The best policy would have been honesty about the EU

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It’s Brexit Day, and Twitter resounds with the wails and moans of the defeated and dispossessed: those who have had, we are repeatedly told, ‘had my EU citizenship and my future stolen from me against my will.’

It may surprise you to learn that I am not entirely unsympathetic. For I nursed a very similar resentment at having EU citizenship imposed upon me against my will by means of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.

That was the point at which the European Union was created, as an unmistakably political, federal project with a flag, anthem and all the other apparatus of statehood.

The point at which all those who had gone along with the idea of a ‘common market’ – a vehicle for promoting mutual prosperity – really deserved to be consulted again and asked: ‘Are you sure that this is what you really want?’

There should have been a referendum then, not in 2016. But John Major’s government – which had, to be fair, secured a number of valuable opt-outs, not least from the planned single currency – was determined not to have one. We may only assume that this reluctance was based on the assumption that they would lose it.

And they might have been right. France, after all, only voted to accept the Treaty by a 51% majority, and Denmark rejected it by a similar margin, and had to be made to vote again the right way after some additional national opt-outs had been secured.

Yet putting it to the vote was so self-evidently the right thing to do that I was moved to genuine political activity for the first and only time in my life, campaigning with various other ‘bastards’ for a public vote.

Serious Eurosceptics were a minority in the Conservative party then, and it would not have taken a PR genius to portray us as what David Cameron later called ‘loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists’, and to deploy the usual forces of Project Fear to drive a vote for the treaty through.

It would, either way, have been the right thing to do. How can any democratic government casually sign up its population as citizens of another state without their explicit consent?

I am old enough to remember our joining the European Economic Community in 1973, without clear electoral endorsement, and to have voted in the referendum of 1975 that followed Harold Wilson’s cosmetic ‘renegotiation’ of our entry terms. 

I voted ‘yes’ then because, although I heard the powerful arguments on the other side, not least from the Labour front-bencher Peter Shore, the majority of those asking me to vote that way seemed to be extremists, whether on the left or right.

I kicked myself for this folly after Maastricht made the consequences clear to me, but a recent reading of the well-connected journalist Kenneth Rose’s diaries brought home to me that I was in remarkably distinguished company:

26 March 2007 Peter Carrington has admitted to me that when he helped negotiate our entry into Europe in 1972 he thought we would be joining no more than a free-trade area, not a relentless machine for imposing uniformity on every facet of European life. An extraordinary confession from a former Foreign Secretary. But of course that is exactly what I, and many others, believed at the time. So I keep quiet about my place on the committee that co-ordinated national celebrations of the event.

When Remainers claim, as they do with monotonous regularity, that the 2016 Leave vote was won with ‘lies’ on the side of a bus, they conveniently gloss over the fact that the entire European project has always been pursued by stealth and sometimes outright mendacity.

Its founders knew that electorates were never likely to vote freely for the abolition of their nation states, so they deliberately pursued what appeared to be economic objectives for the purpose of creating an irreversible political union.

The extent to which they succeeded is highly apparent from the morass of EU rules in which the UK is now thoroughly enmeshed. 

There is a noble and moral case for European unity, based on the preservation of peace and the ties of our shared culture. The problem is that those who sought that end rarely if ever attempted to inspire support for it with appropriately lofty rhetoric. It has always been about making us better off or, if we threatened to leave, making us poorer than we might be.

This has never been enough to persuade people like me – old now, yes, but surely not entirely stupid – that we should sacrifice the right to vote for our own government making our own laws in our own country.

It wasn’t enough to persuade 52% of those who bothered to vote in the 2016 referendum, either, and the subsequent three years of convoluted legal and Parliamentary attempts to overturn the results of that vote have been nothing short of a disgrace.

I was surprised that we were ever granted a referendum, though I long argued for one. I was surprised that the country voted Leave, though I did so myself. I was even surprised that the efforts to overturn the vote did not succeed.

But tonight I shall take part in a modest celebration, attended by both Leavers and Remainers who recognise that it is time to turn this particular page.

I hope to be long dead before the possibility of re-joining the European Union is ever raised here. But if it is, I advise those pressing its cause to be honest. Be clear about exactly what the end goal is: a country called Europe. Be positive about the benefits this can offer – and admit to the possible downsides.

Above all, ensure that the people understand what they are doing, as they most certainly did not in 1973, and provide their informed consent.

1 COMMENT

  1. An interesting article.
    Honesty is a good policy in general!
    I was at school and unable to vote in the 1974 referendum but took a keen interest in it as a sixth former.
    Listening to various debates I never really understood how some people feared a “United States of Europe” . To me then, and now, it seemed a good idea to pool sovereignty, and it worked well for USA where there are strong identities with states as well as the larger entity. Californians and New Yorkers are as different as, say, French and Greeks but all see advantages in organising some aspects of life at a supra-national level.

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