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Westlake Legal Group > Eurosceptics

The Moggcast. He is “very concerned” delaying Brexit would allow “Tommy Robinson to win the European elections”.

You can also listen and subscribe to the Moggcast on iTunes, through our YouTube channel, or through the RSS feed here.

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Italy’s spat with France shows the EU is at threat not of disintegration but of hijack

While various prominent figures in Brussels occupied themselves with threatening Brexiteers with eternal damnation this week, they might perhaps have spent their time more productively somewhat closer to home. No doubt Donald Tusk and Guy Verhofstadt dislike the EU losing one of its largest members, but the union has other problems with the relationship between its remaining members.

Only yesterday the simmering tension between Italy and France boiled over, with Paris taking the extraordinary step of withdrawing its ambassador from Rome for the first time since the Second World War.

The spark was a visit by the Italian Deputy Prime Minister to meet some of the Yellow Vest protesters who have rioted against the Macron government in recent months. That meeting was an obvious provocation, and is rightly seen by the French government as an insult to its legitimacy by an outside power.

It didn’t come out of the blue, though. Ideologically, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Salvini are cut from very different cloth, and their potential to clash is further heightened by the fact that each has eagerly pursued a strategy of defining himself among his domestic supporters by criticising the other. Last June, when Macron described populism as a form of political “leprosy”, Salvini derided the French President as a “chatterbox” who liked to “preach” to European leaders who actually got things done.

The format of the Italian governing coalition also lends itself to a bit of one-upmanship in the game of publicly insulting Macron, as neither party wants to look weaker than its partner. In January, the Deputy Prime Minister – from the 5 Star Movement – accused France of contributing to illegal migration from Africa by a continued policy of imperialism. Salvini then upped the ante by openly calling for French voters to “get rid of a terrible president” – meddling in the domestic politics of an ally to a degree that would be unthinkable in ordinary times. Not to be outdone, his coalition partner has now held this meeting with the gilets jaunes.

Both are playing to a home crowd, quite openly with the goal of outdoing their coalition partner in the forthcoming European elections. While the Italian coalition between Salvini’s nationalist Lega and the anti-establishment hotch-potch which makes up 5 Star has held together far better than most observer (and indeed many members of both parties) expected, that doesn’t mean they have stopped viewing one another as rivals, or dreaming of governing alone. Macron – preachy, smug, and responsible for refusing to admit migrants across the French border while expecting Italy to accept those who come across the Mediterranean – is the punchbag that they now use to display their strength.

It might be a primarily domestic performance, but the effects have been international. France is fuming, and a breakdown in diplomatic relations between two major European nations is a remarkable and rare sight. British Eurosceptics habitually look out for signs of rupture and division within the EU and are prone to declare “Aha, now the wheels are starting to come off.” But is that really the case?

The EU obviously has persistent problems. The eye-watering scale of youth unemployment in the south is well-known. Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland are now governed by parties which are far from the tastes of the Brussels establishment. Long-established parties of the integrationist mainstream have been swept away in tumultuous elections in several member states. A poll in France earlier this week put support for leaving the EU at 40 per cent – a startlingly high number which would may well cause a cold sweat in various offices in Strasbourg.

However, we Brits should resist the temptation to assume dissent – even explicitly Eurosceptic dissent – across the EU takes the same format, or comes from the same tradition, as Euroscepticism in the UK.

For historical, political and economic reasons, actually wanting to escape or dismantle the EU and its institutions is less popular on the Continent than here. Consider that even in Italy, where a large chunk of the younger generation have had their economic prospects sacrificed on the altar of monetary union, only 25 per cent of people want to leave the Euro, never mind the European Union. Marine Le Pen, supposedly unafraid to court controversy, rowed back from considering Frexit once she got into the final two for the French presidency. Even Yianis Varoufakis, an eye-witness to the willingness of the EU to trample people and countries in the pursuit of its political project, always shied away from advocating an end to membership.

