Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Duped

July 4, 2016

The Leave camp are going to have a serious problem. Or maybe they’ve always had one.

One thing that seems to be coming increasingly clear – at least, observing events from afar – is that not only have a lot of Remainers failed to understand the reasons behind the Leave vote, but many of those that voted Leave don’t seem to have fully understood what they were voting for either.

This could be a huge problem for the Leave camp.

You are never going to convince those die-hard Eurosceptics, who have spent all their life campaigning against the EU, that actually being part of this European project might not be that bad of an idea.

But you might just convince those that thought the world would be different when they ticked that Leave box that they made the wrong decision.

I have seen a number of people wavering on this and this is a reflection of the poor work that the Leave campaign did in preparing an exit strategy.

They probably didn’t think they had to.

As Sarah Vine has been repeatedly quoted as saying over the past few days – no doubt because it is such an awesome quote – “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”.

No one expected the Leave campaign to actually work, let alone those that were behind the campaign. Every eurosceptic that I spoke to before the referendum were focusing on getting as close to the Remain vote as possible. Certainly they never thought they’d beat them.

But they should have thought harder.

Because it now appears that we are a country without a plan. And since we do actually live in a parliamentary democracy, folk, in case anyone has forgotten, leaving the EU isn’t simply a question of laying a hand on the Magna Cart and saying, “I solemnly swear to invoke Article 50”. As some that voted Leave thought it would be.

And now Nigel Farrage is gone, having tendered his resignation as UKIP leader today. One might have hoped that he’d stick around to try to… you know… formulate a plan. Or perhaps dust off the one that he’d had all along at the bottom of his sock drawer, but with all the excitement of everything had clean forgotten about.

All of this means that many people are feeling duped.

You might be able to win a battle with false rhetoric, grandiose promises and over-simplification.

But you can’t seal that victory.

Wrong reasons

July 3, 2016

17.4 million people – a little more than a third of the voting-age population – are not bigoted racists who think Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are gods. This is perhaps the single most important thing to understand about the referendum, because if we fail to understand this salient fact then this country will remain hopelessly divided.

I in no way tried to campaign for one result or the other because for me it was just too difficult to call. There were too many complexities to the debate that I simply could not decide which side to come down on.

What frustrated me about the whole affair, and continues to frustrate me, is this constant barrage of misinformation and a lack of any real debate about the issues that matter. Some people have said that, with such an important issue as EU membership, perhaps it should not have been left up to the people to decide. If I’d have known that the whole campaign was going to be boiled down into such simplistic arguments that started to become meaningless, I would probably have agreed.

There is a very good argument to be made that the whole referendum should be run again, or declared null and void and let our politicians make this decision. After all, we do pay them to take decision on complex matters that we, the humble public, don’t really understand.

Perhaps.

But I don’t want to dwell here on democracy or whether the referendum was democratic or not. Countless others are already making that point.

I want to emphasise something much more fundamental. That, whatever happens to our standing with the EU, the result of this referendum must not be ignored.

Okay, two thirds of the voting-age population did not vote to leave the EU. But one third did. And they are important.

I understand that passions are running high, but it is perilous to ignore those in the Leave camp or to simply dismiss them as bigoted racists. This is what the EU’s political establishment has always sought to do and look where it has got them. The EU is lurching – or, rather, hobbling – from crisis to crisis.

That is not an EU I think we should be part of.

Now it is perfectly valid to think that we should remain a member of the EU. There are exceedingly good reasons to remain, and many people can see them much more clearly than the reasons to leave.

But there are also good reasons to leave. And failing to recognise and understand them, and to engage in a sober debate that doesn’t deride either side, is imperative.

But in amongst all the frustration and hot tempers, I am seeing precious little of this. And this is not a good path to go down. Hostility towards the EU will not go away if the referendum is voided. It must be understood for it to be corrected.

And above all, those that voted to leave the EU must have their voice heard – and not simply dismissed as stupid or daft or insane every time they tentatively suggested that leaving the EU might not be a bad idea. Otherwise all anyone will here are the Nigel Farrages and Boris Johnsons of this world, or those that have made anti-European rhetoric their career path.

(As an addendum to this entry, I am in the process of compiling a list of reasons why people might have voted to withdraw from the EU – besides the anti-immigration argument. But this is a hard list to compile, and needs careful thought, so it is not done yet. I am trying very hard not to demonise either side and to move things forward in a spirit of constructive debate. And incidentally, whilst the next couple of years of withdrawal from the EU might be painful, in the long-run things could turn out for the better; but that slightly contentious point doesn’t seem to ever be properly debated.)

Oh hear us

June 23, 2016

There is something rotten in Europe. As Brits go to the polls today, it is worth bearing that in mind.

