I was in Paris last week to take part in an EU referendum debate at Sciences Po, a French university that specialises in international relations. It’s not an exaggeration to describe Sciences Po as a finishing school for Europe’s political elite. Twenty-eight heads of state have studied or taught there, its graduates include five of the last six French presidents and the current dean is Enrico Letta, a former prime minister of Italy. My fellow panellists included Ana Palacio, the Spanish minister of foreign affairs from 2002 to 2004, and Hubert Vedrine, the French minister of foreign affairs from 1997 to 2002. I think it’s safe to say I was the only Eurosceptic in the room.
I was listened to with polite amusement, but almost no one took the threat of Brexit seriously. For them, the advantages of staying in are so obvious that they found it difficult to engage with anyone who didn’t agree. When I pointed out EU deficiencies such as its lack of transparency, the fact that laws can be introduced only by unelected European Commissioners and the widespread corruption that has confounded its auditors for 21 years, the panellists nodded in agreement. Yes, yes, no one’s saying it’s perfect. But on balance it’s been such a success that only a swivel-eyed loon would want to leave.
I did my best to shake them out of their complacency by pointing out the revolt against political elites that’s gathering steam across the Continent, with numerous anti-EU parties on the left and right chalking up victories. In France, the Front National took 25 per cent of the popular vote in the 2014 European elections, putting them in first place, while Syriza did well enough in last year’s Greek general election to form the government.