Posts Tagged ‘EU’


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.


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.

The case for out

December 17, 2013

You’d have thought that bashing the EU these days was a pretty easy thing to do and yet eurosceptics still manage to cock it up.

Over the past 40 years of die-hard eurosceptism, surely those making the case for pulling the UK out of this project would have learnt to say the right things. But it appears sometimes as though really they don’t realise that a) membership of the EU is a rather emotive subject, b) Brits aren’t as daft as the oft-espoused propaganda seems to suggest and c) that it’s a good idea to engage brain before activating voice.

I don’t feel it fair to name drop here. There are some very rational eurosceptics, and there are some pretty daft ones. Unfortunately, I feel that it is the daft ones that get most of the air waves.

Not long ago, I heard a prominent eurosceptic praise the “bravery” of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan for precipitating the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was of course using this argument to dispel the nonsensical notion that the EU was in some way responsible for this. But even before his words had stopped ricocheting around the auditorium, the come-back was obvious: Really? It was the bravery of Thatcher and Reagan? How about the bravery and tenacity of the East German people?

Of course, it was the europhile making this point that got all the cheers and the eurosceptic, whilst the logic underpinning his poorly-made comment was sound, looked rather foolish.

If this is the strength of eurosceptic argument, then Brussels has nothing to worry about. Hell, we’re definitely going to be staying in the EU.

There is a conspiracy theory that suggests that the reason the UK Independence Party is enjoying so much air time on the BBC, and so many column inches in pro-European papers, is because if this is all the British people hear, then they’re going to certainly vote with the stay-in-the-EU crowd. Listening to some of the eurosceptic viewpoints at the moment, this theory doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.

Just for the record, I am of the view that the UK should leave the EU. I used to be of the opinion that we should try and reshape the EU into something more democratic and less autocratic. But having closely followed European politics for the past 13 years, including five years in Brussels, I’ve come to the conclusion that this simply won’t work.

But it’s totally crazy to entertain the notion that nothing comes after Brussels. This is a point that eurosceptics must be making far more loudly than they are, and not allow the pro-European camp to falsely imply that we could be leaping into some sort of void with catastrophic consequences.

Thank God that we never subscribed to the euro, otherwise things could be far messier. (It’s true that many contracts by European companies are now written in euros, but that’s not going to change whether we’re a member of the bloc of not).

It’s crazy to suggest that, should we leave the EU, our European partners, are going to storm off in a hissy fit and not want to speak to us. We have a population of nearly 65 million. That’s a mighty lot of BMWs that the Germans can sell to us.

Nor do I think leaving the EU means that we have to close our doors to immigrants, which, despite what UKIP might tell you, have done us the world of good. It just means that we can let them come on our terms. Which is: come here, work, contribute to our GDP. Don’t live in the woods hunting our swans.

The UK may be a mere shadow of its former self, but it is still a formidable economy and the ridiculous idea that we suddenly couldn’t survive without Brussels, that we would suddenly be ostracised and treated as a leper, is laughable and should be countered, with all the might of the eurosceptic lobby.

Ten years ago, europhiles were insisting quite strongly that we should join the euro, even though some fairly prominent economists, both pro- and anti-EU, were pointing out some of the fundamental flaws in the project, which have still not been overcome (largely because politics and economics do not see eye-to-eye).

Over the past few years, sterling has done remarkably well in a sea of euro turbulence. It has fallen significantly over the 10 years, but that is only because Gordon Brown allowed it to over-inflate in the first place.

The British pound is one of the most-traded currencies in the world, largely thanks incidentally to our global financial services industry, which Brussels actually wants to curtail (as an aside, the socialist in me does still have reservations about how the British financial services industry is regulated, but that’s a separate issue and should be up for us to decide anyway). So, whilst Denmark, who also managed to keep its currency, has had to peg it to the euro to ensure stability, we haven’t had to. Doesn’t that suggest our comparative strength?

These are the kinds of arguments that the eurosceptics should be shouting from the rooftops.

So why am I only hearing them whispered in the shadows? Why are they being crowded out by all the other nonsensical eurosceptic rhetoric that crosses the air waves?

A very British eurosceptic

March 14, 2010

There are very few things as galling as being at a party and being reminded, by way of introduction, about a negative stereotype from your country as though it automatically applies to you.

If you happen to meet a woman from Naples, talk about where pizza comes from, don’t talk about the mafia.

If you meet someone from Germany, talk about sausages and beer, not the Nazis.

If you meet Russians, talk about the finest vodka, not the intricacies of assassinating enemies with rare radioactive substances.

If you meet someone from Belgium, talk about moules frites rather than how the only ever famous person they’ve produced in the last 50 years prefers Hollywood to the Manekin Pis.

If you meet… well, you get the idea.

So, if you meet someone from the UK, try to avoid asking the question: “so how come, in a nation of highly educated people, so many are against the EU?” As though being against the EU is in anyway synonymous with stupidity.

It is particularly frustrating to have such a conversation with someone who refuses to see that there may actually be flaws in the European project, and that being against the EU is an intellectually justifiable position. The problem is that the British press rarely seem to make such intellectual arguments – focusing on the push to prohibit bendy bananas and such like.

So, for all die-hard federalists out there, who I may one day meet at a party, if you have to broach the subject of British eurosceptism, here is a very quick summary of why the thinking men of Britain might be slightly wary of further EU integration.

First of all, it is actually much harder to make an argument against the EU than for it. The moment one starts speaking against the EU, one is branded a nationalist. Or possibly a fascist.

But the point with most sensible eurosceptics – and there are quite a few nutters to – is that they are not arguing against the basic principles of the EU. Free movement of people. Free trade. Free right of residence. It is absolutely incredible to think that now one can drive all the way from the Russian border to the tip of Calais and not once be hassled by border police once. Amazing. That is the freedom that our grandparents never dreamt of.

