The Bruges Group meeting From Here to the Referendum held on 12 February 2013

Robert Henderson

The Tory  MPs Peter Bone and Richard Shepherd were the speakers . (http://www.brugesgroup.com/eu/from-here-to-the-referendum.htm?xp=speeches).  Both are in favour of the UK leaving the EU, although that of course begs the question of on what terms.   Much of their speeches were not directly to do with the referendum . To get the parts which were go  into  the Peter Bone speech at 9 minutes 27 seconds and the Richard Shepherd speech at 11 minutes and 50 seconds to get to their views on the future and the prospective referendum.

The MPs were frank about why no referendum could be held in this Parliament:  a consequence of the lack of a Commons majority and the deadweight of the Lib Dems on the government. Both admitted that  prospects of a referendum being held  in the next Parliament  (the  audience was decidedly sceptical on this point)  were far from certain, but they were distinctly more optimistic than most of the people at the meeting.

The most positive move suggested by the MPs was for a campaign by Tory Eurosceptic MPs  to get Cameron to introduce a paving Bill for an in/out referendum  before the next General Election for a referendum in the next Parliament.  This would put both Labour and the Lib Dems in a difficult position because, if they did not support and pass such a bill,  it would allow the Conservative Party to go into the next election as the only major party promising a referendum. If such a paving Bill were passed, it would then be effectively impossible not to have a referendum in the next Parliament.   In principle, this is a sound tactic but of course it does beg the question of the terms of the referendum and how it would be done.  Reports appeared  in the media for precisely such a Bill on 17 February (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/active/9875024/Tory-MPs-want-new-law-to-lock-in-EU-referendum-pledge.html) .

Apart from the question of whether  a referendum will actually be held, there were two things of note  about the meeting: a widespread legalism which led  a number of the questioners from the audience to fret over the restrictions placed on a member state leaving by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and an  undue  concentration by both the speakers and audience on economics as the ground on which the anti-EU and pro-EU camps would fight. (Richard Shepherd in his general comments  did show himself to have a strong sense of  nation and to understand that the core issue at stake was being masters in our own house, but still fell back on economics when it came to his doubts about how the public would respond).

When I asked  a question I prefaced it with a refutation  of the idea that leaving the EU meant invoking  Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty .  I did this by pointing out that international law is no law,  but merely agreements between sovereign states. For laws to have meaning, they must be  applied equally within the jurisdiction. International law patently does not do this, a  fact due to  the absence of  any practical means to make all states abide by the law (who would invade China or the USA to enforce breaches or  impose sanctions? )  Richard Shepherd thanked me for making the point with which he agreed. After the meeting a number of people sought me out and did the same.  I suspect this would have widespread appeal in a referendum campaign.

As for the concentration on economics, this is simply playing into the hands of the Europhiles.  The general public simply will not take the detailed economic arguments  on board.  At worst they will simply hear the frightening false claims about millions of jobs being lost.  The campaign to leave the EU should be centred on the question “Do we wish to be masters in our own house?” That will be readily understandable to anyone of normal intelligence and will tap into the innate tribal sense of human beings.  If the stay-in camp have to fight on ground other than the economic they will have no sure footing, their only argument  being the demonstrably false one that the EU has prevented war in Europe for 60 years. (This argument can be readily punctured by pointing out that for its first twenty years there were only six countries involved and only until the 1980s.  It was the  Cold War that kept the peace).  The economic arguments must be addressed but they  should be subordinate to the political issue of sovereignty.

When I got to my question,  I took the subject  beyond the next election and painted a future in which   the  Tories had been returned with a working majority, the in/out referendum had been held and the vote had been to leave the EU. I then asked what confidence we could have that whoever was in power would not sell us down the river by renegotiating  terms which would in practice lock us into the EU through such things as the “Four Freedoms”  of the EU, the free movement of goods, services, capital and most importantly people not only within the EU states but the larger European Economic Area which includes the likes of Norway.   I particularly stressed the importance of regaining control over our borders when it came to immigration, something which got the loudest murmur of agreement of the night.   I got no meaningful answer from the MPs  on that point –  the best they could offer was the tactic already described of pushing for a paving Bill for a referendum.

Apart from the question of the EU, it was very interestingly to see how disenchanted both Bone and Shepherd were with Cameron’s leadership  and the issue of gay marriage in particular. Shepherd spoke of Cameron “racing against his party” (Go into his speech at 5 minutes).   The audience was very much in sympathy with both their general dissatisfaction and their opposition to “gay marriage”.

There were  approximately 60 people attending.

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