EU debate disappointment at TPA’s post-election conference

The Taxpayers’ Alliance, in conjunction with Conservative Home, Business for Britain and the Institute for Economic Affairs, held a post-election conference in London on 11th May. The four-hour event covered a number of topics, including Scotland, the election campaign itself and the prospects for change in the EU. Although three of the four organisations co-hosting the event would claim to be cross-party, the meeting had a very strongly Tory flavour to it, with most of the keynote speakers being Conservative Party members.

Dr. Liam Fox was one of those who addressed the conference and his speech sounded a distinctly EU-critical note. He was particularly concerned about further possible calamities within the Eurozone, calling the Single Currency “an economic pass-the-parcel; a time bomb which they all hope will go off when someone else is holding it.” He claimed that senior figures in Brussels live in a parallel universe, quoting Mario Monti, a former Commissioner and Prime Minister of Italy who said recently “We have done so well with the Euro”. Dr. Fox appeared somewhat sceptical about the prospects of any meaningful renegotiation, especially in the light of recent comments by José Manuel Barroso, a former President of the European Commission, who stated that he would support renegotiation “as long as it is compatible with the objectives of the European Union.” Given that the main objective of the EU is “ever-closer union” and the logical end-point of “ever-closer union” is “union”, this does not sound promising for Mr Cameron, said Dr. Fox.

The panel for the debate on reform in the EU consisted of Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s sole MP, Matthew Elliott of Business for Britain and Laura Sandys, the former MP for Thanet South and Chairperson of the European Movement. For someone such as myself who had attended CIB’s rally and the recent presentation on “Flexcit” by Dr Richard North, the level of debate appeared pretty puerile by comparison. Admittedly, with a time slot of only half an hour including questions from the floor, there was not going to be long enough to do this subject justice, but it was particularly frustrating that neither of the other panellists took Laura Sandys to task for repeating Cameron’s statement that we had to stay in the EU to be “at the top table”. This shows a sad ignorance of how the EU now works. So much regulation landed on us by the EU does not originate in Brussels at all. The EU merely acts as a conduit for various organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, UNECE (the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) and other global bodies. These are the real “top tables” and we do not have our own seat here. The EU represents us, but not just us. It represents all 28 member states. We would have far more clout in influencing legislation as an independent country, especially given that these bodies are not so keen to see national vetoes surrendered as the EU. (Your scribe attempted to raise this subject when the debate was opened to questions from the floor, but there was insufficient time for all those who raised their hands to be given a chance to speak)

Douglas Carswell stated his belief that David Cameron would try and repeat Harold Wilson’s trick of 1975, trying to sell a piffling concession to the electorate as a major triumph of renegotiation. With that one would agree. His endorsement for Business for Britain and its importance in the forthcoming referendum is a different matter.

Matthew Elliott said that remaining in under renegotiated conditions was better than the status quo. However, his contribution was most disappointing. He clearly shows no understanding of the EEA/EFTA option which would satisfy the concerns of businesses he claims to speak for while opening the door to a much better future. It would be by far the best way of satisfying on the one hand, a desire for a looser trading relationship with the EU while on the other ensuring a seamless exit. One was left with grave doubts as to whether he really does want to see our country regain his liberty.

However, given Laura Sandys’ senior role within the European Movement, it is apparent that fear, uncertainly and doubt are the only real weapons available to those who support our membership. She said that the pro-EU movement had failed to make the case for the positive role played by the EU. To which one must reply that it is because it hasn’t actually played a positive role; it has done far more harm than good. Supporters of our EU membership really don’t have any convincing arguments. Their arguments are very weak and easily refuted, Unfortunately, although right is on our side, we have a long way to go to win the argument irrevocably. Withdrawalists are still not at all clear what to do with the aces in our hand which, if played correctly, should finally persuade the public how much better life will be on the outside. I therefore left the meeting with a mixture of hope and frustration.

Can we trust Tony Blair?

So many ghosts from British politics past have returned from the dead to make some idiotic comment about the EU in the last few months that it has not been worth the effort to give our readers a resumé of all their drivel. After all, keeping track of Nick Clegg’s daft statements about the EU is almost a full-time job, as he makes so many of them.

However, one cannot let Tony Bliar’s intervention pass without comment, as it illustrates perfectly the utter contempt that some senior politicians feel for the people who elected them into office and explains why disillusion with politicians is so widespread in the country.

Blair said that he fully supported Ed Miliband’s decision not to offer the UK electorate a referendum on whether we should leave the EU or not.”This issue”, he said at a speech in his former Sedgefield constituency, “touching as it does the country’s future, is too important to be traded like this.”

