Brexit and the art of deception : Why Jacob Rees-Mogg is wrong


The chances of the Great Britain leaving the European Union have never been as high as in the aftermath of the decision to hold a referendum. Preceding the involvement of public opinion in the issue, had been the great political power game of threatening the EU with the aim of extracting concessions on questions of British concern.

reesmogg_2781411bWith the D-day just behind the corner, campaigning activity is apparently gaining momentum. Particularly striking is Jacob Rees-Mogg´s speech on Brexit; much less for the theatrical glimpse of pain on his face when he speaks about the catastrophe of common policies and 1973 tragedy of British membership, than for the way the knowledge of procedures and overall functioning of the Union can be precisely twisted and manipulated to serve specific ends. People deserve to have a say in politics producing outputs with a direct impact on population, however, their decision should be well-informed and grounded on facts. The European Union is a complex entity characterized by even more composite structures and procedures; thus complicating the full understanding by citizens. Speeches should help fill in the knowledge gaps, however, deceptive and misleading quotes as the one delivered by Rt Hon Rees-Mogg only enhance masses´ misunderstanding about the Union. The repercussions for the final decision might be severe. Here’s why. 

Speaker´s assertions can be persuasive only as long as one is incapable of thinking within the larger context. Relying in his speech on the real concepts conveys the impression that the conclusion is comprehensive and founded on facts. The Working Time Directive came in under health and safety laws even when we had an opt-out from the Social Chapter.” However, social policies in the area of health and safety were already enshrined in the 1986 Single European Act. The Social Chapter was annexed to the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993 as a Protocol due to British opt-out. The UK opted in by 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam and the Social Chapter became an integral part of treaty text. “It wasn’t adopted in Britain until 1998 (and reluctantly at that), following the loss of a court battle in 1996. The Conservative government had argued that working time was not a health and safety provision under the EU treaties and should not be subject to regulation at EU level.“ Not only that the ECJ ruled in 1996 and thus no decision could have been forced upon the UK prior the final ruling; even after that the EU did not force Britain to succumb to the Social Chapter. One cannot fail to take into account the changes in the British government which had taken place at that time; on 2 May 1997 the Labour representative Tony Blair succeeded the Conservative Prime Minister John Major. Treaty of Amsterdam had only been under negotiation, therefore allowing Blair to participate. The treaty was signed on 2 October 1997 and entered into force on 1 May 1999.

Contrary to his opening sentence, the European Union is not a state. It might become one in the distant future but the recent developments suggest that even if the Union is heading that direction, it will take longer than predicted and desired by its Founding Fathers. The European Union does not have the powers of the state. Its Member States voluntarily conferred competences to the Union through the medium of the treaties. The power the Union enjoys has thus been delegated to it by means of the legal process, in contrast to unwritten social contract governing the relations between the state and citizens. Member States retain their sovereignty and the Union can only exercise its feeble enforcement power in case of non-compliance with laws in areas under its competence.  If the integration indeed proceeds in recent years, it is especially thanks to the recourse to the more flexible Open Method of Coordination. The participation in the procedure is voluntary and the output produced is binding only politically, not legally. The OMC has become the tool for steering of individual states´ diverse approaches toward more similar one; and the acceptable way of overcoming deadlock and stagnation in integration.

Indeed, the EU law occupies the position of supremacy over national legal systems. However, as implied previously, under the principle of conferral, the Union can only legislate in areas where states voluntarily empowered it to act.

Mr. Rees-Mogg not only twists facts, he also intentionally omits selected parts of the story to offer half-informed conclusions to those whose knowledge of the EU procedures is insufficient. The European Union enjoys exclusive competences in fewer areas compared to the shared powers, meaning that in the majority of fields, states are free to legislate unless the Union has been faster in acting. What he dubs “the unelected Commission” is true; the Commissioner is not elected democratically by the citizens.  Nevertheless, the representative is the country’s national, nominated and appointed by the state in a consultation with the Commission’s President.  That the Commissioner is required to uphold European rather than national interest has nothing to do with the (un)elected character of the figure.

What is more, the standard decision-making procedure, the co-decision- since the Treaty of Lisbon known as the Ordinary legislative Procedure, the OLP- binds the Commission, European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in a triangular relationship. The Commission initiates the legislative process by drafting of the proposal which is then passed on to the Council and Parliament for reading and decision. States retain their veto power over the most sensitive issues decided by unanimity. The role of the Commission and Parliament is significantly limited in Common Foreign and Security Policy, the area reserved for the intergovernmental Council of Ministers.

