The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

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Interview in These Tides magazine - The boundaries of EU-Sceptic thought pushed forward

The boundaries of EU-Sceptic thought pushed forward

Robert Oulds

Just over a year ago, both the Bruges Group Co-Chairman Dr Martin Holmes and the celebrated Campaign Director, Jonathan Collett, moved on in quick succession. Many thought that the Daddy of Eurosceptic think tanks had uttered its last 'NO'. To fill the void an unknown 24-year-old called Robert Oulds was appointed Director and people asked, "Who is this Robert Oulds anyway?"

But a year later few would have the temerity to question the Bruges Group's status as London's premier Eurosceptic think-tank.

TT So, Robert Oulds, who are you anyway?

RO I became involved with the Group by offering communication advice and conducting research for them. When Jonathan left in January 2001, my name was put forward to be his replacement. I was first made Campaign Director then Director. My background is broadcast journalism and Political Communications and Marketing. I have also researched the communication strategy of Britain in Europe and have a degree in Politics and a Master’s degree in Communications Management.

I once worked for an interior design magazine and as a freelance broadcast football journalist and was involved in the Hospital Radio movement, volunteering for charity Hospital radio services to entertain patients.

TT What have you done to reassert the Bruges Group on the London and European Eurosceptic scenes?

RO On one angle I am trying to push forward the boundaries of debate on European issues, keeping thought live and fresh and arranging events that help do this. On another, I am in the process of practical and technological advancements. Such as re-branding our logo, our publications and newsletters, a more modern 'with it' image. Plus re-vamping our internet site www.brugesgroup.com, my advice is to go on-line and check this out – it will play an important part in the debate. I have also published some very highly acclaimed Occasional Papers. Of course in Britain we may shortly have a referendum on the Euro and I want the Bruges Group to play an important part in that. One way to do this is to counter the pro-EU/Euro propaganda emanating from the EU. Through publications about this, press briefings and a propaganda watch the Bruges Group can stop this or at least limit it’s impact.

I also want Bruges Group to contribute to the debate in other countries. In November 2001 we held an International Conference that did actually achieve that. As you know, in recent years Bruges group has participated in a number of projects overseas.

TT The Bruges Group does not have a magazine of its own. Even Bill Cash has his own magazine. Instead you publish Occasional Papers, each on separate subjects by a variety of writers from all different points of view and independent of each other. Is the Bruges Group a think tank or just an alternative publishing house?

RO That is an important distinction not all 'think tanks' understand. But also it must be said that a think tank has a purpose to develop thinking in a certain area - the post-EU Europe if you like. Now magazines like yours and the rather different one published by Bill Cash's European Foundation - I think it is called the European Gazette - have a different purpose again.

Naturally, we must keep up-to-date with the latest developments and offer a critique of integration – some people do still think that we benefit from it. But what makes the Bruges Group different is that we do not just hold up our hands and say, "woe is me - the European Union is dreadful!", or just analyse the damage that it causes. But we are actually promoting a positive and I believe viable alternative.

TT This could be what was once termed 'broad sunlit uplands'.

RO The relationship between the nations of Europe and with the outside world has gone into an unsatisfactory state. Not as bad as during the Napoleonic era or in 1940, but the principle is similar. Just look at the kind of Europe they are building – seeking to control and regulate all aspects of our lives. We have to replace that relationship with one that suits us all better – I favour the model advocated by Margaret Thatcher at the College of Europe in Bruges – a Europe of free trading independent democratic sovereign nation-states with deregulated economies. A Europe that, with a little encouragement from Britain, will not turn it’s back on the United States and will embrace the wider world and the positive challenges of a free-trading world that we hope globalisation will bring.

The EU is not some dreadful prospect in the future it is here now, unfortunately it is the present. We know that it is terrible but push for our positive vision for the future, what we are fighting for, explore the alternatives, and confine their control freak federalist Europe to the dustbin of history.

TT Have you just been advocating this since you were founded?

RO No, not all. I perceive there to have been three stages to Bruges Group thinking. Initially, we wanted to win the argument in the heart of the EU itself. We wanted a Thatcherite revolution in Europe. We supported the EU, just that it should be a reformed EU.