Let’s unpack these words. What he is saying is that, essentially, the general public – you and I, in other words – cannot be trusted to make an informed decision about whether we should stay in the EU or not. He pointed out how the Scottish independence referendum had proven “the fragility of public support for the sensible choice.” What arrogance! “If I, the great Tony Blair, think a certain course of action is right, any opposing views must be dismissed as stupid.”

He also claimed that if we were to have a referendum on EU membership simply because it was now 40 years since the last one, then we should have a referendum on our NATO membership as well. This is a completely spurious argument. We were not led into NATO under false premises, being told it was one thing when in reality it was another. Furthermore, while NATO has enlarged to take in some of the former Soviet bloc nations, it still remains what it always was – a defensive alliance. On the other hand, the EEC/EU has changed beyond all recognition since 1975. Forty years ago, there was no directly elected European Parliament, no single currency, far less use of qualified majority voting and so on. In 1975, you could believe, if you didn’t look too closely beneath the surface, that we were just part of another trading bloc like EFTA.

No one can be under any illusions now about our subjugation to the unelected bureaucrats of the European Commission – a subjugation Blair himself facilitated by signing the Nice Treaty of 2001. We have never been asked if we wanted to join an embryonic superstate and, for all his faults and in spite of his rather dubious motives, David Cameron was right to reply to Blair by saying that, “You can’t stay in an organisation unless it has the full-hearted consent of the people.”

Blair went on to say, “If Britain left, the rest of Europe will be vigorous in ensuring the UK gets no special treatment.” Has he never read Article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty? It states that “The Union shall develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness”? While it has to be admitted, the EU hasn’t been doing too well in relating to its large neighbour to the East, it is unlikely that on independence, our country will elect as leader an awkward, aggressive brute like Vladimir Putin.

He took the all-too-familiar line about the damage which Brexit would allegedly do to the economy. While we can take it as read that he has never studied the informed analyses of supporters of withdrawal such as Robert Oulds, Richard North, Ruth Lea and Tim Congdon, all of whom have pointed to economic benefits from withdrawal, is it too much to think that he has never studied Open Europe’s work? As we recently pointed out, this pro-EU think tank claimed that a free trading deregulated UK would actually be better off outside the EU if the exit was handled well.

Equally tedious was Blair’s claim that we would be “diminished in the world” and “out of the leadership game” if we left the EU. In what way? We would still a member of NATO, we would still occupy one of the permanent seats on the UN security council (for all that is worth); we would still be a world leader in financial services, we would still be one of the largest economies in the world. In fact, we would regain our own seat at the World Trade Organisation instead of having to be represented by the EU. It gets better. We would not be having to compromise in every foreign policy decision and need not get sucked into conflicts such as in the Ukraine in which we have no strategic interest. Unfortunately for the likes of Tony Blair, it would provide fewer opportunities for future UK prime ministers to strut around in front of the world’s media at those twice yearly tedious EU summits, posing as some sort of great world leader.

However, the most irritating of all his comments in this thoroughly irritating speech was his caricature of anyone who loves their country. He is correct in saying “national pride is a great thing” but to call UKIP (and presumably by extension anyone else who wants out of the EU) “mean-spirited” is a typical Europhile tactic. He said that “Nationalism is a powerful sentiment. Let that genie out of the bottle and it’s a Herculean task to put it back in.” This statement was made in the context of comparing the Scottish independence referendum with David Cameron’s proposed referendum on EU membership. It is all too apparent from the surge in support for the SNP that last September’s vote has not put the issue to bed for a generation as had been hoped at the time. Blair’s fear is that whatever the result of a referendum in 2017, a similar surge in support for withdrawal may develop into an unstoppable momentum. He will hopefully be proved right. After all, let’s face it. Will CIB give up if we don’t get the right result in 2017? Will Global Britain? Will UKIP? Will Get Britain Out? What is wrong with loving our country to the point when we would prefer to be run by our own elected representatives and governed by our own laws? It is all too apparent that the EU is losing popularity across a number of member states and with good reason. It is a failed project that, like Tony Blair himself, belongs to a bygone era.

Photo by Chatham House, London

Scaremongering and bias

We recently posted a highly critical article by Roger Helmer MEP on the subject of Open Europe’s recent analysis of the prospects for an independent UK.

Roger pointed out that claims that the UK would be poorer by 2.2% of GDP was a “worst case scenario”. To be fair to Open Europe, this is precisely what it said, with more emphasis was on the “worst case scenario” than you would have thought from reports in the media. The blame for this scaremongering, in other words, should be laid at the door of the press rather than Open Europe itself. “UK risks economic blow outside EU – Open Europe study” claimed the BBC. The Financial Times, whose pro-EU bias is nearly as bad as the BBC’s was no better: “Brexit could cost economy £56bn a year, think-tank warns”. Thankfully, City AM struck a more balanced note: “Beware the headline costs of Brexit: We’ll thrive if we’re open to the world”. Open Europe’s daily e-mail, or “daily shakeup” as it is now called, from 24th March was similarly careful to be a bit more objective than some of the daily papers. “A Free trading Britain could prosper outside the EU” said the headline to one article.

