The man who could blow up the EU

On 22nd April 1966, Jean Rey, the Belgian lawyer who succeeded Walter Hallstein as president of the European Commission, delivered a speech in Brussels full of optimism about  the future of the European project.  At this time, the Community had just emerged from the “Empty Chair Crisis” where France’s General de Gaulle, concerned about the increasing power of the Commission and erosion of national sovereignty, recalled France’s representatives, resulting in six months of virtual paralysis within the European institutions.

Rey expressed great confidence about the Community’s ability to bounce back form the crisis and move forward towards closer integration:- “There is no reason for the leaders of the Community to show the any hint of pessimism, of discouragement; the slightest doubt about the eventual success of their efforts.”  Europe had a great future, he claimed, but only if it integrated. Indeed, in so doing, Europe could lead the world:- “The times when nations could live in isolation is over….After several centuries when the nation state represented the final word in political wisdom, see how the world is organising itself in continents and it’s the Europeans who are leading by their example.”

Overt federalists like Rey are a rare breed nowadays. True, the EU has expanded from its original six members to 28 (soon to be 27) but the optimistic, almost visionary quality of Rey’s utterances are a thing of the past. No better proof of can be found by comparing Rey’s words with a speech by Martin Schulz, the leader of the German Socialist Party, the SPD, at his party’s  conference on 7th December.  The substance may be similar but the tone is completely different.

“I want there to be constitutional treaty to create a federal Europe” he said. Fine, that has always been the goal of the EU. He then went on to say that once drafted, it would “be presented to the member states, and those who are against it will simply leave the EU.”

This is the big difference. It would never have occurred to Jean Rey to talk of expulsion from the EU and Schulz’s harsh language is an implicit admission that the European Project is faltering. We addressed some of the reasons a couple of months ago and in spite of the promising headline data on the Eurozone economy, the political divisions are as deep as ever.

Far from encouraging unity around common ideals, Schulz’s words will only inflame these divisions. His vision of “Europe” is the Western European multicultural variant which is being so fiercely resisted in countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.  Furthermore, as a German, his words will be interpreted in Southern Europe as a threat to their fiscal independence.  The most extreme reaction may well come from his own countrymen, however. The federal Europe to which he aspires can only come about if his countrymen are prepared to foot the bill and subsidise the poorer countries. The lack of enthusiasm for such generosity lay behind the success of Alternative für Deutschland in the recent Federal Election. Perhaps Herr Schulz might care to reflect that his own party recently registered its worst performance – and under his leadership – in almost seventy years.

True, there was a certain amount of grandstanding in the speech. The SPD is setting out its stall for renewing its coalition with Mrs Merkel’s CDU party but its overt federalism was given short shrift by the German Chancellor, who said ““I believe the ability to act now is the priority, not setting long-term goals,” In reality, while Schulz (and Jean-Claude Juncker, for that matter) are wanting to put their foot on the accelerator, Merkel actually wants to go more slowly but in exactly the same direction – and it’s not a direction that commands as great a degree of support as it once did.  There may not be anyone of the calibre of Charles de Gaulle in a position of authority in an EU member state, but the issues are the same as those which provoked the “empty chair crisis” – increasing centralisation and a loss of sovereignty by the member states.

In a very thought-provoking article, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard said that we must not forget why we are leaving the EU. “It is not a whimsical choice. The decision was forced upon us because the EU began to assert ‘totalitarian’ reach, using Hannah Arendt’s term advisedly to mean a systematic assault on prior traditions and institutions in order to create an entirely new order,” he said. The article begins, however, by quoting someone from the very heart of Europe who is claiming that the EU is becoming  an “imperial construction”. In other words, it’s not just the UK which has lots of unhappy people. “Life in Europe in 2017 is resembling more and more what it was like under colonial administration. We are subjected to an invisible administration that shapes our destiny down to the tiniest details. Should we really be surprised that it is leading to revolts?” asks the Belgian David van Reybrouck, a prolific writer and historian.

The EU expended a huge amount of energy (and, no doubt, money) to try to contain Brexit and prevent a domino effect. It breathed a huge sigh of relief when  Neither Geert wilders nor Marine le Pen achieved the breakthrough they had hoped for. The volatility of many European voters and the fault lines between the EU-27 have not gone away, however, and if Schulz becomes Germany’s vice-chancellor and fancies joining forces with Jean-Claude Juncker and Emmanuel Macron to push ahead with the federal Europe to which they fervently aspire, the net result may well be the opposite – that they end up blowing the whole project to pieces.

