Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
While Britain dithers about Brexit, Europe moves on. On Tuesday, the European Parliament elected Ursula von der Leyen as Commission President.
Many things figured in the negotiations she held to command a majority in the chamber (her own EPP doesn’t have enough support on its own) – ambitious climate targets to win over the Greens; tough language on the rule of law to stem losses among Macron’s liberal Renew Europe group, and promises of a “social Europe” for the social democrats.
She even promised to campaign to change the treaties to include an official right for the parliament to be able to initiate legislation, and give it the de facto right to do so while she runs the commission.
What scarcely featured was Brexit. She repeated the settled policy that the Withdrawal Agreement wouldn’t change, and left open the possibility of Britain a further extension should “good reasons be provided”.
One of those reasons might have been to hold another referendum, but her appointment deals any new Remain campaign a powerful blow.
During the 2016 campaign, we said there would be no European Army – but von der Leyen, until now German defence minister, supports one.
We made much of Britain’s veto over foreign policy. She wants the EU’s foreign policy to be decided by qualified majority vote.
We highlighted Cameron’s record on getting Britain an exemption from “ever closer union.’ She is on record as wanting to see a United States of Europe and for the EU to become a federation like “Switzerland” or “Germany”.
Born in Brussels, she accepted the post saying she was “European before I learned I was German”. She will convene a conference on the future of Europe to propose the next steps of integration (less grand than Giscard d’Estaing’s Constitutional Convention perhaps; but which is expected to be led by Guy Verhofstadt, a proud federalist).
In 2016, we Remainers argued that Cameron’s renegotiation meant that however much the rest of the EU would like to integrate, it was, at least as far as the UK was concerned, “thus far, and no further”. This is no longer tenable.
The question for People’s Vote and other pro-referendum campaigns has become whether they could sign up to von der Leyen’s federalism. It’s quite clear that they don’t.
The slogan in those circles is ‘Remain and Reform’ – stay in the EU, to make it more like something Britain can tolerate. It was always a fatuous idea: it makes sense to join something that you like, not, unless you’re an entryist, something you don’t. It’s as though they took the Yes, Minister sketch about Britain’s historic role being to keep Europe divided and dysfunctional as serious policy advice.
Their ideas for ‘reform’ (which Nick Clegg spelled out as involving imposing unilateral immigration restrictions on other members) were always untenable. If they had been achievable, Cameron would have got them instead.
Now they’re utter nonsense. After ten years of the EU firefighting, von der Leyen wants to get integration moving again. In these circumstances, a campaign based on remain and reform would be a lie every bit as big as 2016 Leave’s that getting a deal with the EU would be, in David Davis’s words, “easy”.
What will be easy will be for Leave to portray a von der Leyen-led EU as something unacceptable to British voters.
European army? Check.
End of veto on foreign affairs? Check.
More powers to European institutions? Check.
I’m sure they’d never stoop to repeatedly calling her “German defence minister von der Leyen”, with special emphasis on the “von”.
Against this, the remain and reform line, which might under the bland Manfred Weber have convinced a majority of voters, suffers the disadvantage not only of being implausible, but inconsistent with what Dominic Cummings would call all likely branches of the future (trans: things won’t turn out the way you were promised).
Cummings’ great mistake was not to realise how this “inconsistency” can scupper a cause that takes time to put into effect. Brexit is running into trouble because Brexiteers failed to prepare people for the difficult and acrimonious process which actually leaving was always going to entail. Remain and reform will run into trouble because the EU has no intention of reforming in the way anti-Brexiters want (they are not pro-European, but pro status quo ante).
Its short term success – winning a new referendum – is precluded by “the von”. Its long term success – actually changing the EU so that Britain can be happy with it – vitiated by the gap between its central campaign messages and reality.
A campaign against Brexit needs to actually be in favour of the organisation it wants to stay in. But while genuine pro-European feeling has grown since the referendum, it’s nowheere near widespread enough to allow a pro-federalist campaign to win. ‘Remain and reform’, meanwhile, is nowhere near true enough to deserve to.