Efforts by pro-EU political grandees to guilt the country into feeling bad about Brexit by elevating trivial British victories in ancient, minor trade disputes as proof of our great influence in Brussels only reveal the poverty of their ambition for Britain
Another day, another ageing political grandee is wheeled out to lecture us about how selfish and ungrateful we were to turn our backs on so benevolent and non-threatening an institution as their beloved European Union.
This time it is the turn of former Tory Environment Secretary John Gummer, who takes to the Guardian with a particularly tedious and deceitful lament that “we are unravelling the greatest peacetime project of our lives because Brexiteers insist we’ve lost control. But it’s simply not true”.
The premise of Gummer’s argument is that because he once had a good relationship with his environment and agriculture ministerial counterparts in Europe and ensured that Britain won key trade and regulatory battles when our national interest was at stake, this somehow proves that we had unparalleled and decisive influence in Brussels.
From the Guardian:
In fact, the UK has led Europe in a remarkable way, and has rarely failed to gain its major objectives. However the process is one of debate and argument, proof and counter-argument, rather than demanding that the rest of EU should immediately see the sense in our position and give way without question. It is this assumption of always being right that has bedevilled our relationships with our neighbours.
Immediately Gummer frames the question of whether Britain could influence the EU as one of whether we could win individual arguments within the EU institutions rather than whether we could meaningfully influence the course of the EU itself.
Gummer then presents the crown jewel of his argument:
One example suffices. In a single market, the UK’s refusal to allow the export of live horses for food was clearly illegal but politically essential. All the odds were stacked against us, Belgium was becoming increasingly insistent, and a vote was looming. We had one strong card: our relationships. We had helped others in parallel positions, helping to find ways for the EU to meet its common objectives while recognising national differences.
My very effective minister of state, David Curry, and I had formed friendships and we took trouble to maintain them. Many of our fellow ministers had come to Britain and stayed at our homes. Above all, we had never pretended. They all knew that if we said something was really important to the UK, we weren’t bluffing.
We were always communautaire – but in the national interest. When the relatively new French minister, a socialist, in a very restricted session, without his key advisers, had agreed to something that would have been very difficult for France, I slipped round the table and pointed the problem out. He was able to retrieve the situation, the council was saved interminable recriminations, and Britain had a firm friend. Working as a team, clearly putting our national interest first but ensuring we got the best out of the EU, meant that when it mattered we won. I don’t suggest that my counterparts ever really understood the peculiar British view that it’s all right to eat beef but not horse, but they accepted it was a political reality and knew the UK would help when they had to explain their own national singularities.
Oh gosh, this riveting act of high-stakes international diplomacy will be recorded in the history books for all time. Schoolchildren two hundred years hence will still be learning about how John Gummer heroically managed to stop the UK from having to export live horses for slaughter in continental Europe, all because he was best pals with the French undersecretary for agriculture. Consequential feats of statecraft like this put one in mind of Yalta.
In fact, it only shows the extreme paucity of Gummer’s thinking and the worldview he represents. These old grandees – and you can throw in the likes of Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke here, too – sincerely believe (or have somehow convinced themselves) that British disquiet with membership of the European Union was based on trivialities like how many battles we won over live horse exports. They think that if only they can provide enough examples of the UK having successfully defended the interests of Cheshire cheesemakers or Welsh textile makers then we will have an epiphany, see the error of our ways and beg to be allowed back into the club.
It simply does not occur to these EU-loving grandees that the British problem with the European Union might originate at a deeper level than who is seen to win a plurality of disputes over trade or regulation. Having marinated for so long within a political elite which accepted supranational government and the gradual deconstruction of the nation state as a self-evidently good thing, they are now shocked to discover that not everybody agrees with the basic premise on which their entire worldview rests.
The Lord Ashcroft poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum showed perfectly clearly the key drivers of the Leave vote, and the number one issue was sovereignty (decisions about the UK being taken in the UK, as per the specific poll question). The British people voted to extricate ourselves from the supranational government in Brussels and reclaim our right to make policy and law for ourselves without having to either haggle with 27 other member states or otherwise operate within the narrow tramlines set by a set of remote Brussels institutions towards which many of us feel no love or affinity.
Unfortunately, almost since the beginning of the referendum campaign, most prominent Remainers refused to deal with the big picture. Yes we got a lot of tired old soundbites about the importance of “friendship ‘n cooperation” or overwrought tales about how the EU alone had kept the post-war peace, but the official Remain campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe, desperately shied away from the big picture at every turn.
Why? Because the big picture has always been toxic or concerning to far more Britons than actually voted Leave in the referendum. Most people don’t want the supranational government and its ambition/necessity to transform into a federal Europe, and knowing this, the Remain campaign never dared to try persuading them otherwise. This left Britain Stronger in Europe (and most Remainers) with little option but to drag the fight to a lower level, where it became all about money, economic risk and the kind of low-level goodies that people like John Gummer think dictate our sentiments towards the EU.
Perhaps this is understandable. From Gummer’s very narrow perspective we probably did indeed “win” in Europe a lot. But Gummer is thinking about issues of farm animal exports and agricultural regulations, not matters of geopolitics or statecraft. And the truth is that Britain had almost zero influence on the ultimate direction of the European Union as a political entity. Yes, we could sometimes slow things down or carve out occasional opt-outs for ourselves (at a diplomatic cost). But Britain could never realistically propose that a large supranational government in Brussels with strong federalist ambitions transform itself into a looser federation of closely economically integrated nation states. That simply would never have happened, even if Britain played the long game and aggressively sought support from other countries.
If one was a passenger on a cruise ship it would be nice to be sufficiently influential to sometimes suggest menu ideas to the chef or offshore excursions to the cruise director and have those suggestions adopted. But even then, at no point could that passenger reasonably imagine himself an officer of the ship, let alone the captain. Winning battles within the framework created for us to argue is not the same as having meaningful influence over the design of the framework itself. So no, we did not “win” in Europe, because we could not persuade those on the bridge to set a course which we were willing to follow.
Once again, this debate has proven that the British people have always had a more expansive view of the EU question – and higher ambitions for our country – than the majority of our political class. Many Remainer grandees still see things in terms of petty fights won and lost in the Brussels crèche where they were allowed to play, and simply can’t understand that our problem was not that they failed to smack the other kids around to our satisfaction but rather that they were content to play the role of children in the first place.
By voting to leave the European Union, the British people are demanding that our politicians and leaders become adults again, not rambunctious toddlers and surly teens supervised by their parents in Brussels. We want government without training wheels again, even if this means that we wobble a bit or even fall and scrape our knees.
This was never about petty little trade disputes here and there. Brexit was far more fundamental than that, but even now many EU apologists fail to see it.
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