Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
There are various theories as to why Leave has fallen behind in the opinion polls. Some observers put it down to “losers’ premium”.
A chunk of any electorate is disposed to resent the status quo; to assume that the grass is greener on the other side. The “losers’ premium” is especially high in this case because of the cost of the lockdowns, which a certain kind of pundit has unscrupulously conflated with Brexit.
Others think it has to do with the Government’s failure to seize the commercial and regulatory opportunities that opened up after 2020 – and who can doubt that they have a point. Still others point out that Remain was always ahead in the polls; it was only with real ballots that Leave won.
There may be something in all these theories. But one obvious explanation has, as far as I can tell, gone unconsidered. Put simply, our media are no longer full of negative stories about the EU.
When we were members, crises on the Continent were our problem. A surge in migration across the Mediterranean, a row with Poland over national sovereignty, an economic crisis in Germany – these things were big news.
Now, a downturn in Germany is no more intrinsically newsworthy than a downturn in Japan. Yes, it will affect us as a trading partner; but it no longer has direct consequences for Britain, and so tends to be relegated to the business pages. Indeed, it is astonishing how little Brussels features in the arguments of Rejoiners, who are evidently motivated by dislike of Eurosceptics rather than love for the EU.
Yet the irritations that stirred Leavers in the first place – wastrel Eurocrats, corrupt budgets, cancelled votes – have not gone away.
The thing that used to exercise me most about the EU was its tendency to make up the law as it went along, interpreting every dot and comma of the treaties as a mandate for deeper integration, bending the rules to punish people it disliked.
I was reminded of this tendency when I saw that Marine Le Pen, along with many of the leading figures in her party, faced trial over the alleged embezzlement of EU funds. The case has been rumbling on for years, and turns on whether staff hired by MEPs for France’s Rassemblement National (née Front National) were in fact spending their time campaigning for the party in France.
I should make clear that I have no inside information, and don’t want to prejudge the case. I should also make clear, the web being full of dunderheads who can’t separate general principles from the people involved, that, if I were French, I would not vote for Le Pen. Although her criticisms of the EU ring true, the overall package, from her Leftist economics to her Putinism, is off-putting.
But I did see, as an MEP, how EU officials would go after anyone who questioned the goal of a united Europe, the finalité politique. Their trick was to write the rules ambiguously, so that you could declare something improper when it was done by souverainistes while applauding the same thing when it was done by goody-goody federalists.
Sometimes, the blatancy was breath-taking. For example, MEPs enjoyed immunity from prosecution; an immunity which could, however, be lifted by a vote in plenary.
In theory, we were supposed to uphold immunity when the charges were political, but not when they were straightforwardly criminal. In practice, I don’t remember this distinction ever being applied. Instead, the rule was that the immunity of Eurosceptics should always be removed, and that of Eurozealots always upheld.
One day, we had two consecutive votes. Le Pen had been charged with incitement after saying that walking past women in burqas made her feel as if she were living under occupation, while a German Christian Democrat was wanted by the Munich tax authorities for under-declaring his income. It seemed obvious which of those two accusations was political, but guess whose immunity was upheld? The most shocking thing, looking back, was that no one was shocked.
Eurosceptic MEPs were routinely accused of letting their staff run party campaigns. The beauty of the allegation was that it was almost impossible to disprove. An MEP’s diary does not neatly segregate political from representative work. On a typical Friday, you might visit a business in your region, do a local radio interview, and attend a party fundraiser. There is no way that your staff could deal with only those bits of your diary that don’t involve politics.
Although it did not make much of a splash here, many UKIP and Brexit Party MPs were penalised for doing things that were not considered in the least bit disreputable when done by Europhiles. The only reason I escaped being targeted was that my brilliant researchers were Spanish, and I would not let them come to my constituency (rather to their disappointment, for they were terrific Anglophiles).
Now it is possible that the Front National was doing something on a different scale. Maybe that party really was using EU money to fund its national campaigns. But, to put this as neutrally as I can, it is hard to imagine things having reached this point had Le Pen been a Euro-federalist.
Luckily, we no longer have to worry about such matters. The EU’s partial application of the rules is not our problem any more. The money involved doesn’t come from British taxpayers.
We might regret that the EU has lost sight of the concept that laws must be (in Hayek’s phrase) “general, equal and certain”, rather as we regret, say, the disqualification of opposition figures in Pakistan. But it is no skin off our nose, at least not directly. That, I reckon, is the most underrated Brexit benefit of all.