A senior editor at the Economist's "furious" attack on The Commentator for its euroscepticism is absurd. But it is sadly typical of the way europhiles prosecute their case
Among the many reasons that British supporters of the European Union have lost the argument about the country’s relationship with Brussels is that they have a curious tendency to avoid serious argument altogether.
Instead, it usually comes down to labelling anyone who has a problem with the EU’s increasingly anti-democratic character as “racists”, “xenophobes” or, “little Englanders”.
The first two are merely smears: low-level insults that reflect low-level intellects.
Since most people don’t appreciate being insulted in such a manner it is hardly surprising that when Europhiles find themselves cross-examined about their beliefs there is a kind of default predisposition among the public to dislike them, and then, by association, their arguments.
As for the “little Englander” charge, it is frankly delusional.
Most Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party (and many in UKIP too) are thoroughgoing internationalists, concerned, among other things, that the British political establishment is paying far too little attention to an increasingly globalised world, and far too much to a European Union that is in long term relative decline economically and seems hell bent on self-destruction politically.
How “odd”, as Edward Lucas, a senior editor at the Economist might say. Though he wouldn’t say that in quite the way I would in relation to the European Union about whose critics he says he is “furious”.
To be more precise, he is “furious” with The Commentator, the comment and news media outlet I own, for using, (on a social media platform!) the word “quisling” to describe British Members of Parliament who, against all basic democratic principles, have handed over legislative powers to Brussels without so much as a by your leave from the people in a referendum.
One despairs at the lengths to which people will go to avoid a serious discussion.
In a nutshell, Lucas’s bizarre objection is that since the word “quisling” derives from Vidkun Quisling, the collaborationist leader of Norway during the Nazi occupation of World War II, The Commentator is effectively saying that the EU is in some way comparable to Nazi Germany.
“Even a metaphorical comparison of the EU with Hitler's Third Reich is both inaccurate and offensive,” he said on Thursday in an opinion piece for The European Voice. (The word “offensive” is another one of those cringe-worthy evasions employed by politicians and journalists who know they have run out of arguments.)
He went on to say that, “It dishonours and trivialises the sacrifice of those who resisted totalitarianism to use such terms in criticising the EU.”
It does nothing of the sort, of course. No-one outside a lunatic asylum thinks the European Union is comparable to the Third Reich. As I tried to explain to Lucas, in the same conversation he refers to and quotes from in his article, words change through time, and according to the use to which they are most commonly put.
I even referred him to Wittgenstein, the great linguistic philosopher who perhaps more than any of his 20th century contemporaries made that point in its most convincing and sophisticated form.
These days, “quisling” is just a term that people use to attack an opponent for some sort of cowardice or betrayal. And since that is how it is now used, that is what it now means. Practically no-one in Britain has the faintest idea that the word “quisling” was once used with reference to a World War II Nazi collaborator from Norway anyway.
To move towards more substantive matters, which is what Edward Lucas and I should be discussing, there was a much more serious issue I raised with him that does in fact concern the European Union and is genuinely related to Nazi Germany.
It concerns the EU’s role in using taxpayer’s money to fund a broadcast on Palestinian Television which referred to Jews as “Rats”. I believe the Commentator was the first media outlet in the English speaking world to report on it. And a friendly MEP who is much more in tune with Lucas’s thinking on the EU than I am, saw how serious a matter this was, and immediately took action.
Not so Edward Lucas who objected to my request to spread the word about it on Twitter on the grounds that he could complain that I don’t retweet his “peeves and hates” so why should he retweet mine. "Peeves"? Jews as "rats"? I asked him incredulously. Now there’s a case where one should be careful with one’s language! Nazi propaganda compared Jews to rats in order to dehumanise them, thus facilitating the Holocaust
To be fair, days later he did retweet the story, though the link doesn’t work, so if you follow Edward Lucas you can’t read it. (You can do so by clicking here.)
That will surely have been an honest mistake, and nothing more. Nor do I believe that Edward Lucas is anything other than horrified that there are people, media outlets and governments that still refer to Jews as “rats”.
It’s just that since Brussels bears a measure of responsibility for this and it is a matter of shame for everyone associated with the modern European project, his first instinct was to dismiss it.
And the key word (since it is words that we have been discussing) in that sentence is “instinct”. The Europhiles are losing (not just in Britain, see this from Germany) in part because there’s far too much instinctive, emotion-laden hostility to perfectly legitimate concerns about what the European Union has become, and far too little by way of measured and thoughtful engagement.
Edward Lucas is a brilliant journalist. On some very important issues, he has an extraordinary ability to spot things while others remain oblivious.
His piercing analysis of the early days of Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia is a case in point. While the British press was oozing drivel about Putin “the reformist”, Lucas, writing from Moscow for The Economist, was something of a lone voice alerting the world to where things were really heading. He got Russia right; and he continues to do so.
But I think he’s got Europe wrong. Not because he can’t see the arguments, but because he won’t, most especially on the question of democracy.
What is now desperately needed is a calm and sober debate about Britain's membership of the European Union. Lucas is welcome to make his case on The Commentator – which he has been kind enough to compliment – and I will happily debate him in public, if he will take up the challenge.
Ultimately, he, and his sympathisers, can be as “furious” as they like. But there’s surely a better way.
Robin Shepherd is the owner of The Commentator and has worked in the think tank world in the United States, Britain and continental Europe for more than a decade following a career in international journalism
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