 

Photo by opposition24.de

“Sufficient progress” or breakthrough?

The news that an agreement has been reached between our negotiating team and the European Union has been trumpeted as a “breakthrough” by the mainstream media.

The text of the joint report is available here and on reading it through, you will note that it amounts to nothing more than a statement of intent – an agreement to have an agreement. Nothing is set in stone, even assuming that the European Council will be happy with the document. Most importantly, however, it should enable the Brexit negotiations to move on to the important area of trade talks in the New Year.

Let’s have a quick recap:- In order to move on to “Phase 2” of the talks, the EU was not insisting on a deal on the three points it insisted needed to be discussed first – namely the rights of EU citizens living in the EU, the divorce bill and the Irish Border issue, merely that “sufficient progress” needed to have been made on these issues and Jean-Claude Juncker has decided that such a point has indeed been reached.

The document is distinctly lacking in detail. No exact figure for the divorce bill is mentioned. In broad terms, we will honour our commitments up to the end of the EU’s seven-year budget in 2020 and our shareholding in the European Central Bank will be reimbursed on withdrawal. The options for voluntary participation in certain EU projects have been left open. No surprises here. Reports elsewhere suggest a figure of £35 to £39 million – considerably lower than the EU’s initial demands.

Neither is there anything unexpected in the wording of the section on EU citizens’ rights.  There remains some ambiguity over the “extraterritoriality” issue – in other words, that EU citizens resident in the UK being subject to the EU law (including the European Court of Justice) and not to UK law. The document contains a rather vague statement that , “UK courts shall therefore have due regard to relevant decisions of the CJEU after the specified date.” {i.e., withdrawal} but Jean-Claude Juncker’s understanding of the wording is rather disturbing. He said that, “For EU citizens, the ECJ will still be competent.” Mrs May, on the other hand. said that EU citizens living in the UK will have their rights enshrined in UK law and enforced by British courts”

On the Irish Border issue, the relevant paragraphs are particularly interesting, given that the final text would have been approved by the Democratic Unionist Party. This is what they say:-

“The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.”

In summary, the ball is in the court of the UK negotiators to come up with a specific solution to the Irish border problem which enables cross-border trade to continue seamlessly but without Northern Ireland ending up subject to a different set of regulations as the rest of the UK. Feargal Cochrane, an academic at the Univeristy of Kent, described the wording as “more constructive ambiguity” – a fair assessment.

Thankfully, everyone has recognised that the nature of future trade with the Irish Republic  cannot be separated from the wider issue of a future UK/EU trade deal. This recognition does not, however, make the agreement of such a deal any easier – as the challenges ahead if all the relevant parties are to sign off a bespoke deal in time for it to come into force by the end of March 2019 are immense.  The main benefit of the agreement reached this morning is that the many obstacles ahead of our negotiators, including the unacceptability of any transitional arrangement on the terms Mrs May is rumoured to be considering will come to the surface sooner rather than later.

In conclusion, this agreement has removed one obstacle in the talks and for this, we must be grateful. It is only one small step, however. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” says the first page of the text. Arlene Foster of the DUP has warned Mrs May that Conservative backbenchers are likely to be unhappy with some aspects of the joint report, particularly  over the extraterritorialty issue and any restrictions on our ability to adopt an independent trade policy on Brexit.

At least for now, however, things can move on with any thought of a separate status for Northern Ireland now consigned to the dustbin for which we must be thankful, especially given the  demands for special treatment for Scotland and possibly Wales which could have followed.  There is, however, a long, long way still to go and fierce opposition to any plan to keep us more or less in the EU for a two-year transitional  period will soon be manifesting itself.

“We still have a lot of work to do; the joint report is not the withdrawal agreement,” said Jean-Claude Juncker. One does not often find oneself in agreement with the President of the European Commission, but on this occasion, he never spoke a truer word.

Photo by .swallowtail.

The border which nobody wants

Ar first glance, it seems utterly bizarre. We don’t want to build a hard border fence between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and neither do the Irish or the EU. No one wants it but it may nonetheless have to be erected.

The reasons lie with the UK’s change in status. If it leaves not only the EU but also the European Economic Area, it becomes a Third Country. The EU does not permit goods to be transferred across its borders without the necessary customs clearance and the fact that we are going to maintain regulatory convergence with the EU up to Brexit day makes not one iota of difference.

