Forget Migrant Benefits In The EU Debate; What About The S-Word?

Alan Johnson - Labour In for Britain

The EU debate is about so much more than relatively petty questions about migrant benefits and immigration. But few from the official “Leave” campaigns are willing to broaden the debate

It is rare for this blog to find itself in agreement with Labour grandee Alan Johnson, chairman of the “Labour In For Britain” campaign group.

But Johnson is absolutely correct in his criticism – expressed on the Andrew Marr show today – that the EU debate has been narrowed down to an insultingly simplistic degree.

LabourList reports:

Johnson, who is leading Labour’s campaign to stay in the EU, appeared on The Andrew Marr show this morning to make the case for Britain to stay in the EU. He pointed out that issues like climate change can only be solved by countries working together, and that the EU was an essential “political union”.

He slammed the Prime Minister for narrowing the debate, saying there has been a lot of focus on Cameron’s attempt to ban migrants who are in work from receiving benefits until they have been employed in the UK for four years. Cameron is thought to have abandoned these plans in favour of imposing new limits on benefit payments to out-of-work migrants instead of those people in jobs. Johnson said this focus had distracted from other important issues.

Forget the orchestrated shenanigans over David Cameron’s supposed tussle with other EU leaders over migrant benefits – this is a ridiculous sideshow obsessed over by a credulous media, as my Conservatives for Liberty colleague and editor Ben Kelly wearily points out.

But Alan Johnson’s broader criticism is devastatingly accurate. From the outset, particularly on the “Leave” side, the Westminster campaign has been incredibly myopic and unimaginative.

We should expect no better from the prime minister – David Cameron is an avowed europhile, has stated numerous times that his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the EU, and has been unable to force the words “campaign for Brexit” from his lips even as a remote hypothetical. And thus it is no surprise that Cameron went in to the renegotiation with no set demands (contrary to the media narrative) but simply with a begging letter to Donald Tusk pointing out areas for discussion.

And those areas do nothing to assuage the concerns of the thinking eurosceptic or Brexiteer. Because the real problem with our continued membership of the European Union is not immigration, welfare, fiscal policy, social policy or the euro. The real problem is the little-mentioned S-word: sovereignty. Because this one word encapsulates all of the many ways in which the EU infringes upon our democracy.

It’s not about Schengen, or the single market – Britain is already outside the former and a full member of the latter. That’s why when David Cameron comes back brandishing something called “associate membership” we should be immediately suspicious, because it will essentially be a formalisation of the status quo, with all of the existing drawbacks of Britain’s EU membership hardwired into a future new treaty, with a few extra problems sprinkled on top as a garnish.

The fundamental issue of sovereignty will go unanswered, because David Cameron is not even raising it as part of his sham renegotiation, and while the overly credulous may believe that a toothless and unenforceable exemption from “ever closer union” is some kind of great victory, it ignores the fact that our union with Europe is already far too close. The EU remains an explicitly political union (as Alan Johnson happily states in his Andrew Marr interview) and Britain remains firmly part of it.

Neither Leave.EU nor Vote Leave hammer the sovereignty aspect, having decided that scare stories about what the EU will do to “our NHS” (genuflect) and other public services will do more to win over the bovine masses. But sovereignty is the key.

Is Britain to be a real democracy, accountable to its own citizens once again? If so, then we need to recognise – and repeat endlessly – that national democracy and the European Union are fundamentally incompatible.

As the preamble to the Bertelsmann Stiftung report “A Fundamental Law of the European Union” (soon heading our way via the Five Presidents Report) explicitly states:

This proposal for a Fundamental Law of the European Union is a comprehensive revision of the Treaty of Lisbon (2007). Replacing the existing treaties, it takes a major step towards a federal union. It turns the European Commission into a democratic constitutional government, keeping to the method built by Jean Monnet in which the Commission drafts laws which are then enacted jointly by the Council, representing the states, and the European Parliament, representing the citizens. All the reforms proposed are aimed at strengthening the capacity of the EU to act.

It’s right there in black and white – a major step towards a federal union. The EU will drive a wedge between nation states and their citizens by enshrining and expanding the model whereby national governments sign off on laws and policies initiated by the EU Commission, while the people will have redress only through the European Parliament, thus (hope the federalists) gradually legitimising the Brussels and Strasbourg parliament.

But you’ll hear none of this from the major “Leave” campaigns, and certainly from nobody within the Conservative Party. The only real exception at present is the small but growing group of campaigners and bloggers coalescing around Dr. Richard North’s site, who do a good job holding the media to account and pointing out lazy thinking and writing (sometimes including this blog) which unwittingly aids David Cameron’s agenda.

At least the Left and the “Remain” camps are able to appreciate that the EU referendum is a fundamental question of who we want to be as a country, and where we believe democracy and decision making should rightly sit. They have their particular vision – abhorrent to me, but clear and unambiguous – that the UK is a weak and ineffectual country incapable of robustly defending our own national interests, and that the fifth largest economy, formidable military power and cultural beacon that is the United Kingdom can only survive by dissolving our political identity into the European Union. And they will be repeating this message from now until referendum day.

The “Leave” campaigns have no similar clear vision. They believe that the referendum can be won by reducing the great questions of democracy and Britain’s place in the world to a tedious, nitpicking discussion over how many migrants can be kept out of Britain, or how much money saved by renegotiating the terms of our surrender. Alan Johnson’s view is utterly wrong, but at least he has the confidence to state his case.

When will the Leave campaigns appreciate that the referendum cannot be won if people believe that leaving the EU is a leap into the unknown, or when the only ones talking passionately about Britain’s place in the world are the europhiles?

When will the Leave campaigns stop their myopic obsession with issues like migrant benefits, an arbitrary issue picked by our devoutly pro-EU prime minister, which are only designed to distract our attention from the ultimate deal – associate membership – which will ultimately be presented?

And when will the Leave campaigns get over their overriding fear of the S-word?

David Cameron - Donald Tusk - EU Renegotiation - European Union - Brexit

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3 thoughts on “Forget Migrant Benefits In The EU Debate; What About The S-Word?

  1. Music Block January 23, 2016 / 10:44 PM

    You’re probably right that Cameron won’t get a deal that changes much about our relationship with the EU, and that the Leave campaign is focusing on small, tangential matters. Could it be, though, that the reason for all this is that there is actually nothing much wrong with our current relationship? We’re not a member of the Euro, we’re in control of our own NHS, and we have our own independent foreign policy; and none of those are things the EU can suddenly assume control over. Even on the inflammatory issue of immigration, the EU only influences our treatment of other EU citizens, so not refugees, or people who get here illegally, or people from outside the EU (which accounts for most non-British immigration).

    That leaves the matter of sovereignty, as you mention, but it begs the question: Is Britain not sovereign? The fact we can have a referendum to leave at any time, without needing permission from Brussels, is a very different situation to that of Scotland, or Oregon, or Quebec. The only reason the EU has any effect on us at all is that the UK has passed laws that give EU rules their effect. If we were to leave the EU, we could still (hypothetically) choose to follow EU rules, and indeed leaving wouldn’t mean we weren’t affected by the decisions of our closest neighbours and trading partners any more.

    You’re right to worry that at some point down the line, the other EU members could decide they want the EU to be something that does require giving up sovereignty, but you should save your energy for the inevitable referendum and debate that such a move would trigger. The Spinelli Group may be in favour of EU federalism, but they are only 108(?) MEPs out of 751. I would be interested to know why you think their report will be part of the Five Presidents Report, but in any case it will not be binding on the EU, much less on Britain.

    Keep calm and sovereignty on.


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