18 March 2007

Another eurosceptic campaign

There has been a certain amount of growling on the blogosphere (well, England Expects and the Toryboy blog) about there not being any need for another eurosceptic organization. Both had read the article in the Sun by Ruth Lea, director of CPS and now director of Global Vision, and came out huffing and puffing about there being too many eurosceptic think-tanks already.

The author of England Expects (I believe he wanders onto the EUReferendum forum) pronounced that the existing ones were all very similar and no more is needed. Unfortunately, not all he called think-tanks are that and Global Vision calls itself a campaign.

What’s in a word, you might say. Quite a lot in politics but, in any case, there are serious differences between the various groups, mostly revolving round the question of what is to be done. (No, I am not going through the history of that question again.)

Toryboy blog started off by saying that the new organization was a think-tank, then changed it to pressure group, produced faint praise for all the existing organizations and informed its readers (some of whom did not seem to agree) that the best one was Open Europe, which had produced wonderful research and immensely successful campaigns.

We take leave to differ. Some of Open Europe’s research is very useful but its day to day activity seems to consist of collecting media information and sending them out weekly. Inevitably, this puts them behind daily blogs.

Over and above that its director and staff spend a great deal of time taking part in discussions and debates and giving interviews, which would be useful, if they did not keep telling us that the way forward is to reform the European Union, an impossibility with its structure. This indicates that Open Europe’s research has not produced a clear understanding of the EU’s structure and legislatory process.

I participated in a discussion with Neil O’Brien on 18 Doughty Street a couple of months ago. The chairman was Matthew Elliot of Taxpayers’ Alliance (now there is an immensely useful organization) and the third discussant was Lee Rotherham.

At the end of the programme Matthew asked us all how we would vote if there were a referendum on staying in or getting out of the EU. Lee and I said unequivocally that we would vote no without any doubt. Neil, on the other hand, huffed and puffed, deciding that he could not vote no as he did not quite see what the alternatives might be. There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the voice of Open Europe, which just happens to be close to most Conservative thinking (if that is the right word), so it is not altogether surprising that Toryboy blog thinks they are the best.

Several comments on those two (and, for all I know, other) blogs produced the usual refrain: why can’t all these eurosceptic groups unite and be a strong organized campaign. It is now some years since I first wrote a paper on the subject of unification among eurosceptic groups, pointing out that it was neither possible nor necessary. In fact, it would be counterproductive.

The fact that the eurosceptic cause has moved a great deal forward (though not among main stream political parties) without that famed unification would support my thesis.

I have no wish to rehearse all the arguments here but let me produce the most important one, in my opinion. Unite on what platform? Just to tell the world that the EU is not a particularly nice place and the way it is structured is not particularly useful to anyone? Well, yes, we could unite on that. It would mean that people like Commission President Barroso, Tony Blair and David Cameron would be members, but hey, at least we would be united.

It would also mean that we would get nowhere. Criticisms of that kind have been advanced for about 15 years and nothing much has been changed in that organization.

So, unite on what platform? Open Europe found when it proclaimed itself to be the leader among eurosceptic organizations that most of them were deeply unimpressed with their “let’s campaign for a reform of the European Union” stance. They might not like the idea that they have become “another eurosceptic think-tank” but that is the truth, though, as I said above, they are not all the same.

Global Vision is a new organization, launched on March 15, which may or may not be an auspicious date. It has grown out of the Centre for Policy Studies and shares premises with it as well as Chairman – Lord Blackwell – and Director – Ruth Lea.

Its purpose is to persuade politicians and opinion formers of the wrongness of Britain’s involvement in further European integration, of the rightness of Britain looking outwards to the rest of the world, and the need for Britain to renegotiate a completely new, looser alliance with the European Union.

The basic argument is that Britain, Europe and the world have changed since the seventies when entering the Common Market seemed like the right way forward for a country that was falling steadily behind those on the other side of the Channel.
The world has changed since Britain first joined the European Communities (“Common Market”) in 1973. At that time Britain’s economic performance compared unfavourably with more dynamic economies in Europe. With high trade barriers
across the world, participation in Europe offered a larger domestic market to
help stimulate the UK’s growth and competitiveness.

The situation is now very different. While the British economy has been transformed, the other major EU economies have been weighed down by high social costs and inflexible labour markets. With the rapid development of new growth economies, the EU’s share of the global economy is inexorably shrinking. Britain’s future prosperity increasingly depends on capturing our share of the new opportunities outside Europe.

At the same time the EU has changed, with successive treaties continuing the momentum towards more political and economic integration across Europe. One consequence has been increasing regulations and costs for British business, which are now an impediment to creating the dynamic, flexible economy we need to succeed in the 21st century.

There is little sign that the EU is prepared to reform by reducing the regulatory burden. If Britain is not to be held back, our only option now is to negotiate a new, looser arrangement with the EU. That relationship should preserve the benefits of free trade and cooperation between governments in areas which are mutually beneficial, while allowing Britain to opt out of political and economic integration and the mandatory EU-wide legislation that goes with it.
Obviously, I cannot disagree with any of that. My only reservation is that none of this is new and none of it requires a new think-tank or pressure group or campaigning organization. I have seen speeches by Tony Blair that said more or less that.