But couldn’t we just agree to treat Ireland differently? In this instance, the rules of the World Trade Organisation wouldn’t allow it. Discrimination in trading arrangements that favour one country over another without any formal trade deal is not permitted – and we can’t strike a bilateral trade deal with the Irish Republic as it has no freedom to negotiate such deals, being a member of the EU. After all, this desire to regain control of trade policy was one of the reasons why we voted to leave.

So it is no surprise that Mrs May came away empty handed from her meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday. It is hard to read between the lines and fathom out what really went on. Did she really consider a deal which would have seen Northern Ireland end up with separate trading arrangements from the rest of the UK?  Such an arrangement would compromise the constitutional integrity of the UK and thus was never going to be acceptable to the Unionist community in the Province. “Northern Ireland must leave the European Union on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom,” insisted Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

On the other hand, the Dublin government insists that EU regulations on issues such as food safety and animal welfare must be maintained in Northern Ireland, to avoid damaging cross-border trade once Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union.  However, to repeat, mutual recognition of standards cannot be agreed without a formal trade arrangement and that isn’t going to be on the table any time soon.

Parliament’s Exiting the European Union Committee published a report which  was decidedly pessimistic about the  prospects of a deal given Mrs May’s insistence that we will be leaving the Single Market. “The Committee does not see how it will be possible to reconcile there being no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with the Government’s policy of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union.”

Quite why the Customs Union has to be dragged into this debate is anyone’s guess. There are seamless borders between non-EU Norway and EU member states Sweden and Finland. This is everything to do with the Single Market but nothing at all to do with the Customs Union, of which Norway is not part.

There can be no doubt about the concern felt in the Irish Republic about the prospect of “no deal”. Comparing the UK to EU-27 as a whole, our country could well end up facing the greater problems in the short term. Some individual countries would not suffer that badly either. Germany, for example, would soon shrug off any decline in trade with one of its major export markets and find others. For the Irish Republic, however, the effect of “no deal” would be devastating. We are the second largest importer of Irish goods and services after the USA, receiving 13% of total Irish exports. We are also the biggest exporter to Ireland, with a 24% share of Irish imports.

Given these figures, you would expect the Irish government to be among the most dovish of EU27. Unfortunately, according to Anthony Coughlan, this is far from being the case. In an e-mail to Edward Spalton, our Chairman, he wrote:

The members of the political Establishment in the Republic of Ireland, dominated as they are by career Euro-federalists, hope fervently that the whole Brexit project can be aborted or made effectively meaningless by doing everything they can to obstruct the EU/UK negotiations and by interacting privately with those cross-party interests that are seeking to test Brexit to destruction in Parliament. Irish policy-makers are doing everything they can these days to encourage this end, egged on by the Brussels people –  while not saying so publicly of course.”

He went on to claim that there was some collusion between Irish Euro-federalists and UK remainiacs: “I have not the least doubt that  key Irish/EU grandees such as Peter Sutherland, John Bruton, Pat Cox  and Alan Dukes are interacting at present with the likes of  Peter Mandelson, Keir Starmer, Tom Tugendhat et al to do all they can to frustrate Brexit in Parliament and that they are being encouraged by Messrs Barnier, Juncker and the Brussels people to do this, with the full support of the Irish Government and Opposition behind the scenes.”

Some eagle-eyed readers will remember that Peter Sutherland, a former European Commissioner, was the person who told the House of Lords that the EU should do its best to undermine the ethnic homogeneity of individual nations by increasing mass immigration. Anyone in this country who is formally associated with this contemptible individual is truly beyond the pale.

Given these serious allegations of troublemaking by Irish politicians, it is unsurprising that Mrs May has been sent a letter signed by a number of Tory MPs, economists and business leaders urging her to take a tough line with the EU, insist on a trade deal and walk away if the EU will not play ball. Add into this potent brew the firm and perfectly understandable stance of the DUP that every part of the UK must leave the EU on the same terms and it is unsurprising that David Davis has found himself having to work hard to find a solution to the impasse. His latest suggestion is that that the whole of the UK, and not just Northern Ireland, should retain regulatory “alignment” – not “convergence”  -with the EU.

Even before any discussion has taken place on what this actually means, however, an un-named EU official has effectively torpedoed the whole idea:-  “The UK will not have any say on the decisions taken in Brussels and will basically implement them without having any influence over them… it makes the UK kind of a regulatory ‘protectorate” of Brussels.‘” Any suggestion that such an abject surrender would be acceptable to the signatories of the letter to Mrs May – or the DUP for that matter – is plainly ridiculous.