With Remain having taken the lead (by between 2 and 8 percentage points, depending on which poll you look at), and an estimated 10% still in the undecided camp, it looks exceeding unlikely that Brits are now going to vote to leave the EU. Most of those who have not yet made up their mind will probably be swayed by the status-quo.

It is perhaps not surprising that there is such a vociferously strong anti-EU voice in Europe. We’ve always had this, ever since we signed up to the single market. It’s in our ethnic make-up. Like Belgians have their strikes. Or Germans have their sauerkraut.

But it is so surprising that Leave came so close to pulling us out of the EU with such a lousy campaign. This isn’t a crazy lunatic movement that doesn’t like the black fella, as some in the Remain camp constantly insinuate. This is a disparate movement of people that have some very real grievances with how the EU is run.

I think that few who have written about the EU would think that everything is hunkydory in the glitzy corridors of Brussels bureaucracy. Over the past months, I have spoken to many people with first-hand experience of the Brussels apparatus who think it is an utter shambles.

So which way are they voting?

In, of course – because they just can’t think of a good enough reason for voting the other way. Because one hasn’t been presented to them.

But, faced with such moderate thinking and a rather shambolic campaign, it says a lot that Leave seem to have come so close.

So if, as I strongly suspect, we vote to remain within the EU, some really tough action is required in Brussels to convince the British that what they voted for was the right thing. And we are not talking about another hastily put-together David Cameron whistle-stop tour of the European capitals. We need real change.

And that real change needs to start with a scaling back of Brussels intervention, a better reliance on the free market economy and an acknowledgement that there are certain powers Brussels does not have to sink its claws in for the single market to work.

And perhaps above all the EU needs to start engaging better with its citizens. Not this half-hearted campaign of misinformation and propaganda, but a real engagement to explain exactly what the EU is. Because what has emerged during this campaign – talking to people about it, reading comments on my Facebook feed and Twitter, tuning into the occasional debates – is that people still don’t seem to get the EU.

And for this to take hold, the EU needs to drop its veil of arrogance and deceit. The EU did not end wars in Europe. The EU is not irreplaceable. And the EU is most certainly not infallible.

Of course, I don’t think any of these changes are actually going to take hold – and indeed we may find ourselves in a situation where the political elite want to bind European nations into an even more tightly-knit bloc, so those pesky Brits can’t hold an entire continent to ransom again.

But if the EU don’t listen to what the British are trying to say – and I mean really listen – then this problem is never going to go away.

Why the Leave camp will fail

June 20, 2016

The other week, during my time in London, I had the privilege to listen to MP and shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn make the case for staying in the EU. Rarely have I heard such a masterful orator and, whilst I might not have agreed with everything he said, it was actually quite thrilling to listen to him make his case. Like hearing a well-read bit of poetry.

By comparison, the Eurosceptics on the panel often sounded shrill and desperate and occasionally a little bit crazy. At one point, one of the panellists – Gerald McGregor, a Chiswick town councillor – brandished a piece of paper in his hand, and suggested that David Cameron’s return from Europe before the referendum was a little like Neville Chamberlain returning from Nazi Germany before World War II broke out. Comparing the European project to Nazism isn’t really what folk want to hear.

And that is why the Leave camp will fail.

Not just because their standard-bearers seem to constantly be making obscure references to fascism or tyranny or to a world that now no longer exists (although that probably doesn’t help). But because arguing about leaving the European Union is a lot harder than arguing about remaining. And the Leave camp just don’t seem to have put in the effort to make this case clearly, passionately and rationally enough.

Of course, this isn’t all their fault. Rational Eurosceptics do have the very real problem of having to make their voices heard above those of charismatic and politically-ambitious spokespeople of the Eurosceptic cause, such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Both likeable enough fellows, but they have managed to boil the arguments of why we might want to leave the EU into such crass shades of grey that they are easily put down by any Remainer with half a brain.

Maybe that is what people want to hear – the simplistic – because it is just too difficult to understand all the nuances behind what it would mean to leave a community that we have been wedded to for longer than I have been alive.

It is extremely difficult to make a rational argument for why we might want to leave the EU without sounding a little crazy, which is why I never try to enter this mine field. But I have some very good Eurosceptic friends who do make such a case very convincingly. The problem is that such convincing arguments never seem to enter the mainstream.

It is precisely because the Eurosceptic case is so much harder to put than the pro-European one that those in the Leave camp should have worked harder at making it. They should have made an effort to understand and explain the more complex areas of the debate, not simply glassed over this and repeated ad-nauseam the rather right-wing snub to immigrants or the subdued left-wing doff to the NHS.

Like what benefit does leaving the EU actually bring to people living in the UK? As with the Scottish referendum, people will be voting with their wallet in mind.

Like exactly why there is such a democratic deficit in the EU, and whether that really matters? Because many people don’t seem to quite get this.

