Referendum Blog: April 14

Referendum Blog: April 14

LAW-BREAKING?: The third of World at One’s ‘details of how the European Union’s organised’ by Professor Anand Menon was broadcast on Wednesday, and focused on EU law, which he said was the ‘glue that holds the EU together’. Menon described how in 1964, the EU decided that its laws ‘had to be supreme’ because otherwise there would be chaos caused by different countries interpreting it differently. He claimed such law ‘had to be superior’ to that of individual nations – and suggested that this was not a problem because individuals and organisations could argue their cases at the European Courts of Justice, and countries could vote to leave the EU if they did not like the set-up. He concluded by observing that was strange that people did not understand the difference between the European Court of Justice (which administered EU law) and the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled on matters arising from the EU’s Convention on Human Rights. Menon said this was a ’separate document in the treaties’. Overall, this was yet another whitewash from a figure who – it has emerged during his three talks thus far – is totally uncritical about the EU or its operations. There is not even a flicker of acknowledgement to that Eurosceptics believe that the EU has subverted the law-making process to such an extent that it is undermining national sovereignty, and that the supremacy of EU law is a continual threat to the UK and its citizens. As the series unfolds, this is adding up to straightforward pro-EU bias – with Martha Kearney giving the daily impression that what is on offer is somehow objective. It blatantly is not. 

THEM OR US?: Nick Robinson’s two-part series  Europe: Them or Us, first broadcast on Tuesday night, started off on wrong and biased footings. A major part of the programme was archive footage from the BBC’s 1996 series on the EU The Poisoned Chalice. There was thus an impressive array of contributors, many long dead and clearly from a different age, such as Conservative Europhile (and imperialist) Julian Amery and former Labour minister and Eurosceptic Douglas Jay (both of whom died soon after the 1996 programme was made). The overall goal was to explain  how the UK first resisted, and then became desperate to join the fledgling framework that became the European Union at the Treaty of Maastricht.

A major problem with the first episode, however, was its start point. Nick Robinson took us first to the Second World War and the main thrust was that Winston Churchill and other European leaders began contemplating the concept of a ‘united Europe’  in reaction to the horrors of war order to prevent future wars; to tame the worst excesses of rampant nationalism. He thus pushed  strongly as a central pillar of the presentation, the claim by the EU itself and its supporters that the EU has kept the peace; without it, we would descend again into the pits of internecine strife. Many Eurosceptics, of course, take a very different view, and counter-claim that this is a carefully constructed pro-EU myth. Cabinet minister Chris Grayling, made points on those lines when he appeared in the Newsnight referendum special on Monday night. This blistering article on the Cambridge University ‘Research’ website by lecturer in politics Chris Bickerton explains why. He states:

‘It may seem crazy to suggest that the EU is not a peace project. This is, after all, its founding narrative. But history suggests otherwise for two reasons. One is that in the late 1940s and 1950s there were many more powerful forces leading to peace in Europe. The shift from warfare to welfare states, made possible by the class compromise put in place after World War II, was crucial. European cooperation was really just an extension of that deeper change in European societies.

‘Another reason is that the EU of today has little to do with European cooperation in the 1950s. Today’s EU has more recent roots. The Coal and Steel Community was a cartel intended to make European steel production more competitive and give the French access to West German coal. This initiative was quickly overcome by the economic success that raised demand for coal and steel. By 1957, it was quietly folded into the Treaty of Rome. The aim of the Treaty of Rome was to soften the effects of economic success. Growing economies push up wages and prices, which makes imports cheaper and leads to repeated balance of payments problems. Look at Britain’s Stop-Go economic experience of the 1950s and 1960s. A common external tariff, which raised the prices of imports, was Western Europe’s answer to this problem.

‘Today’s EU has its roots in economic crisis, not in economic success. Its history takes us back to the 1970s and the end of the post-war consensus. Governments sought many ways to exit this crisis and eventually settled on European market integration (the Single European Act) plus fiscal consolidation through more robust external rules (the Maastricht Treaty). This takes us to the EU and the euro of today.’

That’s a long extract,  but it explains exactly why Nick Robinson’s emphasis was so wrong and created, in effect, an immediate pro-EU narrative. Why would the UK not have wanted to be part of a new initiative which had a fundamental goal of keeping the peace?  The reality is that this was not in the equation in the 1940s at all, despite the impression  given. Robinson also did not mention at all that the drive towards the EU began in the 1920s and 1930s and was based on a combination of socialist-tinged Utopianism, federalism, and a concomitant drive to emasculate nation states. One of the main theoretical bases of this idealism was a paper written in 1931 by Arthur Salter, a British civil servant, called The United States of Europe . He envisaged – on the basis of how the League of Nations operated –  a ‘secretariat, a council of ministers, an assembly and a court’. Crucially, the secretariat would be an international body of civil servants to which nation states would be subservient – countries and national governments would be reduced to the role of municipal authorities. The route towards establishing this framework would be a common market,  based on how Germany had been united in the 19th century.  Salter thus laid down the blueprint for the EU and what has unfolded since then through the Treaty of Rome and beyond is in many respects a fulfilment of his core ideas.

Robinson chose to ignore  – or was he unware of? – this vital part of EU history and instead pushed the Europe Union equals peace EU propaganda message. As such, the series began on rotten foundations. Little that followed in part 1 redeemed this.  It amounted, in one sense at least,  to pro-EU bias.

Both Tuesday’s offering and the 1996 Poisoned Chalice series were produced by John Bridcut, who was also responsible for the 2007 BBC Trustees’ report on impartiality ‘From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel’. This became the basis for the BBC’s crazy  definition of ‘due impartiality’, under which BBC editors and producers can put their own stamp on any item in fields such as  the coverage  of the EU and climate change. It seems that Bridcut’s eyes, under such ‘due impartiality’, the part of EU ideology, history and conduct that Eurosceptics believe is fundamentally anti-democratic and centralist can be ignored.

BBC bias in this respect is particularly pernicious. The EU project is highly complex and its supporters have refined their defence of it over many years of PR effort. It is especially hard to quarrel with what it says is the reason for its foundation and its raison d’etre: keeping the peace. During the referendum campaign BBC journalism and programme-making should be fearless and ruthless  in subjecting such claims to the highest possible scrutiny.  They are not achieving this.

Photo by mikecogh

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