“To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune, Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles…”
French President Francois Hollande, er sorry, Hamlet.
Alphen, Netherlands. 9 October. Why Brexit? With Queen Angela of Europe looking on the Prince Regent Francois Hollande yesterday gave an impassioned and ever so slightly niggled response in the European Parliament to Blackadder Farage. In so doing Hollande finally drew up the battle-lines over Brexit. The Great Pretender Cameron must have been squirming because the last thing he wants is such a deliciously clear statement of Hollande’s implacable opposition to the EU reforms Cameron is seeking.
Such is the importance of the statement it is worth quoting President Hollande in full: “If we don’t want to strengthen Europe, then there’s only one road and I heard what Mr Farage said that the only road is for those who are not convinced of Europe to leave Europe. There is no other way. It’s a horrible path, but it’s a logical path. Leave Europe, leave Schengen (sic Britain is not actually in Schengen), and leave democracy. Do you really want to participate in a common state? That’s the question”.
Does Britain want to participate in a common state? As a Briton and an Englishman my response is a respectful, but absolutely firm ‘no’! Does that mean I actually want to leave ‘Europe’, or rather the EU? No. President Hollande has clearly made his choice; Britain out of the EU. This is why he is framing the choice in such a stark way. So, why am I still the ‘soft sceptic’ Farage despises, and why is my ageing backside still gathering rust sitting on an EU fence?
The other day in Italy over dinner I had a very good chat with a senior German friend and colleague about Brexit. The debate initially took a predictable and rather familiar pattern. As my 15 inch naval guns tracked round to their target American and French friends present fearing I was about to hoist battle ensigns scattered in all directions. Save, that is, my German collocutor. Instead we settled down to a reasoned debate as to why Germans find the position of Britons like me baffling, and why so many Britons dislike the EU.
For Germany the EU has done everything that could be asked of it; neatly-wrapped German history in a European box, helped modern, peaceful Germany establish non-threatening leadership, acted as a zollverein for German exports (which this week slumped), and helped shift the centre of power gravity in Europe away from London and Paris to Berlin, with Brussels acting as the willing bag carrier of German power.
Britain's experience of the EU has been and is entirely different. David Cameron was for once spot on this week when he said that Britain would never accept the ‘ever closer union’ that Hollande is calling for (with the full backing of course of every free born Frenchman and woman). Hollande went to the European Parliament to call for precisely that: a common defence policy, which would see France’s armed forces scrapped in favour of a European Army; a common asylum policy, which would to all intents and purpose end once and for all national control over national borders; an EU coastguard, and the transfer of core national sovereignty to Eurozone institutions. In other words, Hollande wants to transfer huge amounts of state power legitimised by national voters to unelected and unaccountable EU bodies.
I am not kidding. ‘Common’ institutions work precisely by being unaccountable to electorates. For example, the other day European Commissioner Avramoupolis said that he was not concerned with opposition to EU plans for a common asylum policy because he did not have to be elected. Technically he is right. Ever since the European Coal and Steel Community was formed in 1950 ‘commissioners’ were appointed to be above the national fray and thus accountable to nobody but themselves. Thus, the more ‘common’ the EU becomes the less democratic.
Thus, my main concern is the nonsense President Hollande spouted yesterday about ‘democracy’. To be precise, Hollande's nonsensical suggestion that by leaving a European ‘common state’ Britain would be leaving ‘democracy’. Indeed, what Hollande called for this week offends everything I stand for as a free born Briton, in particular the growing distance between power and the people that is taking place, and the gulf between power and the people a common state would entail. To my mind such a state would represent the greatest threat to democracy in Europe since the Soviet Union.
Furthermore, as I explained to my German colleague, the English in particular have been fighting distant, arbitrary power both at home and abroad for some eight hundred years. Indeed, if there is an English political DNA this is it – the distrust of distant, arbitrary power. By the way, it was the same distrust that inspired Englishmen to break away and form the United States of America in 1776.
Abroad this political DNA drove first England, and from 1707 Britain, to oppose Phillip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler, and now (dare I say it) the European Commission all of whom/which attempted to impose their idea of ‘Europe’ on Europeans. At home the same political DNA led to the overthrow of tyrants such as King John and Charles I, and underpinned the creation of Simon de Montfort’s first ‘modern’ English Parliament in 1265. Therefore, asking we British to accept yet another form of elite European hegemony dressed up as a ‘common state’ might work for the dirigiste French heirs of Colbert, but to many of we Britons it means the subjugation of a thousand years or so of political culture.
Some reading this will suggest I am simply another Little Englander. Far from it. I have spent much of my life living in various European countries and around the World. Today, I live in the Netherlands, I am married to a Dutch woman, I enjoy and cherish my European identity and I acknowledge that the EU helps to make my life possible. Indeed, I also acknowledge that at the micro-political level the European Commission does much good in areas such as consumer rights. Nor do I for a moment believe simply by dint of my Englishness I any more ‘special’ than my German colleague, or my French, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian, or any other of my fellow European citizens.
However, it is at the macro-political level where the threat to democracy and President Hollande and his ilk lurk. Specifically, the mad rush in the teeth of a crisis to concentrate ever more power in a few unaccountable, elite hands that is implicit and explicit in President Hollande’s call for a common state.
For all that, it is still my hope that common sense rather than a common state will prevail, and that a new political settlement can be crafted which again balances political legitimacy with efficiency within and across the EU. That for me means a return to common sense subsidiarity so that together we as Europeans can take collective action with our national parliaments acting as the legitimate transmissions between citizens and collective action.
If I can be assured of such political balance, that my rights as a citizen and a free born Briton can be preserved, and that my voice actually matters (which was not the case in the sham that was last year’s elections to the European Parliament) then I will vote to keep Britain in the EU. If I cannot be so assured I will vote to leave in the name of freedom, democracy, and like my forebears work to deny distant, arbitrary power.
“And thus the Native hue of Resolution Is sicklied o'er, with the pale cast of Thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regard their Currents turn away, and lose the name of Action”.