A bloody-minded nationalism was met with calm reason at Egmont Palace in Brussels on Thursday night when the Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling went head-to-head with British Labour MEP Richard Corbett in a debate on the risks and challenges presented by the UK’s Referendum on EU membership.
Mr Grayling, Tory cabinet minister and a leading voice in the Leave campaign has previously sparked controversy when, in his previous role as Justice Minister, he tried to cut legal aid and impose a blanket ban on sending books to prisoners. After arriving late at the Egmont Palace in Brussels, he began his case in a conciliatory tone, noting that he “should very much like to maintain friendly relations with the rest of the EU” in the case of Brexit. But from then on he developed a confident but flawed argument for the UK withdrawing from the EU, reeling off a litany of half-truths; a mixture of scaremongering, arrogance and a narrative of British exceptionalism.
Here are just some of Grayling’s arguments that were busted over the two-hour debate.
THE UK WILL BE SIDE-LINED IF IT REMAINS IN THE EU
Grayling’s argument was based on conjuring up dystopic future according to which the UK is set to be marginalised by a ruthless bloc of Eurozone countries. The scare tactic hinged on twisting the 2015 Five Presidents’ Report on the integration of the Eurozone. Mr Grayling was brazen in reinterpreting the report for his ends, claiming that a bloc of 26 Eurozone countries would “completely control all of the institutions of the EU.”
Grayling misread not only the report, but his well-informed audience of policy officers, lawyers and academics, who were aware of the report’s status, now languishing on the back burner of the European Commission’s agenda. It was left to the more cool-headed Labour MEP Richard Corbett to put the record straight on Grayling’s far-fetched claims, questioning why exactly a bloc should form at all. For instance, is the Netherlands – whose agenda his broadly aligned with that of the UK – really likely to vote against Britain on matters of Foreign Policy or farming subsidies just because Brits have opted out of the monetary union? Mr Corbett proposed that the UK is more than capable of continuing to combine pragmatism and idealism to cooperate within the EU where it makes most sense to do so.
THE EU NEEDS THE UK MORE THAN THE UK NEEDS THE EU
The UK’s trade deficit with the EU was used by Grayling to claim that the UK would not lose out if it were to go it alone. The line is that, in the event of an exit, Britain would have little trouble negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU because the UK imports more from the rest of the Union than it sells to it. Yet, this was questioned by the rest of the panel members who noted the arrogance of assuming that the UK could dictate terms of its trade arrangements with the 27 other EU members and other global players with which the EU has already negotiated favourable terms.
Richard Corbett gave the example of South Korea. The EU’s free trade agreement with the Seoul has resulted in the UK doubling its exports to the country. Renegotiating such deals without the clout of the EU, apart from taking years, does not guarantee the same favourable tariff conditions.
THE UK IS SAFER OUTSIDE THE EU
A strong argument for remaining in the EU has been the security advantages afforded by sharing intelligence Europe-wide. Even in the aftermath of last year’s attacks in Paris, Grayling was quick to pooh-pooh the importance of such EU-wide intelligence sharing. He gloated about the the UK’s unparalleled security services and focussed instead on the special relationship with the US.
A man well placed to judge, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove has said that both the UK and the EU stand to lose out in terms of security should we vote leave on 23 June; a lose-lose situation.
EU MEMBERSHIP ROBS THE UK OF ITS SOVEREIGNTY AND NATIONAL IDENTITY
Where the former Justice Minister was perhaps most impassioned was on the subject of sovereignty. Yes, that old chestnut. In spite of House of Commons’ own report revealing that only around 15% of UK legislation is made in Brussels, Mr Grayling argued fervently that Westminster needed desperately to wrest back its sovereignty from the huge centralised government in Brussels and make its own decisions. “Britain,” he said, “is a proud nation,” that is better off out.
It was here that the panel really took issue with Mr Grayling’s UKIP-reminiscent chauvinism, noting that the EU’s motto is “united in diversity” and all member states are proud nations with strong individual identities and interests. This was not the usual VoteLeave crowd that Grayling has clearly become accustomed to.
In countering Grayling’s overblown pretension that the UK is powerless against the EU machine, Mr Corbett went back to basics, reminding him that the Commission (the initiator of EU law) is appointed by elected governments, that government ministers sit on the Council and that the European Parliament is directly elected by us, the European citizens. He was reminded that the EU is a project that allows member states to pool their sovereignty to tackle the big issues that transcend national borders; the environment; terrorism; fair global tax regimes to name but a few.
To give him his due, Chris Grayling was up against a tough audience, and was outnumbered on the panel by 3 Bremainers to 1 Brexiter. But the arguments he made were unfounded, and they unravelled when confronted with the facts.
This piece was first published on the Europal blog.
A full recording of the event is available here.