Sunday, July 07, 2013

We are all Eurosceptics now

There was a time when the Conservative party was bitterly divided between pro-europeans and eurosceptics.

This is no longer true.

The Conservatives are now more united about Europe than either of the other main parties. The occasional disagreement about tactics has sometimes given our opponents and the press the opportunity to rehearse old headlines like "Tories split on Europe" but it isn't really true.

To win elections it is important that Conservatives behave with discipline and avoid the kind of self-indulgent posturing which lets the press run "Tory split" headlines, not least because they interfere with our ability to get the message over about where we actually stand.

And what we really stand for is a less centralised Europe, a more democratic Europe, a Europe of nations in which power has been given back to individual countries, a Europe which imposes fewer job-destroying regulations.

I can remember the exact moment when I became a Eurosceptic: I had a "Road to Damascus" moment at, of all places, an annual conference of the Tory Reform Group.

It came while I was listening to a speaker from Germany, a senior Christian Democrat and ally of Helmut Kohl who was then the German Chancellor. The speaker was clearly a civilised and intelligent man who at first impressed me, who was friendly to Britain and who I thought we could do business with.

Until someone asked him about a decision taken during the reunification of Germany which had produced dire consequences - not only in that country, but also knock-on effects in the rest of Europe - namely the decision to merge the West and East German currencies at a 1:1 exchange rate.

The speaker made no attempt to engage with the issue of the serious economic consequences of this decision. He merely criticised those who had correctly predicted in advance exactly how this would go wrong:

 * inflation through the undermining of Bundesbank monetary targets;
 * increased unemployment particularly in Eastern Germany because the 1:1 exchange rate put them in a position of unrealistic and uncompetitive prices;
 * and interest rate instability as a result of poor monetary control.

He showed no recognition of the fact that these critics had been absolutely right about the impact on people's welfare and livelihoods, and instead attacked them for not understanding the political imperatives.

This was at a time when one of the most important current debates was whether to scrap national currencies in favour of a single European currency. I already had grave reservations about this proposal and was leaning against it, but from that moment I was implacably opposed to British participation in any top down scheme to create a single currency.

I asked myself

"What would happen if European leaders took the decisions relating to a single European currency in the way the speaker has just admitted that equivalent decisions relating to a single German currency were taken?"

The thought of the sort of damage which could be done throughout Europe by taking crucial economic decisions relating to a European currency union on the basis of allowing political imperatives to over-ride any consideration of their implications for jobs, incomes, growth and inflation made my blood run cold.

And I also realised that it would never be safe to assume that a decision which a majority of European leaders believed, rightly or wrongly, would be in their countries' interests must automatically be in Britain's best interests too.

Proposals coming from Brussels should always be carefully scrutinised and subjected to careful analysis rather than being assumed to be right - which is exactly what it means in the English and Greek languages to be sceptical about something.

Of course, being sceptical about the European Union does not have to mean, as the more pro-European elements of the press such as the Guardian and the BBC all too often assume, that one is a xenophobic little Englander who hates everything to do with foreigners and thinks each and every idea or proposal which comes out of Brussels is wrong.

When Peter Lilley was a minister I remember visiting his office in Whitehall, and remarking that I noticed he had a picture of Charles de Gaulle on his office wall. He smiled and said that the last French delegation to visit him there had been very impressed and pleased to see that picture . He hadn't thought it necessary to explain to them that part of his reason for admiring de Gaulle was that he wanted to defend British interests as vigorously as General de Gaulle had defended those of France!

When I describe myself as a Eurosceptic, this is what I mean by it.

* You can criticise and campaign to reform the failings of the European Union without hating the other countries of Europe.

* You can fight tooth and nail against bad ideas which come from the EU without opposing the occasional good idea.

* You can welcome greater trade and a single market without supporting a federal superstate.

* You can love the culture of other European countries while being proud of and wishing to protect British culture.

* You can defend British interests without being a "Bad European" - or allowing it to upset you when other people make that accusation.

* You can also fight for British interests while forging alliances with other people in Europe whose national interests coincide with ours: Britain is not the only country where we don't want our businesses strangled by high taxes or excessive red tape.