Like exactly what comes afterwards? Okay, perhaps this is a difficult one to answer, since this is a great unknown, but at least they could have tried. At least they could have given us some plan as to what comes once we have taken this leap in the dark.

None of this to say that we shouldn’t leave the EU; I am still split 50-50 on this. Rather, the point of this blog entry is to reassure those committed Remainers out there that they don’t have anything to fear. The Brexiters had a far harder task of persuading people why they should hand back their membership card. And because their job was so much more daunting they should have tried twice as hard to do so.

At least.

And then, even without Hilary Benn in their arsenal, they might just have succeeded in winning enough of the electorate round to make a difference.

In or out?

May 24, 2016

With less than a month to go, I still haven’t made up my mind. One would think it should be simple. I spent five years working in Brussels, after all, and understand something of how the EU works. But the more I think about it the more I just don’t know. Maybe I should tick both boxes.

I think the problem is that we – the British people – are being denied a proper debate about the issues that matter. Which makes me a little mad.

We hear from the Nigel Farage camp that these foreign workers are coming and stealing our jobs. Probably want our women, too.

We hear from the Treasury that we’re going to be £4300 worse off – per year – if we were to leave the EU, with apparently not serious rationale for that number. I can invent numbers, too. Squiggledom. It’s twice a googleplex, so it’s pretty darn big.

So: in or out?

Immediately after my five-year stint in Brussels, I had decidedly made up my mind that we ought to leave this ill-fitting marriage. I firmly believed that the EU needed to be dismantled and rebuilt – and the only way to do that was for us to be out. But now I’m seeing so many more nuances.

Frustratingly, this trip to the UK has so far yielded no useful insights. I’m working in our London office at the moment, and one of my colleagues was handing out “Remain” bumper stickers today. When another colleague told him that he would probably vote to leave, the Remain colleague expressed surprised and said that he thought all financial correspondents would want to stay in Europe the EU.

If only it were that easy.

Here, then, are my meandering thoughts – from someone that really has not yet made up his mind.

Out

– We would be able to adopt our own policy towards immigrants, because to be quite frank the EU’s has so far been an utter disaster. This is not to argue for less immigration – as the dreadful right wing press often do – but just the fact that we would be able to control who comes to our countries, and therefore could make sure this is the right kind of migrant. Jobs are not finite – socialist France flirted with that idea, and to an extent still does, and it’s just blatantly wrong. Just ask Adam Smith. Except he’s dead. But those that come to this country should contribute to its well-being. This also goes for the refugees that we take. I firmly believe that we have a moral obligation to accept a certain amount of refugees fleeing from human rights abuses, but that should be on our terms and we should give them jobs as soon as we can.

– Our government should no longer be able to hide behind the ineptitude of the EU. There are actually things that the British government cannot do because the EU doesn’t allow it. This makes it much harder to hold them to account when they step out of line.

– The masterminds behind the EU project are a dishonest bunch. They were given very good advice that launching the euro currency when it was half-baked would result in a “Greece”. It could have been any one of the peripheral countries – that wasn’t known at the time – but they chose to ignore such advice because it fitted their own narrative. If “Greece” happened then that would be a very good reason to move towards more centralised fiscal control. Which may be a noble end in itself, but I’m not sure I want to place my faith in people that have to lie to get where they are going.

– When I was in Brussels, I lost track of the times I heard the European Commission express in all of sincerity that the EU was the reason that European nations weren’t still at war with one another. No! No! And no! The reason for the longest period of piece that we have had for millennia is globalisation, and the EU is a by-product of that globalisation. Not the other way round.

In

– Strength in numbers. It’s true that we are a small nation – the sun does now set on our noble Empire. So it’s nice to buddy-up to our European partners from time to time.

– We have more representation in Europe than people often realise. Although there is this huge gulf of democratic unaccountability – in the sense that we haven’t actually voted in most of the people that are making decisions for us – we do have a permanent representation to the EU and they are a pretty active bunch.

– Free movement of labour and free movement of trade – these are concepts I hold dear. I am, after all, a migrant worker. I wouldn’t particularly like it if Hong Kong suddenly chose to shut its door on my kind. And I like to think that I am contributing to their society – through tax and being a damn fine pillar of.

– We’ve pissed our European neighbours off a fair bit recently, by being so obstreperous. How about we now start to make amends?

– However you look at things it’s going to be expensive. Contracts will need to be renegotiated or updated, business deals will need to be done on a different footing, some firms may even decide to relocate. If you’re a lawyer, now is probably the time to cash in.

– What is going to happen if we leave? No one really knows. If we stay, there’s almost certainly going to be a relentless march towards greater federalism. And so perhaps that is what everyone needs. Better the devil you know, eh?

