Are the supporters of the EU evil?

Well, of course not. It’s certainly the case that there are some people arguing for #Bremain  for low and selfish reasons. Many politicians and bureaucrats are doing very nicely thank-you-very-much out of the EU gravy train. There are also plenty of companies which have invested heavily in lobbying the EU over many years and now fear losing their competitive advantage over smaller producers.

But when it comes to the vast majority of Bremaniacs, I do not think that they are evil. I do not think that they are cynically in cahoots with the undemocratic, corporatist racket which is Brussels. I do not think that they actually want the youth of the mediterranean nations to be out of work for a generation. I do not think that they welcome the growth of racist political parties across the continent. I do not think that they want  Europe to continue to shrink as an economic bloc and I do not think that they are hoping for yet more chaos over the migrant crisis. I think, rather, that like me they want an open and prosperous Europe characterised by and based upon fraternity and cooperation. I also conclude, therefore, that they are deluded if they believe that the EU, at least on its present trajectory, can achieve any of that.

Which brings me on to Denis MacShane — erstwhile MP, erstwhile Europe Minister, erstwhile Privy Councillor, etc. I don’t think he’s a bad man, more a ‘frightful old humbug’, in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s quaint phrase.

It’s not surprising that MacShane feels himself very strongly to be a citizen of Europe. His father was a Pole, his mother a Scot, and as a boy he went to a school dedicated to St Benedict: the patron saint of Europe. Clearly an intelligent and cultured man, he speaks (and writes) French, Spanish and German. So far, so Europhile.

But he is also an ‘EU-phile’, by which I mean he has an excessive and intemperate  zeal for the ideals and institutions of the EU.

We can illustrate the distasteful extent of this MacShane’s humbuggery in just a handful of Tweets.


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Let’s forget the absence of a question mark — Twitter is a forum that encourages précis — the none too subtle implication is that those of us who wish to leave the EU are ‘Europhobes’ and ‘isolationists’. There are, I grant you, a number of ‘England for the English’ boneheads who want to leave the EU because they fear the polluting effect of Johnny Foreigner and are attracted by the sort of left-wing protectionism beloved of the BNP. But Europhobes? As HM The Queen said after the Obamas’ mic drop, “Oh, really! Please…”

It’s probably as tiresome to point out that phobias are normally regarded as irrational or pathological as it is to explain that ‘homophobia’ should literally mean ‘fear of the same’. Nonetheless, ‘phobia’ is a loaded word. If you wanted to understand more about phobias, you could consult the relevant section in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In other words, the implication is that critics of the EU are ‘disordered’, and possibly actually ‘mental’. We are like the agoraphobics, rocking gently in a corner, fearful of the evil that might befall us on ‘the outside’. Presumably we are also like the xenophobes, frothing at the mouth in panicked hatred of people who happen to have different languages and customs?

As a trading, island nation, Britain has always been fairly outward looking, but since the last referendum there have been huge changes. We can now choose between dozens of varieties of olive oil in the supermarket, rather than relying on one kind, from the chemist. We make more journeys abroad with every succeeding year (65.7m visits in 2015, almost 10% up from 2014 and over 5000% up from 1975). No doubt the EU would like to take credit for this as the fruit of some grand scheme of re-education, but in truth it has far more to do with our greater prosperity and developments in technology. The idea that British citizens in general, and Brexitarians in particular, are Europhobic is offensive, laughable and demonstrably false.

As for ‘isolationist’, I think we can guess Her Maj’s reaction to that slur too.

Again and again, once the Leave side stops banging on about the NHS or uncontrolled migration, one of our strongest arguments is that leaving the EU will allow Britain to look outwards to the Commonwealth and the World, not simply across la Manche to Europe. The case for Leave is about widening, not narrowing, our vision. It is the opposite of isolationist

The Tyranny of ‘Experts’

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This is just one of many Tweets that suggest that Mr MacShane is not really a fan of democracy. It’s perhaps unfair to convict someone on the basis of 140 characters, so I’ll deal with this example briefly. We have the lazy insult of ‘Europhobe’ again (vide supra). But more telling is the charge that ‘Hilton (is) no expert’. The implication is clear. He, MacShane, is an expert and so we should give his opinions greater weight. There’s no doubt that MacShane has great experience of European politics, as well as a PhD in economics, but this idea — that we should only listen to those with acknowledged ‘expertise’ — forms a significant plank of the Breminiac campaign. I searched in vain for a Tweet from Mr MacShane reminding us that Benedict Cumberbatch and Steve Coogan are not experts on the EU or economics, but I was unable to find an example.

