At least someone in Europe likes us!

The UK has never been popular in the corridors of power in Brussels, but we do at least have a few friends on the continent.

Readers may like to hear from one of these people – Hans-Olaf Henkel, an MEP from the German LKR party, the Liberal & Conservative Reformers, who split from the AfD party in 2015. In this short video clip, he makes the amazing statement that  “the last country with any common sense is going to leave the European Union.”

Reasonable or unreasonable?

It will have come as no surprise to many keen observers of the Brexit process that the fourth round of talks ended this week ended with Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commision President, saying that it would take a “miracle” for Brexit talks to progress quickly enough to persuade the EU to start discussing a trade deal any time soon. This follows on from Michel Barnier saying the same thing a day earlier.

It is the usual story. An optimistic David Davis speaking of encouraging progress followed by a more negative slant from the EU side.

The divergence in assessing the state of play goes right back to Davis and his team agreeing to the EU’s negotiating schedule, which demanded that progress had to be made on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, the Irish border question and the financial settlement, or so-called divorce bill, before the issues of trade would be discussed.

Was it reasonable or unreasonable for the EU to take the initiative in proposing a schedule? Hard to say. After all, they never wanted us to vote to leave. On the other hand, we were not bound under Article 50 to agree to their schedule, but for better or worse, we did.

So what of the three demands? The size of our divorce settlement was always going to be a contentious issue. Some would argue that we shouldn’t pay a penny after Brexit day while others are willing at least to concede that we should honour our obligations up to the end of the EU’s seven-year budget cycle, which takes up up to 2020. There is a even a huge gap between the EU’s demands and the generous figure which Mrs May has indicated she is willing to pay – £50 billion – and this is higher than the carefully-researched study by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, which comes out with a figure of  £28 billion, including  spending which has been authorised but not incurred. The EU is unhappy with our foot-dragging, but given that Mrs May’s alleged offer was a generous gesture to try and unblock talks, if it doesn’t satisfy the EU, they are definitely the side who are being unreasonable.

The most unreasonable of all demands is that any agreement regarding the legal status of EU nationals living in the UK after Brexit includes a role for the European Court of Justice. This is quite frankly absurd.  If the UK insisted on UK law and the UK courts determining any aspect of the lives  of UK expats in, say Saudi Arabia, the Saudis would tell us, to quote Boris Johnson (or was it Philip Hollobone?), to “go whistle”. English Common Law means just that – it gives common treatment to all UK residents including non-nationals. We did make an exception in the Middle Ages, with the clergy subject to Canon Law instead and the general population didn’t like it one little bit, especially as monks and priests were able to get away with crimes for which the rest of the population wold be punished. There is no need to create another exception now. Our legal system is fair, with plenty of checks and balances. No EU citizen living over here should feel they are living in a tyrannical, unjust country

The question of the Irish border, however, is another matter.  The Irish republic joined the EEC, as it was, along with the UK in 1973. The two countries’ economies were – indeed, still are – closely linked and for the Irish to have kept out while we joined the European project would have caused immense problems. When the Irish joined the €uro, they did so in the expectation that we would follow suit. We did not, nor have we abandoned imperial measurements as they have. They have consistently elected governments which are led by EU enthusiasts. By contrast, most of our Prime Ministers since 1973 have been at best lukewarm towards the EU apart from Ted Heath and Tony Blair. In spite of these divergences, however, we share a common language, a common genetic ancestry and several hundred years of common history. More importantly as far as Brexit is concerned, we will soon be sharing the only land border between an independent UK and an EU member state.

It is true that the EU as a whole would suffer proportionately less than the UK from our crashing in March 2019 without a trade deal, but some individual states would take a big hit, with Ireland topping the list. No one wants a “hard border” and everyone wants trade to continue to flow freely between the Republic and Northern Ireland but, as Michel Barnier keeps pointing out, we become a “third country” in 18 months’ time. It is one thing to insist that we cannot go back to the days before the Good Friday Agreement but quite another to come up with a workable arrangement which is acceptable to Dublin and Brussels. So far, the EU negotiators have not head anything from their UK counterparts which provides the basis for a future agreement. Their impression is that, 15 months after Brexit, the UK has not got to grips with the issues involved in striking a deal on the Irish border question.  If this is true, there are good grounds for the EU to say we are being unreasonable.

