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A voting session at the European Parliament: The UK remains subject to EU legislation driven by the objective of political union (©Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

Britain’s recent negotiations with the European Union bring to mind my experience when I visited South Vietnam in 1967. A postgraduate studying electoral politics at Nuffield College, Oxford, I was on a freelance trip for The Times to observe the presidential elections in that then-war-torn country. The newspaper had offered barely enough money to cover my costs, so I tried to exchange pounds for piastres on the street. The rate was very good. But when I counted out the dirty notes, I found that low denominations had skilfully been mixed with the higher ones. The higher ones were on the top, the small ones were in the middle. Some notes had been folded so that they were counted twice. I’d been cheated.

Determined to do better the next time, I instructed the next  street dealer I encountered to place each new currency note slowly into my hand so that that there could be no trickery. Somehow — I still don’t know how — he deceived my eyes like a conjuror. So the third time, I devised a new, foolproof method. I invited the dealer to do the exchange at a restaurant table and to place each note into an envelope. Guess what?

It took me three goes to learn my lesson. It is some comfort to my ego that a succession of fine British political leaders have been even more prone to falling for the standard ploys in negotiations with the EU.

In 1988, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher railed in her famous speech in Bruges against the emerging “European superstate”. Yet she herself had been persuaded only two years earlier to agree to the Single European Act that set the objective of creating a single market by 1992, arguably the greatest step toward that very superstate. In October 2000, when a Charter of Fundamental Rights was proposed as part of the Nice Treaty, Labour’s Minister for Europe, Keith Vaz MP, gave the assurance that the inclusion of 54 rights “would have no greater legal standing before EU judges than a copy of the Beano or the Sun”. (For foreign readers, the Beano is a children’s comic.)

The then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, said: “Does it mean that European judges can overturn the law of national governments and parliaments on the basis of this charter? The answer is no. We are happy to sign the charter. It creates no new powers for Brussels.” The Charter, claimed Campbell, was no more than a political declaration and a “showcase” of existing rights. Despite its attempts to depreciate the charter, the government made clear that it would veto any attempt to make it legally binding in EU treaties.

It took less than a decade for the UK to sign up to the next treaty, the Lisbon Treaty, which gave legal effect to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, albeit with a UK opt-out. The trick was that — as revealed in a detailed House of Lords inquiry — the opt-out would be virtually ineffective.

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