The shredded mind of the Europath

Many anti-EU journalists are xenophobic, paranoid and shameless manipulators of the truth. Adam Fergusson points the finger at Christopher Booker (far right), a leading exponent of the art
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The Independent Online
That the question, "Europe In or Out?" still troubles Britain like a grumbling appendix, weakening our ability to make vital and immediate choices on our future in Europe, is a measure of the effectiveness of Euroscepticism. By that I mean the wilful and successful portrayal of Brussels as a combination of Babylon and Carthage, of the Commission as the Beast and the Prince of Darkness rolled into one, and of the whole institution as a Gothic Horror where nothing is what it seems, in which things move that should not move. Demonised, dehumanised, the Commission is the last enemy, the ultimate threat to nationhood - and all the governments and chancelleries of Europe are in its thrall. This campaign, with powerful support from certain newspapers, is fuelled by the driven, almost tunnel- visioned exertions of a small coterie of writers and orators. For these guardians of our honour, the agents of Brussels are at work everywhere, like Gremlins, corrupting Europe's bureaucracies, emasculating her politicians, infecting, sapping, destroying, leeching, bleaching. (One could go on like this for a long time; and they do, actually).

Ordinary people would not normally give wall space to the silly effusions of a Bill Cash or a Teresa Gorman; nor the time of day to the mawkish tosh that Christopher Booker writes in The Sunday Telegraph about "the true Europe we all love" (he means France's restaurants, mainly). Of course, there are the thinking man's Europhobes too, whose direct audience is more limited. But the outpourings of the rest have got through to the popular mind. Why has the counter-attack been so ineffective in swaying public opinion the other way? In Westminster, the Positive Europeans behave themselves on the back benches, and Conservatives and Labour are paralysed - by the parliamentary arithmetic, by the overriding need to keep parties together as an election nears. Serious newspapers have been quietly weighing the advantages and dangers of EMU and how best it can be achieved, considering whether Britain can afford to be left out - but, having balanced judgement, none stridently screams for integration. As for monetary union, no voice is heard expounding the importance, even the adventure, of running what will be the biggest, stablest reserve currency in the world. In truth, very few of the Euro-friendly merit the "fanatically pro-European" label the Eurosceptics give them: the excitability, the exaggeration and the distortion is all on the other side. Independent figures - last week Nico Henderson in The Economist, and Roy Denman in The Times - compellingly warn of the dangers of voluntary exclusion from a domestic market which absorbs three-fifths of our products, a weighty but negative argument. In industry, in the City, the practical need to be at the centre of whatever Europe is going overshadows, for most, any emotional views of what its nature should be. So the banner of unequivocal European integration is borne ineffectually by the Liberal Party, to whom it seems to do little harm - while the loud trumpet of divorce is blown by single-issue movements of the Right, towards which for their own reasons lone-wolf politicians and ex-Ministers are drawn.

Thus the Eurosceptics - "Europaths" would better express their state of mind: Nico Henderson talks of Euroscepticaemia - have made the running. The Eurosceptics have understood, by calculation or otherwise, the first principle of propaganda, that the mass of people conform to whatever opinion seems to be the norm. If the propagandists' enemy is internationalism - the ideal on which the European Union rests - it can best be fought with nationalism. Whereas that larger view of mankind emphasises his common humanity, the merits of reconciliation and the advantages of co-operation, the narrower one builds on fear of the unknown, conjures enemies where there are none, stresses differences, and blames the alien, inside and out - in other words, inspires in the public mind an obsessive suspicion of foreigners and an excessive fear of persecution. That is how it has been done, down the ages. But any politician, by speech or pen, who kindles hatred by playing on mankind's latent nationalism - presenting it as patriotism - plays with fire. One who does it knowingly in the context of late 20th- century Europe, struggling at last out of a thousand-year time-warp of political confrontation and bloody war, is worse than irresponsible.

The Eurosceptic message is a nationalist one, exploiting public fear and ignorance of what Europe is about. Thus it must be picked over and demolished detail by detail, because otherwise the Big Lie, constantly repeated, becomes the Received Truth. My recent pamphlet Fiction Prize for Booker (published two weeks ago by ACE, the independent European study group) deliberately dissected the past year's writings, mainly in The Sunday Telegraph, of Christopher Booker. It is he who weekly prints, circulates and recirculates the tales which feed suspicion of Brussels' intentions. He is the principal journalistic mouthpiece - unelected, of course - for all Eurosceptics. The blurb of his new book, the aptly-named Castle of Lies, describes him as "the scourge of overmighty bureaucrats and puppet politicians". A columnist last Thursday put it better - "the top straight banana on the doomed double-decker bus". The point is that, through misinformation and misconstruction, Booker has (I believe) done more than most to generate distrust in Britain of the European Union.

