In the EU debate, the ‘Out’ side increasingly sees Open Europe as a false flag operation: a group that believes in Britain’s membership but publicly professes euroscepticism.

I don’t want to labour the argument over the meaning of the term ‘eurosceptic’ which originated in the early 1990s reputedly by UKIP founder Alan Sked. Suffice it to say that back then, the concept of withdrawal was often muttered in hushed tones, but the term steadily evolved into agitation for UK exit.

Open Europe has tried with some success to redefine euroscepticism back to its original meaning: Literally sceptical of some key aspects of the European Union.

But they stop a long way short of promoting withdrawal. In fact, they openly attack the idea. In particular Open Europe’s founder Lord Leach and director Mats Persson are very keen to point out – as they and Europhiles see it – the lack of workable exit strategies.

Put another way: There is No Alternative to EU membership.

And now Lord Leach has given us the benefit of his thinking in The Times and on the Open Europe blog. It is worth unpicking and showing how Lord Leach would like us to read it:

“Fifteen years ago, when a handful of businessmen set up Business for Sterling to stop Britain joining the euro, we were cold-shouldered by the BBC, patronised as Little Englanders by the Establishment and attacked relentlessly by the CBI’s leadership.”

Leach sets up his credentials as an experienced eurosceptic: the BBC doesn’t like him; he’s been called a Little Englander; even the CBI has attacked him. So he must be one of us, right?

“By the time the previous Government dropped the idea of entering the eurozone, we had nearly 1,000 chairmen or chief executives on our supporter list.”

Translated: I’m also a winner

“The centre of gravity has shifted as politicians today line up to argue that the EU in its current form has exhausted its usefulness, and exit is no longer to be feared. Even the most ardent Europhiles pretend amnesia about their former enthusiasm for the single currency. “More Europe” as the answer to every problem has become a bad joke. Even “Thus far and no further” has been replaced by serious questioning of the status quo. In short, the game is up for the Europhiles.”

By this time, you should be cheering him to rafters – your early suspicion that he is ‘one of us’ and thinks like us is confirmed.

“I disagree, however, with Nigel Lawson and others who have given up on reform and want us to head for the exit.”

Hang on, what’s this? Goodness, I had better sit up and listen to this great sage.

“Procedurally, withdrawal would be a nightmare. The famous Article 50 in the EU Treaty would give us two years to negotiate, during which time EU laws would still apply to the UK, without us having any effective say, as we would be sidelined in the EU institutions. That alone should make us pause before pushing the eject button.”

Oh dear [picking self up from floor], and I thought that was the best way out! So exit and particularly Article 50 would be a disaster…?

“The majority of the public, the political class and business, as shown by multiple polls, are sceptical about the EU but rather than leaving it they want a new deal to reduce its power over their lives.”

Well I suppose we did just sign up to common market, didn’t we? If we can just get that then I guess we’d be fine…?

“With good reason, for there are two jokers in the pack. First, none of the recent “outers” has set out a credible alternative. It is easy to say “Europe needs us more than we need it” or that if Asians and Americans can trade happily with the EU from outside it, so can we.”

Having dispatched the more tricky [for Leach] Article 50 exit route when I was least expecting it, he is surely right to highlight the absence of any other strategy among “outers”…?

“But this glosses over the reality that without free trade agreements many of our businesses would lose a chunk of their market. The car industry and the City would be especially hard hit. In theory, free trade agreements could cure that, but they would take time to negotiate and the EU would see no advantage in protecting our lead in those business areas. The eurozone’s attack on the City has been brutal enough; and the French would be particularly keen to block British financial services firms from having access to EU markets in perpetuity.”

Gosh this is sounding awful. And all from an ‘experienced eurosceptic’. My oh my!

“But it is the second joker in the pack, Germany, that is far more important. Angela Merkel is a cautious leader and doesn’t shoot from the hip. She knows that without radical reform the risk of Britain leaving is huge. She also knows what the consequences would be, as do the Netherlands and Sweden. The EU would lose half its military capacity, nearly 15 per cent of its budgetary contributions, its financial powerhouse, its principal channel to the Anglophone world and its main opponent of protectionism. Berlin would be in a voting minority against the French-led, high spending, uncompetitive Club Med countries.”

