The Good Cop/Bad Cop routine of the EU’s British cheerleaders betrays the fundamental weakness of the europhile argument
I have always struggled to wrap my head around that strain of pro-Europeanism which declares “the EU is a benevolent and harmless group of countries working together for mutual gain” on the one hand, and “the EU will ruthlessly punish us and seek to make an example out of us if we ever try to leave” on the other.
Call me stupid, but the two visions of Brussels don’t seem to be compatible. Either the European Union is a harmless coming together of independent European nations seeking to work together to meet challenges that no single country can face alone (ha!), or the EU is a process whose ultimate destination is a single sovereign entity possessing most of the executive, legislative and judicial powers which it gradually usurped from the member states.
If it is the former, nobody would much care whether Britain stayed or departed. Why would they, when the EU is just a harmless club of countries coming together voluntarily to deal with mutual challenges?
But if it is the latter – if the EU is in fact a deadly serious political project with clear federal aspirations, which dare not make themselves known for fear of alarming the electorate – then its portrayal as a snarling, vindictive beast when scorned suddenly starts to make a lot of sense. Any member state attempting to leave such an organisation would represent a stunning repudiation of over forty years of incremental, relentless political integration, and therefore it is a very helpful piece of deterrence if people believe that any country trying to leave would be dealt with ruthlessly and punitively.
Of course, the cynical pro-EU “Remain” campaign tries to have it both ways. When it suits them in their campaigning, the EU is a happy-go-lucky club of like-minded countries who frolic and trade with one another. But when that hopelessly naive, childlike view of Brussels is questioned by eurosceptics and Brexiteers, out comes the other portrait of a snarling, vicious EU which will ruthlessly destroy Britain if we continue to drag our feet or think about leaving.
Good cop, bad cop. Europhiles will normally try the “good cop” routine first when engaging with undecided voters. But this tends to come unstuck as soon as eurosceptics and Brexiteers counter with their own positive vision of Britain restored as a sovereign democracy playing a full and engaged role in global trade and world affairs.
Since the pro-EU crowd are unable to share their own repugnant vision of a politically integrated Europe for fear of scaring people away, they are instead forced to go negative, hence the rapid and disconcerting pivot from “See how nice the European Union is, and all the wonderful things it does for us” to “If we try to leave the EU, they’ll rough us up”. Truly, their position is less a serious argument about governance and diplomacy, and more the tortured thought process of a battered spouse trying to rationalise staying in an abusive relationship.
Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty states that, on announcing its intention to withdraw from the European Union, the withdrawing state will automatically be excluded from all meetings of the European Council and, if agreement is not reached within two years, the withdrawing state will be automatically excluded from the negotiated terms. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that a withdrawing state is therefore liable to suffer what would amount to a punishment beating to dissuade others from withdrawing, and that therefore there is no such thing as a soft Brexit?
Of course, this is alarmist, hyperbolic nonsense emanating from the mouth of somebody who is either catastrophically stupid and truly believes his own fiction, or who hails from that school of thought which believes that pro-EU evangelists are allowed to tell blatant lies in service of the Greater Good.
The truth is that remaining EU member states could not be overtly vengeful toward a departing Britain even if they wanted to. The European Union is required by law to negotiate constructively and in good faith with any member exercising its Article 50 right to secede, besides which there are powerful business interests on both sides who have a lot riding on continued trade and good relations between Britain and the EU, and who would assert overwhelming pressure on politicians to overcome whatever petty personal gripes they may have in order to reach a pragmatic deal with the EU’s biggest trading partner.
As Ben Kelly points out over at Conservatives for Liberty:
The notion that the EU would refuse to cooperate, or even seek to “punish” the UK in the event of secession – thereby clearly violating EU law as well as failing to comply with international law – is beyond the realm of realistic politics. As Sir David Edward, the first British Judge of the European Court, has said – EU law requires all parties to negotiate in good faith and in a spirit of cooperation.