If you look more closely at the report, it claims that, “In a best case scenario, under which the UK manages to enter into liberal trade arrangements with the EU and the rest of the world, whilst pursuing large-scale deregulation at home, Britain could be better off by 1.6% of GDP in 2030.” This is a very significant remark. A pro-EU think tank is claiming that, given the right policies, we would be better off out. No wonder that the BBC, which has received further criticism from the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee for its pro-EU bias, skated over this positive scenario in its reporting of the analysis.

Open Europe’s round-robin e-mail the following day included a report on an event it hosted marking the launch of its new report, ‘What if…? The consequences, challenges and opportunities facing Britain outside the EU.” It included a quote from Lord Wolfson, one of the speakers and a signatory to the “Business for Britain “campaign. He endorsed the positive prospects for the UK outside the EU if the correct policies were adopted. The UK’s economic success outside of the EU would mostly “depend on what Britain chooses to do in the wake of departure,” he said. He argued that “the opportunity of leaving [the EU] shouldn’t be underestimated”, especially since the UK would have more freedom to trade with the rest of the world. Of course, Open Europe would prefer us to stay in a renegotiated relationship within the EU. As Mats Persson, a director of Open Europe put it, “There’s life after Brexit, but it makes sense to test the limits of EU reform before pulling the trigger.”

Fair enough, but it’s all too apparent from the preliminary meetings held by David Cameron that “the limits of EU reform” fall far short of what many people in the UK wish for. An end to free movement of people is not on the cards, nor total repatriation of our criminal justice system. Theresa May foolishly opted back in to 35 Justice and Home Affairs measures included in the Lisbon Treaty, including the European Arrest Warrant. Will a subsequent Conservative Government (in which she may play a prominent role) decide to opt out again a couple of years later? Hardly. Suzanne Evans, a UKIP MEP, was widely criticised when she replied “yes” when asked if she would stay in following a reform she was happy with. This was another case of selective media reporting, for her following words were, “But I don’t think that is going to happen – that is the problem. If we could reform the EU that would be wonderful, but unfortunately this is an organisation that just won’t reform.” She didn’t go on to flesh out what “reforming the EU” meant for her, but how about this? Let’s abolish the European Commission, bin the thousands and thousands of pages of EU laws, scrap the European Parliament, return sovereignty to the member states in toto and turn the EU into nothing more or less than another EFTA. If David Cameron could persuade the other 27 member states to go down this route, I am sure that not just Suzanne Evans but many other ardent supporters of withdrawal would say, “I’m happy with these reforms” but it ain’t going to happen.

Going back to Open Europe, its report insisted that an independent UK would only prosper if it remained outward-looking. To turn this into some sort of scare story, as some media articles attempted to do, is to be guilty of very selective reporting. Open Europe’s actual words are, “In a best case scenario, where the UK strikes a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU, pursues very ambitious deregulation of its economy and opens up almost fully to trade with the rest of the world, UK GDP would be 1.6% higher than if it had stayed within the EU.” What is scary about this? Pick up any book or article written by a supporter of withdrawal from the EU, be it Ian Milne, Ruth Lea, Tim Congdon, Robert Oulds or whoever, and you will find the author in question propisng precisely this course of action – cutting red tape and embracing free trade with the rest of the world. There are unquestionably a few protectionists who support withdrawal, but they are minor figures with little or no influence.

A more contentious point concerns immigration. The Open Europe report says that “In order to be competitive outside the EU, Britain would need to keep a liberal policy for labour migration. However, of those voters who want to leave the EU, a majority rank limiting free movement and immigration as their main motivation, meaning the UK may move in the opposite direction.” On the immigration issue, the withdrawalist community is very divided. On the one extreme, Lord Wolfson, a man who is clearly comfortable with withdrawal, is known for supporting free movement of labour. On the other hand, whether or not UKIP’s Victoria Ayling really did say “I just want to send the lot back” when she was still a member of the Conservative Party, there are plenty of other people who will quite unashamedly admit that this is what they would like to do.

There are two comments to be made here. Firstly, even a fairly open immigration policy need not go as far as allowing free movement of people. Surely reclaiming the right to deport foreign criminals and no longer being required to pay child benefit to workers with families still living in Poland is better than the current situation. Secondly, there are a number of reports which question the supposed economic benefits of large-scale immigration, such as the Civitas paper by Anthony Browne Do we need mass immigration? Data from the International Monetary Fund shows that in the UK, per capita GDP adjusted for the effects of inflation (“constant prices” or “real GDP” in economists’ jargon) increased by £2,212 in 2000-2004, the four-year period leading up to the accession of the former Soviet bloc states.

