David Cameron is the Primeminister of the UK. So far, so uncontroversial. His status as a politician depends on the performance of his party in national elections. Again, this is not a controversial statement. Given the process that makes David Cameron important, he is unlikely to favour the interests of citizens of other nations, over the interests of those who can actually vote for him. I hope this is also uncontroversial. And to continue with the string of uncontroversial facts, there are many British voters who already think the British government does too much to help foreigners at the expense of Brits. This manifests itself not just through antipathy to the European Union, but also through anger at the government’s commitment to provide 0.7% of GDP in foreign aid, and hostility to immigrants. These are all facts. One of the inconvenient features of democracy is that people will vote according to their beliefs, and not everyone shares the same beliefs.
Given this context, it is unsurprising that a politician like David Cameron would try to steer a course where he gains what advantages he can from Britain’s membership of the EU, whilst minimizing the disadvantages. To do anything else would be political suicide or, a masterclass in democratic manipulation. There are ways for politicians to win elections whilst pursuing policies that are unpopular, but they often involve trumping up popular successes to distract from unpopular decisions. With this as basic context, Huff Po UK published a piece by Guy Verhofstadt, former Primeminister of Belgium and now an MEP. Verhofstadt is committed to further European integration, which he describes as ‘federalism’. In his piece, he lambasts Cameron for ‘sleepwalking to the EU exit’. Verhofstadt’s article is a typical example of the current pro-European arguments, but it also raises profound questions about pro-EU politicians and their commitment to democracy. Why do they attack national politicians for adopting positions that clearly serve their interests and are designed to maximize their political support? You might as well criticize the Pope for being Catholic. And why are they unable to make a positive argument for European integration which is aimed at real voters? If they spoke to voters, and not just to other members of the political elite, they might actually succeed in making the EU more popular than it already is.
Verhofstadt begun his piece:
David Cameron’s long-awaited speech on Britain in Europe tomorrow will force him to make some hard choices that will affect the future of British influence on the continent.
Already I have a bitter taste in my mouth. To begin with, we have the arrogance of a man who writes his riposte before waiting to hear the argument he is challenging. He could have just given a positive argument for the EU. Or he could have waited to hear what Cameron said, and then pointed out its faults. But with the reliably twisted logic of a pro-EU career politician, we are set up to hear Verhofstadt’s critique of Cameron’s critique of the EU. The problem with such arrogance is that voters dislike it, because it emphasizes that high-handed politicians are nothing like ordinary people. It also leaves the imperious politician looking foolish if real events overtake their ‘debate’. Terrorism in Algeria has rightly displaced the trumped-up importance of a political speech, so Verhofstadt is left looking like a man who went to heckle a rival political rally, only to find his rivals have all stayed home. And then, a speech does not force anyone to make choices, least of all a politician. So within his first sentence, Verhofstadt has summed up the corrosive artificiality of most ‘debate’ about Europe.
Will Britain aim to be a key player at the heart of the EU or a bit player on the margins? Will he show himself to be a slave to opinion polls and a sceptic press, or a statesman who knows his own mind and is prepared to argue the case for Britain’s continued place in Europe?
The problem with a false dichotomy is it only works on people who already agree with your point of view. A large number of British voters already believe their nation is a bit player on the margins, and that it always has been. Britain was denied entry to the EEC not once, but twice. It had to pay outrageous amounts to support a broken Common Agricultural Policy that benefited other Europeans, but not Brits. And time and time again, European politics has been a procession led by a peculiar marriage of French and German interests. So instead of implying that Britain is at risk of being a bit player, it might be interesting for a pro-EU politician to actually point to evidence that Britain has ever had any influence. Sadly, I never see that happening, possibly because it would upset voters in other countries. More British influence might mean less influence for the French, for example. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that the pro-EU vote in various countries is not based on love of their fellow Europeans, but on their combined enmity to Britain, as illustrated by this tweet from the European Parliament:
#MFF How much does your country pay for the UK rebate? Check it out in our MFF-tool, updated with new figures: europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headliâ€¦
I also wonder why the former Belgian PM is no slave to opinion polls or the press. Is this a back-handed way of saying that he takes no interest in what voters believe? Neither opinion polls nor the press decide who will be elected to power. Voters do.
The UK has been central in shaping the enlarged Union of 27 Member States that we have today and a vocal defender of the Single Market enabling goods, services, persons and capital to flow freely across internal borders to 500 million consumers. But the Single Market can only work if each member abides by a common set of rules, applied and enforced equally by everyone.
