Everyone is talking rubbish about “Europe”

by Sam Fowles

I’m trying really hard to remember a time when we could go a whole week without having to have a national moan about “Europe”*. I mean I get it, I really do. All that great food, fantastic culture and nice weather. Not to mention Germany and France’s positively infuriating collective predilection for paying people properly and according them proper employment rights.

Actually I don’t get it. But a collective grumble is one thing, much more serious is that our national debate on Europe is dramatically and consistently rubbish. I’ve (reluctantly) learned to accept that some people have different opinions to me but when did it become acceptable to just make things up when it comes to Europe?

The whole debate pretty much falls into four words: Immigrants, human rights and “reform”. But none of these supposed “problems” with “Europe” are actually based on fact. Cameron and co spent December falling over themselves to prevent the supposed influx of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants abusing our welfare system. UKIP’s website proclaims its ambition to “take back control of our borders”. But if anyone had actually bothered to check, they’d have discovered that recent immigrants are 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than people already living here and have made a net contribution of £25bn to public finances since 2000.

Instead of “Immigration rows out of control” (our Prime Minister’s choice of words) that whole fiasco could be summed up as “everyone freaks out because (foreign) people want to be productive members of society”. By the way, people coming over here, spending money and paying tax helps create jobs, not take them away. It’s called economic growth, look it up, its great.

Human rights, of course, are the cause of every ill not caused by immigration. They “undermine parliamentary sovereignty”, subject us to the will of “foreign judges” and the Tories are scrapping the Human Rights Act 2003 after the next election.

Abolishing the HRA would have no effect on the substantive rights. Britain would still be a signatory to the ECHR so the ECtHR would still hear cases. What it would do is make the whole system far less efficient. The HRA is a legal tool, it allows courts to deal with human rights issues at first instance or appeal. It doesn’t add any rights that weren’t already in Britain’s treaty obligations or the common law itself, it just makes them more accessible at an earlier stage. The practical effect of this is that matters are settled quickly because human rights issues can be dealt with immediately rather than after several expensive appeals. Abolishing the HRA would make the whole legal system less efficient and more expensive.

By definition, parliamentary sovereignty means that parliament can make or unmake any law it chooses. If a domestic judge rules that an act of the government is illegal then the government can simply legislate to make it legal in future. The problem comes when actual pieces of legislation are found to be in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. But this still doesn’t have anything to do with sovereignty. Britain is a signatory to the ECHR, but even if we weren’t we’d still be a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which contain exactly the same rights. Even without these, most civil liberties are already contained in our common law in judgements dating back to the Magna Carter.

Human Rights” are principles that parliament has been embracing for over 500 years. That’s why British jurists played such a large role in drafting the ECHR. The European Court interprets those principles, just as domestic courts do, but this has nothing to do with sovereignty. If we want to throw out principles like freedom of expression or the right to family life then that’s another debate. But let’s not pretend that a judge in Strasbourg interpreting them is any more a threat to sovereignty than a judge in Parliament Square. It’s also worth noting (so of course no one does) that of the cases brought against the UK in 2012, only 0.6% resulted in a loss for the government, one of the best win rates in Europe. The ECHR is actually pretty good at supporting British interpretations of Human Rights.

Finally there’s “reform”. George Osborne is dead right when he says the EU needs to reform. It has significant issues of democracy, economic balance and financial security to answer. But Gorgeous George suggested one area for actual reform: The welfare system. Sometimes I think that, when asked to find the solution to x = 3 + 4 in his 11 Plus, George must have put “welfare reform”. Cameron talks of powers “flowing back” to the UK but he never mentions which powers. Similarly no one ever explains how anyone is going to agree to free trade but completely different systems of labour regulation. Treating workers properly does tend to inhibit the unfettered acquisition of cash so I can’t imagine the rest of Europe agreeing to do it but let Britain have access to their markets while treating it’s workers like the diggers in “The Temple of Doom”.

The reality is that never have a fact based debate on “Europe” because objections to “Europe” have no basis in fact. This is xenophobia pure an simple and it’s hugely damaging. Nigel Farage, John Redwood et al and Paul Dacre don’t represent the majority British opinion on Europe. But they have or are given such extensive platforms to spout misinformation that they’ve managed to convince a sizable chunk.

We should have a debate about the EU, maybe even about the ECHR. But right now the biggest problem with both is that no one talking seems to know the first thing about them.


