Beauty and the Beast on Britain and Europe

The war of words over Europe in Britain cannot be called 'debate'. A former Europe minister examines two serious and opposite thinkers on Europe, and asks whether their arguments could have impact in Britain.

Denis MacShane
10 June 2013

The Europe debate goes on and on. But debate may be a misnomer. What we are witnessing is preaching not debate. We hear the utterance of fixed opinions not the dialogue that seeks to change minds. Rather late in the day, commentators who have gone along with the modish salon Euroscepticism especially prevalent in London are waking up to the fact that Britain leaving Europe is now serious politics.

Star commentators – like Matthew Paris, with his roots partly in Catalonia, and Gideon Rachman, the experienced Financial Times foreign correspondent and permanent conférencier – have begun to smell the coffee and realise that Britain may be on the point of leaving. In the past, out of political affiliation or scorn for Brussels, neither bothered to challenge the rise of anti-European politics. Now they worry that the Outers are going to win. Yet, other than lament this turn of events, they cannot undo the years of lazy acquiescence in the rise of antipathy towards Europe across the political, media, business and opinion-forming networks in Britain.

This hand-wringing is growing but the serious money is going into backing the campaign for an unachievable repatriation and renegotiation followed by a plebiscite. The Prime Minister (of whatever colour) will find it hard to recommend a Yes vote in the referendum for what patently will be a miserable, minimalist offer from a Europe utterly fed up with Britain and its demand to cherry pick from an Anglo à la carte EU.

Two important contributions by serious thinkers reveal the falsity of a non-debate where participants talk past each other.

The first is Katinka Barysch, who has been a main stay of the Centre of European Reform for a number of years. Now as a single mother she is returning to her native Germany because there are many positive aspects about London but support for mothers and children is not one of them. The second, Norman Stone, is one of the big beasts amongst modern British historians. Like so many, he is Scots born and educated north of the border before he became a major scholar at Cambridge. Like AJP Taylor or Hugh Trevor Roper, Stone loves politics, controversy and stirring things up. A devoted Thatcherite, he relocated to Turkey when New Labour won in 1997 but his latest short history of World War 2 shows his contrarian historicism remains energetic and vivid.

In a paper for the Centre of European Reform, Ms Barysch quietly lets the air out of the main thrust of the Eurosceptic case. She writes:

‘Eurosceptics claim that access to the European market is no longer worth much since Britain now “mostly” trades with non-EU countries. It is true that the share of British exports that go to the other EU countries has fallen to just below 50 per cent and that sales to emerging markets are growing faster  –  that is exactly what you would expect, given that the eurozone is in recession while many emerging markets are still growing briskly.

‘Eurosceptics often imply that if Britain severed its ties with the EU, it would trade more with emerging markets. The idea that the EU is holding Britain back is spurious. Germany sells six times as many goods and services to China as the UK does. If it is the EU holding Britain back, why is it not holding back Germany?  

‘Another figure that the eurosceptics like to use is £50 million: that is supposed to be the daily British contribution to the EU budget. This number has some validity, although it is outdated. In 2011 the gross UK contribution to the EU budget was £13.83 billion, or £37 million a day. Is this a lot or a little? It depends how you look at it. As a share of GDP, the UK’s gross contribution is the lowest of any EU country, lower than those of poorer countries such as Poland or Bulgaria. And of course, Britain also gets money back from the EU for its farmers, universities and poorer regions. Once these revenues are factored in, Britain’s net contribution amounts to roughly 1 per cent of total government spending.

‘Even 1 per cent is a lot if, as many eurosceptics claim, the money is wasted. UKIP calls the European Union a “bureaucratic monster” and sometimes implies that most EU spending goes to meddlesome bureaucrats. In reality, around 5 per cent of the EU budget is spent on administration, and half of that on the European Commission. The European Commission has 23,000 employees, less than Birmingham City Council. It is true that EU officials are “unelected”, as are the 32,000 officials in the British Home Office and those of any other state administration around the world. No doubt, the EU’s bureaucracy could be streamlined and made more effective but the real potential for savings – as many British politicians have pointed out for years – is in the common agricultural policy and funds for poorer regions.

‘The fundamental truth is that the European Union is an extremely complex undertaking that cannot easily be reduced to simple numbers – either on the positive or on the negative side. But perhaps by feeding random numbers, half-truth and fiction into the debate, the hard-core eurosceptics will force other politicians and journalists to do a better job of explaining what is really at stake in Britain’s EU membership.’

Ms Barysch lists other myths promoted by Open Europe, the Bruges Group, Business for Britain (a new anti-EU front), many Tory (and some Labour) MPs about Europe, namely that EU legislation dominates national legislation. It doesn’t. The House of Commons produces an annual estimate of legislation from Europe. You can never find more than about 8 per cent of primary legislation from Brussels. A moment’s glance at the current UK (or French or German) legislative or government agenda – gay marriage, education reform, prison policy, countering Islamist fundamentalism, housing, HS2 and London airport congestion, income tax levels, and military interventions – and the plain truth is that the nations of Europe still decide, for good or ill, most of what impacts on their citizens.

It is true that some badly-run Eurozone countries are facing external diktats, much as Britain did in 1976 when the IMF imposed public sector cuts in exchange for a sterling bail-out. But the cuts and austerity politics are as bad in non-Euro countries as in the Eurozone.

