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26 June 2007 Blog Home : June 2007 : Permalink

David Aaronovitch - Dangerously Complacent

The Wapping Liar columnist David Aaronovitch is someone with whom I usually agree. I don't often blog about his columns because to be honest it's boring and pointless to write "he's right here" and "this bit is bang on" and so on. So today I'm going to fisk Mr Aaronovitch's column because, finally, I have found an area where he appears to be WRONG. This area is the EU and its "not a constitution honest guv" treaty which has appeared phoenixlike from the wreckage of the EU Constitution which Dutch and French voters rejected. Mr A's column today supports the offical EU party line and is worth fisking because it exposes a lot of the half truths that EU spreads and which should be rejected.

A referendum? Sorry, they’re not our cup of tea

The British people don’t vote on wars or mass immigration
Say you have a good friend, practically family, whom you’ve known for some time and whose advice you value. Of course there are differences in emphasis. He likes angling where you prefer soccer and he occasionally forgets – where you remember – that parking wardens also have a job to do. Then one lunchtime, over a glass of tap water, he reveals that he is a long-time member of Britons Against Fluoridation and regards the addition of any chemical to his water supply as an attempt by shadowy powers to interfere with his brain. Though disconcerted, you have two options – to nod or to argue. Columnists argue.

Colimnists are not the only ones who argue, bloggers do too. I, for example, can occasionally disrupt social gatherings and come across as a flaming right winger because I refuse to listen to tripe about how Arabs can't do democracy, that Salman Rushdie deserves to be offed by a rageboy or that Israel is an apartheid state or whatever. And in this case I know, given the title and subheader, that I'm going to be the BAF member Mr A wants to argue with.

I’ve been writing on these pages for just over two years now, and that period has been relatively free of Euro controversy. This has suited me, because Europe (in the way the word “Europe” has come to be used in media discourse) has never excited me that much. After a few years of being vaguely and doctrinally anti-common market, I eventually saw the benefit of what they call “pooling sovereignty”, but since then the stormy enthusiasms of the Philes and the Phobes for their federal states or their magically separate nation states have seemed abstract and distant.

As I have written in previous fiskings I like to find areas where I agree with my victim and I have to say that in terms of general background I'm right with Mr A. I was vaguely against (parents indoctrinating me with a hatred of the CAP as I grew up) and then slightly more in favour and I agree that both Europhiles and Europhobes have been guilty of exaggeration and/or wishful thinking quite often.

When enlargement of the EU effectively killed the federal project, and with entry into the euro parked for my puppy’s lifetime, it just seemed a matter of making the EU we’d got work as well as possible, of letting a few more countries in and of competing like anything with the other world economic superpowers.

But that agreement with the fiskee doesn't last long. The problem is that from my point of view the "federal project" has not been killed, rather it seems to have gone underground so that the proles and Mr A don't notice it. And in re: "competing like anything with the other world economic superpowers" the fact that, as Mr A's Parisian colleague at the Wapping Liar writes, the latest EU "not a constitution honest guv" explicitly removes the reference to "free and undistorted competition" being a principal aim of the EU. Free and undistored competition has been proven to be a good thing by dozens of regimes which have decided not to have it and have sunk into economic failure as a result so if we don't have that in the EU it seems highly likely that we will be serverly handicapped in the global competition steeplechase.

Then along came last week’s Brussels summit and almost everybody around the place turned out to be honorary vice-presidents of Britons Against Fluoridation. There were editorials in advance of the summit predicting dire happenings and continental splits. One even suggested that Britain might care to take a leaf out of the Kaczynski Twins Mad Book of Polish Negotiating (Chapter One: Alvays Mention Ze Var). There were columns after the summit demanding that we should hold a referendum toute suite because the frogs and the krauts were up to their old superstate building tricks again.