The external relations claim is deceptive, too. The Union´s external action covers an array of fields-from external trade under the banner of the common commercial policy, to foreign and defence policies, to development policies, to the external dimension of internal policies. Provided that from among these areas the Union only has exclusive competence in the commercial policy, other fields fall under the shared right of initiative and on the top of that, the CFSP maintains separate legal basis in the TEU rather than TFEU. While the division of competences leaves the space for states to act; the distinction between legal bases safeguards intergovernmental decision making procedures for sensitive issues touching upon states´ security interests.

Sadly, in the vast majority of cases when the speaker seems to be just about to say something reasonable, he does not further explain causes underlying such status quo. Talking about the common currency with the connotation of the source of all EU´s ills is only one case in point. The terrible euro crushed poor southern economies of Greece and Portugal. The same evil euro and common policies explain youth unemployment in Greece. It is not euro that is flawed. Instead, idealism surrounding its introduction and entry into force should be blamed as much as irrational hope that countries´ performance will converge over time. Much ink has been spilled on criticizing the designers for not taking into account the Optimum Currency Area criteria.  Similarly, while the Union devised convergence criteria, only few of those countries which at the end adopted euro met all points. Even worse is the false accusation of euro for the situation in the Greek labour market. Everyone is already familiar with the 2008 crisis narratives, with Greece adding to all other causes by means of her indiscreet spending and borrowing for the sake of further spending. Not euro but Greek expenditure on unproductive purposes, her corrupt government and the culture of widespread and popular tax evasion helped crush the country´s economy. The youth unemployment originates in the ineffective configuration of benefits and securities inherent in the Mediterranean welfare state. The model emphasizes employment protection that in reality rather shields obsolete and less dynamic sectors from dismissal and often at the expense of more cost-effective and promising areas and employees. In contrast, almost no attention is paid to active labour market policies, including the activation of young labourers. Greece used to invest too much in retirees to reward their contribution, while neglecting the youth. There are the roots of Greek youth unemployment.

Two more issues are particularly striking. First, democratic accountability and the lack of it. We have seen the rise of technocracy in the Union, indeed as a consequence of insufficient popular input. The institutions resort to building on the insights provided by epistemic community and in effect, legislation is produced time-effectively, and can be considered legitimate due to its expert foundations. Surely, expertise cannot compare with democracy; however, the situation in the EU is not the one of the shortage of channels to influence the output, rather the peoples´ unwillingness to do so or a simple ignorance. The lack of interest in participation has a number of possible other explanations. Truly, the complex web of the EU institutions, processes and procedures is not easy to grasp and the paucity of understanding underlies the resulting indifference. According to the Eurobarometer surveys, citizens´ attitude towards the Union often reflects the attitude to national government.

Second, allow some space for the facts on referendums. Rejection of the proposed Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands was followed by the period of reflection and status quo. That the Lisbon Treaty proposed few years later came with an almost identical content does by no means imply the EU had ignored previous referendums. Several Council Presidencies rotated throughout the constitutional crisis, pondering what should be improved to make the treaty acceptable to all. Despite the Austria´s initial lack of success in breaking the deadlock, successive Finnish and German Presidencies succeeded in moving the issue forward. What was ratified as the Lisbon Treaty does contain the same provisions as the previously rejected Constitutional Treaty. Nevertheless, the former is less ambitious as it dropped the idea of the Constitution for the EU- the eyesore explaining the earlier rejection. One can hardly conclude that the Union ignores referendums. Rather, subsequent Council Presidencies worked to remove the element of the treaty raising the most serious concerns.

Certainly, some of Rt Hon Rees-Mogg´s assertions are well interpreted and complete. The European Court of Justice has significantly helped the integration with its preliminary rulings. In instances when states referred a case to the Court for clarification of the EU law, the Court´s activism in interpreting the law in favour of the integration cannot be questioned. Similarly, the red tape has already proved to be extensive. The 2000 Lisbon Strategy can be cited as one of the infamous examples, as each of the following reviews highlighted the reporting burden and the lack of effectiveness due to complex bureaucracy effectively preventing the target countries and regions from even participating.

Lamentably, the whole speech is difficult to trust; less for fact-twisting than for the spectrum of facial expressions and vocabulary employed on various occasions. The altruistic tone goes well with the note on all the poor people of the world who must pay high tariffs. However, blaming the European Union for forcing the Social Chapter over Britain indicates much less empathy with the British workers who could have been freely forced into working long hours without break. Possible multiplicity of identities spares their owners from the difficult choice of one. I might be under a curse the “European Superstate” put on me, but owing to the knowledge on the European Union, I do identify with the Union as much as I do with my home country. I’m an European, and Rt Hon Rees-Mogg and the Leave campaign is wrong about EU.



Related Posts