A letter appeared in the Independent a few weeks ago signed by various environmentalist grandees — heads of green lobby groups, former chairmen of eco-quangos and the like. It warned against Brexit on the grounds that EU laws had ‘a hugely positive effect’ on the environment. It didn’t explain why a post-EU Britain wouldn’t retain, replicate or even improve these ‘hugely positive’ laws. As usual, it implied that voters needed to have such things dictated to them.
The really interesting thing, though, was the list of bodies that followed the signatories’ names: Natural England, the Green Alliance, the RSPB, the Natural Environment Research Council, a couple of universities — you get the picture. A cursory Google search revealed that, of the 12 organisations listed, eight were getting grants directly from the EU. This fact was curiously omitted from the accompanying news story.
Those who want out of the EU sometimes fret that Brussels might firehose money at Britain’s pro-EU campaign, but it doesn’t need to, not directly. Eurocrats are savvy enough to realise that British voters would bridle at having their own taxes spent on telling them how to vote. So, in general, they prefer to launder sponsorship through supposedly independent third parties.
It makes sense. Suppose you were to hear a Eurocrat claiming on the radio that EU regulations were good for, say, cyclists. Your immediate reaction, I suspect, would be: ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’ But if you heard the same argument from an EU-funded pressure group, you might assume that it was disinterested and therefore authoritative. And BBC presenters are not in the habit of pointing out when their interviewees are taking Brussels’ moolah.
Hundreds of millions of euros are handed out every year, not just to mega--charities and pressure groups but to think tanks, multi-nationals, local councils and all manner of NGOs. From a pro-integration point of view, it’s a wise investment.
Arguably more insidious is the relationship between Brussels and big business. Consider another letter, this one to the Times. (The ‘remain’ side appears to be campaigning chiefly through letters signed collectively by hoary-headed worthies in the hope that their titles and their numbers will overwhelm us. But, as Einstein remarked when the Nazis lined up 100 Aryan scientists to denounce his theories: ‘Why 100? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.’)
The Times letter bore the names of 36 FTSE 100 bosses — a rather smaller number than the 80 the ‘remain’ side had originally promised. So who were they, these hommes d’affaires prepared to stand up for Brussels? Again, a few minutes of online research established that their 36 corporations had, among them, spent €21.3 million lobbying the EU — and had received back €120.9 million in grants. Hard to argue with a 600 per cent return on investment.
The money, though, is the least of it. Far more damaging is the way that giant multi-nationals and megabanks are able to set EU rules in a way that suits them — but harms their smaller rivals.
The single biggest surprise to me as a new MEP was how hungry big companies were for more regulation. I had innocently supposed that, being private enterprises, they would want freedom of action. It took me a while to realise what was going on. The giants were well placed to assimilate new rules — especially when, as often happened, they had successfully lobbied for the adoption of standards that they happened to meet anyway. Smaller firms and start-ups, though, would struggle with the compliance costs.
Think, for example, of how German manufacturers lobbied Brussels to adopt their standards on electrical appliances — to the detriment of Dyson, whose founder now says Britain should leave the EU. Or of how Big Pharma persuaded Eurocrats to regulate alternative and herbal medicines, squeezing out private herbalists. Or of how European car companies persuaded the European Commission, pretty much uniquely in the world, to promote diesel — with, as we now know, fatal consequences for thousands of Europeans.
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), who can’t afford Brussels lobbyists but must put up with the regulation, are understandably sceptical: 70 per cent of them want Britain to take back control of employment law, health and safety and trade policy. Only 6 per cent of British SMEs do any business with other EU states, yet 100 per cent of them must apply 100 per cent of EU standards. When we bear in mind that twice as many people work for SMEs as for big companies, that figure should concern us.
More to the point, the corporatism in Brussels and the consequent hostility to innovators, entrepreneurs and start-ups damages Europe’s growth. Over the past decade, countries such as China, India and Ethiopia have doubled the size of their economies; but the eurozone, incredibly, is the same size now as in 2006. Lobbying happens in national capitals too, of course, but not on the same scale as in Brussels. The opaqueness of EU institutions, their remoteness from voters, the way in which decisions are made by unelected officials — these things are a magnet for special interests. Hence the line-up that we see in the ‘remain’ campaign — municipal Europe officers; financial regulators whose breadand-butter work is the enforcement of EU rules; representatives of professional associations and trade unions that maintain a presence in Brussels; bureaucrats who flit between the civil service and lucrative Brussels secondments; Jean Monnet professors whose chairs are endowed by the EU; think tanks contracted by the EU to carry out research projects on remarkably generous terms; NGOs and charities in receipt of grants; international-aid consultants; alternative-energy racketeers; Davos Men. There are also, of course, plenty of idealistic ‘remain’ voters. But for the rent-seekers, the referendum isn’t about democracy or sovereignty; it’s about mortgages and school fees. No wonder they’re so tetchy.