Well actually I think it is you sir who is the honorary VP. I know you are a columnist and get paid for being controversial but perhaps you might ask yourself why there were all these editorials etc etc. As a certain O Cromwell (1599 - 1658) wrote once:

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken

Whether or not the Poles were right in their negotiating tactics or not and whether or not the "frogs" were involved it seems pretty clear from the dense statements that the German Chancellor and the EU Commission were indeed "up to their old superstate building tricks again". How else to explain this?

Is it me, I thought, or them? The debate is a bit different from the crazy Maastricht days of ’92 largely because, as a political force, the Europhiles don’t exist any more and the Europhobes are nowhere near as powerful as they used to be, chastened slightly by the electoral results of 2001 and 2005. So it should be extraordinary just how much alarm is being generated by the mostly anodyne and preponderantly technical agreements made in Brussels, and due to be presented to an intergovernmental conference later in the year.

It's you darling. In the words of the FT (via the EU referendum blog):

the EU finally abandoned the idea that it wants ordinary Europeans to understand what it is doing.

In other words as the China Post reports:

"We made a real effort to be opaque," one senior negotiator boasted. Several countries - notably Britain, France and the Netherlands - had insisted the result must look nothing like a constitution to avoid having to hold a referendum, he said.

Are you not slightly concerned, Mr Aaronovitch, that a non-directly elected body has decided that it will deliberately obscure what it is doing so that the people it rules have no idea what is going on? The fact that the entire summit has ended up with a mandate for an IGC where certain areas are agreed in advance, but where the outside world finds it hard to figure out exactly what these areas are, doesn't make those journalistic insteincts of yours twitch slightly? No? Arguments about whether chocolate should contain a particular precentage of cocoa butter or the acceptable sizes/shapes of bananas are anodyne and preponderantly technical. Arguments about whether the EU has the right to impose new legislation on member states and if so in what areas are not anodyne and are only preponderantly technical if you let the lawyers bamboozle you.

The entire way in which we discuss this issue in Britain means playing an elaborate game. For the Government the task has been to ensure that whatever was going to be agreed could be characterised as being insignificant enough in constitutional terms to make a referendum (which it would probably lose) seem pointless. But first it had to create the impression that there was some threat in the first place for it successfully to defeat. For the Phobes the job – as ever – is to suggest that there are changes so fundamental in nature that nothing but a referendum (which they will win) can possibly do justice to their gravity. As a fall-back the anti-Europeans can deploy the Labour promise to hold a plebiscite on the defeated constitution, providing they can only convince us that the new agreement is the same as the old one.

Ok this is where the whole column falls to the ground. If the British are likely to reject the referendum then surely that implies that our democratic representatives and their leaders are not doing what they are supposed to be doing, namely expressing the will of the people. The fact that the Labour party will be seen to be lying (again) if it doesn't hold a referendum just looks liek icing on the cake. Doesn't it bother Mr A that our elected politicians are trying to weasel out of a pledge that was explicitly placed in their last election manifesto?

Well, Labour may have promised a referendum, but I never did, and – looked at as dispassionately as I can manage – it’s pretty obvious that we don’t need one. First let me reiterate the point that we don’t hold referendums on much in this country. In my lifetime I have voted in two – in 1975 on EC membership and in London on whether we should have a mayor. Since then we have had sundry wars, mass Eastern European immigration, Bank of England independence, several Conservative European treaties, the incorporation of the Human Rights Act, the abolition of hereditary peerages, the abolition of the grammar school system, the awarding of several royal charters to the BBC and Big Brother on TV, all of which have had more impact on British society and on none of which have we been directly consulted through a referendum. Never mind other countries (in other countries they have bullfighting), in this country we have set the referendum bar fairly high.

So the argument is "We've never had referenda so why start now?" One answer would seem to be because (see above) the representative democracy we have had so far is failing us. Just as a point of clarification I should note that the country with the most referenda doesn't do bullfighting but does do things like play the alpenhorn, yodelling and skiing. Issues such as the abolition of hereditary peerages were abolished, scapping of grammar schools scrapped and the BBC being given lots of money might in fact have been worth a referendum because the chances are fairly high that the electorate would disagree with what its leadership insists on doing. In other words maybe we ought to have more referenda.