It is fascinating that we hear the UK has been central… but that no example is given. Perhaps this is evidence of intellectual sloppiness. And further evidence of this sloppiness comes when choosing the unfortunate words: ‘enforced equally’. The eurosceptics in Britain already believe that rules should be enforced equally. Their scepticism is based on the belief that the rules have never been enforced equally. The sceptics did not invent stories like those where French fishermen physically attack British fishermen, a small but emotive story that provokes many. More importantly, the sceptics would have noted that the EU adopted a ‘growth and stability pact’ with a view to limiting government deficits, but in 2005 the EU weakened enforcement because big economies like France and Germany were already ignoring the rules.
Cameron will not succeed if he attempts to hold his European partners to ransom, exchanging acquiescence to EU treaty change over the eurozone for a unilateral repatriation of powers. Moreover, the rest of the EU knows that stability and economic recovery in the eurozone is vital to the UK’s own economic interests. Some have said Cameron is not going to get his way by pointing a gun at everyone else’s head. I believe a more apt metaphor would be that of a suicide bomber, threatening to blow himself up unless he gets his own way.
Is this really how a supporter of European integration views the inevitable process of negotiation between European leaders? Either you agree with what we say, or else you are a suicide bomber? This may not be appreciated in Verhofstadt’s federalist dreamland, but in Britain there were ten million people who voted for David Cameron’s party at the last national election. Verhofstadt dismisses him like a lone fanatic. This sounds like the ridiculous ‘with us or against us’ bile that George W. Bush specialized in.
In truth, it is perfectly possible to imagine more than two outcomes. Britain could leave the EU. Britain could acquiesce to the federalist vision of Europe as favoured by Verhofstadt. Or there are an infinite number of possibilities where Britain stays in the EU and the EU integrates no further. Anybody with a genuine interest in politics can tell that Cameron wants to stay in the EU, but not at the cost of adopting the kind of federal vision pushed by Verhofstadt’s Spinelli Group:
We believe that this is not the moment for Europe to slow down further integration, but on the contrary to accelerate it.
To compare Cameron to a suicide bomber because he does not want to accelerate integration makes Verhofstadt sound more like Bashar al-Assad than a democrat who respects the diversity of beliefs held by European citizens.
One issue on which Cameron has been deliberately vague is what powers he seeks to repatriate. Social and employment law which sets minimum standards for annual leave, maternity, working hours or health and safety practices? Police and judicial cooperation which leading law enforcement figures have said are vital to the UK’s national security? The Common Fisheries Policy, which is already currently undergoing major reform? Do the fish even know where international borders are anyway? The only thing Cameron will achieve by seeking to renegotiate terms of membership is that Britain will be left ostracised, resented and alone. And the failure to meet expectations back home for a repatriation of powers would risk sending the UK hurtling towards the exit.
I shall have to remember this ‘deliberately vague’ quote whenever I think about political negotiation in future. Do political leaders normally negotiate by saying what they want at the outset? No. And nor does the Spinelli Group, which made this statement about its goals:
In addition, it is necessary to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the Commission President. This could involve the Presidentâ€™s direct or indirect election.
So, it is necessary to strengthen the democratic mandate of the Commission President. This could involve an election, and if it does, that election would either be direct or indirect. What an impressively unambiguous commitment to democracy!! The amazing thing is that Verhofstadt expects a political leader with an actual mandate from voters to show their cards prior to negotiation, but his useless ‘initiative’ cannot even state if elections are necessary for strengthening democracy. And we all know why they have to use such vague language – because the members of the Spinelli Group could not even negotiate a better wording for their own ‘position papers’, even though they were only negotiating amongst themselves.
As British business leaders have been quick to point out, the economic consequences of such an exit would be disastrous. Almost half of the UK’s exports go to the EU, while 87% of small business exporters and 3.5 million jobs rely on trade with the single market. The City of London currently handles 40% of global euro-denominated trade and would rapidly lose its position as Europe’s pre-eminent financial centre. Foreign investment of the kind which has rekindled the British car industry would soon dry up as the UK would no longer be seen as a launch pad into the single market. Furthermore, the UK would no longer be a party to the EU’s free trade deals, and would have to renegotiate its entire trade policy from a position of weakness.
