Thursday, 30 December 2010

Challenges for the Eurosceptics

Daniel Hannan MEP has established a voice as probably the most articulate advocate of British withdrawal from the European Union, so it is not a great shock that Hannan - blogging at the Telegraph - takes a different view from my boxing day commentary on the YouGov poll findings on attitudes to the European Union, commissioned for a forthcoming FEPS/Fabian Society pamphlet.

The opportunity for Hannan is general disillusion from the EU. He challenges my argument that pro-Europeans might take confiidence from support for closer cooperation than at present among EU members in several major areas of policy. Sceptics don`t oppose friendly cooperation with the neighbours, on an intergovernmental basis, he says.

In what sense, then, do we want “more of it in practice”?

Sunder infers his optimistic interpretation from replies suggesting that most of us want European states to collaborate with each other on climate change, fighting terrorism, stimulating economic growth and so on.

But here’s the thing, Sunder, old chum: no one is arguing against international co-operation. The alternative to Brussels supranationalism is not autarky, but intergovernmentalism.

But I don't see that Hannan's challenge stands up. The contrast between the abstract and the concrete is more significant than he admits - and presents challenges to all sides of this debate.

There are two reasons why it is very difficult to see the poll as offering a resounding endorsement of Hannanism on the EU.

Firstly, poll respondents were offered three options - including 'the current balance is about right' as well as "cooperate more closely" and "loosen their links" in this area (as they were in the general question of more or less cooperation in present - where the "looser links" were chosen by 49%, as an abstract question). So, clearly, respondents did not have to choose closer cooperation than at present if they just wanted to express a view that the issue is an important one, on which governments should cooperate.

Hannan and other Eurosceptics must believe the current arrangements are too sovereignty-suffocatingly close in most or all of these areas. So they have a big persuasion challenge here, across the range of policy, while pro-EU voices would have to show EU action is effective and necessary to win arguments for more integration.

Secondly, what surely clinches this point is that, in two cases, the public were explicitly asked about more specific proposals which would be strongly integrationist: minimum labour standards and minimum business rates across the EU.

On Hannan's interpretation, voters who would want to block closer EU integration - but who are happy with international cooperation - should have been much less favourable to those proposals than to the general idea of closer cooperation on a range of multilateral challenges.

But they weren't. Both were pretty popular.

Minimum business rates were supported by 47% to 34%.

Minimum EU-wide labour standards were even more popular - 55% support to 27%.

That shows that this idea would seem to tap into a broadly held 'fair rules' intuition across parties and different attitudes to the EU. (That 49% of those who think EU membership "a bad thing" overall would support this specific integrationist move with 41% opposed, demonstrating precisely the paradox which my post highlighted).

Respondents were specifically prompted with fair and balanced language, specifically articulating the principal objection to integration: "or should each country be able to make their own decisions about what level of tax is best for their companies?". We received and accepted advice from the pollster as to how to ensure the question was put in a fair way.

Of course, poll findings can never prove what would be a good - or bad - thing as policy. But it would clearly be quite false to claim there is strong public opposition to EU-wide minimum business rates or minimum labour standards. Attitudes could change - in either direction - in response to political advocacy and public campaigining. What we can say that the public would seem clearly open to giving such an argument a hearing, and begin somewhat favourable to it.

I think it is safe to say that Hannanites would be on the minority side of those questions, since the British public do indeed appear to favour greater integration -"more of it in practice" - on these proposals.

What do the Eurosceptics want?

I personally would welcome a more engaged debate about the EU, right across the political spectrum. Both advocating British withdrawal from the EU and other forms of Euroscepticism are legitimate democratic perspectives. It is a mistake to suggest that they are not.

That is true in principle - where I think Hannan is right to challenge the debasement of political debate by turning "Nazi" into a thoughtlessly casual slur, whether by UKIP MEPs or social democrats.

This ought to also be an important strategic and tactical consideration for pro-Europeans too, since they have an interest in ensuring the arguments of their opponents are also properly tested and scrutinised. Eurosceptics can prove effective in railing against the status quo (though intelligent pro-Europeanism, such as that of the Centre for European Reform should not be uncritical of EU policies), and often present themselves as something of a persecuted minority to do this. There is much less scrutiny of their alternative policy, or indeed policies.

I would acknowledge that those who would get Britain out - like UKIP or the Hannanite minority in the Tory party - have a clearer answer to these questions than other sceptics. But those who would swap EU membership for EFTA or EEA membership show that there would be a great sovereignty gain? The UK would still have to negotiate a significant contribution to the EU budget, and be bound by EU regulations to have market access. (We would have to persuade EFTA members too that the admission of one of Europe's largest countries would not upset their apple cart).

Much more mysterious is the agenda of what remains the dominant - yet entirely underdefined - strand of Euroscepticism, which would keep the UK in the European Union.

