Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is ‘How we invented Freedom and why it matters’.
On at least one issue, Jeremy Corbyn was the only moderate among the four Labour leadership contenders. He wanted to assess the outcome of the EU renegotiation before deciding which way to vote – a position that aligned him with majorities of Labour and Conservative supporters. The other three candidates, by contrast, made clear that they would campaign to remain in the EU on any terms.
Theirs is, by any definition, the more extreme position; and it is surprisingly widespread among senior Labour figures. Lord Falconer, for example, says “my view is that we must stay in the European Union come what may”. Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, declares that Labour must support the EU “under all circumstances”. Got that? Under all circumstances. The EU might mean lower growth and higher unemployment; it might mean less democracy and more corruption; it might arbitrarily quadruple Britain’s budget contributions; yet there is no situation in which Hilary Benn, who is otherwise a pretty fair-minded sort, would apply a cost-benefit analysis.
At this stage, some readers might be saying, “Hang on, Hannan, aren’t you guilty of precisely the same thing? Aren’t you an Outer ‘come what may’?” No. That would be an equally preposterous stance. Leaving the EU, for me, is not an end in itself, but a means to an end – that end being a more prosperous and freer Britain. If the same end could be delivered through an amicable renegotiation, one which restored the supremacy of British law and our right to sign bilateral trade accords with non-EU states, I’d support it enthusiastically.
I’m forever having to explain this point to broadcasters. I’ve set out, on several occasions, the kind of deal that I reckon would constitute a successful renegotiation. The trouble is that ministers show no interest going beyond minor and optical tweaks. I believe that, faced with a choice between something very like the present terms and a free-trade-only deal, we’d be better off – I mean better off financially, not just democratically – with the trade deal. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be in the “Leave” camp. It all comes down to the balance of advantage.
Yet, oddly, it’s my position that, at least in the BBC’s discourse, is considered doctrinaire. When, say, Chuka Umunna declares that we must stay in at any price, he’s considered mainstream. When Jeremy Corbyn says we should assess the pros and cons, he’s considered mad.
For what it’s worth, I suspect that, when the moment comes, the Labour leader will fold. He has never been a dependable Leftist Eurosceptic in the manner of, say, Dennis Skinner. My guess – though, frankly, who knows with Corbyn – is that he’ll take a Syriza-type position. In other words, he’ll moan about Brussels, but sulkily go along with it.
From a tactical point of view, that’s probably the best scenario for Eurosceptics. In 1975, pro-EEC campaigners relied heavily on the argument that they were up against a mésalliance of extremists: “If Enoch Powell and Tony Benn are both against us, we must be on to something”. A prominent Corbyn-led “Leave” campaign would allow them to deploy an updated form of the same argument.
This doesn’t apply, though, to other leading Labour Eurosceptics, such as Frank Field and Gisela Stuart. Everyone recognises that they are respectable, mainstream, heavyweight figures. No-one is ever going to say “Well, if Kate Hoey thinks that, it can’t be true”.
There has always been a Left-wing case against the EU. Its procurement rules force a measure of contracting out on state authorities. Its agricultural regime causes unnecessary suffering in Africa. Its fisheries policy has wiped out what ought to have been a renewable resource. Its bureaucracy empowers corporations over ordinary citizens. As we’ve just seen in Greece, it can actively prevent Leftist governments from implementing their manifestos.
These arguments, though, are not exclusive to the Left; the democratic case against Brussels spans the spectrum. The EU elevates officialdom above representative government. It privileges crony capitalism over free trade. It cuts Britain off from its Anglophone hinterland. It is expensive. It is corrupt. It strikes down referendum results when it doesn’t like them. It constantly grabs powers from its constituent states. In a world where successful countries devolve, democratise and decentralise power, the EU is going in the opposite direction.
In short, the EU is out of date. A 1950s answer to a 1930s problem, it is now visibly arthritic. Every continent on Earth is now growing economically except Europe. And, within Europe, the wealthiest and most successful countries are not those in the EU, but those in the European Free Trade Association: Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
I’m always struck, listening to Blairites, by how superficial their Euro-enthusiasm is. They keep repeating that “Labour is an internationalist party”, as though there were some inexorable progression from acquiring a taste for cappuccino to wanting to transfer power from elected representatives to unelected Eurocrats.
In fact, Britain is linked, by language and law, by habit and history, by commerce and kinship, to more distant continents. A truly internationalist party would recognise that, in the Internet age, geographical proximity no longer much matters. The proportion of our exports going to the EU has declined from 64 per cent to 44 per cent since 2006. What will it be 20 years from now? Raise your eyes, my New Labour friends: there’s a whole world out there.