Dr Lee Rotherham: Some questions for the new "Centre for British Influence Through Europe"
Dr Lee Rotherham is author of The EU in a Nutshell (Harriman House, 2012).
This evening, if long-touted media diaries still hold, the CBIE is formally launching its campaign. There’s a lot in a name so we had better get this right. It’s obviously not the Canadian Bureau for International Education. It’s also not a branch of the CBI, though supporters might want to infer that. It’s the Centre for British Influence Through Europe.
Not, mark you, the Centre for British Influence in Europe. The fact that some of this new group’s own backers can’t get this right perhaps offers a protozoically-early glimpse of deep divergences within its set. There is a world of difference between arguing that it’s in the UK’s national interest to use “Europe” – by which they mean the EU – as a force multiplier if you can somehow achieve it without cost (this is a very Gaullist approach if now hopelessly dépassé), and separately campaigning to be so ‘in Europe’ that you are tugging at the Brussels agenda but at the cost of being willingly manacled to a federal union.
In the interest of clarity, since the campaign leaders are going to be on a podium, I wonder if they might usefully seize the opportunity to clear up a few points? For starters, what about their backers? I’m personally not fussed about private individuals choosing to spend their money as they like, but I am interested in taxpayer transparency. CBIE claims it will avoid funding from EU institutions. But what about its partners? There is a possibility of proxy financing here. Will CBIE indicate which of its backers and associates are themselves funded by the EU, which in turn means funded by the British taxpayer?
On a related note, the British Brussels Network is an offshoot of Business for New Europe, which commendably is independently funded; but do the members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales know they are seemingly lending support via their Brussels office?
It may well be that all is above board, and payments are firewalled. Even so, EU grants that fund one organisation’s scheme free up funds for spending elsewhere. But if we are to be transparent in taxpayer funding, let’s also be upfront with the voters. If you are going to be involved in the democratic debate, then encourage your backers to have the guts to state publicly where they stand. The notion that ten Conservative MPs are too jelly-legged to come clean on their personal beliefs on the EU because of their local associations, and believe it fitting for an elected representative to sign a letter to a newspaper only on condition of their anonymity being preserved, smacks of democratic deception. Even Mr Prufrock has more balls.
My next question is whether contributors advancing your campaign will identify what personal benefits they get from the EU? Some, a number of the “Senior European Experts” for starters, are on lavish EU pensions. Realistically these are probably safe even if the UK leaves, though there is a massive pensions black hole and legal uncertainty over who is liable. But other backers will be personally dependent on EU funding, with careers built on grants from Brussels or as savvy consultants with speed dial links. The number of academics that have bought into the EU project through the Jean Monnet programme is now frankly staggering. So let’s see some upfront declarations of interest. That includes from business leaders and union figures who sit on policy groups, advisory committees, or contact groups supplying a direct hotline to Commission officials. That too is a form of privilege that sets them apart. Let’s not forget a myriad of EU-sponsored and suborned charities in that equation.
I’ll help you out here. If your contributor to the letters page or spokesman about to appear on the telly is reticent to admit it, you can do a quick search on this site and double check to see if they might be misunderstood as quietly pushing a vested interest. If so, a quick acknowledgement that they received EU money in a given year would set the record straight. Of course, that still won’t tell you if they have ever sat on the 270-odd EU committees or earn their crust in Brussels so that’s not full disclosure, but it’s a start.
So in short, will you in the CBIE reject using the EU-branded and funded cliques who engage in “Brussels talking to Brussels”, simply to have “Brussels talking to Britain”? Do you support the principle that Commission money – UK taxpayer money – should not support your campaign or the activities of your affiliates? That means money not just for office budgets and staff, but also grants for publications, PR, colloquies, symposia, conferences and socials?
And what is your big picture view? If you believe in British Influence in, or through, Europe, what exactly is your communal take on the status of our present deal? If we follow your ideal track, where will we be in our relationship with the EU in twenty or thirty years? Let’s not have more Ted Heath finessing. Do you indeed see us ultimately in a federal Europe of some description? If not, and we cannot change the direction of the car by just pushing on various foot pedals, at what point do the flaws exceed the value of the benefits, or the loss of a key veto to QMV finally tip the balance? Is there any point at all at which you would be prepared to countenance a drastic change in our relationship? How do you quantify this?
Many of your speakers and writers have a pedigree in commentating on European affairs, and even in negotiating them. Many will have endorsed the UK’s accession to the Single Currency, and lobbied for UK entry into the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Before any of these speak, will you encourage them to re-establish their credibility by apologising for these past mistakes, which damaged the British economy once, and would have put us on the stage rather than in a ringside seat in the current Euro circus? I can only think of one person who has apologised, and that is the current Foreign Secretary who was only a newly-minted backbencher at the time of the ERM.
I wish you well in your endeavours. I disagree profoundly with your premise and your conclusions, but we need to have a full and frank discussion about what we get out of the EU, and where it fails us. We can begin by being up front with our interests, ambitions and motivations.