It isn’t easy to separate the wood from the trees in the current flurry of activity, but it is looking highly unlikely that the Brexit negotiations will be moving on to the next stage (i.e., trade talks) after the critical European Council meeting later this month. The deadlock over the Irish border issue is raising the stakes higher by the day and it would be a brave man who would place any money on what the eventual outcome is likely to be.

Photo by Michael 1952

Immigration: Concerns on both sides of the Channel

At a time when positive news on the Brexit front seems to be in short supply, the latest immigration figures, which were published last week have brought some welcome cheer. Long term net migration fell by 106,000 to 230,000 in the year following the vote to leave the EU – the biggest drop since records began in 1964. The number of arrivals in the UK fell by 80,000 and the number of departures rose by 26,000. Even so, this welcome fall still leaves the Government a long way short of its target to bring down net migration below 100,000.

Naturally, not everyone is happy. Jonathan Portes, a senior fellow at The U.K. in a Changing Europe, said the statistics show the country is “less attractive” to migrants from Europe. “Whatever your views on the impact of immigration, it cannot be good news that the U.K. is a less attractive place to live and work, and that we will be poorer as a result,” he said.

Conversely, Lord Green of MigrationWatch gave the figures a cautious welcome. “This is a significant and very welcome reduction in net migration – especially by EU citizens who do not have a job to come to,” he said. “It points to what could be achieved once the UK regains full control over migration. Meanwhile, employers who raise cries of alarm should be reminded that we still have a net inflow of over a hundred thousand from the EU, plus 170,000 from outside the EU and last week’s figures saw a new record of 2.4 million for the number of EU workers in the UK.”

This is the bottom line. Our country is full up. Unless things change quickly, to quote the MigrationWatch website, “A new home will need to be built every five minutes over the next 25 years just to house future migrants and their families.” There is no doubt that some people are making themselves very wealthy by running businesses which rely on migrant labour and there is no doubt too that a sudden and complete stop in immigration would cause problems in some sectors, but there are many reasons to be concerned about mass migration, which are nothing to do with being “racist”. In this excellent piece, Kathy Gyngell pulls no punches:-

There’s a reason why our roads are blocked with traffic, why there’s a housing shortage, why there are not enough school places, why the NHS is creaking at the seams. It’s called population growth, something that the political class choose to ignore, let alone see the need to be planned for….Driven by record migration levels, our population has seen is sharpest growth ever. Britain has experienced a population increase of over 5 million in a just over a decade, from 2005 to 2016.”

So what has been our politicians’ reaction? “Both the Conservative and Labour parties appear to be in some sort of denial, their heads firmly stuck in the sand. Dare to ask the unmentionable – whether the country can possibly cope with these numbers without irrevocably and irreparably changing – and you are silenced, cast as racist or fascist.” That such words should be written a year after the referendum is a tragic indictment of our elected representatives. True, the main reason we voted to leave was to regain our sovereignty, but concerns about immigration loomed large. One must not interpret Dan Hannan’s comments about the negative effects of last year’s “Breaking Point ” poster to imply that its emphasis on immigration was a turn-off right across the board. What he is saying is that its style was too crude to win round undecided voters. There were plenty of people who had already decided to vote to leave the EU because of the immigration issue so  the poster was merely preaching to the converted.

Opponents of Brexit claim that anyone hoping for a cut in net migration is going to be disappointed. Thankfully, they have already been proved wrong, although it is too early to be confident that the recent figures represent a long-term trend,

Meanwhile, it’s not just the UK which is experiencing “migration fatigue”. Even the famously tolerant Dutch are getting fed up. The decision to relocate the European Medicines Agency from London to Amsterdam on Brexit has not been universally welcomed in the Netherlands’ most popular tourist destination. “Expats go home and leave the City to us, ” said Danielle van Diemen, a 5th-generation Amsterdammer.  “I am like a visitor in my own neighbourhood,” said Bert Nap, who lives near the centre. “We have lost all our bakers and other shops to tourism-orientated shops,” he added. Like London, Amsterdam is experiencing a housing shortage and it’s not the predilection of the indigenous Dutch for large families which is causing the problem.

However, it’s not only UK politicians who are  refusing to admit that there is a problem. The European continent “will clearly need immigration in the coming decades,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, a few days ago.

It won’t just be the UK and Amsterdam where words like this will go down like a lead balloon. Take Hungary for instance. The big problem of illicit migration has been contained by the erection of a border fence complete with surveillance equipment – and the measures are widely popular with voters. The Hungarian government is currently planning further to toughen the border defences and cares not one iota about the condemnation it has faced from certain quarters, including some  Western European politicians, who have accused the Hungarians and some other Eastern European countries of “retreating from European Values”.