* Above all, you can campaign to avoid letting the other countries of Europe tell people in Britain how to run our own affairs while recognising that they don't want us telling them how to run their affairs either, and believe that the desire to control our own destinies is justified for all countries.

And on that basis pretty much the whole Conservative party is now Eurosceptic. Which is a good thing: if we're singing from the same hymn sheet and campaigning for the same goals, we have a chance of achieving them.


Tim said...

Happily, now been anti-EU since 1975. Never changed my mind since seeing Michael Foot, Enoch Powell and Tony Benn explaining how a sovereign parliament and membership of the then EEC were incompatible. LEAVE NOW !

Jim said...

Yet you all constantly lie and mislead about the options. You constantly state about being a part of the Single market without having a say.
That is where we are now.

To leave the EU and Join Efta would actually give us a say as even Mr Hannen seems to have finally noticed.

Chris Whiteside said...

Tim - I am not yet ready to sign up for Better Off Out, but I want to see a proper debate about the options followed by a vote in which all the people will have a chamce to decide on the nature of Britain's relationship with Europe.

Including the option to leave if it turns out that the majority agree with you.

If you want to leave, or just want a vote on it, sign up to our "Let Britain Decide" campaign.

Jim - first of all, thanks for that link. I loved Dan's comparison of the EU with pre-revolutionary France with the decision makers immune from the consequences of their own decisions - that has to be a contender for my "quote of the day" at some point this week.

With regard to Dan's main argument, it's a really interesting point but I don't think it bears the construction you are putting on it.

Dan was talking about the specific circumstances where an EU rule is implementing an agreement made at a larger body where the EU is a party, specifically in this case the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD.)

In this specific case Dan was making an argument that leaving the EU could mean that Britain would have a direct seat at that other body rather than through the EU.

You can make a Eurosceptic argument based on the fact that the EU is sometimes implementing decisions of other bodies such as the OECD but I do not think it is the same one that you are making.

Britain DOES have a voting seat at the EOCD table in our own right - and the European Commission has less influence on the OECD than Britain has because the Commission is a non-voting participant in OECD discussions.

Britain was one of the founder members of the OECD and has been an individual member of the OECD in our own right since 1961.

Whether we are a member of the EU or not, we do have a seat at the OECD table: we would not gain one by leaving the EU because we already have it!

You can see the list of OECD members on the organisation's website at

This explains that the European Commission takes part in OECD discussions but while "much more than an observer" does not have a vote on OECD council decisions or recommendations. Britain does.

With regard to the single market, as a member of the EU we have a veto over certain things and a vote on everything the EU does. If we went back to EFTA and remained part of the European Economic Area - which is one possible scenario if there is a referendum and it produces a vote to leave - we will still be subject to single market rules on our exports to the EU but will lose the veto and the vote.

You can certainly make arguments for doing this, but I don't think you can make valid arguments that our influence on single market rules would be anything other than reduced.

Jim said...

Ok thats one regulation maker, now what Dan is actually pointing at is more and more "top tables" are moving away from the EU, the EU gets a seat, so as a member state we do not, we only get an 8% "say" in how the new laws will be implemented in the EEA" (Norway, Switzerland, Iceland) well they all have their own seat at the top tables (where the laws are made)

International Seed Testing Association (ISTA).
Union Internationale pour le Protection des Obtentions Végétales (UPOV).
International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) this one is worse as the eu subcontracts its seat to International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).

And lets not forget, most EU regulations which have the most dramatic effect on the UK, are actually decided by The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

The EU has one seat at all these top tables (The UK has 8% of 1 seat) alone the uk would sacrafice an 8% share of a say in how the laws are implemented across the EU, but would gain a full seat in the top table discussions in "which laws shall be made in the first place"

Chris Whiteside said...

There are two arguments you could be making here, one is certainly right, I don't agree with the other.

If you are saying that Britain could remain involved in these discussions without losing all our rights and influence if we left the EU, because we are members of the body concerned you are absolutely right.

Britain is a full member state of virtually all these bodies, and in several cases, as in the OECD and the United Nations (where we still have a permanent, veto-wielding seat on the Security Council) Britain has more formal power than the EU does.

If you're saying we would actually have more power in these bodies by leaving the EU I think that's overstating the case.

If you have two routes into a body and you withdraw from one of them, that does not necessarily make the other stronger.