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.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey