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On eurosceptics’ unholy alliance with the anti-EU hard left – your enemy’s enemy is not your friend


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With the Prime Minister apparently arranging panicked meetings of special advisers to aid the floundering Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, the UK’s EU referendum debate is effectively underway. Polls appear to show Brexiteers on the march. With the EU stumbling from one crisis to the next, and the poverty of positive messages emanating from Europhiles, the stage looks set for a close vote that the “Leavers” could win.

But for those of us who favour an EU exit on the basis of the opportunity it would provide Britain to be a liberal, free-trading nation, a nagging doubt remains. In working across ideological divides to win a “Leave” vote, will victory be considered a mandate for policies we’d oppose at a domestic level?

To some extent, there’s always been a divide among eurosceptics about whether this matters – especially among those who’d define themselves as pro-market classical liberals. All of us agree that free trade and exchange do not require a harmonised regulatory framework or membership of a political union. But all would agree that, in principle, the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, as Mark Carney outlined last week, makes our economy more dynamic.

It would be churlish to deny that the EU has entrenched the latter policies across Europe. But whereas many free-marketeers celebrate the idea of constraining the UK government in this way but argue that the EU is no longer a liberalising force elsewhere, other free-market Conservatives emphasise that these constraints themselves undermine countries’ democratic rights. At the heart of this is a disagreement on what matters more: whether countries’ decide their own policies (whatever they might be) or what policies we ultimately get.

Of course, to win the referendum, even principled liberal eurosceptics must reach out across the aisle. But many are playing a dangerous game in seeking to exploit every left-wing gripe to push opinion in an anti-EU direction – in turn legitimising ill-justified policies and hardcore political opponents. Highlighting that EU rules would stop Jeremy Corbyn renationalising the railways, limit our government from providing state aid to industries such as steel, and prevent us from further narrowing the VAT base by exempting tampons and other products may seem like a good way to harness support against EU membership. But what happens the day after we leave when a referendum result may be seen as a vindication of this agenda?

Worse, some free-market Tories place so much weight on their euroscepticism that they celebrate the electoral performance of parties in other countries with agendas far removed from their own. In just the past 24 hours, we’ve seen many eurosceptics claim that the Portuguese President’s decision to invite the largest party to attempt to form a government (totally in line with normal procedures and conventions) is anti-democratic, because the disparate leftish parties got over half the vote. Never mind that they never stood on one ticket – for some classical liberal eurosceptics it seems ensuring communists get into power is desirable, provided they oppose the EU’s agenda. Victory for the eurosceptic Law and Justice Party in Poland has been heralded by many too, despite it being an extraordinary stretch to claim they share any sort of free-market worldview. Most egregiously, some went as far as supporting the disastrous left-wing agenda of Syriza in Greece.

A referendum cannot be won with a narrow message that Britain could be a free-market utopia if liberated from Brussels. Nor, of course, should we fall for the Nirvana fallacy – comparing the EU with all its faults to a perfect policy environment in the UK. But often free-market eurosceptics almost slip into suggesting that whatever policies are implemented, the country would everywhere and always be better if decisions were made in Britain, and that everything the EU does is wrong. This is leading to all sorts of weird alliances, legitimising backward-looking and damaging ideas. In the longer term, the enemies of your enemy are not your friends.

Ryan Bourne is the IEA’s Head of Public Policy. This article first appeared in City AM.

Head of Public Policy and Director, Paragon Initiative

Ryan Bourne is Head of Public Policy at the IEA and Director of The Paragon Initiative. Ryan was educated at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he achieved a double-first in Economics at undergraduate level and later an MPhil qualification. Prior to joining the IEA, Ryan worked for a year at the economic consultancy firm Frontier Economics on competition and public policy issues. After leaving Frontier in 2010, Ryan joined the Centre for Policy Studies think tank in Westminster, first as an Economics Researcher and subsequently as Head of Economic Research. There, he was responsible for writing, editing and commissioning economic reports across a broad range of areas, as well as organisation of economic-themed events and roundtables. Ryan appears regularly in the national media, including writing for The Times, the Daily Telegraph, ConservativeHome and Spectator Coffee House, and appearing on broadcast, including BBC News, Newsnight, Sky News, Jeff Randall Live, Reuters and LBC radio. He is currently a weekly columnist for CityAM.


5 thoughts on “On eurosceptics’ unholy alliance with the anti-EU hard left – your enemy’s enemy is not your friend”

  1. Posted 27/10/2015 at 13:59 | Permalink

    National ‘independence’ is another word for ‘freedom’ at country level. Those of us who regard individual freedom as the most important political objective would, I believe, be happy to take our chances with left-wingers’. The immediate objective is to leave the EU — allied with friends, enemies, and all shades in between. To my no doubt jaundiced eyes, there’s often not all that much difference between middle-of-the-road ‘Conservatives’ and middle-of-the-road ‘Labour party’ members. (I seem to remember a story that
    Reginald Maudling was in considerable doubt about which party to join when he was thinking about going into politics. OK, that was more than fifty years ago — but are things really that different nowadays?) And the essence of democracy — which is a means to an end, not an end in itself — is the possibility of throwing the rascals out. Historically that has been important. Maybe it still is?

  2. Posted 27/10/2015 at 15:55 | Permalink

    but, what does “freedom at country level” mean? Are there not higher values than the ability of a large minority of an electorate to vote for a government especially as that government may not have policies that promote individual freedom? And should we not support external (as well as internal) constraints on our governments in order to preserve freedom? When it comes down to it, democracy does not work unless it promotes freedom because once central planning is desired you cannot decide “which plan” by democracy: we all want different things. Democracy is a means to an end, but it is because of that very fact that freedom can be supported by constraints on democracy. That is not an argument for the EU as such, but an argument against the idea that democracy at the nation state level must determine everything.

  3. Posted 27/10/2015 at 18:25 | Permalink

    Your concerns are valid. A UK outside of the EU could pursue policies which might or might not be the ones you wanted. That’s the risk.

    Similar arguments as with Scottish referendum, if people (and parties) only realised it!

  4. Posted 27/10/2015 at 21:12 | Permalink

    I agree with both Philip and McBlogger. We know the EU doesn’t believe in, or practice, democracy.
    Indeed, I’m not alone in thinking it was deliberately designed to be anti-democratic. I would say that in
    modern conditions democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a satisfactory political environment. I confidently expect the EU not to change its attitude toward democracy. Once the UK is again independent, then we can concentrate on trying to get the size and power of government considerably reduced (to enlarge individual freedom), while retaining the ability to throw the rascals out from time to time if enough people want to do so. I would regard that as a much better situation than we currently enjoy; and I may say that I supported those Scots who last year voted for ‘independence’ — even if it might, at least in the short term, have made them somewhat less well off. Money isn’t everything.

  5. Posted 28/10/2015 at 11:11 | Permalink

    David – I agree with you to a strong extent. My concern is not so much with Philip’s fear that we’ll lose external constraints on government outside of the EU, more that continually playing up left-wing anti-EU causes will come back to bite in the immediate aftermath of the referendum.

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