In other words: nothing in the EU is allowed to change, and if any national leader tries to negotiate for change, federalists like Verhofstadt would prefer to devastate their economy rather than find a compromise. And not only would they devastate the UK’s economy, but they will happily damage the economy of the remainder of the EU – last time I checked, the EU economy also benefits from having the UK in it, though none of those benefits were listed by Verhofstadt. Who sounds like the fanatic now?
Any alternative arrangement, be it in EFTA or a separate associate membership, would leave the UK powerless to shape EU legislation while remaining strictly bound by it. Neither would be an enticing prospect for a nation that prides itself on global influence. As Britain’s American allies have recently emphasised, exit from the EU would greatly diminish Britain’s position on the world stage.
In other words, anybody outside of the EU club will regret it, because the EU is going to crush them. And if that was not bad enough, the US will crush them too. Why are supposedly sophisticated politicians incapable of seeing that this message might be counterproductive with some voters?
Some commentators have argued that the UK is in some way profoundly different from its European partners. But Britain is not the only country in the EU with a proud history, strong cultural identity, or former empire. The real difference in Britain has been the failure of politicians to make a positive case for Europe over the past two decades, and relentless bias and misreporting in a monopolistic and largely populist press driven by vested interests.
If I was to write a parody of a Euro-nut, I would still not have written something as silly as this. If some Brits dislike the EU, that must be the fault of British politicians and British press? And none of the fault lies with the EU itself? And British voters are all zombies, who just think the way that the press and politicians tell them to think?
The truth it, there is nothing special about the Brits because, all over Europe, there are lots of Europeans who dislike the EU. Europe is so disliked by European voters that the turnout for European elections is consistently below 50%. The 2009 turnout of 43% would have been even lower if countries like Verhofstadt’s native Belgium did not impose compulsory voting on their citizens.
When given the chance to vote, lots of Europeans have voted against joining, expanding or further integrating the Euro-club. In total, the voters of six European countries have shown their scepticism to Europe in nine different referenda: Norway (1973, 1995), Denmark (1992, 2000), Ireland (2001, 2008), Sweden (2003), France (2005) and Netherlands (2005). Note that Britain has never voted ‘no’ on any of the referenda it has held, yet Verhofstadt singles out Britain for being ‘different’. Are Brits so very different to the Norwegians, Danes, Irish, Swedes, French and Dutch? Given that there are plenty of Euro-sceptics in those countries, it seems not. Furthermore, when Europeans have rejected the goals of the federalists, the routine answer has been to force them to vote again! So if voters must be forced to vote over and over, until they finally answer ‘yes’ to more integration, then what is so despicable about suggesting a referendum that asks voters if they want less integration for a change?
But the most sour note struck by Verhofstadt is his criticism of Britain’s “monopolistic and largely populist press driven by vested interests”. For a start, the British media is not monopolistic. Nobody could seriously take a look at Silvio Berlusconi’s control of Italian media and say that Britain is ‘different’ because its media is less free than that on the continent. Secondly, I am unclear what is wrong with being ‘populist’. Perhaps the EU would be far more popular if some of its politicians would occasionally lower themselves to be populist instead of adopting an incessantly hectoring tone.
Britain’s destiny, like its history, will always be inextricably bound with the rest of Europe. And in the past, Britain has never been a country to cut and run when the going gets tough. It has always stood and fought for its interests and principles in Europe, profoundly shaping the history of our continent. As a Belgian I know this only too well. It was Britain which organised the Treaty of London in 1839 under which European powers formally recognised the independence and neutrality of Belgium, and it was a British regiment which liberated Brussels in September 1944.
Was that a belated attempt to be populist? But I think this reading of European history is bland, perhaps to hide the blushes of other Europeans, or to avoid provoking their nationalist sensibilities. The 1839 Treaty of London was needed because Belgium fought to gain their independence in the aftermath of the French Empire, which was constructed by the great tyrant of his time, Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1944 Belgium was liberated from the great European tyrant of that era, Adolf Hitler. Whether because of its interests, its principles, or just good fortune, Britain has an extraordinary track record of fighting against tyrants who sought to unify Europe. In this nuclear age, when Europe cannot be unified using military force, it is easy to sympathize with anyone who thinks men have not fundamentally changed, though their methods might. If any latter-day tyrant sought to unify Europe, the mechanism would be the EU. The onus must be on the pro-European camp to explain how their chronically unpopular institutions are designed to defend Europeans from tyranny, when they look like they are designed to impose their will upon reluctant subjects. Scepticism is profoundly healthy for the European democracy. The supporters of a federal EU need to sharpen their arguments and persuade the people. Otherwise, they only look live servants of the oft-observed anti-democratic tendencies of the EU, as beautifully exemplified by an MEP crassly comparing Britain’s Primeminister to a terrorist fanatic.