Eastern Europeans, on the contrary, would claim to be defending and preserving European values. They  look at what has happened in the Western part of the Continent and shudder. In Poland,  less than 10 percent of respondents disagree with the statement that “all immigration from majority Muslim nations should be stopped.” Mariusz Blaszczak, the Polish interior minister said, “The security of Poland and the Poles is at risk” by taking in migrants.  “We mustn’t forget the terror attacks that have taken place in Western Europe, and how — in the bigger EU countries — these are unfortunately now a fact of life.” In the Czech Republic, former president Vaclav Klaus said, “We refuse to permit the transformation of our country into a multicultural society . . . as we currently see in France and in Great Britain.”

There are many in the UK who read Mr Klaus’ words with a sense of shame. Many of us never wanted multiculturalism and even if we would never abuse individual immigrants,  it is by no means racist to be concerned about the threat to our countryside posed by the growing population, nor to point out that more monocultural societies like Japan and South Korea are also the most stable and much less plagued by violent crime.  In Japan, opposition to mass immigration remains solid, in spite of the falling birthrate.

Furthermore, the economic arguments in favour of mass immigration are wearing thinner and thinner. The advances in robotics are likely to see as many as 11 million UK jobs automated by 2036. True, we are currently short of skilled medical staff, but sensible education policies ought to be able to address this in a decade of so.  In spite of the repeated mantra that large-scale immigration is a good thing, the likes of Mr Portes  are failing to grasp the point that the referendum was something of a turning point in this debate. Not only are there a sizeable number of people who have never accepted that the benefits of immigration outweigh the problems but they are now increasingly less afraid to say so and challenge the prevailing wisdom – and are doing so in the knowledge that such sentiments are being increasingly voiced in other countries too. The sentiments in Eastern Europe summarised above, Donald Trump’s proposed US-Mexican border  and the success of anti-immigration parties in Germany and Austria are all signs that this issue can’t be swept under the carpet any more.

Photo by marklyon

Deal or no deal? Some thoughts on last week’s meeting

Last week I, along with about 90 other people, attended a conference entitled Deal or no deal – what are the options? hosted by David Campbell Bannerman MEP.  I was very much hoping to hear something of the government’s current thinking about the progress of the Brexit negotiations with the EU.

The opening speaker, Rt Hon Greg Hands MP, gave a very upbeat assessment of our trading opportunities post-Brexit. His department, he assured us, is ready, come what may. Nine new trade commissioners are to be appointed and our new tariff schedules are being prepared for the World Trade Organisation. At a time when protectionism is on the increase, there is considerable enthusiasm in some quarters (which he did not name) for a new independent UK to re-emerge as a champion of global free trade. He was adamant that all the major countries with whom the EU had signed trade deals were keen to continue a similar arrangement with us on Brexit.

One member of the audience expressed concern about how high standards in agriculture could be maintained if trade was to become freer. Mr Hands insisted that there would be no lowering of standards on food quality and we would not be flooded with poor-quality imports (Presumably a reference to chlorine-washed chickens about which there are currently many worries)

David Campbell Bannerman then introduced what he called the “Super Canada” option which, he claimed, was the Government’s  preferred option. This was no surprise, given that a few days beforehand, the EU was widely reported as considering a deal along the lines of CETA, the EU/Canada deal, with the UK. This has been strongly criticised both by the left and by other informed commentators for its inadequacy. Mr Bannerman said that the EU likes the CETA deal and intends to use it as a template for future trade deals with Australia and New Zealand too, Twelve of the 30 chapters in this deal would need no change, he informed us. The others would not be suitable without re-writing, as we would (presumably) wish to protect the NHS  The EU is worried about the future UK attitude towards regulation, as it doesn’t want to see us becoming the Singapore of the North Atlantic, an option enthusiastically supported by, among others, Owen Paterson, whose piece appeared, perhaps coincidentally, on the same day as this conference.

David Davis gave the keynote speech. He stated that he does not want to end up with no deal and is confident that we will get a deal. He pointed out the areas where progress had been made and insisted that our exit will be conducted in a smooth, orderly way.

There was, nonetheless, a possibility that we may not get a deal, but Whitehall was preparing for every eventuality.