That might change (as Fraser Nelson points out, perhaps the presence of a successful former member might have that effect in time) but ever closer union has so far persisted as an idea, despite a severe buffeting from some pretty horrendous storms of its own making, and it isn’t dead yet.

And yet these tensions between France and Italy (and between Warsaw and Brussels, and Hungary and almost everybody) are real, painful and intensifying. They shouldn’t be misinterpreted or over-interpreted, but equally they can’t simply be ignored or wished away. In reality, what we’re seeing is an attempt not to break up the EU by people like Salvini and Orban, but an attempt to bend it towards their way of thinking and away from that of so-called centrists like Macron.

They know that, at the moment, those wielding power in Brussels are generally in agreement with their opponents, so most of their speeches and actions are pitched against the sensibilities of the EU institutions. But later this year they will be able to appoint their own people to a new Commission, and they will gain a voice at the heart of the EU. When that happens, I wonder if supporters of the current Brussels establishment will be quite so keen on the unaccountable, centralised structures which they built on the assumption that they would run them forever.

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Henry Newman: Beyond Malthouse. Which compromises would be feasible and acceptable to secure a deal?

Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.

As Conservative Home readers will know, I’ve been a reluctant supporter of Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Although I’ve thought there were substantive issues with the backstop, which required addressing, I also argued that the deal overall offered the safest path out of the EU, particularly given the Parliamentary maths and errors made during the negotiations. In my view some critics of the deal misrepresent it, while ignoring its various benefits, and can be unrealistic about the alternatives on offer at this stage.

Last week, MPs conclusively demonstrated they would support a version of the deal, if problems with the backstop could be resolved. But how possible is it to resolve those issues, and what can be achieved when?

European leaders are understandably irritated that Theresa May is seeking changes to a package she herself signed off in December. However, the Prime Minister has little choice – the deal suffered the biggest defeat in Parliamentary history. Getting it through the Commons will require movement. And it’s not unprecedented for the EU to revisit a negotiated deal. Back in 2009, Ireland had to get the EU to agree an additional legally-binding protocol to the Lisbon Treaty, long after European leaders had signed things off in December 2007.

But there’s now a structural problem. As Open Europe’s man in Brussels, Pieter Cleppe, revealed, Brexit is now being handled by Martin Selmayr, the Commission’s Secretary General. Changes will now need sign off by all EU leaders – rather than Michel Barnier – and the next scheduled meeting of the European Council isn’t until late March. However, the BBC’s eagle-eyed Adam Fleming spotted a meeting of the Council, with the Arab League, in Sharm el-Sheikh in late February. Might that provide a moment to approve any changes?

What’s the mood of the EU? My understanding is that most members are open to helping the UK, but Ireland is resisting. Germany wants clarity on what changes would deliver a Commons majority for a deal although sources are ruling out a move in the next fortnight. Perhaps unsurprisingly, France is yet again emerging as a major roadblock. There’s also been a change of views on Article 50 extension. The EU wants to avoid looking ‘responsible’ for No Deal, so is unlikely to refuse a request for delay (although it may come with conditions). However, Paris is now leaning towards backing a long extension – for up to 21 months.

What can be achieved? Officials warn the ‘Malthouse Compromise’ is a non-starter with the EU, which is unsurprising given that it is premised either on the wholesale replacement of the backstop or a sort of managed No Deal. Kit Malthouse achieved the seemingly impossible by brokering something to which Nicky Morgan and Steve Baker could both sign up. He did a great service to Party unity, but the problem is getting Brussels to agree. What’s more possible is a legally-binding protocol, that sits alongside the Withdrawal Treaty.

What should it say? It needs to do two key things: first, provide clarity on exiting the backstop, and second, reassure the DUP and others that Stormont will have a “lock” over any new regulatory divergence if the UK enters the backstop. The Government has already committed to this, but putting it into international law would provide additional assurance.

Getting clarity on exiting the backstop won’t be easy. But May will need to propose a menu of options (helpfully, Open Europe will publish a briefing later today setting ideas out). When Geoffrey Cox, Steve Barclay and David Lidington sit down with EU leaders they can’t risk appearing ‘nebulous’.