*“Europe” is used throughout this piece because I’m trying to hit a word count. But, as nobody ever notes, immigration is governed by the Free Movement Provisions in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Human Rights are governed by the European Convention. These are two entirely different treaties, administered by different courts with different memberships. EU immigration has absolutely nothing to do with the ECHR. Just so we’re clear.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and blogs at the Huffington Post 


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17 Responses to “Everyone is talking rubbish about “Europe””

  1. Tafia says:

    The problem is that the only way of dealing with this now is a straight in/out referendum and leave the decision to the people that matter – the voter.

    Otherwise this will drag on. And on. And on. And on.

    UKIP are going to do extraordinarily well in the Euros later this year. They will definately be the second largest party and possibly even the largest.

    Bearing in mind that a UK General Election has to be called less than 12 months later then timing dictates that it will be a single issue one – Europe.

    So like it or lump it, the only way of killing this is a Referendum and then living with the result.

  2. BenM says:

    If you need a pointer to the sheer cluelessness that makes up Tory and general rightwing thinking, their collective monomaniacal hysteria over Europe is the best example.

    How anyone can think of subverting their general intelligence to a political movement – the Right – so determined to stoke and ride the wave of such stupidity is beyond me.

  3. Madasafish says:

    It’s all very well to decry the poverty of the debate on Europe. Fine. get some facts out into the open, .

    But remember, politicians are not trusted to tell the truth on matters that are important. And UK politicians are on record as despising the UK electorate on its ability to make decisions on Europe , or on immigration, or on practically anything.

    And given we have had an recent article on this site basically saying the UK electorate are a bunch of ignorant fools, do you seriously expect anyone to be swayed by anything a politician says which they don’t agree with?

    Politicians have themselves as a class to blame if UKIP present themselves as an anti Establishment party. They are likely to do extremely well at the 2014 Euro Elections..

    I personally believe that leaving the EU would be a serious mistake. But given some of the recorded comments by UK and some EU politicians, even I am tempted to vote in favour of an exit – if only to basically sock it to some extremely arrogant people who question my right to discuss or decide the issue.

  4. wg says:

    The first thing to ask is this – who gains by thousands of people roaming across Europe undercutting local workers. We have seen that judgements made by EU courts, Laval and Viking for instance, have established that the free movement of workers has the nod over the working conditions and wages of local workers as long as those conditions and wages meet the minimum conditions possible.

    Put this against a backdrop of Peter Mandelson’s “we sent out search parties” and John Reid’s “we increased immigration to bring down the costs of labour” and we come to the conclusion that our present situation was not arrived at by accident but was a carefully thought out strategy.

    Is Labour Uncut now an advocate for this race to the bottom by putting this article up?

    The second thing to ask is – who’s economy has benefited? The huge debt and deficit left by the last Labour government contradict the oft-repeated claim that immigration and migrant workers were good for the economy.
    Although, I will accept that it would be difficult to persuade those people on benefits to leave their sofas and pick the fruit that others have travelled hundreds of miles to pick.

    I also question the idea that the EU has protected our rights – we are now subject to the European Arrest Warrant and the European Investigation Order, which have kicked holes in our Habeas corpus and personal and private integrity.

    Finally, I want to elect a representative to go to our Parliament to make the laws that govern me – if there is a higher authority than Westminster then there is no point in me taking part in that quaint little exercise of putting my cross on a piece of paper.
    I mean, can you please answer me one question; why the hell is the EU deciding whether I can smoke a menthol cigarette or not – it’s sod all to do with them.

    Xenophobic enough?

  5. Michael Taylor says:

    Boy do I get tired of being told I’m a xenophobe.

    How often in your life have you been asked, or thought: ‘Which side would you have been on: Cromwell or The King.’

    And you’d always wanted to believe it would have been Cromwell. Well all I can say is that if you don’t recognize the threat to parliamentary democracy posed by the EU institutions (and acted on, how powerfully, in Greece, Italy, Portugal etc), then the truth is, you’re on the side of Charles 1st.

    This is the test of our time: do you believe in democracy, or the divine right of EU commissioners. We know which side Mr Fowles is on.

  6. bob says:

    Ben M, obviously you do not believe in freedom of thought and expression. maybe they are right and you are wrong. This is boil that needs lancing and none of three main parties are willing to wield the scalpel.

    The government under Heath took us into the so called ‘common market’ without telling the people that it was a forerunner of a European superstate as envisaged by Monet, Wilson to his credit allowed a referendum on continued membership, again the British people were lied to by the political elite.

    We need a referendum before the next election, not vague promises of one afterwards.

  7. Madasafish says:

    Michael Taylor

    How often in your life have you been asked, or thought: ‘Which side would you have been on: Cromwell or The King.’

    Let me see:

    Would I support a religious fanatic who appointed himself dictator and who was deposed as people got fed up with him?

