Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Later this morning, MEPs will vote to strip Marine Le Pen of her immunity, allowing her to be prosecuted in France. Her offence is, to British eyes, a strange one. In an ill-tempered Twitter exchange, a French journalist likened her party to the Islamic State. She responded by tweeting an image of IS atrocities, with the words “Daech c’est ça!” (This is Daesh!)
Now she finds herself being prosecuted under a French law that prohibits the circulation of violent images. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that, had a mainstream socialist tweeted the same image, no one would have batted an eyelid.
It is almost certain that the European Parliament will vote to see her in court. MEPs have immunity from prosecution in their home countries, though it can be lifted by a majority vote. In theory, their colleagues should vote to uphold immunity when the accusation is political, but not when it involves, say, a driving offence. In practice, as everyone well understands, a completely different test is applied. If the accused MEP is a goody-goody federalist, immunity is automatically upheld; if he or she is a Eurosceptic, it is always withdrawn.
When, for example, a senior Christian Democrat, a fanatical Euro-integrationist, was wanted by the German tax authorities for failing to declare his income, the Parliament rallied round. When, on the other hand, UKIPers or French souverainistes say the wrong thing, even if they say it in the chamber, the law is allowed to take its course.
This, though, isn’t a column about Le Pen, whose baleful blend of socialism and anti-immigrant anger is already making France an uglier place. It’s a column about incongruities between the British and European political traditions.
That a British politician could be prosecuted for tweeting a gruesome image is almost unthinkable. At least as unthinkable as, say, a British burqa ban, or a British law against Holocaust denial. Don’t get me wrong: plenty of European countries have laws of this sort while remaining robust democracies. It’s just that such prohibitions are outside our political norms. The relationship between state and citizen evolved differently here.
I am reminded of the incongruities almost every day in Brussels. The European Parliament has, for example, just adopted a rule that allows its President to suspend the broadcasting of a session if any MEP engages in what he considers to be “defamatory, racist or xenophobic language”. That offending MEP can be sanctioned in various ways, including a fine of up to €9,000. What constitutes “xenophobic language”? Good question. A previous parliamentary report defined opposition to the euro as “monetary xenophobia”. Could an MEP who used vivid language to tear into the euro be fined? Who is to say?
It all seems bizarre to a Brit. The right to say what you please in Parliament is integral to our system. The Bill of Rights affirms “that the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”.
To repeat, I’m not trying to suggest that the EU is groaning under some kind of tyranny. Plainly, a democratic and open society can exist with restrictions of this sort. It’s simply that, again and again, we are reminded of the fundamental incompatibility between the two systems. One is evolved, organic, haphazard and open; the other rational, planned, regulated and dirigiste. One is based on the common law – a dispersed system which grows like a coral, each judgment serving as a starting-point for the next case; the other on the Bonapartist model, where laws are written down in the abstract and then applied to specific cases. One assumes residual liberty; the other assumes licensing.
Obviously, things aren’t always clear-cut. Ireland uses the common law and Scotland doesn’t. Some EU states are more liberal than others. The British system has had its Continental mimics from Voltaire onwards; and the Continental system its British advocates.
It is fair to say, though, that a difference in outlook has prejudiced Britain’s relationship with Brussels from the start. Without that difference, Brexit would not have happened.
This is worth repeating because, even now, some Remainers insist on interpreting the vote as a rejection of free trade, or of globalisation, or of cordial links with our neighbours. It was nothing of the kind. Theresa May is right to keep saying that we intend to act as the EU’s closest friend. But we shall do so as an independent country, living under its own laws. Our relationship will be based on alliance, not absorption.
What a relief. I used to get agitated whenever there were votes of this sort in Parliament. As long as we were EU members, I felt that we were somehow implicated. But, soon, it’ll be none of our business any more. The EU will be free to evolve in whatever direction it pleases with our goodwill and support. I can’t tell you what a sense of peace that brings.