The upcoming referendum on whether Britain should remain in or leave the European Union (EU) is, undoubtedly, one of the defining political moments of this generation. With less than two weeks to go before the historic poll, though, the standard of debate has failed to rise to a level that matches the occasion. Instead, it has been overshadowed by bitter personality rows and rivalries. The result is that issues are, at best, discussed glibly or, even worse, ignored altogether.
One of the main arguments made by the Vote Leave – “Brexit” – campaign is that membership of the EU is a waste of public finances. Leading pro-Brexit campaigners like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove claim that Britain sends about £50 million per day to Brussels. A poster on the Vote Leave battle-bus sums up the grievance thus: “We send the EU £350m a week, let’s fund the National Health Service (NHS) instead.”
At first glance the figures seem compelling enough. However, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Andrew Dilnott, has warned that they are not only suspect but “potentially misleading.” If they were inflated, as the Remain camp argues, it would not be the first time that politicians have “sexed up” data to force the nation to adopt a certain position. In 2003, the government of Tony Blair did it, scandalously so, with an intelligence dossier to make the case for war against Iraq, claiming that Saddam Hussain had the capability to use weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of the order being given.
To the same degree that campaigners do not hesitate to deploy misinformation in order to sway public opinion, they are never keen to discuss issues beyond their comfort zones. Israel’s destruction of EU-funded projects in Palestine is a case in point. Why, it is fair to ask, should British taxpayers support the EU when it cannot safeguard its own aid projects? And why do Gove and Johnson not highlight this as an example of EU waste? They are both pro-Israel, of course, and unable to bring themselves to criticise the Zionist state.
A report published this week by the Euro-Mediterranean Monitor for Human Rights revealed that since the 2015 EU decision to label products from Israel’s illegal settlements, the Israeli security forces have increased dramatically their demolition and confiscation of EU-funded projects in occupied Palestine. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (UN OCHA) there were 120 demolitions of EU-financed buildings during the first three months of 2016 alone.
The Euro-Med report – Squandered Aid – estimates that between 2001 and 2016 the EU has lost about €58 million as a result of Israel’s destruction and damage of property. Some may argue that this figure is too little to merit a place in the referendum debate as it might risk a diplomatic spat with a special ally.
What is at stake here, however, is much more than finance. It is the principle of due diligence in the use of EU funds and accountability for what happens to them. Sadly, neither the EU, the Remain campaign nor “Brexiteers” are prepared to discuss the issue because they are too embarrassed by it all.
The fact is that they all view Israel as an exception; it is seen as a member of their exclusive club. Former EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, gloated famously in 2009 that Israel is a member of the European Union without being a member of the institutions; that it is “a member of all the EU programmes, including the research and technology programmes.”
On principle alone, surely membership of the EU does not come with a licence for a state to act with impunity or commit grave violations of international law. Israel’s wilful and indiscriminate destruction of Palestinian homes and livelihoods falls within this category. It is inexcusable and unacceptable and it sets a very worrying and dangerous precedent. If one member of the club — in this case, Israel — can get away with “squandering” EU funds, who or what is going to stop other members from doing the same in future?
As it stands, neither of the opposing camps on Britain’s EU membership have the moral upper hand for neither have had the courage or audacity to step out of their comfort zones. While the Brexiteers have focussed much of their campaign on the “threat” of unlimited immigration, the In Campaign has chosen to highlight the economic benefits of EU membership.
The narrative from the two camps provides only half of the story. The fact is that a lot of EU funds accrued from hard-working taxpayers are being wasted knowingly and, it seems, willingly, in order to assuage European consciences on one hand while not upsetting Israel on the other. If the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign and the Remain camp are too scared to challenge Israel about its destruction of EU-funded projects in Palestine, what hope is there that they would do any better when faced with similar challenges elsewhere, either as a member of the union or not? There is, frankly, no hope at all. The attitude towards Israel’s wanton destruction is both shameful and dangerous no matter which way the British public vote on 23 June.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.