Campaign for an Independent Britain meeting 4th May 2013
Dr Richard North: The way forward
His contribution was very odd indeed for someone who is supposedly strongly Eurosceptic. His “way forward” is for the UK to remain entwined in coils of the EU for the foreseeable future. Of course, North does not describe his suggestions as leading to this, but that is the practical consequences of what he advocates.
North’s strategy for the UK’s departure from the EU is this:
“….invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, leading to a negotiated exit based on UK membership of the EFTA/EEA as an interim settlement. To ensure short-term continuity, we would have all EU law repatriated, giving time for examination and selective repeal, and the enactment of replacement legislation as necessary – all over a period of some years.”
He wants the UK to sign up to the type of arrangements Norway and Switzerland have with the EU. This requires them to adopt a large proportion of EU regulations (not least because of the ever broadening bureaucratic demands of the EU obsession with competition and harmonisation ), pay large annual sums to the EU to subsidize the poorer members of the EU and, worst of all, subscribe to the four EU “freedoms”, the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour across not only the EU but also the larger European Economic Area (EEA).
That would be bad enough but his naivety over what Article 50 entails is startling. Here is the article in full:
1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.
A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49. (http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/treaty-on-european-union-and-comments/title-6-final-provisions/137-article-50.html).
It is strongly implied in in para 3 of the Article that unilateral withdrawal is possible :
“ The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2”.
However, the clause does not explicitly give the right of unilateral secession and could be interpreted as merely referring to how any agreement might be scheduled to take effect. The other EU members could adopt this interpretation to thwart the UK leaving without declaring UDI.
The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties cites two legitimate instances where a party wants to withdraw unilaterally from a treaty which does not make any provision for withdrawal : (1) where all parties recognise an informal right to do so or (2) the situation has changed so substantially that the obligations of a signatory are radically different from that which was originally agreed to. The informal right patently does not apply in the case of the EU. As for radical changes to the obligations of a signatory, that would be difficult to sustain. It is true that the organisation (the EU) the UK belongs to now is radically different from that which they originally joined in 1973 (the EEC), but the UK has signed new treaties to agree to the new circumstances as they have arisen. Hence, there would be no radically changed obligations which had not been taken on formally by the UK.
The only precedent of any sort for withdrawal is Greenland’s secession in 1985 from the European Economic Community (EEC). The was facilitated by the Greenland Treaty. However, it is not an obviously relevant precedent because Greenlanders retain Danish citizenship for Greenland has home rule not full independence from Denmark. They are consequently full EU citizens. Because Greenland is also one of the Overseas Countries and Territories of the EU it is also subject to some EU law and regulations, mainly those relating to the Single Market. .
Even if it is accepted by the other EU members that there is a unilateral right of secession, the fact that it could only take place legally after two years would give the remainder of the EU the opportunity to run the UK ragged before the UK left.
As for getting an agreement which would allow the UK to generally re-establish its sovereignty, especially over the control of its borders, this is most improbable. A Qualified Majority in the European Council is required and even if such a majority is obtained the European Parliament can block the secession. The potential for delay and blackmail by the EU of the UK is considerable. In any event it is likely is that the EU would drive a bargain which is greatly to the UK’s disadvantage because the Eurofederalists would be terrified of creating a precedent for any other EU member which might wish to radically change their relationship with the EU. That would make them demand conditions of the UK which were so unappealing it would deter other member states from following suit. There is also the danger that the Europhile UK political elite would take the opportunity to agree to disadvantageous terms for the UK simply to keep the UK attached to the EU in the manner that Norway and Switzerland are attached. The stay-in camp could use Article 50 to argue that whether the British people want to be in or out, the cost of leaving would be too heavy because of this treaty requirement.
The Gordian knot of Article 50 can be cut simply by passing an Act of Parliament repealing all the treaties that refer to the EU from the Treaty of Rome onwards. No major UK party could object to this because all three have, at one time or another, declared that Parliament remains supreme and can repudiate anything the EU does if it so chooses.