There are other areas, however, where the EU – or at least, some of its senior figures – is being very unreasonable. The over-the-top reaction to Michael Gove’s denunciation of the 1964 London Fisheries Convention is one good example. Another  is the behaviour of José Margallo, the former Spanish Foreign Minister, who has been ramping up the Gibraltar issue, claiming that  Gibraltar will eventually have to welcome dual sovereignty for Spain and  spreading misleading statements about a proposed meeting with Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s Chief minister.

Of course, if, as claimed by one reliable source, staff are quitting the Department for Exiting the European Union “in their droves”, this isn’t getting us any closer to address the issues where some work is obviously needed by the UK side.  There is a good argument to be made that some EU demands are very unreasonable, but equally, a strong case can be made that thus far, our side’s approach to these difficult negotiations has left a lot to be desired.

 

Meanwhile, what of the union which we’re leaving?

Amidst all the kerfuffle of the Labour Party conference and the German General Election, a most important speech has rather slipped off many people’s radar.

France’s President Macron set out his vision of the future of the EU in a speech lasting nearly two hours.  It echoed in many ways the vision articulated by Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, in his “state of the Union” address earlier this month.  More Europe, inevitably, is the way forward, said M. Macron, at least in as many words.  “At the beginning of the next decade, Europe must have a joint intervention force, a common defence budget and a joint doctrine for action,” he said, adding “The Europe that we know is too weak, too slow, too inefficient, but Europe alone can give us the ability to act in the world faced with big contemporary challenges.”

The most bizarre statement, however, was his assertion that “”In a few years, if it so wishes, Britain could regain the place that belongs to it.”

At the moment, there is much wishful thinking going on in remainiac circles, even though 75% of the electorate, so we were told at last Monday’s Labour Euro Safeguards Campaign fringe meeting, just wants the government to “get on with it.” I believe that Brexit will happen, for reasons stated in this piece, and  therefore at the very earliest, it is likely to be the middle of the next decade at the earliest before the UK electorate could ever be asked if it wants to re-join.  By this time, Macron hopes that the EU will have been re-launched – to be more precise, possibly in 2024, when Paris hosts the Olympic Games. It’s hard to see any enthusiasm for re-joining an EU re-launched according to the Macron/Juncker vision. as it consists of a beefing up of every aspect of EU which we will be the most delighted to leave behind.

Macron advocated a European rapid reaction force, a European common Asylum policy, a European carbon tax, Europe-wide lists for candidates in the 2019 European parliamentary elections  and deeper €urozone integration.

Given that the UK would not be guaranteed its opt-outs from the Single Currency or Schengen and would also lose the Fontainebleau rebate negotiated by Mrs Thatcher, it is hard to see what the appeal of re-joining could possibly be.

But let’s not jump the gun. Before M. Macron’s speech ever gets translated into policy, it will face a number of hurdles. Eurozone economic data points to an improving picture across the 19-nation bloc, but political differences, which could pit north against south and east against west are still lurking beneath the surface. Juncker stated in his speech that some from of treaty change will be necessary. If this change means closer integration, as it probably will, it will face a rough ride in Hungary and Poland for starters. Angela Merkel’s less than resounding election victory means that any talk of debt mutualisation within the €urozone will face a very rough ride in the German Parliament. It’s not just AfD who don’t like the idea – some in her own party are none too keen either. Without €urobonds, however, closer integration across the single currency area will make little progress.

Furthermore, even before Mrs Merkel has sorted out her coalition, the forthcoming election in the Czech Republic is likely to provide a further harsh dose of reality for federalist dreamers like Juncker and Macron. It is widely expected that Andrej Babis, a billionaire who heads up ANO, a strongly Eurosceptic party, could become the next Prime Minister. Mr Babis has said, “We don’t want the euro here, it gives Brussels another area for meddling” and only one third of his countrymen view the EU as a good thing.  Czech opposition to accepting refugees is likely further to intensify. Indeed, in a recent Europe-wide survey, the Czech Republic stood out  as the only other member state apart from the UK which would vote to leave altogether in the event of an independence referendum being held.

Macron is none too popular in Italy either, whose press cynically refer to him as “Micron” or “le petit Napoléon.” The country faces a general election next year which could see an assortment of eurosecptic parties win a majority of the vote.

While no one should expect the EU to implode any time soon – or indeed, any other member state to secede, it is quite obvious that even reviving the Franco-German integrationist engine is going to be hard enough for M. Macron given the weakened position of the German Chancellor. It will be child’s play, however, compared with encouraging some other member states to get on board.  The gap between the Macron/Juncker vision of the EU’s future and the predominant vision in Warsaw, Budapest and – even before its general election – Prague,  shows no sign of narrowing.

