STRAIGHT TALKING July 2016
Roger Helmer’s electronic newsletter from Strasbourg
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The Newsletter and the Debrief
This newsletter will be short, because I’ve commented about most recent EU-related developments. Until June 23rd, I was reviewing developments in the Referendum Campaign, and I had intended to stop then. However there were numerous requests from party members up and down the country to continue the daily service, at least through the relatively chaotic times in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Find my debriefs at https://rogerhelmermep.wordpress.com/.
But perhaps I can share some reflections with you. There will be no newsletter in August, as the parliament takes its summer recess.
Timmermans on Democracy
Getting ready to vote in Strasbourg on July 6th, I caught the final speech from Commissioner (and the Commission’s First Vice President) Franz Timmermans https://ec.europa.eu/commission/2014-2019/timmermans_en. I’ve no idea what the debate had been about, but as happens constantly at the moment, it seems to have ended up dealing with the Brexit issue.
Timmermans first praised the European parliament as the forum for democracy representing 500 million plus “EU Citizens”. Of course it is no such thing. It merely provides a superficial façade of democratic legitimacy for a fundamentally anti-democratic institution. I recall Dan Hannan’s favourite quotation from Edmund Burke: “Who that admires, and from the heart is attached, to true national parliaments, but must turn in horror and disgust from such a profane burlesque and parody of those sacred institutions”.
But (I hear you cry) isn’t it elected by the people? Weren’t you yourself, Mr. Helmer, elected by the people, top of the East Midlands list, no fewer than four times? So I was. But bear with me.
Democracy is more than just counting votes. Counting votes is merely arithmetic, not democracy. Fundamentally, democracy requires a “demos”, a constituency, a people, who feel some common bond, and consent to be governed together.
I have used my favourite quotes on this subject many times, but they are so relevant, so cogent (and I may say almost poetic) that I shall crave your indulgence to repeat them. John Stuart Mill: “Where peoples lack fellow feeling, and especially where they read and speak different languages, the common public opinion necessary for representative government cannot exist”. And as Enoch Powell put it, democracy works “where people share enough in common, in terms of language, history, culture and economic interests, that they are prepared to accept governance at each other’s hands”.
Manifestly neither of these criteria is satisfied in the EU. It fails this basic test of democratic legitimacy. Or as Wedgwood Benn put it so succinctly, “The test of a democracy is that you should be able to fire the people who make your laws”. In Britain, you can fire the government and see the removal vans in Downing Street.
But no matter how you vote in the European election, you can make only small changes in the shifting balance of an alphabet soup of political groups which mean nothing to most voters. And when you’ve done that, the parliament still can’t initiate legislation – that’s the exclusive privilege of the Commission.
The second problem of the European parliament is that the selection process is hugely biased to a pro-Brussels view. Leaving aside explicitly anti-EU parties like UKIP, just think how selection usually happens. The putative candidate has to put up her hand in a political meeting and say “I’d like to be considered as an MEP candidate”. Who will do that? Mostly, the people who are interested in, and passionate supporters of, the European “Project”.
So the MEP delegations from mainstream parties are very much more Europhile than their average party members back home – as I found out when I became a Conservative MEP in 1999. And the bias doesn’t stop there. Naturally when elected they gravitate to committees that reflect their interests. The Agriculture Committee is full of farmers. The Employment Committee is full of socialists and trade unionists. The Environment Committee is full of greens. The Culture Committee attracts teachers. The Women’s Committee is dominated by women. (And as I often like to add, the Foreign Affairs Committee is full of foreigners).
Do I have a good example of that bias? Indeed I do. When the parliament considered the European Constitution in 2004, MEPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of it (though I of course voted against). That included French and Dutch MEPs. Yet when France and Holland voted in their referenda, they rejected the Constitution by 57% (France) and 62% (Holland). The MEPs utterly failed to represent the democratically expressed views of their constituencies.
Timmermans went on to rail against UKIP, literally pointing at us in the Chamber, and accusing us of “running away from the results of our Brexit Campaign”. Compare and contrast: Timmerman’s boss Juncker had earlier in the week asked what we UKIP MEPs were still doing in the Chamber when we’d voted to leave.
It was somewhat bizarre to be accused of “running away” when most UKIP MEPs were sitting right there listening to him. Admittedly Nigel Farage wasn’t there – he had gone back to the UK to deal with other business, but he had been present during the week, and indeed had done a press conference in the Strasbourg parliament only a couple of hours before.
Timmermans accused us of shouting, and seeking to destroy things for the sheer perverse pleasure of destruction. Indeed we do occasionally shout, when the pressure of being constantly traduced becomes too much – but equally we often set out our stall in measured terms – and are suitably vilified by the “democratic” MEPs on the other side.
