Why politicians can’t be honest about the EU

Responding to Stuart Weir's recent article, Damian Hockney says the EU's supposed benefits are as illusory as the supposed damages the UK would suffer from leaving.

Stuart Weir speaks of the need of those in favour of the EU to provide a positive account of the UK's membership, but does not really do so. His accurate summary of the troika and EU institutions being used to lay waste to Greece and its people serve more as a reminder why the clamour is growing to oppose the EU. He grasps the problem but no-one is really going to oblige him by engaging in debate on the side of the EU because it would be electoral suicide.

Weir talks about being honest about the EU’s failings. But that honesty must include the constant refrain after cataloguing every failing: “we can do nothing about any of them as they impact on the UK, we are powerless to amend, alter or repeal those laws”.

In general the contributions of those determined at all costs to remain in the EU are centred on two positions: the first is the resort to fear or terror tactics, for example invoking the infamous and ill-defined millions who will supposedly lose their jobs at a stroke if the UK quits the EU, a claim rubbished over the past 15 years by employers and even senior EU officials; it is so vague and so obviously a scare story. This was recently peddled again in a different form by Deputy PM Nick Clegg.

The other approach appears to be an afterthought about institutional change as a sop to those who want action - "if the EU is made more accountable...closer to the people...more responsive institutions... everything will be OK and all problems will end”.

It really will not do against the catastrophic background of EU actions in recent years, and will no longer be taken at face value by any media, even the BBC.

If there are real benefits when the EU tells Italy that it does not matter which government is elected, ex Prime Minister Monti's policies have to be carried on with, then these benefits and the lack of democracy involved need to be detailed properly to win hearts and minds, with real debate. Not patronising elite prophecies of the bogeyman on state radio and tv with no real questioning and the promise of jam tomorrow. 

Will the Labour Party really stand up and say, as Stuart Weir would like them to: "these are benefits brought to you by the EU" (which means, in effect, "not by us as an elected government, for we can't change them; they are not ours").

And here is the rub for elected politicians - to say that the EU has brought some slice of the electorate an advantage firstly reduces Westminster politicians’ status to that of mere administrators of the policies of others, that they can neither amend, alter or repeal. It makes the cry "why bother voting for you?" even greater than it already is. Secondly, it infuriates those who have been damaged, angered or ruined by EU orders and highlights EU control in a way that all the parties wish to pretend is a figment of the imagination of ‘extremists’. In his ‘This Blessed Plot’, Hugo Young was right when he made the point that the British elite’s attempts to hide growing EU control over laws were a mistake and a hostage to fortune.

Another reason why the Labour Party will not fly the flag for the EU involves the nature of scrutiny. Pro-EU politicians hope they are going to have a few minutes repeating their vague mantras about working together and institutional change, and now end up being asked about their support for EU-imposed austerity, and the environmental implications of mad but telling EU orders about olive oil bottles that can’t be repealed.

And the killer argument is this. Just take a look at the almost daily YouGov polls over the past year. They show that where once the UKIP vote was being taken almost solidly from “didn’t vote last time” and Conservative (and a bit of LibDem), polls are now showing a serious lift from Labour. For the first time in a recent poll, those defecting from LibDem and Labour were greater in number together than those that had voted Tory. One wrong move by Labour in seeming to act as an apologia for EU austerity and carnage and that percentage could rise, and do what the Scottish Nationalists did to the Tories in Scotland in February 1974 – deny them the UK government by a whisker, and/or cost them the first by-election to UKIP.

One specific point made by Stuart Weir worries me. Does the left really accept the premise that the EU and the EU alone is somehow a "guarantor" of employment rights and that we need some sort of protectorate from on high to enforce policies that we ourselves might want to see enacted, and that our own democratic structures are not worthy? As Stuart Weir alludes to, these benefits can just be swept away or made pointless by EU institutions which have the power to give and also to take away. Try telling ‘employment rights’ to the 60%+ unemployed young Greeks. What benefit is there, therefore, to the ideals of the left to give yet more power to these institutions out from which have already popped the cloven hooves?

It is also ironically the mirror image of the appalling argument that was used by the right in the 1970s saying how wonderful the "Common Market" was - "if we stay in, it'll stop 'Wedgie Benn' (the disparaging nickname given to demonised left wing MP Tony Benn) from turning us into another East Germany, he won't be allowed to."

I would like to know what my old friend Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody would have made of the argument that: “we have to stay in the EU to get the laws we want”.

Surely Labour needs to avoid at all costs the dead hand of the EU linked to its electoral chances? It may not be able to avoid engaging in the debate, as it would dearly like. Now is the time for Labour to think of Gwyneth and be ready to wheel out its many eurosceptics. Could anything be worse than “5 million jobs will be lost and we need to look carefully at the institutions of the EU to see how they can be made more…”?

About the author

Damian Hockney is a magazine publisher who became involved in politics through his opposition to the plan to give Europol officers immunity for life from prosecution. A former vice-chair of UKIP, he was elected to the London Assembly in 2004 and was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority from 2004 to 2008.