What was agreed last week does not, as claimed, move us a long way towards a single European state with a single foreign policy decided by majority voting. The text specifically states that any European decisions on foreign or security policy would have to be adopted unanimously by the European Council (where sit all member countries). Defence and military affairs were exempted from any majority voting.

Ok no foreign minister but it does create a "High Representative for Foreign Affairs" and lets this person act on behalf of the EU as a whole. As for the unanimity angle; in the middle ages Poland had a parliament where unanimous votes by its barons were required before actions could be taken. Did this mean that Poland was not a country but that each barony was a separate country? Don't be silly. The EU has a currency, a central bank, the power to regulate in all members, a parliament and after this, the ability to conduct foreign affairs. It may well be that the currency and central bank don't apply everywhere (but two more countries - Malta and Cyprus - will join the Eurozone next year), that its parliament is toothless and its foreign policy ability weak but it still looks more and more like a state to me.

Britain has an opt-out on the extension of majority voting to justice and home affairs. There is hardly anything in here that wasn’t confirmed in principle at Maastricht; the main changes are to allow what has been agreed to be pursued more effectively by a foreign policy representative and a presidency. I wonder whether it isn’t the threat of a more efficient EU that so enrages some Phobes who might otherwise spend their days pleasurably lamenting the Union’s lack of ability to implement its agreements.

As for justice and home affairs, it seems clear that the opt outs are getting slimmer and slimmer. Politicans may claim that they can opt out of things but in classic salami tactics, the opt outs get nibbled away by court decisions and treaties. And then we come to this non sequitur about efficiciency. Would you mind not changing the subject? The point is not so much whether it implements things efficiently or not (and so far it has to be said that the EU is about as efficient as someone using a toothbrush to clean Trafalgar square) but whether what it implements are things that the EU various electorates agree with and accept as being worthy of EU regulation. It is very far clear that this is the case today and even less clear that the proposed "improvements" are acceptable either.

It is ironic that, with enlargement and economic reform, the EU has gradually become the thing that some of the original Eurosceptics said they most wanted and that the more empire-building Europhiles were most opposed to. Now we find that the time-hardened Sceptics are unwilling to claim success, suggesting that their true enthusiasm was always really for withdrawal.

This is laughable. Eurosceptics mostly wanted a free trade zone with some ability to have the free movement of people and capital. Since when does a Parliament, a foreign affairs uint etc etc assist in any of this? We sceptics aren't willing to claim success because the things that we wanetd to see abolished, such as the CAP, haven't been and the things that we liked, such as competition policy, have been. Is it any surprise that we are not claiming success when we haven't got what we wanted?

Never mind the manifesto. If Mr Brown believes that a referendum is a bad idea, he should explain his thinking and be judged at the next election. The Tories have a trickier decision. First, is this a good agreement or not? Secondly, if it is, are they really going to invest huge amounts of rare political capital in arguing that it isn’t and that we need a referendum to reject it? Thirdly, what if they get their referendum, reject the treaty and then find themselves in power? Better, Mr Cameron, to ditch Britons Against Fluoridation now, while you still can.

I don't understand this paragraph. I agree with the "Mr Brown" section, albeit with the provisos that the next election occur within a year and that the UK state for the record that if a referendum is held and it rejects the EU treaty then whatever has been agreed by the UK in the IGC is rendered nul and void. I do not understand the bit about the Tories. It ought to be clear that if there is a referendum and the treaty is rejected then our elected leaders, whether Labour, Conservative or what ever respect the will of the people and don't pass the same set of laws/treaties by a different means. Why should the Tories be in particularly dire straits in the event that a referendum rejects the EU and the Tories are in power? all they have to do is stop agreeing to things from Brussels. This is not difficult. They can also stop paying for Brussels until the Eurocrats agree to something acceptable to the UK electorate in a referendum. I'm not seeing a problem here, or rather I'm not seeing a problem that would be hard to resolve for a politician with a backbone and a desire to listen to his/her voters.