Lessons from recent history at the Labour Euro Safeguards Campaign fringe event

With a Conservative government fully engrossed in the Brexit negotiations and dominating the newspaper headlines, Labour’s take on Brexit has received comparatively little coverage beyond the divisions among its MPs in the recent vote on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and complaints that the party leadership stifled any debate or vote on its Brexit policy during its party conference.

Yesterday evening, the Labour Euro Safeguards Campaign held a fringe meeting in which a pro-Brexit position was articulated as clearly as in any Tory  – or even UKIP – gathering. In the chair was John Mills, a long-standing member of CIB’s Committee. The speakers were not as advertised, with Kate Hoey and Brendan Chilton being unavailable, although Tom Bewick, a Labour Councillor from Brighton & Hove City council who chaired the local  vote.leave group last year, was a perfectly acceptable substitute.

Kelvin Hopkins MP, the first speaker, informed the meeting that he had led Luton’s “No” campaign in the 1975 referendum. It is all too easy to forget that, in the history of euroscepticism in our country, Labour has a longer and in some ways, a far more distinguished record than the Conservatives.

The claim that Brexit was dreamed up by a set of public schoolboys who thought that “ruling Britain was their prerogative; they didn’t want outsiders muscling in,” as suggested by Simon Kuper in the Financial Times is revisionism pure and simple.  Tony Benn, Kelvin Hopkins, Nigel Spearing and, indeed John Mills himself were all campaigning for the UK to leave the EU when the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg were still at prep school.

Labour Brexiteers have different emphases from their Tory counterparts. Yesterday, several speakers pointed out that their party’s 2017 General election manifesto contained a number of re-nationalisation pledges that would not be possible to honour if we had voted to remain in the EU. No one mentioned Jacques Delors, but as far as LESC and its supporters are concerned, his “Social Europe” is dead and buried. The EU, we were told, is a neo-Liberal project committed to eroding workers’ rights and responsible for the hollowing out of UK’s industrial base.  More than that, the EU is anti-democratic and would not allow a democratically-elected socialist government to implement its agenda, as evidenced by the savage treatment meted out to Greece.

There was no enthusiasm for remaining in the Single Market, in spite of the ambivalence of Labour’s shadow Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer. Free movement of people, said one speaker from the floor, dehumanised human beings, treating them as mere commodities. There was no love lost for free movement of capital either, which was blamed for the economic decline in some poorer member states, notably (again) Greece.

The meeting recognised that many young Corbyn enthusiasts were strongly pro-EU, but felt that they could be won round by pointing out that the socialist agenda set out in the manifesto – which they enthusiastically supported – can only be implemented from outside the EU. Likewise, the leaders of many trade unions, who predominantly supported remaining in the EU, were not behaving logically considering that workers’ rights were better likely to be protected in an independent UK compared with the EU whose supreme court, the European Court of Justice, had sided with the employers rather than trade unions in the Laval and Viking Ferry disputes.

Both platform speakers and audience members recognised the challenges they faced in putting forward pro-Brexit arguments to fellow party members, with several people admitting that their stance has lost them friends. What is more, as one speaker pointed out, more people voted to leave the EU than have ever voted for anything else, so does Labour respect democracy or not? It’s not just ordinary party members who have faced criticism for raising this important issue. Caroline Flint, a former Europe minister, was heckled in Parliament for taking this stance. She represents a strongly pro-Brexit constituency and said “Since the result, I have argued leave and remain supporters should bury our difference and get on with it.”  Even if some of her parliamentary colleagues did not like her words, her principled stance was strongly endorsed by the speakers at yesterday’s meeting.

The timing of this meeting was particularly interesting coming less than 24 hours after the announcement of the result of Germany’s General Election. The headline story has been the success of Alternative für Deutschland, but another equally important development was the very poor showing of the German Socialist party, the SPD, who won a mere 20.5% of the vote. This comes in the wake of Benoît Hamon, the candidate from the equivalent party in France, the PS, polling a mere 6.36% in the first round of France’s Presidential election. In the second of the two General Elections held in Greece in 2015, PASOK, the socialist party, came fourth with only 6.3% of the vote. In each of these countries,  new left-wing parties of a more eurosceptic and radically socialist nature are making significant inroads into the traditional vote of the mainstream social democratic parties.