If the EU won’t bite on Malthouse, what about a sunset clause combined with objective criteria that any “alternative arrangements” must achieve? As Professor Verdirame and I argued previously, the UK should also reserve its rights under the Vienna Convention if the EU fails to use “best endeavours” to agree a replacement deal. That doesn’t provide the unilateral rip cord that some seek, but it would mean that Britain had an arguable legal case if the EU sought to ‘trap’ us in the backstop.

Some critics claim that a time limit defeats the point of a backstop. But given that the EU itself argues that Article 50 cannot create a permanent relationship, surely an expiration date of ten years from the end of Article 50 would be reasonable? That would mirror the GATT treaty (Article XXIV) which allows for interim trade agreements of up to ten years. The EU would be loath to accept a limit, but some in Government believe that by that point the backstop would be legally challengeable anyway (ironically at the European Court).

In the Sun on Sunday, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the ERG’s chair, seemed to further soften his Brexit position (he previously argued that although he prefers No Deal to the Prime Minister’s deal, he prefers her deal to Remain). He wrote he has “come to the conclusion that leaving on March 29 is at risk”. This is important. There’s a strong chance that when the Brexit deal is next put to Parliament on 14th February, MPs could back a version of the Cooper amendment, seeking to seize control of the Brexit timetable and delay the exit date. This would be very unfortunate – it would reduce pressure on the EU to compromise on the backstop. Countries like Germany are waiting to see what happens on Valentine’s Day before moving on the backstop.

However, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the Government will – as the Foreign Secretary suggested last week – need a technical extension of Article 50 to complete ratification of the Brexit deal. Perhaps the Prime Minister should announce that she would be open to a short extension, but only once Parliament backs an actual deal. I think this should be acceptable to Eurosceptics. For example, the influential John Whittingdale said yesterday he was “willing to consider” an extension “only for the specific period required to get a bill through Parliament which would legislate for the Withdrawal Agreement”. It could also dissuade some wavering MPs from backing the Cooper amendment.

Finding a possible ‘landing zone’ for a Brexit compromise with the EU will be challenging but some sort of legally-binding protocol improving the backstop should be possible, especially if Cooper is defeated. It remains unclear though, how many of the Conservative critics of the Prime Minister’s deal are looking for ladders to climb down, rather than crosses on which to martyr themselves. But ultimately, as Rees-Mogg went on to warn this Sunday in a curious echo of the Prime Minster own words, there is now a risk not just of Brexit being delayed but “even [of] no Brexit at all.” MPs should push for the backstop’s issues to be addressed, but insisting that it’s the ‘Malthouse compromise’ or nothing is a risky path.

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The Moggcast. “The backstop has to go.” Rees-Mogg sets out his red lines.

You can also listen and subscribe to the Moggcast on iTunes, through our YouTube channel, or through the RSS feed here.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

James Frayne: The angry stereotype of Leave voters was false – but blocking Brexit risks making it true

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Last week’s Question Time shocked many Remain-voting commentators. The fact the Derby audience cheered suggestions Britain might leave the EU without a deal came as a complete surprise to them. The emotion and anger audible in that cheering has clearly made them think – and provoked a number of soul-searching columns. Many commentators previously convinced themselves both that the Leave electorate regrets their vote and that all the anger lies on the side of Remain activists and voters. Derby suggested that, at the very least, provincial English voters are capable of revolt. And let’s be honest, the sight of working class anger is frightening to middle class, Remain-voting commentators.

It’s easy to sneer at these commentators for being out of touch with provincial England. Of course, many of them are; but on this occasion, their shock needs to be placed in context. For the anger displayed in Derby genuinely is a recent phenomenon; it wasn’t visible even a few months ago because it wasn’t there. This anger is a 2019 development – but it might well become the defining feature of this year. Where do Leave voters currently stand?

