Dutch referendum result is latest energy-sapping blow to EU cohesion

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When it comes to the propriety of the government’s 27 million pro-EU leaflets, which are coming your way in the post, we are invited to choose between London’s spluttering part-time mayor, Boris Johnson, and phoney outrage specialist, Michael Fallon, the nation’s part-time defence secretary.

That’s a tough one.

On a personal note I would much rather be marooned on a desert island with clever and amusing Boris, though I would insist on his being allowed to bring along a goat for personal use. In the early hours of 12 October 1984 I was sparring with young Fallon over Thatcherism at the bar of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, but left him five minutes before the IRA bomb went off. The cabinet’s verbal assassin and the real ones remain unhappily associated in my mind.

But on this one Fallon was right on Thursday’s morning studio tour. Boris was talking nonsense again when he complained that the government’s 16-page referendum leaflet is inaccurate, biased and unfair; doubly so from a man who made his stellar name as a specialist in that sort of tripe as the Telegraph’s “straight bananas” correspondent in Brussels in the 90s. “Ringing you up to check my stories would have been a phone call too far,” he once explained to a reproachful Tory minister who had given Boris his number as a personal favour – but was never called.

As ministers keep having to explain to their Brexit critics (who pretend not to understand) the government is not neutral in this affair. Nor should it be. It is in favour of Britain remaining inside the EU, albeit in a very semi-detached way. There is a case for leaving, though the risks greatly outweigh the promised benefits in my opinion, in David Cameron’s and possibly in Jeremy Corbyn’s mind too, though it is hard to tell.

So a leaflet setting out its case, Commons statements and ministerial speeches before the official campaign starts on both sides, is what you’d expect. So it will cost £9.5m? That’s peanuts compared with the likely cost of leaving, though we should all be careful about over-confident predictions by doomsters in both camps.

It shouldn’t be a surprise – nor should it be the lead item in today’s Times when the Panama Papers remain so interesting – because it’s exactly what happened during all previous UK referendums, including Scotland’s in 2014 and the 1975 EU referendum staged by Labour’s Harold Wilson when he was in a near-identical hole to Cameron’s. The referendum was Tony Benn’s daft idea, which Wilson cynically borrowed. To respectable older voters in those days referendums smacked of fascism, not nice. That must be why Mrs T didn’t hold one in 1986.

In fairness to Harold he didn’t dig the 1975 hole himself, as Cameron rashly did in promising a referendum to buy off his insatiable backbench Euro-headbangers who pocketed each concession, then came back for more. Cameron is in ever bigger trouble this week over his family’s Panamanian tax affairs and the Brexit jihadi press is taking full advantage of his embarrassment. I wish I could blame them, but I can’t. As with Tata Steel in Port Talbot, events, however specious or irrelevant to the EU debate, are conspiring to derail No 10’s plans.

In 2016 the Eurosceptics are a mixture of romantic patriots of the fringe left and right (you see the same glint in their eyes over Scexit), foreigner-bashers and opportunists, leading left-behind and resentful citizens – the ones who really do deserve society’s sympathy – confidently away from Calais, either without a map or with half a dozen.

It was the same in 1975. Was Brexit from the then common market (its critics were saying exactly the same things) going to lead us to a buccaneering form of offshore capitalism, the Hong Kong of the North? Or to socialism in one country? To become the 51st US state? Or to a renewed intimacy with the Commonwealth? Or even with Europe’s “outer seven” known as Efta now reduced to four, all in thrall to the EU?

Sounds familiar? You bet. We’re here again, all older, mostly richer. Yes, most of us really were much worse off in 1975 and even the rich didn’t live as long on average as the poor do now. No mobile phones either, just three TV channels, limited car ownership, to be set against more UK manufacturing jobs before China abandoned communism while some UK unions didn’t.

What’s different, apart from the historic shift of wealth and power back to Asia – a restoration of normality as it was before 1500? One thing is that Fleet Street was overwhelmingly pro-Europe in 1975, all but Lord Beaverbrook’s pro-Commonwealth-nostalgia Daily Express (lots of lefties on board too) and the communist Morning Star, as I recall, though papers like the Guardian tried to be balanced in their coverage.

Now the Fleet Street guns mostly point the other way. Would you say a daily barrage from the Sun, Mail, Telegraph and lesser lights (the Times news coverage makes a decent stab at fairness) is worth more than £9.5m a day, peddling stuff like this and this? I would, though tabloid readers are sometimes gloriously indifferent to their paper’s politics, ignorant in some cases. Why would their kids’ future matter when Man City is playing PSG?

The other big change is that our own world is more fragile. Old certainties fade fast and are replaced with glimpses of a future which might be wonderful – machines to do the work and medicines to keep us healthy and happy – and might be darkly dystopian, dominated by tyrannical robots that speak only Mandarin Chinese.

That’s why today’s big news on the EU front isn’t Cameron’s flyer, but the Dutch electorate’s rejection of the EU “association treaty” on trade and security with Ukraine. It didn’t get much of a show on bulletins or news pages, but it’s another dangerous straw in the centrifugal wind. Together they threaten, not to unite Europe under the Merkel jackboot – as fantasists would have you believe – but to pull it apart brick by ever-faster brick, Vladimir “Panama” Putin helping with the hod.

The turnout was low (32%), but high enough to validate it under Dutch rules. The 61% to 38% majority for a no-vote was impressive. The Dutch are probably our closest European neighbours in terms of history and temperament, the way they speak their form of Low German can even sound like English in a restaurant. But they too are in the grip of nationalistic and populist revolt against Brussels, actively supported by Nigel “keep out of our business, Mr Obama” Farage.

So a referendum was triggered by a 430,000-strong petition organised by people who said the treaty was a first step to Ukrainian EU membership, a step too far after rapid Thatcher-inspired expansion to the east. There’s a respectable case too for saying the EU has mishandled its evolving relationship with post-Soviet Ukraine, to Ukraine’s detriment.

That is not to say – as Moscow and its online trolls do – that Brussels and Berlin were behind a “fascist” coup against its client government (the “Orange Revolution”), let alone Russia’s “soft” invasion of its eastern regions which Luke Harding’s A Very Expensive Poison graphically documents. Ukraine’s leaders (on both sides) seem to have parked spare cash courtesy of Panama.

But it’s another energy-sapping blow to EU confidence and cohesion as it struggles to cope with mistakes and challenges, many of its own making. I am reminded of the Belfast joke which did the rounds after the Good Friday agreement: “The IRA is too clever to admit it’s lost and the Protestants too stupid to realise they’ve won.”

Europe isn’t coming together in a federal fantasy, it’s coming apart. We’ll miss it if it disappears. Remember, it was created first and foremost to prevent war.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7th April 2016 13.48 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010