Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
A giant of the Eurosceptic movement died last week, unreported and largely unremarked. Jens-Peter Bonde, who spent 29 years in the European Parliament and was, for much of that time, the closest thing it had to a Leader of the Opposition, passed away at his home near Copenhagen, aged 73.
There has, of course, been a more newsworthy death grabbing our attention. But, even without the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh, we would not have heard much about the cheerful, detail-obsessed Danish campaigner.
This is partly because Brexit has short-circuited the arguments about the decentralisation of power. I have written more than my share of papers on how a looser, more flexible EU might have worked. But all that is over now. Eurocrats responded to Britain’s withdrawal by pushing ahead with the integrationist schemes that had previously been held up by our veto – tax harmonisation, an EU army, the lot. A country can either get with that programme or leave. A Europe of nations is no longer on the agenda, if ever it was.
There is another reason, though, that Bonde faded from public consciousness. He might have been the moving spirit behind the Euro-critical movement, but he does not fit the popular image of the anti-Brussels campaigner. Thoughtful, polite and Left-of-Centre, he was the Eurosceptic whom federalists found it hardest to dislike. He worked on various projects with Romano Prodi, Guy Verhofstadt and Jean-Claude Juncker, who remarked on hearing of Bonde’s death that their clashes over the burgeoning EU budget “didn’t take away from the friendship I had with him”.
Bonde began as a revolutionary and ended as a reformer. He had campaigned against EEC membership in Denmark’s referendum in 1972 – a campaign at that time dominated, like its British equivalent, by the Bennite Left – and was elected as an MEP for the People’s Movement Against the EEC in 1979. After Denmark voted against the Maastricht Treaty in June 1992, he established the June Movement, reaching out to those Danes who had been happy enough with the EEC, but who disliked the new push for political and economic amalgamation.
That made him the de facto head of something that had not existed until that moment: a Europe-wide anti-federalist movement. As the leader of the tiny Eurosceptic bloc in Brussels, Bonde had the time and the resources to co-ordinate the efforts of new allies: Philippe de Villiers’ souverainiste movement in France, the successors to the various Scandinavian “No” campaigns from 1994 and, in Britain, Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party and Alan Sked’s UKIP.
I remember asking him, when I was first elected in 1999, whether he thought it was acceptable to use EU money that way. Then, as now, the European Parliament made resources available to individual MEPs and their parties for political projects. The idea, of course, was that the moolah would translate into greater support for the EU. But there was no way to draw up the rules so as explicitly to exclude Eurosceptics. Did he think it was okay to finance his projects with Brussels cash?
“I used to wonder the same thing when I arrived here 20 years ago, Daniel. In the end, I asked a man who had been one of my mentors. He was a partisan leader in the war, and he told me, ‘Jens-Peter, when we siphoned gas off German vehicles during the occupation, it wasn’t an act of theft – it was an act of legitimate resistance.’”
I laughed out loud at the mental picture the mild-mannered, bespectacled Bonde stealing petrol by moonlight. In truth, by then, he was already more interested in making the EU less intrusive than in taking his country out of it. But he remained a devastatingly able campaigner.
The following year, he and I worked together on the “No” campaign in Denmark’s single currency referendum. We started more than 20 points behind in the polls, but Bonde knew how to appeal to waverers. He block-booked advertising space with bus companies all over the country. A week before polling day, a question appeared on the side of almost every Danish bus: “Do you know enough to abolish the Crown forever yet?” It was the “yet” that did it, rallying undecideds to the status quo and carrying us to a surprise victory.
For all that they found him personally agreeable, the EU’s leaders could not forgive such behaviour. Had they been a bit cleverer, they would have treated Bonde and his allies as a kind of loyal opposition, engaging with his ideas on democracy and transparency, and using his presence to show that the EU was not an intolerant monolith. But, subject to their federalist purity-spiral, they could never bring themselves to do it.
As the EU pushed ahead with deeper and deeper union – Maastricht was followed by Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon – the idea of devolving power fell away, leaving withdrawal as the only alternative. Bonde was replaced by Nigel Farage as leader of his group and, more broadly, as the voice of Euroscepticism. While he was shifting from secessionism to constructive criticism, the Eurosceptic movement was going the other way.
Bonde’s idea of a Europe of nations now survives only as a counterfactual, a might-have-been, like Gladstone’s Home Rule proposals or Pitt the Elder’s plan to conciliate America. The EU’s leaders may soon wish they had taken the well-mannered Dane more seriously.