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Why is Everyone Talking Rubbish About 'Europe'?

17/01/2014 10:28 GMT | Updated 18/03/2014 09:59 GMT

I've (reluctantly) learned to accept that some people have different opinions to me but when did it become acceptable to just make things up?

I'm trying really hard to remember a time when we could go a whole week without having to have a national moan about "Europe"*. I mean I get it, I really do. All that great food, fantastic culture and nice weather. Not to mention Germany and France's positively infuriating collective predilection for paying people properly and according them proper employment rights.

Actually I don't get it. But a collective grumble is one thing, much more serious is that our national debate on Europe is dramatically and consistently rubbish. I've (reluctantly) learned to accept that some people have different opinions to me but when did it become acceptable to just make things up when it comes to Europe?

The whole debate pretty much falls into four words: Immigrants, human rights and "reform". But none of these supposed "problems" with "Europe" are actually based on fact. Cameron and co spent December falling over themselves to prevent the supposed influx of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants abusing our welfare system. UKIP's website proclaims its ambition to "take back control of our borders". But if anyone had actually bothered to check, they'd have discovered that recent immigrants are 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than people already living here and have made a net contribution of £25bn to public finances since 2000.

Instead of "Immigration rows out of control" (our Prime Minister's choice of words) that whole fiasco could be summed up as "everyone freaks out because (foreign) people want to be productive members of society". By the way, people coming over here, spending money and paying tax helps create jobs, not take them away. It's called economic growth, look it up, its great.

Human rights, of course, are the cause of every ill not caused by immigration. They "undermine parliamentary sovereignty", subject us to the will of "foreign judges" and the Tories are scrapping the Human Rights Act 2003 after the next election.

Abolishing the HRA would have no effect on the substantive rights. Britain would still be a signatory to the ECHR so the ECtHR would still hear cases. What it would do is make the whole system far less efficient. The HRA is a legal tool, it allows courts to deal with human rights issues at first instance or appeal. It doesn't add any rights that weren't already in Britain's treaty obligations or the common law itself, it just makes them more accessible at an earlier stage. The practical effect of this is that matters are settled quickly because human rights issues can be dealt with immediately rather than after several expensive appeals. Abolishing the HRA would make the whole legal system less efficient and more expensive.

By definition, parliamentary sovereignty means that parliament can make or unmake any law it chooses. If a domestic judge rules that an act of the government is illegal then the government can simply legislate to make it legal in future. The problem comes when actual pieces of legislation are found to be in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. But this still doesn't have anything to do with sovereignty. Britain is a signatory to the ECHR, but even if we weren't we'd still be a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which contain exactly the same rights. Even without these, most civil liberties are already contained in our common law in judgements dating back to the Magna Carter.

Human Rights are principles that parliament has been embracing for over 500 years. That's why British jurists played such a large role in drafting the ECHR. The European Court interprets those principles, just as domestic courts do, but this has nothing to do with sovereignty. If we want to throw out principles like freedom of expression or the right to family life then that's another debate. But let's not pretend that a judge in Strasbourg interpreting them is any more a threat to sovereignty than a judge in Parliament Square. It's also worth noting (so of course no one does) that of the cases brought against the UK in 2012, only 0.6% resulted in a loss for the government, one of the best win rates in Europe. The ECtHR is actually pretty good at supporting British interpretations of Human Rights.

Finally there's "reform". George Osborne is dead right when he says the EU needs to reform. It has significant issues of democracy, economic balance and financial security to answer. But Gorgeous George suggested one area for actual reform: The welfare system. Sometimes I think that, when asked to find the solution to x = 3 + 4 in his 11 Plus, George must have put "welfare reform". Cameron talks of powers "flowing back" to the UK but he never mentions which powers. Similarly no one ever explains how anyone is going to agree to free trade but completely different systems of labour regulation. Treating workers properly does tend to inhibit the unfettered acquisition of cash so I can't imagine the rest of Europe agreeing to do it but let Britain have access to their markets while treating it's workers like the diggers in "The Temple of Doom".

The reality is that never have a fact based debate on "Europe" because objections to "Europe" have no basis in fact. This is xenophobia pure an simple and it's hugely damaging. Nigel Farage, John Redwood et al and Paul Dacre don't represent the majority British opinion on Europe. But they have or are given such extensive platforms to spout misinformation that they've managed to convince a sizable chunk.

We should have a debate about the EU, maybe even about the ECHR. But right now the biggest problem with both is that no one talking seems to know the first thing about them.

*"Europe" is used throughout this piece because I'm trying to hit a word count. But, as nobody ever notes, immigration is governed by the Free Movement Provisions in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Human Rights are governed by the European Convention. These are two entirely different treaties, administered by different courts with different memberships. EU immigration has absolutely nothing to do with the ECHR. Just so we're clear.