Time for Team Brexit to build bridges and be nice to the European Parliament
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) see themselves as toilers on complex technical legislation, often related to technology, who have been insulted for years by Nigel Farage for something they are not. The European Parliament has a key role in determining the generosity of the Brexit deal Britain gets.
I feel a bit guilty about Brexit. Lost in writing about technology legislation going through the European Parliament, I never properly made the case for Europe and there certainly was one to be made.
Sometimes in Brussels, I have felt singled out for instrumental friendships by the Eurocrats because I had better relations than most Brits with other nationalities. I got on with everyone and spoke to everyone. If anything, I avoided the Brits. What is striking is how people hew to their nationalities, like a beach in Spain, even though the European parliamentarians are supposed to be educated.
UKIP and some of the Tories were the worst. If you hate foreigners, why work abroad? Maybe it makes complete sense. If you want to preserve a picture of a perfect Britain to underpin your preening sense of arrogance, better not to be based in Britain, which offers reality checks aplenty. Try the 07.22 Overground train from Willesden Junction to Acton Central. I thought some of the MEPs and their assistants were borderline delusional. There was a very good piece recently in the Guardian about Daniel Hannan, the eloquent Tory MEP who ran a tireless campaign for British “independence” for 20 years, and became the voice of non thuggish euroscepticism in the European Parliament.
He was born in Venezuela to expat parents – the kind of dislocation that sometimes breeds intense patriotism; he went to a posh boarding school in the verdant English countryside – well away from the horrible parts of London. He then honed his debating skills in the Oxford Union. I guess that was when he fell in love with the mythology of the Mother of Parliaments, Westminster, which he carried through with him in his career. He does the fogey shtick through and through: well-tailored, long-fingered and with an oddly bobbing head, obviously containing a huge brain, he makes off the cuff speeches that sound as if he had just swallowed a book on constitutional theory.
Yet he is not to be underestimated. He has provided inspiration to many Tory MPs who realised after their election that the House of Commons was where the television lights were situated, but the decisions were made and the real power lay with the European institutions – and especially the European parliament, that unlovely building. Hannan wanted to restore sovereignty to them.
They mobilised a formidable lobby against David Cameron to hold his EU referendum and, since the Brexit vote in June, on Theresa May not to back away from the Brexit decision. But the MP's concerns are not necessarily identical to the general population’s interests.
I still maintain that Europe was not a mainstream issue in the way it was in the 1990s, when the Tory Party was engaged in a civil war between John Major and the “bastards” in his cabinet. It was only seventh or even lower on a list of voter concerns in the run-up to the 2015 election. I don’t know: maybe the people felt Westminster and Brussels were equally remote. Ruled by either made not such a huge difference that it was worth the massive effort of leaving the EU to do so.
Maybe it was Erasmus student programmes for the middle class and Ryanair that made cheap holidays to remote corners of Europe possible. Or the spread of English within the EU institutions and the associated spread of British modes of thought. Scientists liked the seamless European collaboration networks that have helped Britain back to the top of the global science league once again. So did technology workers, engineers, and many businesses. People working in the City did too.
Britain became a European champion in the export of intellectual services, including engineering-related services. I never see British products in European stores (correct me if I am wrong), but the odd jar of Marmite and English mustard in the specialist condiments shelf.
Yet British estate agents, consultancies and chartered surveyors rule the billboards on the new shopping centre constructions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The British had made peace with Europe – then came the immigration issue.
Angela Merkel welcomed in a seemingly endless large numbers of young Middle Eastern men of conscript age sometimes absurdly claiming to be ‘unaccompanied minors’. They had always lost their passports which would have revealed their true age. Oddly, none of them ever lose their iPhones. Strange that, isn’t it?
In a few years these men would be German citizens and would freely be able to settle in Britain. The “jungle” in Calais where refugees attacked lorry drivers added to a sense of Britain under siege. Added to a feeling of powerlessness induced by globalisation and a sense that the London elite were living in their own bubble meant the immigration issue became the cause for Brexit.
Theresa May, in her Conservative conference speech this week, has rightly recognised the voice of protest from middle Britain. From her, we can expect a Britain First approach and more looking after the nation’s neglected white working class, less public school social liberalism and London-centric pan-European business expansion.
This is a less than perfect fit with Hannan’s academic Oxford Union obsession with sovereignty and parliamentarianism: Hannan has seldom if never mentioned immigration in his speeches. As someone born in Venezuela, perhaps he favours it. Yet without this populist cause, mobilised by the devious strategists on the Brexit side, the Brexiters would never have won it.
A love of Westminster is often accompanied by a contempt for the European Parliament. It is true, the plenary speeches seldom sound good in translation (although the simultaneous interpreters are enormously skilled). But whatever you think of the European Parliament, it is hugely powerful. It will have the final say on any deal Britain gets at Brexit. If the deal is too generous, they will likely make it tougher. For many MEPs, I suspect it is payback time.
Not so much against Hannan, just an engaging eccentric. Nigel Farage – the saloon bar complement to Hannan in their eurosceptic double act – is hated in the European Parliament because he is perceived as having crossed the line between straight talking and abusive rudeness. What can come across on Youtube as plain speaking and cutting through the fog of the news, comes across in Brussels as loud, thuggish, personally abusive – and beside the point. You can always turn down the volume on YouTube, but Farage comes across very loudly in the European Union hemicycle debating chamber.
The self image – and self image is, I know, always open to contestation – of MEPs is, I think, something like this: toilers at the coalface of legislation over technical, unfussy but hugely important issues, ultimately. Many of them have a technology aspect: internet privacy, search engine monopolies. Spectrum management. Carbon emissions trading reform.
There are many lobbies – in the broadest sense of the word – to be listened to and taken on board. A lot of scientific literature to be ploughed through. (Though admittedly some of these reports are open to accusations of political manipulation, especially those ordered by the Commission.)
Coalitions with various groupings have to build to push things through. Believe it or not, many MEPs see themselves as striving for win-win situations, not least because various disparate interests always have to be brought together. British business and non-governmental organisation (NGO) interests are well represented in Brussels and of course all informal corridor chit-chat is always in English. It is the synthesis of many interests, ultimately.
A lot of their work is not ideological, but technical. When Farage comes along and blasts the EU as a conspiracy against the British, it is totally at odds with the sense of Euro-parliamentarians as to what they are doing on a daily basis. The British are not the enemy. They know Farage is doing it to get YouTube viewers and they resent it.
Charles Grant, doyen of European experts and chief of the Centre of European Reform, said British politicians usually neglect the European Parliament and urged May and her team to be nice to the institution. He is right. Make nice with the European Parliament, starting with an opening towards Guy Verhofstadt, the European Liberal's president. A totally committed European, to be sure, (he is Belgian) but clever and, despite everything, something of an anglophile.