The European Union has proved itself a controversial subject over the last few years. With increasing powers being given to the union’s institutions, much criticism has been garnered throughout the country and within Westminster itself.
One often vocal critic of the European Union and its increased influence over Britain is the Conservative MP for North-Eastern Somerset, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Mr Rees-Mogg has been on record as saying “there is no democracy in the EU”, often criticising the free movement of people and the legislative process within Brussels. This reputation proved an interesting context for me when Mr Rees-Mogg was kind enough to grant Exeposé Features an interview and, in all honesty, I was unsure of what to expect.
After exchanging pleasantries, the interview began with a question regarding his party’s victory in the general election earlier this year, and to what extent this may have been connected to the Conservative’s option of renegotiation and a referendum on the European Union. To this Mr Rees-Mogg responded that he believed “the promise of a referendum was very important because it means that the British electorate can decide for themselves rather than having the position decided for them.”
In regards to the renegotiations David Cameron has recently announced his four main goals: an ‘explicit statement’ that Britain will be kept out of further integration towards a European ‘superstate’, an ‘explicit statement’ that the EU is a multi-currency union to protect the pound, a new ‘red card’ system allowing groups of national parliaments to scrap new directives as well as current EU Laws, and a reorganisation of the 28 nations so the 19 Eurozone countries cannot place undue pressure on the other states. Now, these seem like rather significant changes, however Mr Rees-Mogg disagrees.
“I don’t think they are very significant,” he explained, “I don’t think, of what we know of what he’s asking for, it amounts to very much and if that’s all he gets it’ll be a very disappointing renegotiation.” Elaborating on certain measures, he continued, an “ever closer union is really only in the preamble of the treaties, it’s not an essential part. It’s been referred to by the ECJ (European Court of Justice) in judgements in passing, but it’s a preamble rather than the text of the treaties. The red card system is, I think, a red herring rather than a red card, because that requires a very large group of parliaments to object and I would have thought British voters are concerned about what their own parliament thinks, not what Danish, Maltese, Spanish, Portuguese parliaments think about a political issue. I don’t think that solves the democratic deficit in any particular way.”
Focusing in further on this proposed ‘red card’ system I asked Mr Rees-Mogg if giving groups of parliaments the ability to strike down directives and current laws would fundamentally alter the legal institutions of the European Union and his opinion on the current system. “I think that if you belong to an organisation it is sensible to have a court that will arbitrate on what the rules of the organisation mean.” He explained, “what I think is unreasonable is that the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) decides what we’ve agreed to in the first place. So, on occasions we have said that this is simply not the competence of the European Union and it’s not what we agreed to in the treaties and the CJEU has simply said ‘yes, you did’.” He then stated that he believes Parliament should have “not the power to determine the details of the running of the European Union, but the power to determine what we agreed to in the first place” in a similar system to the German Constitutional Court.
So, following on from this, it seemed only right to ask what he would want to change, were he negotiating. “In my view it is important to change the free movement of people so we have control of our borders. Read into that two fold. One, the level of immigration has been much higher than was ever anticipated, but secondly it would be an indication that the European Union was itself serious about renegotiation.” He explains that this would indicate “that we could have a different level of membership, a sort of subsidiary or associate membership, which I think will be much more in the British interest.”
“it is important to change the free movement of people so we have control of our borders”
Later, the topic of possible concessions was brought up, mentioning the fact that Chancellor Merkel has said Germany will only support Britain’s renegotiation if we support the new idea of a ‘European Army’. “I think we cannot belong to a European Union which has a ‘European Army’.” Mr Rees-Mogg states, “I would not agree to that as a concession. The concession I’d agree to give is to carry on making the very large payments that we currently make to the European Union of about £12 billion a year which, if we stay in the EU, we keep on making. That seems to be quite a big enough concession on its own.”
When I then inquired about the risks highlighted by experts if the UK were to leave the EU I was met with a sharp “what experts?” by Rees-Mogg. The Centre for Economic Performance has predicted we could lose up to 9.5% of our GDP, possibly dropping us into another financial crisis, I explain. However, he was very dismissive of these “self-proclaimed experts” stating that “these are exactly the same people who said we’d be ruined if we didn’t join the Euro.”
When then asked about what reasons he would give to leave the European Union, Mr Rees-Mogg replied, “Well, I would like a good renegotiation, actually. I think that would be a preferable outcome because, whatever happens, the UK needs to have sensible relations with its closest neighbours.” He then explained, “The fundamental reason for being unhappy with our current European relationship is that it denies the British voters their democratic rights, that the laws that govern us should be made by the British people with a mandate from the British people. There are policy areas where our laws are no longer supreme. There will possibly be a vote in the House of Commons today on the VAT rate that applies to hygiene products for women and that rate is set by the European Union, it’s not for the British people to decide, so they really do get into the details of British life in a way that is not in the interests of the British people.”
With that in mind and to round everything off the final question was, what would be the perfect situation for the UK in regards to Europe? “It would be that we remain within a free trading area, but that we are essentially able to govern ourselves and make our laws and that what we agree to give up is agreed voluntarily, rather than enforced upon us.”
Whether or not this vision is possible, one thing is certain, the question of the European Union will continue to be debated right up until the referendum, and only time will tell how our relationship will evolve.