Democracy or ‘Populism’?

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To answer Sunder Katwala first: it couldn’t. That’s democracy. Democracies come in all sorts of flavours, and we could debate the question of whether the US is more democratic than the UK, or whether a country, like Iran, which has elections is even a democracy at all. But the basic condition for democracy is that power should reside with the people, however mediately or imperfectly. In reality, most democracies are basically liberal oligarchies with the people ‘free’ once every four or five years to get rid of the government if they wish. Sovereignty ultimately resides with the people. That’s what all that business about slamming the Commons door in Black Rod’s face is all about.

In some nations, the sovereignty of the people is writ larger. The Swiss, for example, have gone through several referendums on the question of EU membership and have rejected membership in ever increasing numbers. In 2001, despite their own government urging them to say « Oui à l’Europe ! », a whopping 76.8% of Swiss said nonon, Nein or na . Any Swiss desire to join the EU is  effectively dead, but if any Swiss citizen (even one living abroad) wanted to re-open the question, then all they need do is collect 50,000 signatures and it would be put to the people again. The result binds the government. Now that’s democracy.

Democracy, you will note, and not populism.

As the old jokes have it, a nymphomaniac is a woman who enjoys sex as much the average man, and an alcoholic is one who drinks more than you do. In similar fashion, when the decision of the people accords with my own wishes, it is ‘democracy’, but when it is at odds, it is ‘populism’. There is also more than a hint of condescension in the use of the term ‘populism’, of course: think of the sneering manner in which some people talk about ‘popular culture’ and ‘popular music’.

We are in the arena of what the Private Eye cartoon series calls EU-phemisms. When a national electorate votes in favour of an EU Treaty then it is a ‘clear democratic mandate’; if the vote goes the other way, then it is ‘a crude exercise in populism’.

Hush, Now! Grown-Ups Talking…

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This Tweet is stunning in both its condescension and its artlessness. The implication is spelt out loud and clear: ‘Referendums are not “adult politics”.’

In what, then, might ‘adult politics’ consist? A good guess would be the kind of politics that Mr MacShane was involved in for many years (what we might call ‘professional politics’) and the politics he is involved in now (as an ‘expert’ and an author).

When you stop to think about it, this attitude is jaw-droppingly smug: the British people voting in a referendum is not ‘adult’ (and, indeed, must therefore be ‘childish’). Let me here, just for a moment, repeat that I do not think that Denis MacShane is evil, or corrupt, or motivated by greed or power; just a ‘frightful old humbug’.

An Unreliable Expert

Given MacShane’s background and interests, we might expect him to have a better than average understanding of the facts as they relate to European (and EU) politics. But either his knowledge is shakier than he would like to think, or else he is being deliberately misleading for ideological reasons.

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This is perhaps where MacShane is most on the back foot. He and his fellow EU-philes realise that EU-sceptic feeling is riding high in the UK and there is no universal love for the EU’s political project. Unable to convince potential Leave voters that Juncker is a great statesman or that the Euro is just the boost our economy needs, they fall back upon what is becoming known as ‘Project Fear’. The argument is essentially that life outside the EU would be so dreadful as to be practically impossible. Setting aside the fact that this is a pretty desperate line of campaign — like the abusive spouse who says, ‘You can never leave me, you’re nothing without me…’ — the biggest problem for this suggestion is that it is undermined by reality.

The EFTA countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) are not members of the EU, but are doing pretty well for themselves. Those of us who have campaigned for the UK to leave the EU for a long time (since Maastricht, certainly) have generally seen such an exit as involving a move (back) to the EFTA ‘pillar’ of the European economic relationship. That would mean being either somewhat like Norway, which also participates in the European Economic Area (EEA or ‘Single Market’), or like Switzerland, which has similar terms to EEA participation, but established via a series of bilateral treaties. In order to convince wavering Leave voters that life outside the Good Ship EU is impossible, one has to sink the lifeboats. You also therefore go for the biggest, best and most seaworthy lifeboat first: EFTA.

