Dr Lee Rotherham is author of The EU in a Nutshell (Harriman House, 2012).
This evening, if long-touted media diaries still hold, the
CBIE is formally launching its campaign. There’s a lot in a name so we had
better get this right. It’s obviously not the Canadian Bureau for International Education. It’s also not a branch
of the CBI, though supporters might want to infer that. It’s the Centre for British Influence Through Europe.
Not, mark you, the Centre
for British Influence in Europe. The fact that some
of this new group’s own backers can’t get this right perhaps offers a
protozoically-early glimpse of deep divergences within its set. There is a
world of difference between arguing that it’s in the UK’s national interest to
use “Europe” – by which they mean the EU – as a force multiplier if you can
somehow achieve it without cost (this is a very Gaullist approach if now
hopelessly dépassé), and separately campaigning to be so ‘in Europe’ that you
are tugging at the Brussels agenda but at the cost of being willingly manacled
to a federal union.
In the interest of clarity, since the campaign leaders are
going to be on a podium, I wonder if they might usefully seize the opportunity
to clear up a few points? For starters, what about their backers? I’m
personally not fussed about private individuals choosing to spend their money
as they like, but I am interested in taxpayer transparency. CBIE claims it will
avoid funding from EU institutions. But what about its partners? There is a
possibility of proxy financing here. Will CBIE indicate which of its backers and
associates are themselves funded by the EU, which in turn means funded by
the British taxpayer?
I note that CBIE itself names four declared “partner”
organisations. That includes Euractiv.com, a news agency receiving money for a number of
Commission-funded programmes. EuropAssociation is
cross-supported by small beer organisations but also the KAS. The ‘Senior European Experts’
group looks suspiciously like it’s unofficially affiliated to the European
Movement, whose head office is written into the EU budget by name even if the
UK office no longer take’s the Commission’s shilling. The CBIE’s Brussels
office appears to be piggybacking (or absorbing) that of Nucleus, which lists
amongst its partners Public Service
Europe which makes money as part of the media
machinery orbiting the EU institutions, but is itself a partner of
of Europe … you get the point.
On a related note, the British Brussels Network
is an offshoot of Business for New Europe, which commendably is independently
funded; but do the members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England
and Wales know they are seemingly lending support via their Brussels office?
It may well be that all is above board, and payments are
firewalled. Even so, EU grants that fund one organisation’s scheme free up
funds for spending elsewhere. But if we are to be transparent in taxpayer
funding, let’s also be upfront with the voters. If you are going to be involved
in the democratic debate, then encourage your backers to have the guts to state
publicly where they stand. The notion that ten
Conservative MPs are too jelly-legged to come clean on their personal beliefs
on the EU because of their local associations, and believe it fitting for
an elected representative to sign a letter to a newspaper only on condition of
their anonymity being preserved, smacks of democratic deception. Even Mr
Prufrock has more balls.
My next question is whether
contributors advancing your campaign will identify what personal benefits they
get from the EU? Some, a number of the “Senior European Experts” for
starters, are on lavish EU pensions. Realistically these are probably safe even
if the UK leaves, though there is a massive pensions black hole and legal
uncertainty over who is liable. But other backers will be personally dependent
on EU funding, with careers built on grants from Brussels or as savvy
consultants with speed dial links. The number of academics that have bought into
the EU project through the Jean Monnet programme is now frankly
staggering. So let’s see some upfront declarations of interest. That
includes from business leaders and union figures who sit on policy groups,
advisory committees, or contact groups supplying a direct hotline to Commission
officials. That too is a form of privilege that sets them apart. Let’s not
forget a myriad of EU-sponsored and suborned charities in that equation.
I’ll help you out here. If your contributor to the letters
page or spokesman about to appear on the telly is reticent to admit it, you can
do a quick
search on this site and double check to see if they might be misunderstood
as quietly pushing a vested interest. If so, a quick acknowledgement that they
received EU money in a given year would set the record straight. Of course,
that still won’t tell you if they have ever sat on the 270-odd EU committees or
earn their crust in Brussels so that’s not full disclosure, but it’s a start.
So in short, will you in the CBIE reject using the
EU-branded and funded cliques who engage in “Brussels talking to Brussels”,
simply to have “Brussels talking to Britain”? Do you support the principle that
Commission money – UK taxpayer money –
should not support your campaign or the activities of your affiliates? That
means money not just for office budgets and staff, but also grants for publications,
PR, colloquies, symposia, conferences and socials?
And what is your big picture view? If you believe in British
Influence in, or through, Europe, what exactly is your communal take on the
status of our present deal? If we follow your ideal track, where will we be in
our relationship with the EU in twenty or thirty years? Let’s not have more Ted
Heath finessing. Do you indeed see us ultimately in a federal Europe of some
description? If not, and we cannot change the direction of the car by just
pushing on various foot pedals, at what point do the flaws exceed the value of
the benefits, or the loss of a key veto to QMV finally tip the balance? Is there any point at all at which you
would be prepared to countenance a drastic change in our relationship? How do
you quantify this?
Many of your speakers and writers have a pedigree in
commentating on European affairs, and even in negotiating them. Many will have
endorsed the UK’s accession to the Single Currency, and lobbied for UK entry
into the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Before any of these speak, will you encourage
them to re-establish their credibility by apologising
for these past mistakes, which damaged the British economy once, and would
have put us on the stage rather than in a ringside seat in the current Euro
circus? I can only think of one person who has apologised, and that is the
current Foreign Secretary who was only a newly-minted backbencher at the time
of the ERM.
I wish you well in your endeavours. I disagree profoundly
with your premise and your conclusions, but we need to have a full and frank
discussion about what we get out of the EU, and where it fails us. We can begin by being up front with our
interests, ambitions and motivations.