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What Is Under Mr Juncker's Christmas Tree


The successive initiatives rolled out by Remain, including salvos from the Treasury, from Obama, from US and NATO defence chiefs, from Corbyn and from every Tom, Dick and Harry who is anxious to be seen as part of the victory team if we reject Brexit, contain echoes of the rolling barrages which were once employed on the Western Front. The latest polls indicate that they may be about as effective. Anyway the risks are broadly similar. Judge it wrong and you blow up your own side. Mr Obama's intervention is an example of that. Be too cautious and your remarks will pass unnoticed. Running "project fear" is not as easy as you might think.

The interesting question, though is what is coming next. Leave seems to be storing its ammunition at the moment but, shortly before the poll, we can expect it to reveal a whole lot of grisly EU scandals. Some of those will focus on the budget. The Commission has put that back until after the referendum but it is inconceivable that, if, as rumoured, it shows large increases, the figures will not be leaked to Brexit campaigners. It only takes one EU insider to believe that the public should be provided with proper information. Then there is said to be a German paper suggesting a pooling of military resources. That is unlikely to play well with a public who feel that the EU cannot be trusted. No doubt there are other things tool. Remain will have a busy time countering the fallout from all this but, at the same time, it would be surprising if they didn't themselves have some big last minute move up their sleeves and if that big move did not involve an intervention by the EU itself.

Naturally we look at the referendum in UK terms. Do we do better in or out? Does being in threaten our sovereignty? Does being out undermine our prosperity? The campaign here centres on those issues, but viewed from the offices of the Commission in Brussels the perspective must be rather different. They do not give a fig for our sovereignty, and how we would fare following Brexit must be pretty low on the agenda too. They have other concerns. Would Brexit trigger a run of countries leaving the EU? Would the Netherlands follow? What about France? The French seem to have gone off the European project since Germany took over as the main driver.

The gradual strengthening of separatist parties throughout Europe is an ominous sign and Mr Juncker, a strong believer in further integration, would not want to go down in history as the man on whose watch the EU broke up. Inevitably, then, the European Commission must been wondering what it can do to assist Remain, hoping that if we vote to stay the separatist movement will be nipped in the bud.

When pushed, the EU gives things away to fix problems. The negotiations with Turkey to secure a deal over refugees are an example of this. The proposals may have run into the sand but it remains the case that the EU was prepared to offer increased access to the Schengen area and the carrot of possible EU membership to a country most of whose land mass lies outside Europe. What might it offer to keep Britain in if the polls continue to show the referendum result to be finely balanced?

There are some areas where little can be done. Freedom of movement is too fundamental a part of the EU to play with and, with Britain moving from in work benefits to a minimum wage, not much can be achieved through skewing the social security system. It is hard to see, then, that the EU can offer anything significant on the migration front. On the question of sovereignty, though, it is different. Much of the unpopularity of the EU arises because of the perception that it interferes too much in the domestic affairs of member states. Subsidiarity, the principle of making decisions at the lowest practical level, has never really been applied. Lip service has been paid to it since Maastricht, when the EU accepted it as a principle, but there has been little follow through in practice. Instead the regulators, aided and abetted by centralising decisions of the European Court of Justice, have steadily tightened Brussels's grip. Mr Juncker has already indicated that interference in member states' affairs has gone too far and a serious undertaking to clip it back could be very helpful to Remain.

What else has Mr Juncker got under his Christmas tree? Completing the market in financial services, perhaps, or a root and branch reform of the common agricultural policy. No doubt there are other baubles too, although how convincing they would look in the face of hostile campaigning is perhaps doubtful. After all, we have heard talk about deregulation and better budgeting before and not much has happened. Who knows whether any reforms would really be delivered once the pressure of the referendum had gone away?

There is, however, one thing that Mr Juncker could do to help the Remain camp. In fact he should do it anyway as a simple matter of honesty. It is really not clever for the Commission to postpone publication of its budget until after the poll. The proposals will inevitably leak and will enable the Leave camp to add allegations of fraud to allegations of extravagance. Probably the postponement is just a matter of bureaucratic convenience but, if so, it is an administrative decision which could result in the breakup of the EU. If he has a jot of common sense Mr Juncker should see that it is reversed immediately.

This article was first published in the weekly news magazine Shaw Sheet. If you enjoyed it visit for commentary and analysis

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