The austerity measures by the IMF-EU-ECB troika imposed on countries like Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain have been devastating. The IMF is now confessing it got policy wrong in Greece and the EU has loosened strict timetables. Youth unemployment in April stood at 64.2 % in Greece, 56.4% in Spain, 42.5% in Portugal and 40.5% in Italy. Eurosceptic commentators like to blame this on the Euro.

Yet a closer look at the figures across Europe do not directly link as cause and effect the Euro and lack of jobs for 16-24 year olds. British youth unemployment stands at 21 per cent – and is much higher in the north and among British ethnic minorities, notably British Muslim youth. Yet Britain has the “advantage” of a devalued pound and has as little to do with common Eurozone policies as possible.

According to Eurostat, Germany, Austria, the Netherland, Luxembourg, and Belgium all have significantly lower youth unemployment levels than the UK. All of these countries use the Euro and are usually left out of the commentaries which seek to link the single currency to youth unemployment. Sweden, often held up as a model non-Eurozone nation, has youth unemployment rates of 25 per cent. While the Swedish crown has not “enjoyed” the bigger devaluation of the pound sterling, Sweden sets its own monetary, fiscal policy and exchange rate policy independently of the ECB.

Spain’s overall youth unemployment is a disaster but in 1985 and 1995 youth unemployment hovered around 50 per cent even in the boom years of the Spanish movida when it used the peseta which floated freely on international currency markets. Again, blaming the Euro does not seem justified by history and the stubbornness of facts.

Many of the worst performing EU member states in terms of youth unemployment (Bulgaria 29%, Poland 28%, Hungary 28%, Romania 22%, Sweden 25%, UK 21%) are all outside the Eurozone. So making a causal link between the Eurozone and youth unemployment does not seem to be justified. 

These hard facts along with the arguments contained in the Barysch CER article are widely available. But when do British citizens read them in their daily papers? Presenters on the BBC, Sky and daytime broadcasters get all their information from the off-shore owned newspapers which have been publishing anti-European propaganda consistently for more than two decades. Social media is overwhelmingly influenced by traditional media so the EU debate in Britain is the most unbalanced since pamphleteers and cries of No Popery when the late 17th century ruling elites decided Catholicism was the enemy, much as their descendants decide Europe is today.

Ms Braysch can try and nail her theses to the church door but no-one will come and read them, so unbalanced has the European debate become.

So enter stage right: Norman Stone, the intellectual champion of Thatcherism. Importantly, his vivid writing is a joy. Sadly one must admit that the anti-Europeans incarnated by Boris Johnson produce more vigorous, funny prose than the rather more earnest pro-Europeans. The best political communicator today is Nigel Farage and there is no pro-European political figure with the verve and wit to provide a counter-truth to his propaganda, now enjoying the media spotlight.

Professor Stone headlines an argument published in the London Standard: ‘We despair at Europe but it is still so important.’ Sadly he has to indulge some boring Daily Mailism about smoking bans in Brussels but as someone based in Turkey he had to admit that ‘despite everything, people outside still look up to Europe. A Turkish friend looking at the mess of concrete that defaces the Istanbul sky-line wonders why the Italians have managed the conservation of old cities so much better. European counties still attract millions of immigrants, fleeing from the dead hand of religion.

‘European standards have sometimes been of decisive importance for the betterment of separate countries…Turkey has been knocking at Europe’s door since 1963 and is better governed as a result.’ Professor Stone was writing before the recent protests in Turkey but anyone who has marched and been pushed around by the police in European cities in recent decades can see there was something very European about the mix of students, young post-proletarian workers, anti-censorship intellectuals and trade union militants who erupted onto the streets of major Turkish cities. Istanbul in May 2013 looked like Paris in May 1968, even down to a domineering leader in power for ten years who had run out of steam as society changed.

So Stone the right-wing, Andrew Neil-style Scot, has to scorn Brussels. Meanwhile, Stone the professor based in Turkey wants Europe to have enough confidence to admit Turkey - and that is much less likely to happen if Britain holds a referendum to leave Europe. Disingenuously, given her strident Euroscepticism after she left office, Stone prays in aid Margaret Thatcher. ‘She had campaigned for Europe in the 1975 referendum because she knew European standards mattered, in draining the stagnant little ponds of local corruption, whether in the unions or in business, that bedevilled British life.’

Professor Stone almost joins with Ms Barysch when he writes ‘Much of what we find irritating in “Europe” would anyway have come about (as in Norway) through tiresome native busybodies; with Europe they might have been worse than they now are.’

His endorsement of Europe is grudging but it is an endorsement nonetheless from a founder member of the Bruges Group. Both the brutal, at times bestial intellectual style of the veteran and venerable Professor Stone and the calm, Kantian, rationality of the much younger Ms Barysch could be useful to the pro-European debate. Perhaps we should find funds to keep them here in Britain, making the case for Europe rather than returning to Turkey or Germany where anti-Europeanism exists but not in such an overwhelming fashion as in Britain.

Or is it all too late? For two decades the critics of UK membership of the EU have slowly gained ground. After 1997 they made their objective the penetration and then takeover of the Conservative Party as well as the creation of UKIP to keep the Conservatives focused on opposition to Europe.

Labour has lost confidence, tone and style in arguing for Europe. Meanwhile the Lib Dems love affair with plebiscites will never die even after their unhappy experience with the disaster of the voting reform referendum. Thus we drift to Brexit. Ms Barysch and Professor Stone can observe what is going on from afar but are powerless to change history.

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