This is the (perhaps nominal) Euroscepticism of David Cameron - which he believes is compatible with wearing cufflinks with the EU flag on them, as Daniel Finkelstein revealed.

It is also the argument made by those who believe that a "fundamental renegotiation" of British membership of the European Union is necessary so we can stay in. But I have very rarely seen any contentful description of what this would entail.

Influential ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie says the test is that Britain's relationship with the EU would not be "fundamentally the same".

If Britain's relationship with the EU is fundamentally the same after five years of Conservative government the internal divisions that ended the last Tory period in government will look like a tea party in comparison.

That leaves only the question of what would be different.

Montgomerie is, like Hannan, ultimately in favour of British withdrawal from the EU. So this "fundamental rengotiation" position might be, for many, the equivalent of what Trotskyists call a "transitional and provisional demand. (Or indeed, a Eurosceptic exercise in Fabian gradualism). There is surely no renegotiation of British membership which would satisfy most 'Better Off Out' Eurosceptics.

But there are many other Eurosceptics who favour Britain staying in - that is the position of many Tory MPs and government ministers, including William Hague, Liam Fox and other key members of the Cabinet, and quite probably a majority of Tory backbenchers. Yet I have never seen a coherent description of the deal which would make them content to also don Mr Cameron's cufflinks, and regard the question of British membership as settled for a generation or more.

So it is not just the Coalition with the Liberal Democrats which means that this government is unable to articulate anything other than a short-term and tactical approach to EU relations.

There are coherent arguments about why Britain should be in the EU - and indeed to get out of it. But we have never heard, in this debate, any substantive argument from the Eurosceptics of the "Tory mainstream" whose argument seems to imply that the UK can be somewhere in between.

If we are to have a serious debate about Britain's EU options, isn't it time for them to speak up too?


DeeDee99 said...

How about we settle the debate by holding a Referendum on our membership of the EU? The last poll which asked the British people whether they wanted a Referendum on the EU showed that about 75% did.

Funnily enough, it is the pro-EU lobby which refuse to advocate a Referendum because they know what the result would be and they fear the electorate's decision.

Adam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam said...

Perhaps the reason for the discrepancy is that in the first question you as what EU _is_ for Britain, whereas in the following ones you ask what it _could be_, if EU was in practice different than it is. The challenge is thus not only for Eurosceptics, but even more for those who would like to convince the public that EU is both willing and able to uplift labour standards and climate policies among its member states. Unfortunately, the case has not been made yet.

Trooper Thompson said...

The British people were promised a referendum by all three major parties. Everyone knows why they didn't hold it.

Sunder Katwala said...


Yes, I agree an "in or out" referendum could settle the question for a while anyway. (Just at the 1975 referendum yes vote did until around 1992).

I wrote in a post on that here, arguing that British membership seems to me the only sensible question for a post-Lisbon ratification referendum in the future.

"I agree that there is a good case for a referendum on British membership to settle the question one way or the other, as the Liberal Democrats have advocated. And it is difficult to see how any other referendum question makes sense".

I expect the group who might least want such a referendum would be the Tory party leadership, who would be on the "in" side while I suspect their supporters would split very roughly fairly evenly between In and Out voting.

Trooper Thompson said...

"I expect the group who might least want such a referendum would be the Tory party leadership"

Well, there's a reason, if you have no other, for you fabians to call for a referendum, if you are against the Tory party leadership. But then again, on this issue there's not a fag paper between the fabians and the Tory party leadership, is there?

Dan said...

One of the problems is the Eurosceptics refuse to accept yes for an answer. If they want out then that is a perfectly legitimate position and they can either campaign inside the Tories to change Tory policy or defect to UKIP and support a policy they believe in.

However if what they want is some kind of halfway house which is not fully committed to a country called Europe but stays in the EU then that is the status quo.

Membership of EU but out of the Euro and no likelihood of that changing any side of the next decade, out of Schengen, so all talk of common asylum policy and common Visa needs to be followed by but this has no impact on UK. Multiple other opt outs with a political and media culture which demands fights and victory or defeat at every minor meeting of the European Council.

In an in or out referendum the out side has an easy task of arguing to get fully out. The in side would have to work out whether they were arguing for the semi detached status quo or full engagement.

james said...

I did think the use of the term "co-operation" in the polling was questionable as it obscures the integration which is taking place.

Who has benefitted most from a common market with free movement of labour and capital? Capital, obviously! It wasn't the labour movement across Europe pushing for greater integration and deregulation of national labour markets - it was the capitalist class across Europe.

The reason why the EU is so unpopular is because people can see it for what it is - an elite project. C'mon - it's even got a royal blue flag, what bigger hint could they give us? I note with interest that it's more unpopular with people on lower incomes than higher incomes, something which was apparent from the rejection of the Lisbon treaty in Ireland...

Whether or not increased migration from the accession eight countries did affect the wages of settled workers in the UK, the point is that it is easy to percieve who would gain the most from such a development.