If the stay-in camp argue that would be illegal because of the treaty obligation, the OUT camp should simply emphasise (1) that international law is no law because there is never any means of enforcing it within its jurisdiction if a state rejects it and (2) that treaties which do not allow for contracting parties to simply withdraw are profoundly undemocratic because they bind future governments.
The OUT camp should press the major political parties to commit themselves to ignoring Article 50. If a party refuses that can be used against them because it will make them look suspicious.
How much of the vote does UKIP command?
North also addressed the question of UKIP’s share of the vote in the recent council elections. This he represented as trivial because although they took 25% of the vote the turnout was very low (around 30% overall). He ignores one important fact about turnout: if the turnout is shrinking then the potency of those who vote rises. UKIP voters and those willing to vote to come out of the EU at a referendum may be much more inclined to vote than those who want the status quo or at least are not motivated to vote for the UK’s independence.
Based on objective facts North is far too pessimistic about obtaining a vote to leave. There are two great differences between now and the 1975 referendum. In 1975 the British public had only two years’ experience of the EEC which was a vastly less intrusive body than the EU is now. If a referendum is held in the next few years the electorate will have 40 odd years of ever greater interference by Brussels with British politics and in the lives of Britons. To this can be added the growing number of prominent voices, both political and from the media and business , which are calling for either an outright campaign to leave the EU or at least a reshaping of the EU in such a radical fashion that it has no chance of success. Both factors will lend vastly greater potency to the OUT camp campaign now than was the case in 1975.
North’s tactics before a referendum
Much of this was driven by fear, fear that a the British electorate would not vote to come out. The consequence is that North proposes a complex, expensive and above all time consuming schedule of preparatory work before any referendum is held. There are also conflicts between his desired ends and proposed means.
North addressed the subject under five separate heads. I comment separately on each.
Reassurance for business
North argues that because the EU is first and foremost a political construct, business has no right to have a say in whether the UK is in or out of the EU. I have sympathy with that view, but North immediately capsized this position by stating:
“…business has a right to expect a predictable and stable regulatory and trading environment, the status of which is affected by our membership. Therefore, we need to be able to assure the business community that, should we leave the EU, there would be no adverse effects.
“In effect, that would mean “protecting” membership of the Single Market – which could be achieved through EEA membership. And, as long as that membership is assured, business has no locus in the broader debate.”
By taking this position on the Single Market North is effectively granting business a very large say in how we are governed, because continued membership of the Single Market will require at the least subscription to the four “freedoms” and the acceptance of EU laws relating to the Single Market. That will greatly impinge upon the UK’s sovereignty.
An alternative to the EU
North believes that we should not merely take back power from Brussels but also stop the power regained being grabbed by Westminster. He starts from the claim that the UK has never been a democracy. That is true in the sense that there has never been direct democracy – that is no more than a commonplace – but for a century before the UK was signed up to the EEC in 1973 there was a good deal of democratic control because the UK’s politics were national. British politicians then could not routinely hide behind supranational agreements such as those governing the EU to avoid responsibility for unpopular policies or be forced to adopt policies which were in the interest of foreign powers and to the UK’s disadvantage simply because of Treaty arrangements. If the UK leaves the EU utterly and our relationship with the EU becomes the same as we have with any other foreign power British politics will again become national not supranational. That is the most certain way of re-democratising the UK.