This hasn’t happened in the UK, but the leftward shift in Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has brought a surge of new members into the party. Last night’s meeting highlighted the common factor in this growing sense of alienation among traditional left-wing voters across Europe towards the historic socialist parties – the EU. How could a man like Martin Schulz, the former leader of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, have campaigned so fervently for TTIP, the now abandoned EU-US trade deal?  TTIP was widely criticised on the left for the power it handed to multinationals, so to repeat, why were the socialists supporting this deal? The answer is simple:- Europe’s “mainstream” socialist parties, including our own Labour Party in the years from Kinnock to Miliband, saw commitment to the EU project as a far greater priority than fighting for workers’ rights – or indeed, preserving our national democracies.

Add to this the depressing effects of mass migration from Eastern Europe on the wages of the working classes in the more affluent western European nations (including the UK) and it is unsurprising that white working classes have started to look elsewhere when casting their ballot.

The white working classes were instrumental too in securing the Brexit vote.  Last year’s Leave campaign was in many ways an unlikely and at times, awkward coalition, if coalition it can be called, but the distinctive feature of the UK is the substantial right-of-centre “Thatcherite” support for withdrawal, which has no parallel in any other EU member state. This unique combination of hatred of the EU on both the left and the right of the political spectrum was necessary to clinch the vote. Left and right have differing visions of what a post-Brexit UK should look like, but last night’s meeting was a healthy reminder that without a willingness to put aside these ideological differences and work together to secure our independence,  such debates about the future shape of our country would not have been possible at all.

Reopening a can of worms?

At the moment, the papers, especially those of a remoaner persuasion, are full of positive news about the Eurozone economy.  In spite of the European Central bank’s programme of quantitative easing, which tends to reduce the value of a given currency, the €uro hit its highest level against Sterling since 2009 on 23rd August. The Eurozone manufacturing sector is doing well, with even the French economy showing signs of improving after a rather stagnant period.

So all looks rather hunky-dory across the water – or does it? As we have pointed out before, a number of underlying tensions lurk beneath the seemingly calm EU waters. Emmanuel Macron, the EU’s new blue-eyed boy, has not only seen a sharp fall in his popularity ratings in his native France, but looks likely to stir up West-East tensions following an attack on “social dumping” – the reduction in wages caused by the arrival in the west of large numbers of migrants from the former Soviet Bloc countries.  This desire to control the level of East to West migration is viewed by these countries as a form of protectionism incompatible with the Single Market.

Then the North-South divide could be rekindled soon if a recent statement by Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is anything to go by.  The Spanish government is keen to press ahead with closer fiscal and monetary integration within the 19-nation single currency bloc, calling for  Eurobonds, a  European Monetary Fund and a common Eurozone budget.

This move has the support of Germany’s Chancellor Merkel but not of many of her countrymen, who fear they will end up subsidising the weaker economies of Club Med. Luis de Guindos, Spain’s Finance Minister, said that Brexit, along with the election of President Trump, has pushed the EU and the Eurozone closer together, but given that this proposed deepening of integration within the Eurozone would require treaty change and thus reopen a can of worms, the net result could be the opposite.

Besides the hostility among the German public to Eurobonds, there is also the issue of countries outside the Single Currency Area. Poland, which has historically looked to the UK to be the spokesman for the non-Eurozone group, is concerned that closer integration among single currency users would lead to the formalising of a two-speed EU, which it has long opposed. Technically, all member states apart from Denmark (and, of course, the UK) are required to adopt the €uro after meeting certain criteria, but there is no enthusiasm to adopt the Euro in Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic and given the tensions between these countries and Brussels over migration quotas, amendments to existing treaties – or indeed, a successor to the Lisbon treaty – is likely further to fuel tensions.

So while the improved performance of the Eurozone may perhaps take something of the sting out of the North-South divide which, after all, is primarily about economics, we need to remind ourselves that the EU has always been a political project. A drive to closer integration which leaves some member states on the outside could have highly unpredictable consequences.

 

Ambassador Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos on US/Russia tensions

Anyone attending our annual rally last April will have heard the former Greek Ambassador Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos describe in graphic detail the problems his country still faces.

Those who appreciated his speech may be interested in his comments about the current tensions  between Russia and the USA. Click on this link and you will be able to follow his take on the current tit-for-tat, which provides a welcome contrast from the reporting in the mainstream media. The Ambassador’s comments begin about four minutes into the video clip.  He is very critical of what he sees as an unnecessary move by the new US administration and makes the very valid point that modern Russia is poles apart from the old Soviet Union, but some people don’t seem to have woken up to this reality.

 

Photo by FolsomNatural