The political sleight of hand in the tweets above is subtle and calculating. MacShane tends to focus on ‘Freedom of Movement’, and for this UKIP and Leave.EU must shoulder some of the blame insofar as they have sought to turn this referendum into a plebiscite on immigration. He is correct that EFTA states accept the Four Freedoms of the Single Market, and this includes Freedom of Movement. But note how he switches from talk of ‘EU Citizenship’ to ‘Freedom of Movement’ as if they were exactly the same thing? What all countries in the EEA (and Switzerland) accept is the principle of free movement of labour (because this is an economic area, not political union). Thus, a worker from EU Spain has the freedom to go to non-EU Norway in order to work. However, even under existing rules, if she has not found work sufficient to support herself (usually within 3 months) then she can be sent home (the UK can do this currently, though even with the migration-averse Theresa May at the Home Office, we choose not to).

What EFTA states do not recognise is any sort of common EU ‘Citizenship’. At the moment, in practice, EU free movement is still a function of the economic/market relationship, but it is easy to see how a notion of a single EU citizenship could mean further relaxation of free movement to cover even those who seek not work, but welfare and benefits. But it is not true that Norway has to ‘accept every EU migrant’If I were to turn up in Oslo with a pound in my pocket and no intention of working, expecting to live off the generosity of Nordsoc, then I should expect to be disappointed.

Then we have the claim that Norway (and other EFTA states) ‘obeys every EU rule‘. Once again, this is simply not true. Norway is not a member of the EU, so no EU rule applies automatically. Those rules governing the Single Market generally have to be accepted, but even then it is not automatic — they have to be translated domestically into legislation. And even some Single Market rules are not accepted because they cover agriculture or fisheries, which lie outside the ambit of the EEA Agreement. Exactly what percentage of ‘EU Rules’ are accepted by Norway depends on your methodology, but two oft-quoted figures are 70% of directives (a particular kind of EU Rule), or 28% of all rules and laws. The campaign against EU membership in Norway put the figure as low as 9%. But whether it is 9% or 70% or even 90%, no one seriously claims that it is ‘every rule’ or 100%.

Connected with this mendacious claim is the charge that Norway has ‘no say’ and waits by a fax machine in Oslo to receive orders from Brussels. This is misleading in a number of ways. First, Norway rightly has no say on those aspects of the EU political project in which she has no business as a non-member. No one would expect a non-EU state to have a say in EU fiscal, foreign or monetary policy. Second, Norway participates in a number of EU and/or Europe-wide programmes (like Erasmus+ and Galileo) and agencies (over 30, including those dealing with Air Safety, Food Safety, Medicines, etc.). it participates in those programmes and agencies on an equal footing with EU states, which means ‘having a say’.

Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein do not have formal access to the EU decision-making process, but are able to give input during the preparatory phase, when the Commission draws up proposals for new legislation that is to be incorporated into the EEA Agreement. This includes the right to participate in expert groups and Commission committees. The EEA EFTA States also have the right to submit EEA EFTA comments on upcoming legislation. Equally important, is that precisely because Norway is not a member of the EU, she retains her autonomy in matters of international trade and  has a seat and a voice in those international organisations (Codex, UNECE, etc.) from whence rules and regulations increasingly originate. So at some levels, one might argue that Norway has more of a say than individual EU member states do.

Finally, there is the canard of ‘paying huge sums’ to ‘Brussels’ or to the EU. This is worth some unpacking. First off, though, let’s reject any idea of there being an EEA/Single Market ‘membership fee’. She pays contributions to those programmes and agencies she participates in. She also pays grants to EEA states, mainly in Eastern and Southern Europe, aimed at reducing economic disparities. Or to look at it another way, she pays overseas aid that promotes free trade. The Norwegian government’s own explanation can be read here.

An Unreliable Voice

The British people whom he thinks of as childish once elected Denis MacShane to Parliament. I daresay that in the past he even claimed that he was ‘proud’ to represent them. He spent many hours in weekly surgeries listening to their concerns, sympathising with them and promising to do what he could for them. This same British people elected a government that had promised to give them a referendum on Europe, and yet, this referendum — this exercise in ‘cheesy populism’ — is not ‘adult politics’. At the same time, MacShane seeks to exploit ‘cheesy populism’ by stoking concerns about immigration and talking about the loss of a British ‘voice’. Spinning half-truths about a sensible EFTA-based Brexit because he has lost the ideological battle for the EU political project is hardly ‘adult politics’ either.

I suppose I should defer to Denis MacShane’s long experience of politics, but to imply that voters are like children who cannot be trusted to make decisions that should really left to the grown-ups like him — and then to treat them like children by feeding them flawed propaganda — seems a very poor way to win votes.