FLC059, A Case against the European Union, 17th December 2001

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Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 59
17th December 2001

A Case Against the European Union
by Sean Gabb

Because I run the Candidlist (www.candidlist.com), I am a person of moderate importance and of some prominence in the Eurosceptic movement. However, I have not, so far as I can recall, ever set out my reasons in one place for my opposition for the European Union. Therefore, I will now briefly set out these reasons.

During the debate over British membership of the European Economic Community that took place in the 1970s, I was too young to have any fixed opinion on the matter. As a patriot, I disliked the idea of being ruled by foreigners. But I did not read any of the newspapers - and I am not sure if there were any worth reading—where the argument was put in these terms. The argument that I did follow was all about economics and specifically about free trade with the other member states. Because I was a libertarian of sorts even then, and because I had a fixed belief in the economic and moral virtues of free trade, I supported British membership—for what very little my support was worth in those days. During the referendum campaign in 1975, I saw no reason to disbelieve what I saw on the television - remember, I was very young—and I was struck by the fact that the only political parties that were utterly opposed to membership were national or international socialist in their ideology. I was pleased with the result of the referendum, and then allowed the whole issue to drop from the front of my mind. I was in good company. From the mid-1970s, virtually all political debate was focussed on economic policy, which in those days was a matter overwhelmingly for national governments.

When the debate over membership of the EEC began again in the early 1980s, I saw this as part of the continuing debate over economic policy. By now, I could see that continued British membership was not a good thing in itself. It may have made sense for a group of Roman Law countries, with more or less despotic political cultures, to come together in a federation. It made no sense to me for England to join in the process. I could see differences between us and the main European countries so great as to make any formal union impossible without massive changes on one or both sides; and the balance of numbers and wealth could only put the main burden of change on us. I variously despised and feared these changes—the agricultural and fishing policies, the forced metrication, the general hostility to individuality and local customs. Even so, I was broadly in favour of remaining in the European Union because I thought its limited commitment to free markets was a useful influence in the British debate on economic policy.

Right through the 1980s, the Labour Party was committed to policies that involved insulating the country within a mass of import and exchange controls, and then stealing everything by law that could not be stolen by inflation. Parts of the Tory Party were hardly better—the anti-socialism of most activists owed far more to Corelli Barnet than to Milton Friedman or Enoch Powell, and some would have welcomed almost any degree of economic nationalism. With alternatives like these, Europe could be seen as an expensive but necessary insurance policy. At best, it co-opted people like Michael Heseltine and Neil Kinnock, thereby depriving the protectionists of their natural leaders. At worst, it was an institutional obstacle that might slow down any government that wanted to unplug this country from the world economy.

I continued believing this into the early 1990s. By now, my interest in the economic debate was diminishing. The Tory protectionists had fallen silent—some dead, others become Thatcherite free marketeers. The more intelligent Labour politicians had simply stopped being socialists in the Bennite sense. They had bought Armani suits and started talking in post-modernese about Bill Gates and global culture. I was now interested in the protection of civil liberties. For all it had saved the country in the economic sense, the Thatcher Government was hard at work on shredding our constitutional liberties. I now saw Europe as a means of slowing the progress of this work. The Factortame case was seen by many as an interference with the sovereignty of Parliament. I saw it as a means of stopping the British authorities from censoring what adults in this country could read or watch. If the Treaty of Rome was able to keep the Customs and Excise under some control, I was happy to let it be used for that purpose.

By the mid-1990s, however, many libertarians were realising that the European Union as it now was had served its purpose as an obstacle to socialism. Instead, it had become the main institutional obstacle to radical free market policies. Admittedly, these were not yet on any British political agenda. It is significant, though, that they were being argued against by the Establishment intellectuals rather than dismissed out of hand. In Europe, they remained for the most part unknown, and seemed unlikely to make any intellectual progress for at least a generation. I shared in this realisation. Also, I was becoming more sophisticated in my understanding of political power and its restraints. What brought me fully into the Eurosceptic movement—and I was a late entrant: as late as 1997 - was partly the nature of what the European Union was doing, but mainly how it was doing these things.

I see no point enumerating the evils imposed on us by membership of the European Union. That is being done already by Christopher Booker far better than I can; and no speech on Europe by a Conservative politician is complete without its reference to some expensive or simply mad new regulation. What interests me is the means of imposition. These are still not generally understood, but ought to be seen as the real positive case against Europe.

It would be nice if the evils of European membership could all be traced to Brussels or Bonn or some other European capital. It would then be a simple matter of throwing off the foreign yoke. We could drive the invaders screaming into the sea and set about restoring our freedom and greatness. Reality is not that simple. I have no doubt that membership of the European Union endangers our survival as a nation of free individuals—but it does so by raising up a wholly domestic enemy.