What does North want? He is much taken with the Harrogate Agenda (HA) (http://harrogateagenda.com/). This has six demands which are similar in tone to those of the 19th century Chartists and the 17th century Levellers before them. Here are a couple of the demands to give a flavour of the HA:
2. local democracy: the foundation of our democracy shall be the counties (or other local units as may be defined), which shall become constitutional bodies exercising under the control of their peoples all powers of legislation, taxation and administration not specifically granted by the people to the national government;
4. all legislation subject to consent: no legislation or treaty shall take effect without the direct consent of the majority of the people, by positive vote if so demanded, and that no legislation or treaty shall continue to have effect when that consent is withdrawn by the majority of the people;
Whether or not these are practical (which I very much doubt if put forward in this extreme form) , there is irony in the fact that North espouses such ideas because his proposals for a new relationship between the UK and the EU would utterly undermine the thrust of the HA demands for a UK entangled in an EFTA or similar arrangement would still be subject to decisions being made by foreigners with, doubtless, the willing complicity of Westminster politicians. The Europhile British political class is not going to vanish overnight so the only realistic way of making them behave reasonably is to force them to operate within a national context.
A network for dissemination
Here are North’s proposals:
“ Spreading the message is an essential part of any campaign, but reliance on the media is not going to be sufficient. Formal and informal networks will have to be built, some not dissimilar to direct marketing networks. Activities should include formal training and education, as well as more general propagandising.
Many revolutionary organisations have acquired their own newspapers, or news magazines, as a means of better spreading the message.”
Even if all this was possible, which is very doubtful because it would need serious money as well as willing hands, it would take far too long to establish as an effective propaganda tool. A referendum if it comes will not be that far in the future. What is needed is a simple readily understandable message such as “Are we to be masters in our own house” repeated as often as possible through the national and local media. With more and more politicians, mediafolk, businessmen and various celebrities making Anti-EU noises this is not a forlorn hope.
North proposes a campaign of civil disobedience, including the late payment for “Council Tax, water bills, BBC license fees and other such fees” and visiting every “agency, every employment office, etc. and remove all information (leaflets, brochures) not in English”. He goes on to say that there are “A very wide range of activities is in fact possible, many entirely risk-free and totally within the law”.
I doubt whether in these politically correct and increasingly authoritarian times that there would be many which are “entirely risk-free and totally within the law”. Late payment of the BBC license could get you a criminal record; removing information leaflets not in English would probably get you investigated for racial harassment because there would not be much point in removing them without running a campaign saying what you were doing and why; failing to pay many official bills on time could result in late payment surcharges. If civil disobedience is urged it is important that the possible consequences are spelt out to prospective candidates for such action.
Nonetheless that is not my main concern with civil disobedience committed in this random fashion. Civil disobedience is only effective if it is (1) focused, (2) publicity worthy (3) does not greatly inconvenience or disgust the general public and (4) does not make the protestors look ridiculous. A good example of a serious single issue campaign blighted by clownish antics is that of Fathers for Justice. Leaving people to engage in acts of civil disobedience (particularly on a local scale) as they choose will not meet those criteria. If it is to be used, civil disobedience must be a national act. The Poll Tax disobedience is the best example in modern British history of such action. A readily understandable single issue: we won’t pay the tax. It was perfect because it blocked up the magistrates courts and brought the everyday system of justice to its knees.
Sovereignty and opposition to immigration are the two strongest cards the OUT camp has to play. If it is used , civil disobedience should be designed to focus public interest on those two issues.
A coalition of allies
North tried to make a distinction between umbrella groups (bad) and coalitions (good). In practice the two are indistinguishable. What determines the unity of purpose of any coalescing groups is not what they are called but the nature of the groups and their leaders.
North’s response to being challenged
During questions from the audience I said that North’s proposals were an excellent recipe for remaining within the EU for the reasons I have already given. North became very animated and spoke at considerable length to refute what I was saying. People only behave in such a manner during debate if they feel their position is under real threat.
The kindest interpretation of North’s position is that he is acting as a useful idiot for the Eurofederalist cause in the mistaken belief that things can be resolved to the UK’s advantage by talking, by being “reasonable”; the unkindest interpretation is that he is a Eurofederalist wolf in Eurosceptic clothing attempting to undermine the campaign to remove the UK from the grip of the EU.
North has condensed the views espoused in his speech into written form on the CIB website – see http://www.freebritain.org.uk/_blog/Free_Britain/post/an-eu-free-future-for-all-by-dr-richard-north/