Welcome to Referendum World

9 mins. to read
Welcome to Referendum World

On Saturday morning David Cameron fired the starting gun. Finish point: 23 June. The biggest decision of our lifetime. Welcome to Referendum World. It’s a crazy new theme park where you’ll be taken for a ride.

I’m not going to argue pro or con today; I’m just going to warn you: they have already started playing with your mind.

We are actually two weeks in, even though the deal was only agreed at the weekend after marathon negotiations, which could only have happened in the weird corridors of Brussels. As far as I am concerned, the UK-EU IN-OUT referendum battle began the day (02 February) that Mr Tusk, like a white-coated waiter in a pretentious hotel, raised the silver cloche from the platter – only to reveal an etiolated sardine on a sliver of burnt toast…

And yet the forces of misinformation and scaremongering have already begun to target the huddled masses of this island nation like pitiless JU-87 StuKa dive-bombers. (Yes, I’ve seen Dad’s Army, (fine man, that Toby Jones) and, if anything, it underestimates the sheer pluck of the British people….)

In early December I penned a short piece on these pages entitled The Trouble with Calais. It was a bit of a cri du cœur as to how the powers that be on both sides of The Channel stroke La Manche might not act better to alleviate the misery that is currently being meted out to truck drivers, holiday-makers, the good burghers of Calais and the refugees (migrants, if you prefer) who are confined to Le Jungle. For anyone who spends their life in Starbucks, The Jungle is a kind of make-shift (largely canvass) refugee camp just outside Calais for people of many nationalities who apparently aspire to live in Britain. And one which the French authorities have allowed to mushroom: not out of any great humanitarian concern, but because they don’t seem to have any other idea of what to do with these people.

My guess, not having visited the Jungle myself (though I have met a few vicars, truth-seekers and other busybodies (like Jude Law) who have hung out there) is that the people there are a mixed bunch, some greatly deserving of our sympathy and some not at all. As far as we know, they are overwhelmingly young, unattached males – though there are of course a few mothers with children. It seems that well under half are from Syria – contingents from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan and Libya being collectively predominant. (So they are overwhelmingly Muslim, though not exclusively – Eritreans are Orthodox Christians). The latter countries are all ones which have experienced some degree of internal disorder if not open civil war and are all recipients of British and European foreign aid. But there are also people from Morocco, Iran and Pakistan – countries which are not in turmoil.

A lot of these people are not persecuted or running in fear of their lives: they aspire to live in countries which are more prosperous and congenial than their own. Economists have long since known that the very poor do not migrate – they can’t afford it. It’s the un-poor who get on their bikes, taking their smart phones with them.

Anyway, immigration is one of the biggest issues in European politics right now (in case you have spent too much time in Starbucks). There is a refugee crisis, beginning in the idyllic Aegean island of Lesbos (home of the great poet Sappho) and spreading through arterial pathways deep into northern Europe. One of those arteries is cauterised at Calais: because, even the most athletic sons of Afghanistan and Eritrea are not, generally, Channel swimmers. (This is not a joke: tragically, some have tried – and perished.)

Now actually, in legal terms, these people – and I repeat, some of them I am sure are good people – do not have the right to be in France at all because they have entered the Schengen Area without Schengen visas. So, in a normal world, to which France once belonged, they would be escorted to the frontier, and told to leg it. But in the weird world of the modern European Union, that is no longer possible. Because, as soon as the French wave au revoir at the Belgian border, they’ll all be back on the next train or bus with no one to stop them. One year after the migrant crisis began the Greeks were only warned to tighten up their borders last month. This is a crisis which Europe has proved unable to resolve because of its own dysfunctionality.

So the British – especially us English who often gaze from the White Cliffs towards Cap Gris Nez on a summer’s morning (normally aching to traverse to the lands of sunshine and wine) – might be tempted recently to feel something like John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II:

This precious stone set in a silver sea
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…

Except that there is a Channel Tunnel now (thanks, Mrs Thatcher) through which an invading army or hordes of refugees could throng at almost any time. This is a primal English fear. (But, if you have read Freud, you will not dismiss primal fears.)

Maybe that’s why on 03 February, “Downing Street” (that’s a media euphemism for sources close to the Prime Minister who express the Prime Minister’s sentiments) put it about (this well before that “deal” was closed) that, if Britain voted OUT, the French would move the border from Calais to Kent and that Le Jungle would be relocated to the South Downs.