Until the new year, what we had amongst Leave voters was an exasperation that Brexit was taking so long, with confusion as to why we couldn’t “just get on with it”. But anger was kept at bay for three reasons: firstly, and most importantly, because the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have kept assuring voters that Britain is leaving; secondly, because the Prime Minister was credited with “fighting for Britain” during the various difficult negotiations with the EU and leading Member States (the worse she was treated the better she did with these voters); and thirdly, because Remain activists seemed so upset that it suggested the Government must indeed be leading us out.

But the background context has changed. Since the start of January, the Leave-voting public has watched politicians apparently devise obscure and clever new tactics to thwart Brexit. The fact that many justify their actions in the name of preventing a No Deal Brexit, as opposed to Brexit generally, is lost on people. To Leave voters, the politicians they have come to detest over the last two decades are engaging in an act of betrayal. And it is this sense of betrayal that is fuelling the beginnings of the anger that we witnessed last week in Derby.

Most Leave voters backed Brexit because of practical concerns about immigration: about the difficulty of buying a house, securing timely access to healthcare, and finding work. Whether this was reasonable or not is beside the point; that’s what they felt. Forget what you read in the FT: most Leave voters were emphatically not part of a revolt against the political class, nor against the failures of capitalism. In this way, they weren’t like many Trump voters and they weren’t part of a populist uprising. But the actions of politicians over the last few weeks is changing them; there are signs that they are going to turn into the sort of voters that Remain-voting commentators originally but wrongly said they were: angry, disillusioned, and capable of self-consciously punishing the political class. In short, they’re now on the trajectory towards Trump voter status.

There is a clear risk that working class Leave voters are going to become, primarily, anti-politics voters (or non-voters) – that they’re going to basically shift to sticking two fingers up to all the parties. We have seen flashes of this over the last two decades: in the Hartlepool Mayoral Election; in the North East referendum; in the AV referendum; and so on. But, to date, it has largely been restrained; after all, working class and lower middle class voters flocked to the most establishment politician of recent times: David Cameron (who people still talk about with some respect).

What does this mean for the Conservative Party? To date, because of the actions of the Prime Minister and most senior party politicians, Leave voters are giving the party the benefit of the doubt; they will flock to the party at the next election if something like the campaigning status quo remains in place. But if these voters learn, actually, that most of its politicians are thwarting the only path available to actually leaving, then Conservative competitive advantage will disappear and these Leave voters will truly become anti-politics voters that finally reject all politicians of all parties. At that point they might lend their votes occasionally to the party but the process will be harder.

Clearly, danger lies in both directions: worried Remain voters may punish politicians, and their votes matter, too. But, as I’ve written before, Leave voters’ anger over the prospect of not leaving should always be feared more because their anger will be driven by a sense of betrayal – over politicians having actively taken steps to stop something happening that they previously said they would respect. Some have speculated that civil unrest or a growth in extremism would result; in truth, we don’t know that; but it seems reasonable to assume that a very large chunk of the electorate would be essentially unpredictable at the ballot box and that they could no longer be addressed in the same way.

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Alex King: The Remainers’ notion that Brexit is founded on dreams of empire is a tired fantasy

Alex King formerly worked in Parliament for the Policy Research Unit, and is now a public affairs consultant.

When Sir Charles Napier, a 19th Century British general, gained control of the province of Sindh in south eastern Pakistan, he supposedly sent a message back to London consisting of just one word to relay his triumph: ‘Peccavi’, or ‘I have sinned’. Although likely apocryphal, the story now serves to demonstrate how some on the Remain side of the Brexit campaign have come to view those who voted Leave – as sinners who are not only unrepentant, but who all along were simply aiming to realise a long dampened desire, to re-stake Britain’s claim to imperial power and splendour.

The thinking goes that the Brexit vote was the last charge of a group of people who have not yet reconciled themselves to the end of empire, and who refuse to acknowledge that Britain is just an insignificant archipelago at the northern tip of Europe. These are the people who close their ears when they hear mention of the word ‘Suez’, who are still upset that we didn’t send gunboats into Hong Kong harbour in 1997, and view Trident as the political equivalent of Viagra.  They refuse to admit that Britain is a declining force in world affairs, and indulge in mad dreams that it can once again rule the world. Dreams of a glorious past that could be lived again have blinded them to the bleak reality, that Britain’s heyday as a world power is over and never coming back.

