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Boris’ gnarled and lifeless olive branch

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Geraint Talfan Davies

Geraint Talfan Davies, Chair of Wales For Europe

Boris Johnson has made a speech. Apparently, it is an important one. Message to self: Resist the temptation to play the man not the ball, however many invitations he may issue daily. Take off your partisan ear-muffs and listen carefully to what he is saying. He is, after all, Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Try to understand. Here goes.

We are told that the Foreign Secretary’s speech is the first of six to be given over the coming weeks by a select group of Cabinet Ministers that, strangely, does not include the Chancellor the Exchequer, the keeper of the nation’s finances. This setting out of the Government’s position by instalments is either a bow to the fact that its position is still a work in progress or a bow to the fashion for box sets. I leave you to judge.

Mr Johnson’s expressed and honourable intent was to reach out to Remainers. He acknowledged that the vast majority of Remainers “are actuated by entirely noble sentiments, a real sense of solidarity with our European neighbours and a desire for the UK to succeed”. His aim was to show that, contrary to the belief of most Remainers,  “Brexit can gratify those sentiments – and more.”

He wanted to tackle what he sees as three misconceptions about Brexit. First, that leaving the EU is a “geo-strategic mistake” and weakens the security of the whole of Europe. Second, that by voting to leave the EU we have “sundered ourselves from the glories of European civilisation” and voted for “nationalism, small-mindedness and xenophobia”. Third, that we have “voted to make ourselves less prosperous”.

Did he manage to pull the rug from under those three misconceptions? Let’s take each in turn.

In dealing with the allegation of a geo-strategic mistake and European security, he was certainly convincing in setting out Britain’s continuing commitment to the defence of Europe that, he said, was “unconditional and immovable”. The fact that we represent 13% of the EU’s population but contribute 20% of defence spending is certainly telling.

However, he made no mention at all of any other aspect of our geo-strategic positioning and influence. He was totally silent on the issue of whether the EU, representing nearly 7% of the world’s population, or the UK with only 0.87% would have the greater influence in a world dominated by economic giants whether states – like the USA, China or India – or multi-national companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.

If I was marking his exam paper, I would say he did not answer the question that he himself set.

The second question – whether we are about to sunder ourselves from the rest of European civilisation – is, admittedly a matter of judgement. One would have to accept the implied thrust of his argument, namely that cultures and civilisation often transcend the vagaries of politics and the rise and decline of states. Tourism will not end. We will still watch Scandi-noir television series and no doubt the rest of Europe will watch the odd Cymru-noir series in return. Brits will still struggle to learn other European languages, largely as a result of our own careless education policies.  

But Mr Johnson moved on to what might be called the “no taxation without representation” argument and quoted the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill in defence of the proposition that only national solidarity can legitimate the state and the burden of taxation. There is much in that argument, but the question is whether that is relevant to the issue at hand.

First, let’s get some perspective and take a monetary measure. In 2017-18 total UK public expenditure will amount to £814 billion. Britain’s net contribution to the EU budget will be £7.3 billion, or less than 0.9 percent. This is hardly evidence of the existence of a European super-state. The EU is not a super-state. It is a coming together of sovereign states that have decided to pool some of their sovereignty for their own greater good.

The notion that the EU is some Leviathan on which we have had no influence and which threatens our democracy and sense of national identity does not bear much examination. Mr Johnson’s statement that “it would be absurd if we were obliged to obey laws over which we have no say and no vote” is a statement of the obvious. However, it does not describe how the EU operates.

Yes, there are some issues about the how a greater democratic element could be injected into the operation of the EU, and some of the solutions posed in recent years have foreseen a larger role for national Parliaments. But Mr Johnson’s argument denies the existing dominant role and influence of elected national governments.

In his view, every decision becomes an “imposition”. Obeying laws our own representatives have agreed, and which have facilitated continental trade, becomes “having to comply with some directive devised by Brussels” or being “lashed to the minute prescriptions of a regional trade bloc”.

Sometimes his arguments trip each other up. His view of the economic issue is, similarly political. Only Brexit, he argues, will allow us to move from a low-wage, low productivity economy to a high wage, high productivity economy. Only Brexit will allow our entrepreneurs to innovate. Only Brexit will allow us to exploit changes in the world economy. Have British governments carried no responsibility over the years?

But then he argues that our sales to many countries outside the EU have risen sharply since 2010. Indeed they have. Would you believe, that has been achieved by our allegedly chained entrepreneurs even while remaining part of the EU. Germany has done even better. The truth is that selling to the EU and to the rest of the world is not a zero-sum game. Getting the best for Britain should mean a both…and strategy, not either…or.

Worst of all, Mr Johnson, is explicit in saying we should not worry about coming out of the single market and customs – although he carefully avoids a recommendation – and, in a circumlocution characteristically devoid of numbers or precise meaning, says that” the economic benefits of membership are nothing like as conspicuous or irrefutable as is sometimes claimed”. He is clearly not averse to a hard Brexit.

In reaching out to Remainers, I’m afraid that he has offered a gnarled and leafless olive branch. And, unsurprisingly, he has certainly not reached out to the ‘left behind’. We shall see whether another five ministerial speeches can do any better.