Now this is something to conjure with – as I did. And, being a Man of Kent, I recalled the relevant facts. You see, Lord Blunkett (the man who, as Tony Blair’s Home Secretary refused to limit any migration from the Eastern European states – although we had the right to do so for seven years, as the Germans did) has said that the current border control regime between Calais and Dover is the product of a deal he did with his French counterpart, one Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2004. This sometimes goes by the name of the Treaty of Le Touquet, though I am not at all sure that it had the status of a treaty (for which the monarch must grant assent). But this is misleading.

In fact, the agreement between Blunkett and Sarko was to close the then refugee camp at Sangatte (not far from where the Jungle is now) in return for more vigorous British help in deterring migrants. The current arrangements between Britain and France concerning border controls for people crossing through the Channel Tunnel (whether by freight, Le Shuttle (passengers in cars) or Eurostar (train passengers without vehicles)) goes back to a very real treaty signed between Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand almost exactly 30 years ago (12 February 1986). This was the Treaty of Canterbury, signed in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral.

By the terms of this treaty a land frontier between the two countries was drawn in the middle of the Tunnel – the first treaty of its kind.

The consequent Concession Agreement (14 March 1986) entrusted France Manche and the Channel Tunnel Group with the construction and operation of the Channel Tunnel for a period of 55 years. This concession was later extended to 2086. In 1991, the Sangatte Protocol (a sub-clause of the Treaty of Canterbury) was signed between France and the UK. This provided for border checkpoints to be set up by France at Cheriton in Kent and for the UK at Coquelles in France. These customs and immigration posts on both sides of the Channel would be treated as sovereign territory. In the mid-1990s the French put this “sovereignty” to the test. They actually arrested a young man, who had joint British and French nationality, in their little square of French territory at Cheriton, Kent, on the grounds that he had not completed his French military service!

As a result of these accords, since 1994 when the tunnel opened, French immigration and customs checks for Le Shuttle take place at Cheriton, rather than on arrival in France, while UK immigration and customs checks take place in Coquelles. (Similarly, you show your passport to the French authorities at St. Pancras and Ebbsfleet if you are taking the Eurostar to Paris, and you show your passport to the Brits at the Gare du Nord on the way back.)  Unlike the so-called juxtaposed controls for the Eurostar, the ferries require pre-embarkation checks.

So to argue that by virtue of our quitting the EU the French would have the right to cancel a series of bilateral international treaties is nonsense. The French would be in flagrant violation of international law. And besides, if the inhabitants of the Jungle stormed the Tunnel they would be apprehended and rightfully returned to France. Moreover, there would never be a “camp” on the White Cliffs of Dover: the inmates, unless restrained by force, would just disperse since their apparent desire is to live in the UK.

What’s more, the French would create chaos by inciting more opportunist economic migrants to come to Calais. And the British, in view of the violation of the Treaty, would have the right to close the Channel Tunnel altogether.

So I was very surprised to hear Damien Green, MP for Ashford and a former immigration minister, peddling this pitiful scaremongering tosh on R4. One wonders what his motives were. He’s lost my vote, anyway.

There is more scaremongering afoot in relation to “security” and the status of The City. I’ll return to these issues soon.

If this sets the tone of the campaign then the idea that Tory INs and OUTs will get back into bed together post-referendum (may the best man win, and all that) is fanciful. It will be like Roundheads and Cavaliers dancing together at the Civil War Commemoration Ball. Daggers drawn.

How extraordinary that at the very moment that the Labour Party is out-to-lunch and unelectable, The Tory Party, led by a leader who is closer to Clegg than Thatcher (Son of Blair, and now Grandson of Wilson) is on course to self-destruct.

Under Cameron, the Tory leadership has lost touch with the Tory grass roots – who now at last have free rein. The recent resignation of big thinker Tim Montgomerie underlines this. The six cabinet ministers who have declared OUT are all (if uncharismatic), whatever you think of them, models of political integrity. And now, blimey, Boris is on board…

Post-referendum (whatever the outcome) is when Dave will get mauled by the Tory faithful, some of whom will now see UKIP as their true home. Exit pursued by a bear.

I’ve just seen The Revenant (great film) in which Leonardo DiCaprio gets trashed by a Grizzly Bear. (I do hope no Leonardos – or bears – were harmed in the making of this film, Señor Iñárritu.) Anyway, my point is that anyone can get away with one mauling from a bear; but what bears do is to go away and have their lunch, or whatever, and then (hope this isn’t spoiling the plot for anyone) they come back for more. And that’s when things turn really nasty.

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