This line of thinking has come to the fore in recent weeks, as commentators seek to explain why those who voted leave could still possibly want to leave the EU even after they’ve been warned about the apparent damage it will do. Ryan Heath believes that “Brexit is the story of a proud former imperial power undergoing a mid-life crisis” and “a way for Britain to feel big again”, while Gary Younge thinks that “An image was conjured of Britain striding out of the EU in top hat and tails…towards a glorious past.” Fintan O’Toole was even more explicit, writing that a crucial reason for Brexit was the idea of the UK’s “vertiginous fall from ‘heart of Empire’ to ‘occupied colony’.”

These ideas have been present in British politics for many years. Each time Britain suffers a failure of any kind on the international stage, the same quote from Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State, is gleefully trotted out, that ‘Britain has lost an empire and not found a role’. A large chunk of Remainers believe that the people in charge of Brexit sold implicit visions of Britain striding the world stage again, and people who for it voted swallowed it whole. What we are seeing, according to this analysis, is nothing less than the forlorn hope of a fallen empire.

In his article, Younge goes on to quote what Kristian Jensen, the Danish finance minister,  said last year, that “There are two kinds of European nations…There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realised they are small nations”, and notes that “This is Britain’s most public and painful reckoning with its size and influence in its post-colonial state”. O’ Toole reckons that “in the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, coloniser and colonised.” When you have a post-colonial hammer, it turns out everything is an imperial nail.

Such ideas are patronising and wholly unpersuasive to anyone who actually voted Leave. A pitch that tells all those who voted Leave for a better future that all they wanted was to replay Britannia’s greatest hits is unlikely to be much of a goer. But, most importantly, they’re also wrong.

The last throw of the dice to try and cling on as an imperial power was in fact the decision to join the EEC, the EU’s forerunner. Even as the ‘wind of change’ was blowing through Africa, Harold Macmillan was advocating Britain’s membership of the EEC as a way of ensuring unity in the pursuit of “strength in the struggle for freedom.” As Macmillan said when announcing the Government’s intention to join the EEC in 1961, “This is a political as well as an economic issue. Although the Treaty of Rome is concerned with economic matters it has an important political objective, namely, to promote unity and stability in Europe which is so essential a factor in the struggle for freedom and progress throughout the world.”

The hope was that through the EEC, Britain would become greater than the sum of its parts, and continue playing its natural role as a global superpower, the leading actor in a theatre of nations. Acheson himself, in the same speech at West Point in 1962 where he questioned Britain’s future, said that our application to join the Common Market was a ‘decisive turning point’ for modern Europe, and that a successful application would mean a “step forward of vast importance will have been taken” towards increasing European strength.

This is the strange contradiction at the heart of the latest attempts to see empire at the heart of everything Britain does. Leaving the EU is apparently an attempt to relive such heady days, yet we would be leaving the very institution we joined to prolong our imperial adventure, while being consistently told that doing so would deprive us of weight and influence.

The thinking seems to be that Britain’s futile attempt to increase its power by striking out alone is laughable, anachronistic and the product of imperial fantasy, but don’t worry, if you stay in the EU you can still do it properly (and morally) as part of a group of former empire builders! When it comes to imperial ambition, apparently only teamwork makes the dream work. It is also quite galling to be accused of seeking a return to empire by proponents of an institution that consistently seeks all the trappings of empire, whether that is a national anthem, a star spangled banner, or greater common defence capabilities (read: an army).

This is not the time or the place to conduct an in depth analysis of precisely what motivated millions of Leave voters to decide to vote to leave the EU. Some will indeed have voted for it out of a misplaced notion of the UK’s place in the world, or because they believe Britain needs a more global outlook. Others will have voted for it for the very opposite reason, out of a desire to stop the world and be left alone. But tired and complacent ideas suggesting it was for one last imperial jolly need to be consigned to the dustbin of Brexit analyses.

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