A rather bad photograph, taken from my seat, of Merkel and Hollande
Wednesday October 7th was quite a day in the Strasbourg parliament, even by the normal standards of a Strasbourg week. At noon we had an address from King Felipe VI of Spain, which could have been (probably was) drafted by the European Commission. Sheer, fulsome, unadulterated EU propaganda.
Then the standard Wednesday voting session, at 12:30, when rather to my surprise we managed to exclude off-shore installations from the EU’s perverse and damaging “Medium Combustion Plants Directive” (younger brother of the “Large Combustion Plant Directive”, which has decimated our coal-fired generation in the UK). Had we failed to get that off-shore exclusion, it would have been another nail in the coffin of our North Sea oil and gas business.
I then attended a lunch of the Kangaroo Group (and before you ask, there’s no such thing as a free lunch – it was €15). Of course I profoundly disagree with these guys, but I love to be counter-consensual, and I think they rather appreciate me going – think how dull it would be if no one disagreed.
Then at three we had the Pièce de Résistance: Speeches from the leaders of the EU’s two most powerful countries, Angela Merkel and François Hollande, with a “debate” consisting of responses by Group Leaders in the parliament. Merkel was wearing Margaret Thatcher blue, but the comparison didn’t really work in Merkel’s favour.
Most of this, of course, was fairly predictable stuff. The usual self-justification over the €uro, and the immigration crisis. Above all, the call to solve Europe’s problems with … you guessed it … more Europe! Perhaps the most effective speaker along these lines was the irrepressible (but faintly ridiculous) Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal Group, who wanted integration of everything, more or less, and who described the European parliament as “the cradle of European democracy”. Given that democracy “at the European level” does not and cannot work, and cannot achieve democratic legitimacy, given the lack of a common“demos” on which it could be based, plus the fact that the European parliament is a remote institution that has little or no traction in the public mind (the Euro-elections merely being an opportunity every five years to express our disaffection with Brussels), Verhofstadt’s proposition was doubly absurd.
Admittedly a few speakers were prepared to criticise the EU project, and to point out that what started as a collegiate venture was now dominated by Germany and France – and especially by Germany. These included the leaders of the ECR, the ENF, and our own Nigel Farage. It was rather ironic to see a would-be President of the French Republic, Marine le Pen, lambasting the current President of the French Republic, François Hollande. But as usual the best speech of the day was Nigel’s.
But the fireworks came at the end, in Hollande’s summing up. In his unscripted remarks he got rather carried away. He called for a common asylum policy (with “burden-sharing”), a common border force and coast-guard, a common foreign and security policy, with common armed forces, and a common economic government of the EU with common funding (burden sharing now seems to include pooled debt) and a Treasury. That is the vision of one of the key drivers of the European project, and Angela Merkel at his side certainly didn’t demur.
It struck me that in his renegotiation, Cameron doesn’t seem to understand what he is up against. He thinks in terms of returning a few fairly marginal and cosmetic powers from an established and stable institution. But it’s not established and stable. Hollande came out with the old cliché: “If we don’t go forward, we shall go backwards”. (Cue wild applause from UKIP MEPs). Cameron will find that his assault is not on a stable system, but on a moving target, and express train, a Juggernaut. The eurocrats are not going to abandon their ambitions, or turn the Juggernaut around, to assuage British concerns.
Hollande was quite explicit. “We hope you share these values and these aspirations. But if not, then you don’t have to stay on board. You should go”. Cue further wild applause from UKIP MEPs.
Taken aback by the reaction, he added spitefully “You can leave. You can be isolated. You can abandon prosperity and democracy”. Usually I am fairly unmoved by this nonsense, but I must admit that I really felt annoyed over this outburst, though of course it was greeted with loud applause from the largely europhile chamber. It must be easy for visitors to the EP like Merkel and Hollande to believe they have the support of European Citizens, when the representatives of those European Citizens are such enthusiasts for the project, while we naysayers are a small minority. But Hollande and Merkel were merely preaching to the choir.
Why was I annoyed? It was this suggestion that somehow leaving the EU was “abandoning democracy”. One of the key reasons we want to leave the EU is because it denies us democracy, for the reasons I set out above, and because it is wholly unaccountable, unresponsive, and unrepresentative. Because it has a massive contempt for the hopes and aspirations of ordinary people. What we want, in plain terms, is independence, self-determination, freedom and democracy in our own country. The EU applauds that aspiration in oppressed countries around the world – yet treats it as heresy for EU member-states.
I have a sense – as do my colleagues in the Party – that Brexit, which looked unlikely a few months ago, is looking more probable day by day. As I said at the Party Conference “Let’s go back to our constituencies and prepare for Independence”.