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British freedoms v European controls — or is it vice versa?

The “free movement of people” is the latest sticking point between Britain and the EU — but who is the more restrictive?

David Cameron

In most of the English-speaking world, hostility to the European Union comes naturally to the conservative side of politics. It’s an article of faith among those on the Right that the (continental) Europeans are effete and uncaring about freedom, while the EU itself is a bureaucratic monster that lacks democratic accountability and tramples on individual rights.

Like most caricatures, this one has some basis in reality. The “democratic deficit” is a serious problem for the EU. Its regulations are often heavy handed, and its bureaucracy — as with most large organisations — is stifling and inefficient.

Resentments are particularly felt in Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron is constantly being dragged by his party in a eurosceptic direction. Nor is that just a matter of inclination for the Tories; they are also looking over their shoulders at the UK Independence Party, which is now clearly the third most popular party in Britain and whose key demand is complete withdrawal from the EU.

For Cameron, that’s a particularly serious threat, because first-past-the-post voting means that a strong UKIP performance, by taking votes primarily from the Tories, could deliver a swag of seats to Labour. So despite his own more liberal inclinations — he once referred to UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” — he keeps making concessions to the anti-European Right.

The odd thing is, however, that those concessions keep cutting against the narrative that presents British independence as the cause of freedom, as against the control-happy EU. In fact, it often seems to be the other way around.

The big issue is immigration, which came to the fore recently due to the expiry of restrictions on the free movement of Romanians and Bulgarians within the EU. British Home Secretary Theresa May took this as an opportunity to question the whole idea of free movement of people within the EU, saying “we need to change the way free movement rules work”.

Romania and Bulgaria were decidedly unhappy, as were Cameron’s own coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. And a meeting of EU ministers pointedly reaffirmed that “the free movement of persons is a core principle of the European Union and a fundamental right of all EU citizens”.

But the argument continues, with Cameron’s ministers still in very public disagreement. Kenneth Clarke, minister without portfolio and former leadership contender, told the Financial Times last weekend that “I just don’t think it’s true that the European Union is responsible for unacceptable waves of migration”, describing the contrary view as “right-wing, nationalist escapism”.

Foreign Secretary William Hague disagreed about immigration, but himself fell foul of the full-blown eurosceptics by rejecting a move for national parliaments to have a veto over EU laws — a demand supported by 95 Conservative MPs. And UKIP was there to up the ante on the Right, with a call for a complete five-year ban on immigration.

So it doesn’t look as if freedom is high on the eurosceptic agenda — despite UKIP’s claims to support “libertarian” values.

And it’s not just immigration. The same dynamic was at work this week over synthetic drugs, or “new psychoactive substances” (what the media call “legal highs”). This time it was a Liberal Democrat minister, Norman Baker, who told Parliament that Britain would opt out of a proposed EU directive because it would constrain — slightly — the British government’s power to ban such drugs at will.

Of course regulatory power, whether it comes from Brussels or elsewhere, can be used for good as well as ill. But eurosceptics don’t just seem unwilling to acknowledge that the EU sometimes stands on the side of expanding individual freedom — they actually seem to count such cases among their key grievances.

With Cameron still committed to a referendum on Britain’s EU membership if his government is re-elected next year, this issue isn’t going to go away. What is the point of potentially scrapping, overhauling or leaving the EU? Is it to end regulatory overreach and expand freedom, or is it to give national governments the power to restrict freedom in ways that Brussels currently won’t permit? As I put it a couple of years ago:

For all practical purposes, hostility to the EU plays into the hands of those whose objection is not so much to regulation and bureaucracy, but to free trade and free movement of people. They are the euro-sceptics who have a real constituency, and Cameron is playing with fire when he tries to appease them.”

5
  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Or is the promise of a referendum to harness and parasitise euroscepticism to win an election?

  • 2
    David Hand
    Posted Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    A discussion about British sensitivities about sovereignty and the power of Brussels versus Westminster has been running for decades. The Eurosceptics have tended to be noisy but not very influential throughout the last 40 years but that has changed recently, as evidenced by the meteoric rise of UKIP.

    What has given the Eurosceptic side more influence is simply that the EU is failing. Its promise of 40 years ago has begun to fall apart.

    The two main factors in this are-

    1. The rise of Asia as the world’s new economic engine, creating far more opportunities for trade across the world than existed in the 70s.

    2. The increasingly absurd customs barrier that surrounds the EU. The restrictions on trade that hurt the Australian and New Zealand economies in the 70’s ushered in a period of enormous reform in both countries that opened the economies, stimulated trade and ushered in an unprecedented period of sustained economic growth. This is something Europe urgently needs to do.

    Britain would leap ahead if it escaped the EU customs prison and started trading freely with the rest of the world.
    It’s not so much about Brussels bureaucracy. It’s still about French farmers.

  • 3
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    An island of coal in a sea of fish - some chicken, some neck” said Winnie defying Schicklegruber. Unfortunately thatcher closed the coal mines and the fish have long been hoovered out of the surrounding seas which no longer do much of a job at sundering due to that Chunnel thingy of which our Sainted Grundle avails himself.
    Germany needs Britain in the EU to balance out the whining Frogs & the terminally lazy southerners. As the UK needed the tinted colonials to do the shit jobs in the 50/60, so the Continent needs an ever expanding common market to supply bucket fodder. Also incontinence nappies for the gerontocracy still bumbling along in the Shires.

  • 4
    Posted Thursday, 16 January 2014 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Surely wealthy UK tories oppose the EU because it is collectivist, which they see as a step towards socialism. Poorer UK tories may oppose the EU out of xenophobia.

  • 5
    Andybob
    Posted Monday, 20 January 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    What odds on an independent Scotland within the EU and Britain otherwise outside it ?

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