Global Vision’s plan of action is to persuade enough politicians and opinion formers on all sides of the political picture (this is a cross-party organization) of the rightness of their world-view. Then, at the next constitutional treaty negotiations Britain will withhold her veto and insist at not agreeing to anything unless a new treaty is created that would give the country the sort of relationship with the rest of the European Union it wants.

At the launch Ruth Lea pointed out that Global Vision’s opinion poll indicated that while around 23 per cent wanted to stay in with no change and around the same percentage wanted to come out of the EU, 51 per cent agreed with the idea of staying in and renegotiating the new deal.

This does not surprise me. Considerably more than 51 per cent of this country’s population has not the slightest understanding of how the European Union is structured and how the negotiations within it are conducted. The media is of no help, referring continuously, for example, to the European Parliament as the EU’s legislators and the Commission as its Executive.

Not so long ago I took part in a discussion at the CPS about food production in Britain, during which it became obvious that only about three of us in the room realized that everything to do with it is subject to EU competence in one way or another. The presenters who tried to lead the discussion, all one way or another involved with commercial agriculture, seemed convinced that we were now “out of the CAP”.

I am happy to say that I managed to reduce the couple of Conservative MPs who were present to absolute apoplexy. They were convinced that there had been huge changes in the CAP and we had enormous powers to change things and were not happy with being told that things were not so but far otherwise.

Having found, not for the first time, this sort of ignorance among people who are supposed to know what is going on, I am, as I said, not surprised that 51 per cent went along with the rather warm and friendly notion of staying in the European Union and trying to renegotiate Britain’s relationship from within.

To give Global Vision its due, it has discarded the idea of “reforming the Union”; having understood that it cannot be done.

But can their own plan be put into action? The launch had its share of Tory MPs, all of whom congratulated Global Vision on its brilliant new approach and, sadly, its share of friendly skeptics. “Devil’s Kitchen” asked how they were going to persuade the political elite of this country. Lord Pearson pointed out that there was not going to be another major constitutional treaty negotiation, as a good deal is coming in through the back door and the remaining treaty will be too small to make an impact. Anyway, he added, what can we do with our veto while the "enhanced co-operation" is in place?

Representing the Bruges Group and EUReferendum I decided to take part in the discussion as well, asking Lord Blackwell how they were going to persuade 26 other member states to agree to Britain acquiring that different relationship. It seems from his lordship’s reply (supported, I am sad to say, by Martin Howe QC) that this would not present too many difficulties as they would understand that a new relationship was in everybody’s interest.

After all, I was told in a kindly fashion, when the EU negotiated with Switzerland, the various treaties were signed with everybody’s interest in mind. Our readers will be glad to know that I was too well-behaved to point out that Switzerland was negotiating from a different position, i.e. one of strength and, in any case, the EU is not very happy about that country’s tax laws but can do nothing to change them. Britain is in a very different position.

One can only wish well Global Vision and offer help and support. There is nothing wrong with their analysis of the situation but nothing particularly right, either.

As I listened to the presentations I recalled that almost ten years ago a group of us tried to set up a think-tank called Global Britain. For reasons too complicated to explain this later downsized to an economic research unit, led by Ian Milne (consultant with Global Vision) that produced excellent research papers.

The original plan, however, was much grander and we produced a trial magazine in which we aired some of the ideas at the heart of the initiative. As this was before the days of the ubiquitous internet, I shall have to quote a passage from the editorial article. Please, bear with me. This is what we wrote at the end of “Why Global Britain?”
Our main aim in setting Global Britain as that unlovely-sounding thing, a ‘think-tank’ is, therefore, to work to create a clearer understanding of all these issues, and to change people’s perspectives. Our primary purposes are:

1. to explain the implications of political union in Europe, and to explore what responses to this process are possible and desirable;

2. to highlight the way Britain’s politicians are failing us by their intellectual ambivalence over the EU, and their reluctance to face up to the realities of what it stands for;

3. to reorient perspectives on Britain’s position in the world, particularly in terms of our relations with that world beyond Europe where we earn more than half our living, so that we are not always preoccupied with the backyard of the EU;

4. to highlight the yawning gap in the operations of the EU between theory and practice, showing how far these so often achieve the opposite of their declared purposes;

5. more widely, to explain the scale and true nature of the revolution currently taking place right through our system of government.

Unless as a nation we make a much more serious effort to understand these issues, we shall have abdicated our responsibility to all those who come after us. Future generations will be amazed to see how far we sleepwalked our way into a totally different type of society and political system, without any real grasp of the immensity of what was at stake. The aim of Global Britain is to stop this process of sleepwalking into the future. It is time for the eyes of the British people to be opened.
This was published at the beginning of 1998. Another failed endeavour but we like to think on this blog (both of us were involved in that ill-fated enterprise) that we have moved on and built on those ideas. It is, therefore, somewhat upsetting to see that in other sections of the eurosceptic front movement is circular rather than linear. Not for one moment do I suggest that the linear movement will be completely straight but one would like to see some progress.