Richard North, 02/09/2016  

At the end of July, we published our first Monograph, covering in detail the issue of Single Market participation and free movement of persons, with special reference to EEA "safeguard measures" and the experiences of the Principality of Liechtenstein.

The work had actually developed over a period, with a post in mid-June, updated on 28 June and then further updated on 18 July after it had been dismissed on 5 July during a Treasury Select Committee oral evidence session by Monnet professor Michael Dougan, as an "armchair lawyers' argument".

Although I say it myself, the Monograph was a thorough piece of work, well researched and fully supported with references to primary sources. The fact-based conclusions are largely unarguable, indicating that the Liechtenstein/EEA solution offers the UK a genuine possibility of reconciling the inherent tensions between seeking full Single Market participation and curtailing the free movement of persons.

Later, this Monograph was circulated sent to over 70 "influential" members of a private e-mail circulation list, eliciting a dismissive response from MP Peter Lilley in the form of a written critique covering this and some of the other Monographs published. Separately, the document was used to brief programme-makers for BBC Newsnight engaged in producing a short film about the Liechtenstein solution. This film (above) was also dismissive of the solution.

This interesting (and alarming) thing though is that in these two cases we see separate actors from different backgrounds – media and politics - both exploring the same issue with the benefit of the same Monograph as their briefing, ignore keys aspects of the briefing and make much the same errors.

Both seek to position the solution as specific to Liechtenstein and both fail to note that the Efta states have the unilateral right to invoke Article 112. Instead, they suggest that it is dependent on the permission of the EU. Both, in particular, fail to note the safeguard measures have been invoked by other Efta states and the European Commission. Both neglect to say that safeguard features are a common feature of trade and related agreements throughout the world.

However, it hardly seems possible that they share the same agenda in wanting to invalidate the thesis in Monograph 1 – which they both have sought to do. Lilley has been an active member of the "leave" campaign while Newsnight, insofar as it has a corporate view, is generally thought to favour the "remain" proposition. Yet such is the closeness of the views held by each party that coincidence seems unlikely.

In Monograph 10, therefore – published today – I look at possible reasons for the failures in transmission. One possible explanation lies in the "power of the narrative", where disparate commentators rely on their own "particular reality".

Contemporary media reports tend to position the Lichtenstein solution as an "emergency brake" of limited scope and duration, with even The Times currently using this phrase. It has been shared by Dougan and many others. And once a "particular reality" has been lodged, it is very hard – almost impossible - to shift.

The driver behind this, I suggest, is "prestige", identified so lucidly by Gustave le Bon. "Great power", he wrote, "is given to ideas propagated by affirmation, repetition, and contagion by the circumstance that they acquire in time that mysterious force known as prestige". He added:
Prestige in reality is a sort of domination exercised on our mind by an individual, a work, or an idea. This domination entirely paralyses our critical faculty, and fills our soul with astonishment and respect. The sentiment provoked is inexplicable, like all sentiments, but it would appear to be of the same kind as the fascination to which a magnetised person is subjected. Prestige is the mainspring of all authority. Neither gods, kings, nor women have ever reigned without it.
Yet another factor is peer group approval. Of relevance here is that Lilley is a "gatekeeper" to a group of like-minded MPs and others, including John Redwood and Steve Baker. All of these have expressed opposition to the UK's continued participation in the Single Market, a view which Lilley shares. To keep faith with his peer group, he cannot be seen to approve something which facilitates continued participation.

All of this may be sufficient to explain the behaviour observed, but there may be more reasons. Here, I draw on Isabel Feichtner work on the WTO waiver - another form of safeguard measure.

For me, one of the strongest features of the argument supporting the utility of the Liechtenstein solution came with the realisation that safeguard measures were not a peculiarity of the EEA Agreement. They were a commonly used addition to most treaties covering trade and related matters. Thus the idea of Article 112 being invoked, or used as leverage, becomes nothing out of the ordinary.

But while my early ignorance has been dispelled, it continues to afflict many commentators. So embedded is another "particular reality", that the safeguard measure is rare and special, that they cannot accept the concept of safeguard measures a normal, routine part of treaty law. It needs "affirmation, repetition, and contagion" before being adopted. Without that, it is more plausible to believe that the Liechtenstein solution is exceptional.

Finally, looking at the broader context of the debate, we see innumerable high-prestige figures having constantly repeated that free movement of persons is "non-negotiable". Thus, for the Liechtenstein solution to be valid for the UK, all these people must be wrong, misinformed, or even engaged in a conspiracy to mislead. For most people, this is far too much of a conceptual leap. That there is a straightforward solution is almost an impossible idea to accept.

Thus we come back to le Bon, who writes that: "crowds always, and individuals as a rule, stand in need of ready-made opinions on all subjects. The popularity of these opinions is independent of the measure of truth or error they contain, and is solely regulated by their prestige".

This phenomenon is dominating the Brexit debate. Only yesterday we saw perfect illustrations is an error-strewn piece by Daniel Hannan who used the opportunity of a platform on Conservative Home to air his "particular realities", driven by prestige, the need for peer group approval and ignorance.

Thus, although Hannan is on the John Mills distribution list and has been sent eight of the ten Monographs so far published, he is still banging on about the United States and China not having a trade deal with the EU. Like Peter Lilley, he falls into the trap of believing that the EEA "was designed as a transitional step to full EU membership". And he wrongly believes that we could negotiate a profitable trading relationship with the EU "based on mutual product recognition rather than standardisation".

One would think that any one of these basic errors, and the many more, would destroy Hannan's credibility but, in fact, they reinforce it amongst his fan base and peer group. Only if he shares their ignorance and affirms their errors does he retains his prestige. This rather explains why he not only avoids the truth, but needs to avoid the truth. To do otherwise would erode his personal prestige within his group.

Within the group scenario, therefore, there is no premium in conveying accurate information. It is far more important not to diverge from a narrative supported by high-prestige persons. Personal prestige depends on conformity with the peer group view. It is conformity, not the truth, which fosters prestige. Conformity is everything: facts are optional.

What the reaction to the Liechtenstein solution has done, therefore, is identify deep-rooted problems in the process of spreading information. In the last part of the Monograph, I look at some strategies for overcoming them. But there are no easy answers. We're in for the long haul.

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