However, in the nine years from 2004-2013 when large number of migrants arrived in the UK from Central and Eastern Europe, the latest estimate of the increase is £286, little more than one eighth of the growth from 2000-2004, yet over a timespan of nine years as opposed to four. This poses the question as to whether Open Europe is being a bit disingenuous. Of course, more people means a higher GDP, but it is GDP per capita which is the real measure of wealth. Haiti has a higher GDP than Liechtenstein, but you don’t encounter slums, high infant mortality and food shortages in Liechtenstein.

There are plenty of other holes that can be picked in Open Europe’s report, as Richard North points out, but notwithstanding any potential flaws in its methodology, the very fact that it has conceded that withdrawal may be a benefit to the UK economy is an indication of the weakness of the pro-EU argument. Sadly, this is still not resonating with the electorate, with the latest poll from YouGov showing supporters of withdrawal in a minority, with 46% wanting to stay in and only 36% wanting to withdraw if a referendum were to be held today. The figures are even worse when the choices are between withdrawal and a renegotiated membership. We clearly still have much work to do. It would be a tragedy if, having won a key concession from one of our most influential opponents, we were then to lose the battle that really counts.

Photo by TechnicalFault (formerly Coffee Lover)

The Clunking Fist needs a reality check

It is pretty rare for someone who was once our nation’s prime minister to come out with such complete and utter rubbish as Gordon Brown with his recent comments on the prospect of the UK leaving the EU.

Writing in The Guardian yesterday, Brown regurgitates the now discredited “three million jobs” myth and pooh-poohs the Norwegian Option in a manner almost worthy of Nick Clegg. However, his most bizarre comment was to claim that “leaving Europe to join the world is really the North Korea option, out in the cold with few friends, no influence, little new trade and even less new investment.”

So withdrawalists are wanting to turn the country into one of the most dictatorial, impoverished and isolated countries in the world, eh, Gordon?

How about a few facts here and there? Withdrawal from the EU would make us more democratic. We would be governed by representatives we could elect and dismiss rather than having to kow-tow to unelected bureaucrats of the whims of foreign heads of state. If we remained within the EEA and re-joined EFTA, we could retain our trade with the EU’s single market while being free to renegotiate our own free trade agreements free from the UN-inspired red tape that renders so many of the EU’s free trade agreements so bureaucratic. What of the isolation element? Unlike the North Koreans, we speak the world’s lingua franca. Unlike North Korea, we are, even within the EU, one of the countries offering the fewest obstacles to businessmen. Outside the EU, we could repeal the more burdensome regulations and be even more business-friendly.

Would we lose all our friends when we left? The bonds of the Anglophone world go deep. In many ways, we would be more likely to strengthen them. After all, withdrawal offers us a chance to redress the betrayal of our Commonwealth friends in 1973 when we reorientated our trade away from them.

As for the “no influence” issue, it is amazing that anyone takes us seriously at the moment when as an EU member state, we don’t even have the freedom as to how we label our bananas! We would still be members of NATO and the Commonwealth. Our well-trained, if depleted armed forces, would still be in demand for training the armed forces of other nations. Our public schools and universities would still be attracting top students from across the world.

Somehow, this doesn’t sound much like North Korea!

Brown said that “Britain has shaped the destiny of Europe and the world before.” History says that we have done much better in shaping Europe from without – in other words, as an independent state. We did more far more good to Europe in 1802-1815, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 than we have done since 1973. The EU was designed as a federal superstate. That’s not what we want and we have failed totally to convince the other member states to ditch the silly idea of ever-closer union. We have failed time after time to persuade the French to abandon the protectionist and wasteful Common Agricultural Policy. We have had forty years of Conservative talk of reforming the EU and ended up with an arch-integrationist, Jean-Claude Juncker, chosen as Commission President in spite of David Cameron’s protests.

Brown is right in one thing:- yes, we who support withdrawal are calling it the patriotic option and unashamedly so. No self- respecting, successful country normally submits to rule from abroad unless it has been invaded. It was patriotism that caused millions of our young men to give their lives in two world wars. Thankfully, no such sacrifice will be needed this time, just a cross in the right place on the ballot form, but the motivation is the same – freedom from foreign tyranny – a noble and patriotic cause indeed.

Brown has promised to play an active part in the “In” campaign if a referendum is held in 2017. How much he was able to influence the result in the Scottish referendum campaign by his intervention is a moot point, but south of the border he hasn’t been forgotten as the man who raided our pension pots as Chancellor and crashed the economy as Prime Minister. Unless the Clunking Fist takes a hefty reality check, the more he intervenes on behalf of the “in” campaign with gibberish like this, the brighter the prospects for withdrawal. Bring it on, Flash!

Photo by david_terrar