When I was a pro-Brexit MEP in the ECR and European Parliament, a lonely job if there was one!, there was one point I did make clear to enthusiastic followers, sometimes to their disappointment: it is not the job of British Brexiteers to ‘bring the EU down’ – to destroy the EU as an entity.
Our job was to do what we thought best for our own country – the desire for self-government and to avoid emersion in a fast emerging EU Superstate. I wrote the first major strategy paper for leaving the EU in 2014/15 and worked with top people who became the Leave campaign on it.
We presented those facts and arguments to the British people and on 23rd June 2016 they mercifully had the courage and temerity to vote to back Brexit, regardless in many ways of the economic cost – for the vote was primarily (as Lord Ashcroft polls indicate) about democracy and restoring self-government and not economic. Nor was it down to Immigration. Yes, border control was a vital issue, but the polls show it was secondary and part of sovereign control in any case.
And I am not advocating ‘-Exits’ here: Polexit, Swexit, Nexit, even Frexit or Dexit etc - it is up to you, and I respect your decisions. But it is up to every individual nation to make its own judgement. Each has different histories, perspectives, attitudes. But it is nevertheless healthy often to ‘think the unthinkable’ even if you just seek to educate the debate and make the case stronger for reform and staying in the EU.
The EU is a lot popular in some countries – 80% are pro in Poland for example – than in others. The UK was consistent, with old polls showing even when we joined in 1973 (with a 2:1 vote to stay inside in the subsequent 1975 referendum), around half of British people wanted to leave again, and in the end 52% voted to leave.
But things can change rapidly with certain crises. I think the financing is critical – it is a very different perspective to be in receipt of billions of EU grants and in contrast actually being a major net contributor into the EU. Britain was contributing around £11bn net a year (£19bn gross – the base of the £350m a week used on the Referendum campaign bus) to the EU – and still is contributing £5bn this year. The UK did not receive much back for farmers, science, or regional support – and what it received all came with EU strings and thinking attached.
Taking this all into account, what are the lessons of Brexit for current EU members and their national Exit debates?
At the end of the day, a big judgement has to be made whether your country believes the EU can be reformed – is that truly a realistic proposition or not - and if that reform can address your vital national issues or not? Is the EU, on balance, better and more beneficial to your country, than being independent?
Is the EU even capable of reform? Is it too rigid, too legalistic, too ideological, too idealistic to countenance reform; meaning its complexity and procedures make national flexibility and needs, even if supported, impossible to deliver on? Does that mean a ‘new EU’ – a much more flexible, much more democratic ‘Europe of Nation States’ is needed, which even the UK may consider joining? More of a De Gaulle position. And, if it is, is that deliverable? It may mean starting from scratch.
David Cameron sought to reform the EU in a number of ways, increasingly modest and ineffectual in his demands, but was still left empty handed and politically vulnerable. The EU was not willing to make real reform or to accommodate reasonable British needs. It was a colossal mistake from the EU’s point of view, possibly a terminal one long term. The Referendum vote was 52-48%; and had some meaningful reforms been granted, the result might have been different. I as a Brexiteer was delighted – and rather embarrassed and sorry for my pro-EU friends – at how little our Prime Minister was able to come away with.
The fact that the EU acted this way, and the realisation that the path to reform was totally blocked, acted to tip the balance amongst major figures, who had been Eurosceptic – sceptical of the EU; but broadly in favour of making it work – into Brexiteers – actively supporting Leave. Farage was no longer on his own.
If the EU is heading for a Superstate, that will leave your country as a mere region or state within a country called Europe – a United States of Europe – then when is the decision point beyond which it is too late? The individual countries of the Soviet Union could opt to leave but if they did, military put downs would rapidly follow, as we saw in Hungary and the Prague Spring.
Under United Nations law – The Montenegro Convention of 1933 on the Rights and Duties of States – a “state must possess a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to conduct international relations” – the EU could argue it has all of these: a Constitution (Lisbon Treaty), the institutions of Government, including the European Parliament, The External Action Service and its Embassies conducting international relations, and surely Frontex is seeking to define and police a defined territory, whilst an EU Army is becoming a reality?
If they see the EU as benign and no threat to their nation, then it may need substantial education, information, communications and campaigning before the people see the reality. A question worth asking is: if the EU suddenly one day went to the United Nations and declared it was now one State; what would be the reaction of your people: would it be positive acceptance and celebration even, or horror and anger and a feeling of betrayal and being misled?
I draw this from my experience of marketing major brands in the UK and from the disciplines learnt at Wharton Business School.
For any nascent -Exit campaign, a Strength might be, for example, that the country is rich and strong enough to blossom outside the EU; a Weakness that EU funds, EU cooperation and influence are popular amongst their public; an Opportunity that the EU is becoming more unpopular (such as in Poland over major constitutional clashes over judges and preventing effective control of immigration, which overrule the Polish constitution; this issue being particularly exacerbated over the threats from Belorussia) - and therefore that education on issues can change opinion (my books and papers helped shape the appeal of alternatives in the UK debate); and a Threat that the EU may seek the power shortly to stop countries leaving at all: the scenario could become like 11 Southern US States seeking to leave the Union in the USA to form the Confederacy, leading to Civil War, and the 1869 court case Texas v White, where the US Supreme Court ruled ‘unilateral secession’ unconstitutional.
