A few weeks after the storm over whether or not the Queen supported Brexit deserves a more detached look.
What actually happened was that The Sun ran a provocative piece on 9 March 2016, claiming that the Queen backed Brexit. The assertion was that she had “rip at the then Deputy PM [Nick Clegg] during a lunch at Windsor Castle”. Clegg rapidly tweeted “As I told the journalist this is nonsense. I’ve no recollection of this happening & its not the sort of thing I would forget” and the BBC ran a story about Buckingham Palace being clear that she was neutral over Brexit.
As the lunch in question was in 2011 it is stretching things to construe whatever was actually said as a comment on the forthcoming referendum. At this distance it might also be quite hard to be sure of what was said and what people wish she had said.
I don’t pretend to know the Queen’s private views on this, but the whole episode raises someone in the role of the Queen might respond to the EU, in terms of the role itself, history and the constitution.
One of the recurring threads of the EU referendum campaign has been the need for reform. What gets lost in that is that the EU has been on a continual process of reform from its inception.
While proponents of Brexit argue for reform in a way that sometimes leaves me wondering whether their comments are based on their fantasies of the EU or reality, the EU has been getting on with it.
On 16 March, Guy Verhofstadt tweeted his pleasure at the EU Council adopting measures for better law-making in the EU, published on European Council’s web site. Frustratingly that didn’t get much attention in the British media.
The dates in that document are interesting — ideas put forward for discussion by the Commission on 20 May 2015 — well before attempts at “renegotiation” were under way, so there is no sense that this arises from British pressure. The proposal has worked its way through the system in a way that enables proper discussion. As a democratic body, the EU is bound to have a complex decision-making process, to allow for proper engagement with those we elect to the European Parliament and the (elected) governments of the nation states, so there is wisdom in this taking a while.
Concern over migration is shaping up to be a EU-wide issue — it is frustrating that it is an issue in the referendum debate as if this is not something we share with our EU partners.
Last weekend’s elections in Germany have sent shockwaves because of the progress of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Writing in The Guardian, Philip Oltermann also points out the success of some pro-refugee candidates as an illustration of the increasingly complex and fractured nature of the argument.
It sounds very familiar: in the UK the proponents of Brexit are pushing an anti-immigration case to “take back control of our borders” while Liberal Democrats are tending to point out the value of immigrants. In narrowly-financial terms, the awkward reality is that immigrants to the UK contribute substantially more in taxes than they take out of the system in benefits. Even the argument to restrict benefits to new arrivals is questionable: if someone comes to the UK, claims benefits while they settle, starts earning and starts paying tax and more-than pays back what they received, then the “benefit” payments look like a prudent investment. The idea’s been pithily summed up in the idea of Schrödinger’s immigrant: simultaneously stealing our jobs and too lazy to work.
There’s a startling gap between the English and French media on the agreement yesterday (8 March 2016) on migrants from Turkey which has worrying implications for the EU referendum debate.
In the afternoon I spoke with two friends who are usually well-informed, and who expressed concern at the deal being done with Turkey over migrants. My mind went into “euromyths” mode, wondering what the kernel(s) of truth in the story might be. Later caught a radio news bulletin which seemed to confirm what they had said — that a deal was being done with Turkey that would mean Syrian migrants reaching Greece from there would be returned, and one migrant from the refugee camps would be allowed to settle in the EU for each migrant returned. That’s an elegant way of removing the incentive for the human trafficers who are putting lives at risk. The implication is that this was a last-ditch attempt to head off Syrian migrants on their way to the UK, and linked to the sweetener of fast tracking Turkey’s application to join the EU (ignoring concerns at press freedom and democracy in Turkey).
The Times on 29 February had a surprising front page story about the “Rising fury of ministers muzzled over Brexit”.
The vocal complainant was Iain Duncan Smith, upset that civil servants in his department were being asked to produce “propaganda” to support Britain’s remaining in the EU.
The snag is that that Times article says they were sharing facts about the levels of benefits claimed by migrants from other EU countries.
But with migrants from EU countries paying very much more in taxes than the take out of the system in benefits, this looks a little weak. It gives the impression of Iain Duncan Smith being keen to stop his civil servants circulating facts that don’t support his case.
So: does he expect us to vote on the facts, or to dismiss as “propaganda” facts that don’t support his position? That’s not a sane way to make a decision.