    Would I support a man who believed he had a divine right to rule as a dictator and who was deposed as people got fed up with him?

    I think that’s what is called a “False Choice” 🙂

  8. Ex-labour says:

    As normal you view everything you support as perfect with no flaws which is a stupid position to take.

    Your spin on human rights just says it all. The act was drafted after the Second World War and the intent was to protect the individual from the state . The interpretation of the the current EU law is laughable. How can an Iraqi asylum seeker and convicted criminal knock down a kill a young girl then get someone pregnant and say to the court you can’t deport me as I have a right to a family life.

    These people including the judiciary are just taking the piss out of the UK and laugh at people who support them and the ECHR. It’s true that we have lost very few of the cases against the UK, but those that we have eg prisoners voting rights are ones of great significance and are an affront to British values.

    Don’t even get me started on the endless regulation and legislation that blights all our lives. Don’t get me started on the fact that the EU organisations are riddled with corruption and have not submitted (and refuse to submit) accounts. Don’t get me started on the perks and pay of the EU elite, or the fact that most are unelected to their position.

    Yeah, that great EU thing……..doh !!!

  9. uglyfatbloke says:

    Cromwell/Charles I…the other way of looking at the issue is that one segment of a tiny political class ejected a despot and replaced him with another despot. In due course the majority of that tiny political class accepted the restoration of the monarchy.

  10. Mike Stallard says:

    “We should have a debate about the EU, maybe even about the ECHR. But right now the biggest problem with both is that no one talking seems to know the first thing about them.”
    The whole problem is that the views of the Commissioners are never reported clearly and frequently enough.
    “We need a true political union. To me this means that we need to build a United States of Europe with the Commission as government and two chambers – the European Parliament and a “Senate” of Member States.”
    “The European Commission now even gets to analyse and comment on Member States’ draft budgetary plans before national Parliaments have their say. That is a huge leap forward. ”
    These words were spoken in a recent speech, reported on Europa Website by viviane Reding the second person in the commission.
    Does anyone on this site really believe that this the way forward?

  11. Ex-Labour says:

    Why was my comment not posted up ? Is the truth about ECHR not acceptable ? There was nothing in there that was not reported in the media.

    I must have inadvertantly logged in to the Gruaniad’s “Comment is Free” ……free but not from censorship.

  12. Mo says:

    There’s so much uneducated grumbling about immigration in the media nowadays. It annoys me.

  13. Rallan says:

    This article perfectly demonstrates why UKIP is rising and the old parties are declining. It full of misrepresentation, omission, arrogance and contempt. Increasingly, and quite rightly, the British people are ignoring people like Sam Fowles.

  14. Hairy Maclary says:

    You’re also talking rubbish: there’s no such thing as the Human Rights Act 2003.

  15. Tafia says:

    “There’s so much uneducated grumbling about immigration in the media nowadays. It annoys me.”

    Speaking as an elected workplace union rep, I’ll tell you the reality for the low paid and low skilled.

    Non-UK citizens undercutting them wage wise while the main parties wring their hands bleating there is nothing they can do because it’s EU policy.

    Employers abusing the massive surplus of labour without attack by the political establishment or the trades unions.

    Employers using the threat of outsourcing in order to force the indiginous workforce into accepting lower pay, longer hours, lower pensions and worse conditions – again with politicians refusing to bring that to an end.

    EU citizens being treated as equals alongside UK citizens for scarce social housing, NHS provision, school places – and again the rather weak and gutless excuse that”it’s the EU there’s nothing we can do”.

    British politicians are elected to put British subjects first and foremost all the time every time. If they don’t then they serve little purpose other than as objects of ridicule, scorn and open disgust.

    If the EU is responsible then change it. Don’t witter vagueries – announce a plan acceptable to the people, a list of non-negotiable demands, a non-negotiable timetable and an ‘or else’ ultimatum and have the bollocks to stick to it and not behave like impotent pointless washed-out dog turds.

    You are elected to do a job – not try and do a job. If we only wanted people that tried we’d use PG Tips chimps (which is basically what we’ve got now).

  16. Sam says:

    Some incredibly interesting comments here so thanks once again for reading and taking the time to comment. I’m reading these on the train so will post a more considered response tomorrow but I thought I should respond immediately to Hairy Maclary’s comment with the following:


    In the above article I referred to the Human Rights Act 2003. This statute does not exist. The correct piece of legislation is the Human Rights Act 1998. Considering that this was a piece about correcting misconceptions in the public debate that’s a pretty embarrassing mistake to make! Serious apologies.

  17. Madasafish says:


    On the 21st you said:” I’m reading these on the train so will post a more considered response tomorrow”

    It is now 9 days later and no reply..

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