, cease meddling and start handing back power to its member states.