The challenges we now face in the 21st century may have changed – economic decline, an aging population, climate change, organised crime and terrorism – but they continue to be shared by countries across Europe. And in a globalised world these challenges cannot be solved by retreating into our nationalist shells. We must work together if we are to defend Europe’s prosperity and way of life, in an era set to be dominated by economic superpowers such as India and China and the emergence of regional trade blocs such as ASEAN and MERCOSUR.
If I understand this argument correctly, it says to compete with China, we must be like China. To compete with India, we must be like India. To compete with Chinese nationalism and Indian nationalism, we need a new alternative to nationalism… which looks rather like European nationalism, with Europe being a single unified nation, where diversity is minimized. Perhaps I am being unfair to Verhofstadt, and maybe he can offer positive explanations for why European statehood would be good for all its citizens. If so, he should do so, and not hide behind a false dichotomy of ever more integration or national isolation. Here he just appeals to nationalistic sympathies, turning the Chinese and Indians into demons and bogeymen, implying that if Europe’s citizens do not bow down to Europe’s elite, then they will be forced to bow to China’s elite, or some other foreign regime. This is not post-nationalism, but a janus-faced neo-nationalism, that decries the lines drawn on an old map, then demands we erect a new wall around a fortress Europa, and surrender our freedoms to a European elite for fear of being conquered by outsiders. But even if we agreed to this analysis, it still leaves one question unanswered: why is the tyranny of a European elite inherently preferable to a foreign-imposed tyranny?
In fields as diverse as the single market, foreign policy, trade and enlargement, the UK has shown that it can play a leading role.
Though, again, Verhofstadt fails to give examples. Would it be such a sin to go on the record and point to a specific example of what the UK has done right?
Crucially, Britain’s liberal instincts have helped ensure that the EU remains competitive, outward looking, and a force for peace and trade liberalisation throughout the world. It has achieved this not through blackmail, but by building alliances and pushing for EU-wide reform.
In other words, Verhofstadt is quite keen on Britain acting as a counter-weight to the main bloc that pushes for European integration: the socialists. Verhofstadt is not a socialist. But he refuses to address the chief problem with the European program: that most supporters of ever-increasing integration also believe this is a mechanism to attain greater government control over people’s lives and private enterprise. It is not inconsistent to want an EU whilst rejecting the notion of a monolithic European superstate. But in practice, the pro-EU agenda is unwilling or unable to articulate a vision distinct from the socialist vision. So where does that leave a politician, or a voter, who has no antipathy to Europe but who objects to giving more powers to governments? By failing to offer anything positive, Verhofstadt does nothing to close the gap between the equally extreme camps that favour all, or nothing, and are unable (or unwilling) to articulate any option between.
If Cameron fails to show leadership now and allows Britain to drift away from continental Europe, he will guarantee his place in the history books – but for all the wrong reasons.
Politicians should make arguments in the present, without appealing to what will be written in future history books. History is determined by our current actions, and many have misread the consequences of what was happening around them. Nearly one hundred years ago, Europe embarked on the slaughter of 16 million of its people, in what came to be known as the ‘war to end wars’. J.M. Keynes, an economist of rejuvenated popularity following the recent economic crash, cheered people up during the 1930’s depression by projecting everybody would enjoy a 15-hour working week by the start of the 21st century. Turning to recent memory, Verhofstadt might ask Jacques Delors, a fellow leader of the Spinelli Group, if he regrets any of his predictions. In 1988, Delors predicted that it would only take 10 years before the European Community originated 80% of Europe’s economic legislation. My personal sympathies lie less with those who make grand forecasts, and more with those who comment on human foibles. Field-Marshal Earl Wavell saw what a mess was made by politicians during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, and he commented:
After the ‘war to end war’, they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘peace to end peace’
The track record of European politicians is underwhelming, to say the least. If politicians want to invigorate public interest in an ever-closer European Union, they had best start by saying something good about Europe’s elected politicians, and not just by finding fault with their peers.