Mrs May has consistently rejected using Norway as a model and Helle Hagenau, a familiar face to our more long-standing members, explained some of the pitfalls. Although advising against our staying in the EEA, however, she felt it was worth our re-joining EFTA as we needed some trading arrangement with the four EFTA countries once we leave. Switzerland is our sixth most important trading partner while bilateral trade with Norway  was worth £18.57 billion in 2015. She did, however, mention that although EFTA courts are not bound to implement the ECJ rulings, , they were in fact doing so, even though the ECJ has no direct power to intervene in EEA matters and the actions of the EFTA court was an encroachment on the original basis of the EEA agreement.  With the alleged indivisibility of the “Four freedoms” of the Single Market mentioned on a couple of occasions during the morning, I was surprised that no one mentioned Liechtenstein’s unilateral restriction on free movement of people at this point.

The final speaker was Rt Hon David Jones, who had formerly worked as a minister in DExEU (the Department for Exiting the European Union)  who informed the meeting that any role for the ECJ in our affairs post-Brexit would be totally unacceptable to him and a number of his colleagues. If this meant we would leave with no deal, then as far as he was concerned, so be it.

Interestingly, little was said about the details of any transitional arrangement, which as we have pointed out, the EU is only prepared to offer us under terms which would see us still under the thumb of the ECJ. We can therefore presume that Mr Jones and a number of his colleagues will be  equally opposed to any such arrangement.

Although only billed as a “comment” rather than a speech, the few words shared by Hans-Olaf Henkel of the BDI, the German equivalent of our CBI, were well received. Although he regretted our vote to leave the EU and still hoped Brexit wouldn’t happen,  he was most unimpressed with the way the EU was handling the negotiations. He referred in particular to the “divorce bill” which  he regarded as unacceptable. He also said that Brexit was the fault of Brussels, although his statement that “you joined an EU of sovereign nations and suddenly someone decided to make a United States of Europe out of it” was a rather naive comment given the United States of Europe was always the destination of the European project, right from the days of Jean Monnet.

It was good to meet up with a number of colleagues from other campaign organisations, quite a few of whom I had not seen since the referendum.  It was worth attending this meeting, although I came away with a clear sense that not everyone in the government is singing from the same songsheet, so perhaps the lack of a clear Brexit strategy is understandable given the balancing act required to avoid a massive rebellion on the back benches.

Among the other attendees was Viscount Matt Ridley, whose rather witty comments on the conference may be of interest. They can be found here.

Being European – is it geographical, cultural or political?

During last year’s referendum campaign, one helpful piece of advice we were given was to make sure we made a differentiation between “Europe” and “the European Union”. My experience was typical inasmuch as our opponents – deliberately, so it seemed – tried to confuse the two, as if leaving the EU meant somehow leaving “Europe”.

In fairness, however, no one against whom I debated went as far as Nick Clegg, who seemed to believe that leaving the EU would somehow change our physical location. “There’s nothing bulldog about Britain hovering somewhere in the mid-Atlantic” he once said on the Andrew Marr. Well, Nick, old chap, to my knowledge Dover is still only 21 miles for Calais after the Brexit vote and even the most astute observers of the Brexit process have not heard a whisper of any plans to move our island further away from the European mainland in March 2019.

Seriously, though,  what does it mean to be European? I had always believed it was a matter of geography.  The UK is not an Asian or African country; we may feel a closer cultural affinity with North America or the Commonwealth realms than, say, with Estonia or Portugal, but these places are thousands of miles away. We may also place immense symbolic and historical value on those 21 miles of water separating us from France, but we are Europeans, like it or not.

The EU, however, seems to think otherwise. In 2023, there will be a number of new European Capitals of Culture and Brussels has told Leeds and Dundee, among others, that they are not eligible to bid because by then we will be neither in the EU, the EEA nor an EU accession state. It seems quite bizarre when you look at the list of countries which have already gained this designation and consider that there in the heart of our continent is Switzerland which is excluded. Yes, even a great city like Geneva which has exercised a huge influence in the development of Europe cannot be regarded as “European” by the EU! Russia likewise, which includes Peter the Great’s European-style capital city and which has given us composers in the European tradition like Glinka, Borodin and Tchaikovsky is also excluded.

And now we will find ourselves made shut out as well.  The EU has decided that being European is a matter of politics. We can only regret that the EU will not swap competences for the Capitals of Culture with the European Broadcasting Union, which currently determines eligibility for the Eurovision Song Contest. Being excluded from this display of banality and mediocrity, in which our artists fail year after year, would not perhaps be the biggest benefit of leaving the EU but one which, if on offer last year, might nevertheless have helped secure us a larger majority!