Article 50 requires the EU to conclude an agreement with the seceding state, “taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union“. Notably, Articles 3, 4 8 and 21 of the Treaty on European Union require the EU to “contribute to … free and fair trade” and to “work for a high degree of cooperation in all fields of international relations, in order to … encourage the integration of all countries into the world economy, including through the progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade” and to adhere to the “principle of sincere cooperation […] in full mutual respect” and “assist each other in carrying out tasks which flow from the Treaties.”
Add to that the sheer illogicality of effectively launching a trade war against the only vaguely dynamic economy and trading partner in the entire region, and the idea of the EU “punishing” Britain starts to look like the absurd scaremongering hyberbole which it so clearly is.
But being demonstrably wrong does nothing to deter the European Union’s cheerleaders within the British political establishment. Only back in October, this blog had to take Conservative MP Mark Field to task for tremulously suggesting that a vote for Brexit would somehow give France just cause to cease all co-operation with reciprocal border controls by way of retaliation:
On the border question, Mark Field seems to accept that it would be right and proper for France to retaliate against Brexit by ceasing all border co-operation and actively helping to funnel more illegal immigrants to Britain. If this is really what he thinks France would do – if he really believes that the French hold this attitude to the British – he should be railing against the French for their supposed immaturity and recklessness in the face of a European migration crisis, not holding it up as a warning to Britons not to provoke the French into doing something so patently unreasonable.
At every turn, Mark Field seems to not only imagine the worst, most apocalyptic response possible from our EU partners, but also then assumes that they would be somehow justified in being so intransigent and punitive in their dealings with Britain, and that it would somehow be our fault for having provoked them.
Where does this dismal, pessimistic attitude come from? Why does Mark Field think so little of his own country, our status and our potential that he sincerely believes that other (mostly smaller) countries would bully us if we vote to leave the European Union, and that not only would Britain be totally unable to withstand this bullying, but that they would be right to bully us in the first place?
Displaying Olympian feats of cognitive dissonance, the EU’s cheerleaders within the Remain campaign are somehow able to hold a number of poisonous and utterly contradictory ideas within their heads at all times, including the following rigid beliefs:
- The EU is our benevolent protector, always looking out for us
- The EU is a jealous lover, demanding our absolute fidelity
- The EU will attack us mercilessly if we ever decide to leave it
- Britain will deserve any attack by the EU if we choose to leave
- Britain is incapable of standing up to any act of bullying by the EU
Like a battered spouse, many pro-EU campaigners and commentators have convinced themselves that Brussels is always in the right, and Britain – with our pesky, awkward hangups about sovereignty and democracy – is perpetually in the wrong.
Like a battered spouse, many of the EU’s British cheerleaders have internalised the corrosive, national self-doubt and occasional sabre-rattling from the continent to such an extent that they sincerely believe that any punishment or retaliation coming our way would somehow be deserved.
And like a battered spouse, the Remain campaign are under the spell of an autocratic (and in this case imaginary) bully whose power to coerce is completely illusory – once we make the brave decision to leave.
But here’s the really good news: Britain does not have to remain in this abusive relationship any longer. There will be no retaliation for leaving, because there can be no retaliation – even if intemperate heads within Brussels wanted to make an example out of Britain, they would be constrained both by law and commercial imperative.
Better still, a rational and thorough plan of escape already exists, laying out a detailed strategy to separate Britain from the EU’s political tentacles in a phased, low-risk approach. That plan is called Flexcit (or The Market Solution), and any serious Brexit campaigner – or engaged citizen – should give it their serious attention.
By contrast, the pro-EU side – as well as being unable to decide whether Brussels is a trusted partner or an abusive spouse – have no plan for how Britain should react when the EU takes the next inevitable step toward fiscal and political union, leaving Britain with the choice of limited influence within the core (at the price of adopting the Euro) or complete irrelevance on the periphery. The status quo is not an option in this referendum.
And given the choice between the timid, euro-parochialism of the Remain campaign and the Leave campaign’s positive vision of a prosperous and democratic United Kingdom outside the EU, there is simply no contest.
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