Saturday 23 April 2016

The conceit at the heart of British membership in the EU

The key to political success is to beat your opponent to framing any issue in terms favourable to yourself. Once an issue is seen through the lens you selected, the fight is almost won.

The European referendum may just offer some evidence for this claim. Both camps have been busy trying to frame the issue of European Union membership, at times frantically. The leave side is hamstrung by the fact that predictions of things to come are always difficult to articulate, so their argument is necessarily focused on problems and difficulties of the present. They have made some hay of the fact that Britain has transferred sovereignty to Brussels. What they do not mention is that Brussels is an intergovernmental organisation at best, granting the British government a voice at the table. In fact, it is difficult to pinpoint a single issue that has not been passed by Brussels which did not receive the express consent of some British minister.

The Brexiters are on safer ground when it comes to the argument that Britain joined an organisation that was fundamentally different to the Europe today. As a BBC documentary recently offered a fascinating look behind the moment Britain joined. And it seems that Britain did not sleepwalk into a Europe with a single currency and parliament. The truth is more complicated yet also more embarrassing for the Conservatives who wholeheartedly supported joining the European Communities in 1974 (including one Margaret Thatcher).

In 1974 the roles were curiously reversed to those adopted today, with most of Labour opposed to joining Europe and the Conservatives largely in favour. At the heart of Ted Heath's strategy to convince his parliamentary colleagues was a conceit however. The Government argued that this was a community of independent nation states promoting free trade in Europe. On the Monday following the 'yes' vote in 1974, then Prime Minister Ted Heath was given the agenda for his first meeting with other European leaders. The civil servant, glancing at the agenda, noticed that one point to be discussed was 'establishing a common currency by 1980'. He mentioned this to Heath and, apparently Heath looked up and said: 'That's what it is all about'.

The BBC documentary interviewed Heath before his death in 2005 and pointed out to him the discrepancy between what he argued in public and what he had known all along, the true destination of Europe. In the documentary Heath looks puzzled and says something to the effect, 'so what?'

I always felt that the way the British joined the European Communities was the Achilles heel of those wanting to make a positive case for European Union membership. At the heart of the British membership remains a conceit by one of the most dishonest politicians, Ted Heath. You may argue about the pros and cons of pooling national sovereignty in European institutions, but you cannot argue that Germans and French politicians were not clear with their electorate about the final destination. The same cannot be said for the British. I would not be surprised if this will come to haunt them on June 23rd.

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