The UK is in the lucky position of having our cake and eating it. Photo: Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty
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An EU explainer for the easily bored: where does the UK stand?

Frances Robinson continues her series on what we really need to know about the EU. This week: should the UK stay or should it go?

Age: We’ve been in since 1973. So, getting to that stage where it’s a little rude to ask.

Why did we join? All kinds of reasons, but the main one was being in a free trade bloc, coupled with a recognition that economic and political cooperation would maintain peace and prosperity.

Was there a party? The 1974 Tour de France came over for a stage on the newly-opened Plympton bypass. Grumpy customs officials held up cyclists before what one rider called “the most boring stage I’ve ever, ever ridden”.

Haven’t times changed! Yes, totally. The 2014 Grand Départ in Yorkshire was such a roaring success, the region is having its own standalone cycling extravaganza this summer. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome are cycling legends.

I mean the EU. A referendum would be unprecedented! Except for the precedent of the 1975 referendum, when 67 per cent voted to stay in.

Oh. What happened next? Gradually, over decades, it became a single market, an idea championed by the UK. This now consists of the free movement of goods, services, capital and people between member states. More countries joined. Some aspects of the single market got completed, others still need a lot of work. We got plenty of special treatment by carefully negotiating a series of carve-outs and exceptions. For some countries, it became an even closer union with the launch of the single currency.

What, like the rebate? Yes. In 1984, after epic negotiations, Margaret Thatcher won back part of our contribution, because we don’t benefit as much as other members from the Common Agricultural Policy (them there farm subsidies) – which still absorb a large chunk of EU spending. It’s based on a calculation which is very roughly two thirds of the difference between the UK’s contribution and what it receives back from the EU budget. The French don’t like it. Bof.

What else? We’re not in the euro, and we never have to be. We’re not in the Schengen* passport-free travel zone. While other countries can be fined for not complying with certain aspects of the stability and growth pact, we can’t. So basically, we get as close as any country to having its cake and eating it. Still, as EU legislation has expanded over the last four decades, we have had to apply an every-growing menu of laws.

Is that how it’s seen in Brussels? Put it this way. If the EU is a birthday party, we’re not asking for more cake from a position of being sat in the corner eating stale twiglets. We’ve eaten a massive pile of cake, nibbled the icing on France’s, and now we’re asking for more. And we don’t know what sort of cake we actually want, and we won’t say until after the next game of musical chairs.

Mmm, cake. Nom nom nom. The other guests still want us to stay. We’re not the only ones with a desire for reform. But we are the only ones saying we’ll leave if we don’t get what we want – and in life as at children’s birthday parties, threatening to take your toys and go home doesn’t make one tremendously popular.

Alright, let’s play nicely and renegotiate. OK, but be aware we’re talking about a renegotiation of rules affecting 28 countries, at a time of political turmoil, economic uncertainty and global instability. And there’s only a certain amount that can be achieved without changing the basic EU treaty law. And that, to use a technical term from diplomatic circles, is a massive ball-ache. Those in favour of the government’s approach say change has been talked about for a long time and the threat of leaving is the only way to jolt them into action.

That’s not what I heard. It’s understandable. At the moment, the EU is easily used as a “dog ate my homework” style excuse by British politicians for anything unpopular. As an aside, the education system barely explains British politics, let alone how the EU works, which would help.

LOL remember general studies A-level!!! Who does? As explained last week, British civil servants, MEPs and diplomats can continue to reform the EU... from within. That’s how we got so much cake in the first place.

Enough with the cake. OK. Everyone knows it’s serious: the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said he will “personally will take on the concerns voiced by the UK… no reasonable person can imagine the EU without the UK”, and various world leaders have urged us to stay in. Other EU leaders have made encouraging noises about flexibility – but not to the extent they end the free movement of goods, services, capital and people.

Well, look, all this depends on Dave and the election. Boris for PM! Boris knows a lot more about Europe than he lets on with his mop-haired buffoon act. His father worked for the commission, he went to the European School, and he was previously a reporter in Brussels. He says the Commission is expansionist, and that if that could be fixed, it would make most sense to stay in.

He’s probably just thinking about London. That’s kind of his job. According to CityUK, which lobbies for the banking industry, the EU is the biggest single market for UK exports of financial services, generating a trade surplus of £15.2bn in 2012 – that’s a lot of cash. The Lord Mayor of London (the fancy hat one, not Boris) has said if Britain leaves the EU a lot of banks could leave London.

I hate bankers.  OK, think about all the Minis made in Swindon and the Nissans from Sunderland... who buys them? Half of UK vehicle exports are to EU consumers and the sector employs over 700,000 people, according to a KPMG report for the industry. If we left the EU, there’d likely be an tarrif on exporting those cars to Europe. The report concludes that “continued EU membership is vital to this £60 billion industry and its long-term prosperity.”

I hate cars. Fine. Next week, we’ll talk about wine, cheese and cheap flights.

*Named after the village in Luxembourg where the agreement was signed.

 

Frances Robinson has been covering the EU since 2006. Previously a staffer at the Wall Street Journal, she returned to the UK after a decade abroad to talk and write about the UK-EU relationship. 

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.