Before Russell Brand's odd ascent to the role of political revolutionary, there was Jeremy Clarkson. Often touted as one of the celebrities British citizens would most like to see as prime minister, Clarkson has routinely functioned as a kind of Daily Mail-endorsed totem: a symbol of British 'common sense' against the threats of meddling bureaucrats and do-gooder liberals.
It no doubt came as a surprise to many of his sympathisers, therefore, when he recently opted to describe himself as "massively pro-European", noting that he would find it difficult to support a party, in the shape of UKIP, "that wants primarily to get you out of Europe".
This came off the back of an opinion piece in the Sunday Times which sang the praises of the European project, with Clarkson going as far as to state that: "I long for a time when I think of myself as a European first and an Englishman second. I crave a United States of Europe with one currency, one army and one type of plug." How can the man who seems more Ukip than Nigel Farage have such outwardly pro-EU views?
The odd thing about this affair isn't that there's something hypocritical in Clarkson's opinions, but that it's taken someone like him to make an argument which should be central to the narrative of pro-EU politicians in the UK. For while Ukip have had free reign to portray the European Union as an amplifier of bureaucratic waste and costly regulations, one of the key benefits of EU membership, as Clarkson highlights, is precisely the fact that it reduces unnecessary 'red tape' and makes all of our lives easier as a result.
The basic benefit of the EU's 'single market' - a phrase that's used frequently by politicians but almost never defined in terms voters can actually identify with - is that it eliminates so called 'barriers to trade'. The idea is simple: when a business wants to sell its goods in Europe, as many businesses do, they benefit from only having to confront one set of rules and regulations, as opposed to 28 separate and potentially incompatible sets of rules.
While you might be able to sell a certain drink or food product in France, for instance, you could find an ingredient in your recipe banned in Germany, or a completely different ingredient banned in Spain. By having one, mutually agreed and sensible rule at the EU level, it's far easier to sell your product abroad, reducing prices for both businesses and consumers and allowing for proper competition between different companies to take place. That's the principle, and most of the evidence we have suggests it's worked fairly well over the last 20-30 years.
Now of course the EU isn't perfect. Legislative processes are only as good as the politicians involved in them and if you vote for 'meddling bureaucrats' that's exactly what you'll end up getting. But the EU as currently constructed is fundamentally a mechanism for streamlining regulation, not creating more regulations for their own sake. Trying to replace it with a chaotic concoction of bilateral treaties between 28 separate states, all containing different rules and being, for the most part, completely unenforceable, isn't a strategy for ridding us of 'red tape', it's a recipe for creating much more of it.
Yet this case is almost never made by the two major parties. Rather than articulating the basic pragmatic arguments for remaining a part of the EU, they seem intent on waging an unwinnable war against UKIP over the issue of immigration. It can hardly be much of a surprise that the philosophy of agreeing with everything Nigel Farage says, but nevertheless arguing that the electorate shouldn't vote for him, has proved such a spectacular failure.
If David Cameron is serious about reducing red tape then there are no better allies than his partners in the EU's institutions. Instead of viewing EU legislation as a costly inconvenience, we'd be better served by seeing it as one of the best mechanisms we have available for making Europe a more streamlined and competitive place. When even the great bastion of British common sense that is Jeremy Clarkson can see the EU for what it is, it's a mystery why our political leaders remain so reluctant to make the practical case for staying in.
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