But it is also a freedom that doesn’t need a centralised Brussels government. I was reminded that it is all to do with schengen, which is part of the EU – and something that the UK has never signed up to. Great. Love schengen. But it doesn’t need to be part of the EU. Why can it not simply be an ad-hoc agreement between countries?

Free trade? Excellent. Great. But it wasn’t the EU that created this. It was EFTA. The EU simply absorbed EFTA and then claimed that free trade could not exist without tighter centralisation. Ever Closer Union, to use the 1950s term.

So, much of what the EU stands for is worthwhile, but this does not mean that these great freedoms could not be realised in other ways.

The main problem with the EU, I think, is its dishonesty. Having spent more than five years covering the Brussels beat for various media, and seeing how the monstrosity operates at close range, I can honestly say that the beast’s propaganda machine is just as disingenuous as the British media.

I find it utterly disgusting, for example, that the Irish were twice called to vote on the Nice Treaty – and again on the Lisbon Treaty – until they secured a “Yes” vote. That’s not democracy.

Then look at Greece. It’s economy is in a shambles. Partly because of fiscal mismanagement, but also because it is denied the opportunity to revalue its currency, which could spare it some pain. In a centralised monetary system, of course, the more economically solvent countries – i.e., Germany – should step in to bail it out. But, unsurprisingly, Chancellor Merkel is worried about alienating her voters. Why should hard-working Germans step into support fast-spending Greeks? It’s a very good question.

But the main problem with all of this is that the architects of the euro knew full well that, at some point, the “Greek problem” (could equally have been the Portuguese problem or the Spanish problem, too) was going to happen. But they push ahead with the single currency anyway, simply because this would give much more political credence to the whole system. It is much harder to back out of the EU once your mint has started churning out euro coins.

I was writing about this in 2002, during the introduction of the single currency. But all the negative arguments against the single currency were lost in amongst a hotchpotch of untruths.

I can’t speak for my countrymen, but that is essentially why I am so hostile towards the EU. It is indeed a worthwhile endeavour, if only one could make intellectually honest arguments for its existence, just as eurosceptics should stop spouting all sorts of nonsence about the EU.

And, if you ever meet me in a party and, without knowing me, start talking about British eurosceptism as though I am an authority on the subject, I’ll probably just give you this link and talk about Russian vodka instead.

Test time for the euro

February 26, 2009

The euro seems to be having a pretty rocky time during the opening months of 2009. And not just because all of the world’s major currencies are suffering from the unsettling effects of persistent turmoil in financial markets. No. The problems here could conceivably run much deeper since, for the first time since the single currency’s creation 10 years ago, senior government officials in member states are quietly muttering the forbidden B word. Break-up.

One of the key indicators suggesting all might not be well has been the widening of spreads on sovereign bonds between countries in North Europe and those clinging on to the Mediterranean: namely Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (whoever thought up the acronym – PIGS – has obviously spent far too long working in finance and / or government and needs to get a new job). Spreads have come down recenty, but to give an example, at the start of the year credit defaults on Greek sovereign debt was trading at around 250 basis points and Italy at around the 180 mark. By contrast, Germany and the US were trading at around 50.

In layman terms, what this means, is it is much more expensive for countries like Italy and Greece to borrow money. Part of this is to do with their high deficit. Another part if probably to do with financial mismanagement. Basically, the high spread rate means that investors view Italian bonds as riskier than German ones, and demands a higher premium for taking them on.

This is a potentially dire state of affairs – should Greece or Italy be allowed to fail, they could bring down the whole European economy.

In a well-functioning fiscal system (i.e., one with a central nucleus that has all the powers needed to properly control the economy, which the EU does not have), money could (with relatively little political difficulty) be shifted from one part of the economy to another. This has happened in the US, for example, when states have mismanaged their funds – and may soon happen again, as the glorious sunshine State of California has just been declared bankrupt. Naughty, naughty, Mr Schwatzernigga. But it doesn’t happen easily in the EU because of so much national protectionism.

All of this points to one of my fundamental arguments against bringing in the euro: and that was that it needed a proper political mechanism in place for it to work. The EU needs to have the same fiscal stimuli aparatus in place as, for example, the US does. Fine if that is what everyone wants – but shouldn’t we have had a discussion about this beforehand?

Pulling out of the euro will be painful. If one country leaves, confidence in the currency will take a pounding, with all the economic ugliness that entails. And people are starting to worry about things taking a turn for the worse, on the back of all the current financial woes. This is one of the reasons that Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, has recently launched a debate on sending large parcels of taxpayer’s money southwards – to help prop up those heavily indebted countries like Greece and Italy. Now that is going to please all those thousands of workers that have just lost their jobs.

But one thing is for certain. Now is the test time for the euro. It’s own D-day, if you like. If it wins this battle, it has won the war. If one country decides that it cannot take the heat over the next 12 months – and Ireland, from what I am reading, could be the nation that jumps first – then the euro will take such a pounding it may not recover. Other countries could then follow suit, and revert back to their old currency.

But, if all countries grit their teeth and bare the pain, then the EU will have scored a vital victory: it will have proved, beyond a doubt, that the euro can work even in the darkest of days. Eurosceptics may be tempted to split hairs, and argue about whether the euro or old sterling faired better in the crisis (and who emerged from recession first), but such arguments will largely be academic. For the euro will have held tight. And, what’s more, Brussels may suddenly find itself with the opportunity and good will to push through crucial changes for the euro to work properly: additional fiscal stimulus measures and tax-raising powers.

Britain, a tradditional opponent to such meddling, is not going to like that. It will be interesting to see how long the country can stay outside the euro-club.