Richard North, 01/05/2019  

I've seen a few articles in the legacy media over the last week or so, complaining about what Rafael Behr is calling "the current lull in Brexit-related political frenzy".

The thinness of the agenda, I noted in my Saturday piece and it's pretty obvious that the party hacks are doing their best to keep Brexit out of the headlines until the local elections are over. I've heard tell that even MEP candidates are being instructed not to talk about "Europe", for fear of raising unwanted passions on the doorsteps of the nation.

We also have a Tory Councillor pleading with people not to waste a vote on Brexit in the locals. "This is about bins, not Brexit", he declares. Presumably, he's not heard of the Waste Framework Directive, which means that waste management is very much a Brexit issue. Before we get any long-term sense into refuse collection and disposal policies, we'll need to leave the EU (and the EEA, as the directive is part of the EEA acquis).

Nevertheless, with exactly six months to go before the end of the Article 50 extension, we have little time to spare if the outcome is to drop out of the EU having failed to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. But then, for the government even to plan for this eventuality is to risk turning precautions into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After all, if the government was able to tell the nation, with absolute confidence, that it was fully prepared for a no-deal Brexit, then there would be less incentive to strive for a formula which brought all the sides in parliament together. We could just mark off the passage of time, and wait for the inevitable to happen.

As it is, the news of the moment is how Corbyn has managed to avoid committing his party to a second referendum under all circumstances, while Mrs May is talking about concluding the cross-party talks with Labour by the middle of next week.

Earlier, Michel Barnier had been speaking at the Catholic University at Leuven, this time on the Future of Europe. But even with that title, he could not have got away without saying something on Brexit. What he did say, though, was of absolutely no comfort to us. "Talks are still ongoing in London", he said, adding: "That is where the deadlock must be broken".

The real "killer" line, though, was short and to the point. "Ladies and gentlemen", he declared, "the real urgency for Europe is not Brexit". Complaining that, time and time again, the European Council agenda had been hijacked by Brexit, he told his audience that: "An orderly Brexit is important. But the truth is: while the world speeds onwards, Europe should not be looking inward".

That was page three of his 16-page speech, and the last time he mentioned Brexit – another graphic indication of how far this issue is slipping down the European agenda. But if it is not high on Mr Barnier's list, it is for a wholly different reason from what we are seeing in the UK.

The detail on this came the following day (yesterday), when the European Commission issued a press release, offering its "recommendations for the EU's next strategic agenda 2019-2024".

Unable to help itself, it just had to tuck in a crass slogan at the head of its release: "Strength in Unity", perhaps unaware of how close this is to Oswald Mosley's "Union is Strength". At least they managed to resist "strength through joy", with even more sinister overtones, but you might have thought that the Commission would have the sense to resist the temptation to propagandise with such obvious connotations.

Anyhow, what brought this on was the forthcoming meeting of the EU-27 in Sibiu, Romania, scheduled for 9 May. The Commission is anxious to tell the Council "how Europe can shape its future in an increasingly multipolar and uncertain world", with Jean-Claude Juncker waxing lyrical. "The duty of every generation", he says:
… is to change the destinies of Europeans, present and future, for the better. To make good on our enduring promise of peace, progress and prosperity. The challenges we Europeans collectively face are multiplying by the day. For Europe to thrive, the EU's Member States must act together. I remain convinced that it is only in unity that we will find the strength needed to preserve our European way of life, sustain our planet, and reinforce our global influence.
This is accompanied by an 80-page pamphlet, entitled "Europe in May 2019", with the sub-title: "Preparing for a more united, stronger and more democratic Union in an increasingly uncertain world".

One of the great advantages of Brexit, when it happens, is that we will no longer be obliged to wade our way through such tracts. No longer, for example, will we have to read that, "our single currency is a source of economic protection and empowerment", as a precursor to member states being asked to hand over more powers to the centre, in order to strengthen economic policy.

Remarkably, as the encroachment on national power continues, the propaganda stakes increase. Thus does the Commission assert that: "The European Union is primarily a union of people and values – with a unique system of democracy that complements and interacts with national, regional and local democratic systems of all Member States, as well as working directly with citizens and civil society".

This is an organisation which, at its inception, never put the "union of people" to the test, with founding referendums, thus depriving them of that most fundamental element of democracy: the freedom to choose our own forms of government.

Obviously stung by the UK's search for independence, and its exercise of democratic choice, the Commission tells "all those with a stake in the future of Europe" that they "have a role to play in explaining what it means to be part of this Union and in spelling out the benefits or consequences of its policies and choices".

The Commission also writes of the need "for more honesty in acknowledging the joint responsibility of all involved in policy and decision-making when communicating about the EU to citizens". There is nothing there, however, to acknowledge that "citizens" are excluded from decision-making at the European level.

Rather than address this – which, of course, it cannot – the Commission asserts that, "It is time to move past the tendency to nationalise success and Europeanise failure and instead better explain our common decisions and policies". This has a distinct flavour of the dying days of the Major government, which attributed electoral losses to a failure of the electorate to understand its policies. All that was needed were better explanations, and all would be well.

"No system can survive", says the Commission, "if its most vocal critics are the ones co-responsible for its design. The nationalist-populist narrative is based on a false dichotomy pitching national against European. EU institutions and Member States need to respond as one with a strong counter-narrative that explains the EU's fundamental role and benefits". The answer, therefore, is simple:
If citizens are to place their trust in Europe, their legitimate concerns and expectations must be addressed. Europeans often feel that they are not sufficiently informed about the EU's work. For this to change, our communication has to explain how the EU affects people's lives, and needs to build and nurture a better understanding of how the EU works and which issues fall under its responsibility.
It would never occur to such people that, amongst those most opposed to the EU are those who most definitely have the "better understanding of how the EU works and which issues fall under its responsibility". On the other hand, many in the UK who openly support our membership of the EU seem to have a very limited understanding of what the Union is, and what it does.

As for the Commission, it is now reaching into the depths of the Orwellian inversion, when it tells us that "argument and debate between leaders, governments, institutions and people about EU policies is not a sign of conflict, but a sign of healthy and vibrant democratic engagement". So you can see how we got it so wrong. All that disagreement about EU policies was really an example of democracy in action.

This, we are told, "is inherent to the form of governance that Europeans have chosen for themselves", notwithstanding that the people of the UK never actually chose the form of governance which was imposed on them.

It is helpful, therefore, to have such statements from the Commission, which remind us of what the battle is about, and why we became Eurosceptics in the first place. And finally, when what little unity we had as a movement came together, we had the strength to vote against continued membership of the EU.

Despite its unwholesome connotations, therefore, perhaps we should use the Commission's slogan, and thank the boys (and girls) in Brussels for the timely reminder. Then, we might find that strength does bring joy.

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