But, whatever the outcome of the referendum of June 23, it probably doesn’t matter as much as people think it does. If we stay, we carry on pretty much as before, with maybe a tiny bit more acceleration towards federalism. If we leave, well, it honestly isn’t going to be the end 0f the world that everyone is predicting. Do people honestly think that, after her initial hissy fit, Europe won’t want to engage with us?

Maybe I’ll just tick both boxes and let fate decide.

Democracy. Pah.

November 10, 2011

So. Two European leaders have fallen in the space of a week. George Papandreou of Greece. And Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. It was probably inevitable.

Well, Silvio Berlusconi probably won’t be too missed. Sure, he had a core base of support – that was, after all, why he kept getting elected. But this core base was weakening all the time. The rest of the free world tended to regard him as rather a joke. I never ever met an Italian abroad that had any time for the guy. Either these Italians were terrific actors or they really were running away from their country because of the man in charge.

And George Papandreou? Well, the world probably wouldn’t have known who the fellow was if Greece hadn’t been thrown centre stage by appalling economic misfortune. He’s gone. Few will shed a tear.

And in their place?

Well, here come the technocrats…

The question is: is this a good thing?

The elected politicians have so effectively buggered things up that one is tempted to think that, yes, appointing unelected officials to the countries of Greece and Italy might actually not be a bad idea. Perhaps Spain, Portugal and Ireland could do with a dose of this too. Hell, how about my own country, the UK, how about having unelected officials telling us how to run our lives? That would be neat. Especially if they stick two fingers up to the Conservatives and Lib Dems and tell people that, actually, as a matter of fact, education is important and screw all you hypocritical suits who want to deny a free choice of education to the masses.

It looks as though Mario Monti, a former European Commissioner, might form one of the central planks of Italy’s technocratic government. I’m finding it hard to resist clapping my hands together and exclaiming “yay!”, which would be highly unprofessional.

Having covered competition policy in Brussels for a couple of years, I know Mario Monti reasonably well. I know how he works. I interviewed him on countless occasions. Out of all the commissioners I ever saw whilst in Brussels, it is Sig. Monti that I hold in highest regard. Throughout his five year tenure, not once did I see him falter. Not once did he waver in the face of unfavourable press coverage. He simply kept his head down and got on with the job that had to be done, which is namely to make sure there is a favourable and open playing field for everyone in Europe. Never once did I see him try to glorify his position. He did what had to be done. Yes, I have tremendous respect for Sr Monti.

I might point out here that, within the European Union, the competition policy is the most powerful dossier to have. In actual fact, the Competition Commissioner could even be considered more powerful than the President of the Commission. This is because most decisions within the Competition Directorate are not subject to codecision procedure. They do not need to be approved by the European Parliament or the Council. Whatever the Competition Commissioner says – subject to approval by fellow Commissioners, who usually wave things through – goes.

This makes perfect sense. It removes politics from the whole process. Imagine if approval for state aid was subjected to the same political wrangling that we usually see within the European Parliament and Council. Or if cartels were built and destroyed on the whims of member states. Europe just wouldn’t function at all. This is why carte blanche is given to the EU’s Competition Commissioner. And Sig. Monti performed the job admirably.

Is this what we need in those EU member states, like Greece and Italy, that have squandered the wealth of their citizens? Some level-headed technocrat, appointed at the whim of Germany, and who can sort are sorry mess out.

I would say that this is an extremely dangerous precedent and points to all that is wrong with the EU.

For all it’s obvious shortcomings, democracy is one of the greatest strengths that Europe has. If we don’t like what a politician is doing, then all we have to do is turn up at the ballot box and vote him (or her) out of office. The entire world might criticise Berlusconi for being such a womanising clown, but the point is that he was voted into office in a free-and-fair election. Of course, as my Italian wife might point out, democracy only works so far. Berlusconi is no doubt able to dazzle the public through his wealth and glamour. His media empire helps a great deal, too.

But, at the end of the day, European voters aren’t stupid. Politicians might think they are, but they aren’t. Just because me and my wife (and just about every Italian I meet) think Berlusconi a clown, doesn’t mean that this is representative of what the Italian population as a whole thinks. It just, unfortunately, reflects the circles that we move in. People are voting for Berlusconi in large numbers. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been in office.

I don’t read the Sun. That doesn’t mean that the Sun, the bestselling newspaper in the UK, is inherently wrong. It just means that I am out of touch with the way that most people in Britain think.

Are you seeing where I am going with this blog entry yet?

Is it really right for a small break-away community of European countries, led by Germany, to force an unelected government on Italy? Even if one of the Italians that I admire the most in the whole world would play a key role?

Democracy may not be great. It may have more gaping holes than a wedge of Swiss Cheese.

But right now it is all we have. So please don’t take it away from us.