OK, this is where I stop playing the role of a dopy reader. Leach has just been telling us what a disaster exit would be (very similar to Cameron who has declared on multiple occasions that he won’t lead Britain out) and scoffing at those advancing exit. Yet Leach is now suggesting that Merkel will play ball because she fears a UK exit. Work that out: Attack the people you don’t like (e.g. UKIP) because of their stupid ideas about exit…but then rejoice in the fruits of their dirty work.

“Both David Cameron and Chancellor Merkel would therefore be playing with fire if they tried to buy off the British electorate with trivial concessions, as Harold Wilson did in 1975. The public won’t wear it and Germany would risk finishing off its dream of European unity and losing its most effective fellow reformer.”

Indeed they would. So Lord Leach, just imagine for a moment that your great insight (that very few share, by the way) doesn’t actually come to pass; that Cameron only gets small concessions. What do you do then?

“The first necessary step to a new order would be to redefine the EU as the Single Market, not as a vague aspiration to political union, still less as a currency union. Safeguards would have to be put in place to ensure that the eurozone does not write the rules for the rest of the member states. The next step would be to strengthen the powers of Westminster over EU decisions.”

So Leach’s objectives are laid bare and one certainly can’t call them timid: he wants to tear up all treaties, renounce the founding fathers’ goals, reverse 60 years of ever closer union and ‘revert to the Common Market we signed up to’ [even though we didn’t just sign up to a Common Market, because the Heath government lied to us – this is all now on public record courtesy of the 30 year rule]

“There is already support for these two reforms in Europe.”

Did you see what he did there? He set out some unrealistic twaddle about changing the EU into the Single Market only, tacked on two “reforms” that have been vaguely muttered about in the corridors of power (but may well come to nought) and then wrapped up the paragraph with a line that indicates his whole package is just a hair’s breadth away from triumph.

“With those in place, Europe could move to much greater flexibility. Member states could group together in passport unions, fishing or agricultural regimes, defence arrangements or tax and currency unions, but none of this would be obligatory. Subsidies, employment law and energy policy would no longer be micromanaged from Brussels.”

Anyone with any knowledge of the EU and its history will recognise Leach has now moved from la-la land into a kind of parallel universe.

“These kind of reforms would ensure that Britain would be at ease in Europe for the first time for 30 years. Norway and Switzerland could join such a structure and the Turkish issue would become more soluble. The euro problem would not go away, but the taboo that makes any change to the eurozone unmentionable would be broken.”

And I dare say we’d all be able to afford apple pie on Sundays.

“We cannot go on as we are, firefighting crises and ill-judged regulations inside a Union that has become the world’s economic laggard. Most of the necessary reforms have been identified and discussed across the continent. Now we will have to see whether Germany and its Nordic allies will be willing or able to deliver them.”

None of us knows what will happen next. There is still all to play for, and this complex game with so many other players should not be reduced today to a black-and-white argument about staying on the pitch or going home.

So what have we learned apart from Leach and Open Europe being stuck in a fantasy world?

The main thing we’ve learned is that Leach and his Open Europe organisation have now completely boxed themselves in. They have stated their wildly optimistic objectives; they have stated that a Wilsonian renegotiation won’t wash; and they have blocked the exits.

If – and humour me on this – if Open Europe is wrong and they don’t get anywhere near their objectives for the EU, what will they say then? Where will they go?

There are only two places:

  1. Grab the old slogans that “OK we didn’t get everything”, “Europe is a process”, “We need to stay to fight our corner” yadda yadda. In other words, fall back on all the mainstays of Europhilia that have haunted us for 40 years. Or
  2. They will say that “we tried, we failed and the UK now needs to exit”.

I’d love to say that it’s obvious they’ll go for the first, but is it really? Either route would represent an enormous loss of credibility for Leach and Open Europe which is why I say they are completely boxed in.

The problem with Open Europe is we don’t know which way they will jump and I suspect they don’t either. They may be a false flag operation to us, but to Europhiles they may be a false friend.

Whichever way they go, it can only end with their credibility in tatters. If I had ‘shares’ in Open Europe, I’d sell them now.

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