Clearly not having your own currency, and having your country’s economy run from an EU central bank such as the ECB is a far higher level of integration. This means the complexity of leaving the EU is greater - it was designed that way: the Euro was always political first; not economic – and its impact on a whole host of economic factors considerable – the level of debt, pensions and the cost of restoring your old currency may mean substantial depreciation. But as President Klaus of the Czech Republic told me – it is possible to create two currencies in a weekend, if not a day - the break up of Czechoslovakia was sad in my view, but was comparatively smooth. The Czechs still have the Koruna and Slovenia the Euro, of course.
We in the UK were criticised in and after the Referendum for not having a plan – in fact, the Leave campaign strategically avoided a plan as they knew the Remain campaign would focus all their negative forces on it – and indeed they viciously attacked what they thought would be the plan: the EEA.
I actually provided a positive alternative vision and plan based on my experience as an MEP on the EU/EEA Joint Parliamentary Committee in my book ‘Time to Jump’ – which focused around what I called an ‘EEA Lite’ model – akin to the EEA but opting out aspects of the Single Market and Immigration controls, and staying in a number of EU programmes like the Horizon science programme. I later put forward a cleaner Free Trade Agreement called ‘SuperCanada’, based around the EU-Canada’s CETA deal, and this was broadly adopted – Boris Johnson used the term.
Within the British Union debate, the Scottish Independence SNP came up with a 500-page plan for breaking up the UK; but it still didn’t address fundamentals, such as what the currency would be, or what it would breakup would cost, and suffered for that. Thanks to Brexit, the SNP now have a major problem: 60% of Scottish exports go the Rest of the UK, only 19% to the EU – and they are likely to face a hard border with England, as evidenced by Northern Ireland.
So, would you want to be close and keep benefits of Single Market such as Norway and Iceland’s EEA, but mindful of the EU’s creeping trespassing using Single Market measures into all non-trade areas, or follow Switzerland’s complex 120 bilateral style relationship (and would the EU even allow it?), or Ukraine’s Economic Partnership Agreement. Or would you want a clean break like the UK (Northern Ireland Protocol excepted), with an international- style Free Trade Agreement and a Strategic Partnership Agreement – and could the UK/EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Withdrawal Agreement form an excellent template for your alternative arrangement?
The UK has been the guinea pig for this new relationship with the EU, and it has indeed taken 5 years, and has this rough edge of the practical failure of the Northern Ireland Protocol still to be resolved, but to be honest the Theresa May Government and its domestic pro-EU forces wasted years in confusion over demands and dead ends such as the Chequers Plan. You can start with a proven template and shave off years of aggravation in theory, though the power balances may vary with size.
Would it be through a Referendum, as in the UK, or through support for a leave platform within your party’s manifesto in domestic Parliamentary elections, such as UKIP, or need a coalition approach with other parties? In Britain, the only realistic means of leaving with a ‘First Past the Post’ Parliamentary election system was by bringing pressure on a main party – the Conservatives realistically – to offer a Referendum. All other British parties, with the exception of British Unionist Parties such as the DUP, were not in favour of Brexit, whilst UKIP was pro but generally had no MPs in Westminster.
All parties tended to be split, but the Conservatives were around 70-30% for leaving the EU and Labour quite strongly pro at 20-80% against Brexit, but that is amongst its more metropolitan membership (many former Labour voters backed Boris Johnson on Brexit, leading then to the extraordinary swings in ‘Red Wall’ seats – even Tony Blair’s old safe constituency is now Blue.)
Your nations generally use Proportional Representation for elections and therefore a coalition of like-minded parties united in wanting to leave the EU, or having a Referendum to decide, is a far more credible position. To win Left, Right and Centre all need to be united in a Leave campaign – Referendum campaigns are a battle between two big and very wide coalitions.
It may well be that looking seriously at such challenges and difficulties listed you may decide it is not doable, and thereby efforts are better directed at the kind of reform agenda the ECR primarily advocates. But that reform must be realistic and deliverable, or there is a danger you will look politically like a rudderless boat swept along powerlessly in a major river towards inevitable integration and a Superstate, as Cameron did. The electorate may take its revenge for lack of action – as you know, David Cameron had to resign immediately after the lost Referendum.
A robust and determined reform campaign would be needed to derail inevitable integration and completely change the focus and emphasis – even to create a ‘new EU’ along radically changed and palatable lines; a more voluntary intergovernmental (more NATO, WTO, UN) and not overridingly transnational like the EU – a true ‘Europe of Nation States’. Remember that Britain is still a fellow member of the Council of Europe and still comes to Strasbourg along with Europe’s full 48 nations – is that looser model that could be built on? This major reform could well be an ECR campaign.
But radical reform was something we in Britain tried, but couldn’t deliver, and we were in a strong position as one of the EU’s then fourth largest members, second largest net contributor, and one of its two biggest defence spenders.
I wish you well in your decision making, debates and campaigning. Please use me as a sounding board for advice either way!
But the one lesson I would say I learnt from Brexit is to trust the people: the people are no fools; populism is popular. In Britain, they faced threats and blackmail – financial and emotional - in a relentless daily diet of scare stories (‘Project Fear’). They would be all alone, poorer, weaker, sadder.
But in the end, they were prepared to risk all and to pay an economic price to win back self-government, democracy and the ability to decide for themselves.
In that, I salute them.
David Campbell Bannerman - Former Conservative MEP for East of England 2009-19; Prominent in Vote Leave campaign for Brexit Referendum; now Senior Counsel in public affairs