Michael Gove is cynically trying to exploit the EU small print to boost his Brexit campaign – Richard Corbett

Richard Corbett


I am somewhat shocked that a man with a reputation for intellectual rigour should throw so many distortions, half truths and lies into his attempt to “launch the Brexit fightback” after a miserable week.

Michael Gove started his Times piece with a sweeping statement that nothing has changed in the EU because, er, the treaties have not been changed. That is like saying that in domestic politics (and his article starts with a long list of Government “reforms” to schools, tax, welfare, crime, etc), nothing has changed in Britain because we have not changed our constitution!

He then conjures up a list of things that “we (who?) had hoped”, but  supposedly failed, to achieve:

• reducing “excessive” social and employment legislation. There actually has been an agreement to re-examine every existing piece of EU legislation (in what is known as the Refit programme) to see if it is necessary, proportionate, or in need of simplification. But Gove no doubt thinks any social legislation is excessive. In real life, it makes sense to agree common rules for our common market that simplify things for business (one shared set of rules instead of 28 national rules) and which protect people better by avoiding a race to the bottom in the standards we apply.  So when Gove says “we” here, this does not necessarily  include most people in Britain: all kinds of groups, not just our trade unions, oppose undue repeals of social protection.

• an opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Yet Britain didn’t ask for that, presumably because it is not necessary to opt out of a Charter that in fact lays down limits on the EU institutions and the filed of European law. It has already been secured (under the Labour government) that this Charter “does not empower EU courts to act on UK law or practices”.

• ending the “habit” of the European Parliament moving between Strasbourg and Brussels – again, something that Britain has never asked for, perhaps because the requirement imposed on the European Parliament to sit for one week a month in Strasbourg was, embarrassingly for the Tories, brokered by John Major when he chaired the Edinburgh summit in 1992.

• reform of the Court of Justice. The court rules on disputes referred to it about interpreting existing EU law. It does not make law. The judges are appointed by the member state governments, not by the EU institutions. Having a common dispute resolution mechanism, rather than rely on unilateral interpretations by countries perhaps less likely to respect their agreements than we are, is surely in Britain’s interest. Which probably explains why Britain didn’t ask for it to be reformed.

• Finally, he says we wanted to reform the Common Agricultural Policy. Yet that is a good example of how policy reform is an ongoing process in the EU, in which Britain is largely successful. Agricultural price support used to consume over 70 per cent of the EU budget – it’s due to fall to under 30 per cent under the financial framework negotiated three years ago. The butter mountains and the wine lakes have gone. The focus on a market based approach combined with rural development and environmental sustainability is exactly what Britain pushed for.

That CAP reform wasn’t part of Cameron’s package shows us that most reforms in the EU happen through its normal procedures and do not need a country to threaten exit. The EU is a non-stop negotiation among 28 neighbouring countries on those subjects we have agreed to deal with jointly. The negotiations can sometimes be slow, but the outcome is a constant process of reform, from deepening the single market in services, to better focused research programmes (which British universities and institutes benefit from disproportionately) to the new fisheries policy (which even Greenpeace  hailed as good) to consumer protection rules that cut costs such as roaming charges.

Gove makes no acknowledgement of this. On the contrary, he goes on in his article to elaborate his own Project Fear, referring to the Five Presidents’ Report (which contains suggestions about deeper Eurozone cooperation) as if it was an imposition on Britain (not in the Eurozone) comparable to a Soviet Five Year Plan. Some of my colleagues from countries that escaped the Soviet system, and freely joined the voluntary Union of democracies that is the EU, roll their eyes when British eurosceptics compare  the EU to a Communist dictatorship. But as regards deeper Eurozone co-operation, this is something Britain has advocated and anyway, in or out, how could we or should we prevent them doing what is necessary to manage their common currency?

Gove then plays the Turkey card. He knows full well that any future Turkish membership of the EU can be blocked by a simple vote in the House of Commons (if we are still a member), as all member countries have to ratify any accession. But rather than mention that, he plays on people’s fears that Turkey is about to join, with full free movement, and implies that we can’t stop it.

He then rails against our budgetary contributions, mentioning that “we get some money back but there’s no guarantee we’d get the same in the future”. Yes there is. He should know that any change, not just to the British rebate, but to the whole financial framework, requires unanimous consent, including that of Britain. He should also point out that the EU budget, comprising as it does less than two per cent of public spending, is far less significant than the economic effects of membership of the world’s largest market, with estimates that for every pound we pay into the budget we get nearly £10 back in economic benefits. He offers no challenge to that calculation. Yet that is the real threat to the NHS and other public services – the economic losses from leaving would undermine tax revenues and funding and cannot be glossed over.

But his most bizarre argument is perhaps the line that if we decide to leave “until a deal which suits us is reached, we still retain a veto over their plans. So that gives us all the cards.” Has he actually read the procedure for leaving? It involves the negotiation of a divorce settlement within two years, after which we are out anyway, even if there is no agreement. We can bargain as best we can for a favourable settlement, but we certainly have no “veto” over any EU plans for its future, unlike if we remain, where any change to the EU treaties requires our consent.

Gove knows full well that most of his readers will not be conversant with the intricacies of EU procedures. He is cynically and dishonesty trying to exploit that, to try to restore his side’s chances to make inroads into the Remain vote. It’s not worthy of a serious politician.

Richard Corbett is Labour MEP for Yorkshire and Humber and deputy leader of the Labour group of MEPs.

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