It is preposterous that we are accused of wanton destruction when we are simply trying to get out from under an EU system that really has destroyed jobs and careers and prosperity across vast swathes of Europe.
Timmermans accused us of being populist, and of seeking to justify ourselves with references to “the mythical people”. He really said that – as though “the people” were some figment of our over-heated imagination, rather than flesh and blood human beings, many of whom have been impoverished by the polices of the EU.
It is bizarre to be accused of damaging democracy when our whole strategy is designed to re-establish democracy in the UK, and will perhaps by example re-establish democracy across the EU as well.
Young people: We’ve stolen their future
The aggrieved Remainians, furious at having lost the referendum in a fair fight, are seeking to foment unrest, especially amongst the young. Teenagers who a few months ago scarcely knew what the EU was are now crying their eyes out and complaining that “old people have stolen their future”.
It is certainly true that a majority of young people voted to Remain (perhaps swayed by the welter of EU propaganda in our schools, and the liberal/ Guardianista views of many (but by no means all) teachers. It is also true that very few young people bothered to vote. According to Sky, only 36% of the 18 to 24 age group bothered to vote at all. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/28/young-people-bad-voting-millennials-eu-vote-politics
The ageing fallacy: It’s easy to assume that all we have to do is to wait for voters to get older. The oldest pro-Brexit voters will die off, while turnout among the more pro-Remain younger people will rise as they age, until Hey Presto in 2021 (says the FT http://blogs.ft.com/ftdata/2016/07/01/brexit-everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-turnout-by-age-at-the-eu-referendum/) Remain would win.
In much the same way, as a teenager I noticed that younger people tended to be more left-wing and older people more right-wing, and I was depressed to reflect that as the population aged it would get more and more left-wing until the UK was permanently dominated by the Labour Party.
But there’s a massive fallacy at the heart of this analysis, and the FT makes it quite explicit. “We assume voters’ Remain/Leave preferences do not change as they age”. But voters left/right preferences do indeed change as they age – as they get jobs, homes, mortgages and children. And I believe that their views on EU membership will also change as they age, and understand better what the EU means in terms of our economy and our democracy.
There have even been suggestions that because young people will have to live with the result for many decades more than old people, young people’s votes should count double. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/here-s-what-would-have-happened-if-brexit-vote-was-weighted-by-age-a7120536.html. I should be reluctant to depart from the principle of one-man-one-vote, but if we were to do so, I would do the opposite, and give an added weighting for age and experience.
It would be invidious for me to try to compare my knowledge and experience of the EU with that of seventeen-year-olds in general, but I may perhaps be permitted to compare what I know now with what I knew when I was seventeen.
About that time I made my first pronouncement on the European issue, when I proposed the motion “This House would join the Common Market” in my sixth form debating society at King Edward VI Grammar School, Southampton. I sincerely believed (as so many of us did) that the “Common Market” was simply about free trade and jobs — and who wouldn’t vote for that?
Then in 1975, at the age of 31, I voted to Remain in the Common Market in the first EU referendum. I still believed that it was primarily about trade and jobs.
I continued to pursue my career in marketing jobs with various companies, including companies like Proctor & Gamble and Boots. My career took on an international dimension – I worked in the USA and Europe, in Hong Kong, and later in Thailand and Malaysia. I managed businesses for Diageo (then United Distillers/Guinness plc) in Korea and Singapore.
I worked constantly with foreign nationals, including a period in Malaysia when as Managing Director I was the only Westerner in a textile business employing 350 people. Problems of ethnicity? Yes indeed. But between my Chinese and Malay staff, not between me and them. So I’m mildly amused when as a Brexiteer I’m accused by the other side of being a xenophobic little Englander who doesn’t understand international trade. I’m a Brexiteer because I understand international trade, and see the opportunities in the greater world outside the EU.
By 1999, I was well aware of the major problems we faced in the EU. And I was elected as an MEP – and re-elected three times, in 2004, 2009, and (for UKIP) in 2014. Each time I was top of the East Midlands list (#1 on the list of the party that came #1 in the poll). I have seen the European project from the inside over a long period.
And I shifted from the view that the EU was damaging but reformable to a realisation that it simply doesn’t do reform, and that the only way forward for Britain was Brexit.
I believe I have solid grounds for my opinion of the EU – and an infinitely better grasp of the issues than I had at seventeen. And I believe that far from “stealing the future” of the young, we have given them a future – a future of freedom, and self-determination, and global opportunities. I also believe that we have lit a flame that will eventually liberate Europe as surely as we liberated it in the 1940s.
Also have a look at the UKIP MEP web-site www.ukipmeps.org