During the past 30 years of European membership, our Constitution has been subtly amended. Some branches of government have been exalted as never before, others set on their way to extinction. The most obvious beneficiaries have been the administrators, the special interest groups—which include much of big business—and those politicians who learn to play the rules of the new system. These have become a ruling class largely freed from democratic control. Such control has only so far ever existed in nation states with liberal institutions. In these places, the authorities are directly accountable to a public opinion that may be divided on all manner of issues, but that is also agreed on certain fundamentals, and that is able to be moved one way or another by the force of argument. Let jurisdiction be transferred to a multi-national authority, and it does not need to face this kind of united public opinion. It becomes rather like the old Hapsburg Empire, which was able to maintain itself for centuries by playing off one national group against another, never having to justify itself to all the people as the French and British Governments had to do.

That is the European Union. The old democratic institutions remain, but are of decreasing significance. They have little real control over the decisions that affect our lives. Either they merely ratify those decisions, or they are not even formally consulted. At every point, this transfer of power is justified by the need to comply with obligations accepted under the various European Treaties.

Let me take what many will think a trivial example. In October 1995, it became a criminal offence to use English measurements in a wide range of commercial transactions. There was an outcry in the media and to some extent in Parliament, as people were forced to stop using measurements the very names of which are part of our language. The outcry was silenced by the explanation that this had been forced on us by "Europe". A Directive from 1989 was produced which required standard units of measurement throughout the Union.

The explanation was false. The Directive did require standardisation, but was silent about the outlawing of other units of measurement, or the use of criminal law to ensure compliance. Indeed, a Directive of the European Union is not a law. It is simply a wishlist sent out by the Commission to the member governments, which can be treated very largely as they wish. I am told that in Spain and Italy and Holland, I can still legally buy a gallon of petrol and even a scruple of vitamin C—assuming I can find anyone there willing to deal with me in these units. The forced metrication of this country happened not because someone in Brussels decreed that it be done, but because the relevant officials at the Board of Trade have tidy minds that are offended by the illogicality of the English system of weights and measures; and because the big food retailers could see a means of increasing their already large market share by imposing conversion costs on their smaller competitors that they themselves can easily afford. These people used the excuse of Europe to avoid the political reaction that might have frustrated their design had they relied on a law made entirely in this country.

It is the same with agricultural and fishing regulation. Whole branches of commerce and ways of life are destroyed in manners that would never be possible were the destroyers accountable to Parliament. But the officials expand their empires, and a lucky few wire pullers grow rich, while public opinion rails against a European Commission that may not object at all to what is being done—that may even rather like it—but that may also not have required, nor had the legal power to compel, its doing.

In some cases, the corruption of democracy is still more impressive. The money laundering laws that make it hard to open a bank account in this country, or use large amounts of cash, appear to have been forced on the British Government by a European Directive made in 1991. The truth is that various Home Office and Treasury officials were looking for new things to regulate in the middle 1980s, at the same time as various City institutions were worrying about losing business as financial deregulation opened their markets to new entrants. There were other interested parties, but these were the important ones. They were powerful enough to lobby the British Government into joining with the Americans to call for a United Nations initiative against money laundering. This led to a Convention, that led to a Council of Europe Directive, that led in turn to a European Union Directive, that led finally to British laws for which no British politician can be blamed—no matter how much harm they do to the City as a whole—and which no democratic majority can overturn without first repudiating a mass of treaty obligations.

We are currently seeing the acceleration of this process. The Government has just forced a set of anti-terrorist laws through Parliament that give it the power to make new criminal laws without further reference to Parliament. It would have faced overwhelming domestic opposition had it tried to make laws against holocaust revision or some other opinion deemed "xenophobic". It can now make these laws de facto because it is doing away with the old dual criminality rule that limited extradition of British citizens to foreign countries only to those cases where the alleged offence was also a crime here. It will soon be possible, without the requirement of anything more than proof of identity, automatically to turn a citizen of this country over to face trial in any other member state of the European Union that has issued an arrest warrant. Since some of these countries—Germany, for example, claim an extraterritorial jurisdiction for their restraints on freedom of speech, it is conceivable that people like David Irving will one day be deported - without appeal to any British court—to face trial for acts committed in this country, but which are not criminal in this country. As said, the Government is using membership of the European Union to make new criminal laws de facto without reference to the usual process of democratic argument and justification.

That is the European Union—and that is also the New World Order, of which Europe is only a fragment. There is no external conspiracy. There is no foreign domination. There are simply national élites who conceal their own despotism behind the fiction of obedience to international law. These élites cooperate with each other across borders. They are gradually laying the foundations of a true world government, by way of multinational federations like the European Union. For the moment, it must be granted, they are distinct from each other, and their power in any one country rests on bluff. They have not the means to smother a democratic revival in a large and powerful country like ours. This may change in the next generation, as the federations gain increasing powers of taxation, and build up military forces able and willing to prevent secessions.

But that is not now. Withdrawing from the European Union ought not be seen as throwing off a foreign domination—it certainly ought not be allowed to sour commercial relations with France and Germany—but as a restoring of internal balance to our Constitution.

And that, briefly put, is why this country should withdraw as soon as possible from the European Union.

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