Nigel Farage won yesterday’s debate on Britain in Europe, cleverly and dishonestly, but he cannot win the argument. His was an appeal to the heart: “I want Britain to get up off its knees, let’s govern ourselves again, stand tall, and trade with the world.” Just as with last week’s debate, Nick Clegg’s arguments were simply swept aside and failed to carry their full force. Clegg correctly defined Farage’s vision as “dangerous fantasies” but, in the heated atmosphere, he failed to fully expose his opponent’s deceitfulness.
Farage argued that Britain is capable of running its own affairs and should not be dominated by the EU, which he represented as undemocratic. He misrepresented the democratic accountability of the EU, its impact on British legislation, its control over our trading relationships, and the practical impact of trying to retain our trading relationships with Europe without being a full EU member.
The EU is as much under democratic control as Britain is, although some reforms are needed (18.104.22.168). The EU Commission is unelected – but it is a form of civil service. Britain doesn’t elect its civil servants either; it appoints them on the basis of their expertise. The EU Commissioners themselves are politically appointed, on a formula of one per country, but the other Commission employees are European civil servants. All major EU decisions have to be ratified by elected politicians: Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries of member countries, or directly-elected Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).
There was an undignified spat over Europe’s impact on British legislation. Clegg’s figure of 7% was not a lie, as Farage alleged, but it only referred to primary legislation; he was quoting a House of Commons library report:
“In the UK data suggest that from 1997 to 2009 6.8% of primary legislation (Statutes) and 14.1% of secondary legislation (Statutory Instruments) had a role in implementing EU obligations, although the degree of involvement varied from passing reference to explicit implementation.”
The report acknowledged the practical difficulty in coming up with a definitive figure. Some of the confusion came from a finding that he failed to mention:
“The British Government estimates that around 50% of UK legislation with a significant economic impact originates from EU legislation.”
Since our trade with the EU is so important, the 50% figure is hardly surprising. These economic regulations would no longer apply to trade within Britain, if it were outside the EU, but they would still apply to trade with EU countries; it was deceitful to imply that they would have no relevance if we left the EU.
Farage cleverly misrepresented Britain’s alleged loss of control over its trading relationships. He said that the EU negotiator is Dutch and that Britain isn’t even in the room when deals are being done. This sounded almost sinister, as if Britain were in some way enfeebled by this arrangement, but the reality is quite different. Europe is negotiating as a whole, with much more economic power than Britain can wield on its own. We are therefore stronger, not weaker, by contributing our weight to a Europe-wide deal.
He also misrepresented Britain’s trading power outside Europe. He didn’t make it clear whether he envisaged Britain staying in the European Economic Area or not:
- He said that our trading relationships with Europe would continue unchanged if we left the EU, but this would only be true if we stayed in the European Economic Area – like Iceland, one of the two examples he cited; Switzerland has a similar, bilateral arrangement. Clegg quite rightly pointed out that this would mean paying a contribution towards EU costs, and being subject to its regulations (including free movement of labour), yet we could not participate in defining these regulations if we were not full EU members.
- Farage simply brushed this argument aside, blustering to the effect that everyone would wish to continue trading with Britain, which has the world’s sixth largest economy. By identifying New Zealand as a possible trading partner, he was appealing to British sentimentality over the Empire and the Commonwealth – and he was implying that we would be outside the European Economic Area, in which case we would have to renegotiate our trade deals with the EU, from a much less powerful position.
Farage’s acknowledged admiration for president Putin is revealing. Putin has demonstrated how to increase his domestic political appeal, even though Russia will suffer from its annexation of Crimea: from diminished cooperation with other countries, from economic sanctions, and from the increased rapidity with which other countries will now develop alternative sources of energy. Like Putin, Farage is politically adroit in trying to increase his personal power – and he shows a similar disregard for his country’s best interests.