Booker's writing therefore represents the whole gamut of Eurosceptic evangelism, although his attention to the psychiatric disorders of his opponents - everyone, everything is "mad" - is probably singular. He tackles the task by the textbook, accusing any who disagree with him of purveying propaganda: a week ago his column said the editor of the Evening Standard was "Euro-besotted" and that I was an "amazingly ignorant propagandist" who had been "hired by one of our EU front organisations" to discredit him. He implies that the entire "tireless" readership of the Telegraph are on his side, beavering away at a grand conspiracy (but he also describes my malevolent conspirators of Brussels as tireless; and often his correspondents are "weary" - it's all the same to him). Then he sets about massaging minds himself, warning how Europe is plotting against us - as with a still unpublished draft directive "designed to strike a crippling blow at Britain's bus manufacturers by outlawing the double-decker"; or the "hidden agenda ... to drive the British out, to make room for more Spaniards in British waters" (Drake, thou shouldst be living now!). He makes our flesh creep by extrapolating figures, misquoting statistics, manufacturing alarms.

Time and again his facts are absurd - the dead mackerel six feet deep in St Michael's Mount Bay; or plain wrong (see below). He deals, not so much in half-truths as in half the truth; and because he has not a good word to say about Brussels or any of its works, suppressing the other side of his stories, there is no hope of finding balance in them.

Scanning The Castle of Lies, I note repeated among them most of the distorted reports which Booker himself has already admitted to be discredited. Here again are the twisted tales - some mere hearsay - of the notional flock of a single sheep in need of documentation and ear tags; of the greenhouse heater that needed expensive testing for 37 different gases; of the scandalous restraints on retail Yorkshire pudding (this time not about its dimensions but about fabricating and selling it as such in Surrey); of the metrication of the Norfolk Broads; of the travails of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals (as though they hadn't successfully been relieved long ago); of the demise of the British double-decker (Booker's readers are not told that the open-platformed London Routemaster hasn't been built since 1968, but that might get them thinking).

And here are the dead mackerel once more, discarded near St Michael's Mount in the 1970s because of EU quotas which then hadn't even been imposed, not just six feet deep but spread over "thousands of square yards". If everything which one has checked is distorted or inaccurate, how can one assume that anything unchecked is right?

There is a brand-new example to hand of the technique of misquoting figures, dressing up facts and blackening with sarcasm. Intending, one imagines, to gain publicity for his book, Booker had a letter published in The Daily Telegraph on 21 November. It ridiculed that newspaper's own Brussels correspondent for not mentioning "the most obvious reason for the EU's popularity in Luxembourg - the fact that its inhabitants receive the biggest pay- out per head of any member states ... from the Brussels fruit machine". Nemesis struck swiftly. Five days later, he was ordered to send a letter of correction. "It now emerges" he wrote, "that these figures ... included the huge sums spent on the array of EU institutions sited in the Grand Duchy". He had found that every Luxembourg household, far from netting pounds 1,318 in 1994, had a net contribution rate among the largest in Europe (pounds 360 in 1995 - a third again as much as Britain's, although he didn't admit that). Anyone who bothered to ask about the Luxembourg figures knew the reason for them long ago. Indeed, it was in my pamphlet, because he was relaying the same rubbish about Luxembourg last December.

This pusillanimous apology listed the Duchy-based institutions receiving the "huge sums" - the Court of Justice, the Court of Auditors, the Investment Bank - and then struck gold! The European Parliament's library, Booker revealed triumphantly, had lent MEPs only 126 books in the past year - at a cost he calculated, by a simple division sum, of pounds 46,500 a volume. What an ass! Does he suppose this to be a lending library merely stocking fiction like his own solely for the benefit of MEPs? Modern information libraries do not lend books much - certainly not reference books or legal or parliamentary records and documentation or even (so help me) newspaper cuttings. They are data banks, accessible through technologies which Booker may not have heard of. Had he consulted it, this one - which also operates in Brussels and answered 6,372 requests from MEPs alone in 1995 - could have put him straight on most of his delusions. But, of course, he doesn't want to know.

The Eurosceptic case is not about facts but about fear. The minds of its extreme votaries are not for changing; they are permanently and biologically set in the nationalistic mode in which they perceived threat to their human group frightens them. The public perception, however, can be changed, and is ever up for grabs. People will answer to reason as will as to passion. How long before they realise by whom they are being led by the nose?

The author has been an MEP and special advisor on European affairs at the Foreign Office.