Then we concentrated on being the moral guardians of the Conservative Party. Pushing them to adopt an ever more Eurosceptic line and punishing them if they wavered. Making the words Renegotiation and Withdrawal an acceptable part of the Conservative Parties political vocabulary, well some of them anyway.

Now, I want to again push forward the boundaries of debate. No longer should Euroscepticism be about slowing down or saying no further to the process of European Construction, I want to advocate European deconstruction!

I have a concern. Some say, ‘Britain should withdraw from the EU’ and if people in other European countries want to federate [which they don’t] then let them. But that is not good enough for me. If the federalists are not stopped every European state could be part of the EU’s empire, that would mean the UK would be surrounded. Under these circumstances would Britain be independent? No! Norway are outside of the EU but not independent of it. That is why we have to, we really must, offer people a better deal and create a new Europe. And I think the Bruges Group has the best model.

TT What is your position then on withdrawal from the European Union?

RO The most important thing about the Bruges Group is that we are actually for something. I am not necessarily against the EU. The most important thing is the kind of economic and international relationship the UK should have with Europe and the rest of the world. We want a different type of Europe. It is just that now I think that the best way to achieve this is to withdraw. I am sure that this will either shock them into reform or bring the whole house crashing down. I do not favour reform from the inside, that is impossible, I want deconstruction from the outside.

TT How do you propose to do this? "Deconstruct from the Outside" sounds like a George W euphemism for war.

RO Britain could leave the EU and join EFTA. This would give Britain free-trade with NAFTA, the EU and Eastern Europe. Then extend it on to other parts of the globe, thus giving birth to a global free trade organisation. This would be so advantageous to anyone who is a member that it will be more of an attractive proposition to the candidate countries than anything the EU is willing to come-up with and entails no loss of sovereignty. And if we push hard for the Eastern European states to be allowed in to NATO – Russia can not stop them – then their security would be guaranteed and then they have no reason whatsoever to join the EU. Enlargement finished at a stroke. Some EU member states could also join. As Europe moves to the centre-right I deem this will be an offer some states will find that they just have to be part of it.

The EU first falters, then stagnates and finally it begins to shrink. It will then be a thing of the past and even if it is not abolished it will be ignored.

TT You mentioned Globalisation in a positive context. What do you mean by that word? Some people believe Globalisation and this European centralisation that we are fighting are aprts of the same process?

RO Globalisation is free-trade, international free markets, easier travel and immigration, the internet age. All this makes the nation-state – a smaller body – the ideal model. You need a political unit that is flexible and nimble, able to react to changing circumstances and compete for national competitive advantage. This is not a description of the EU. A large unit like that is the antithesis of globalisation. Federalism has more to do with the European totalitarianism of Robespierrie than anything modern.

TT You talk about an alternative vision and a new set of international relations to replace the ever-more dictatorial European Union, but what are you doing in partnership those peoples in Europe that do not want to be part of a Federal Europe, some of which have only just one their freedom from the Soviet Union. Do you practice what you preach?

RO There is a strong focus on Eastern Europe in the Bruges speech. On a practical level, we have always been of assistance to those in other countries who share our vision. We have many members on the continent, and have helped start Eurosceptic groups there. We have promoted Eurosceptic events and organisations in other countries, sent speakers along to them and given advice and have helped give them credibility by showing that it is not just loons like fascists and communists and peace wimmin that are anti-EU. Likewise on a Bruges Group platform in London you will often see a speaker from Eastern Europe whom we are working with. Some of the best ideas that we have promoted have come from such people. So we have learnt a lot as well. At the end of the day if we are to defeat the federalists we must do this by working beyond national boundaries.

TT Many thought that the 2001 Bruges Group International was the most significant Eurosceptic conference in years. You brought together the most powerful Eurosceptic thinkers from Tallinn, Stockholm, London and, significantly, Washington. It looks like the Bruges Group is becoming the hub of a wheel of Eurosceptic think tanks. What was the strategic purpose of this conference?

RO Not even the Bruges Group could claim that Heritage Foundation and Research Centre Free Europe are in orbit around us, but I know what you mean. Often people, including Eurosceptics, hold conferences for the sake of it. The first thing is to understand the political purpose and a conference is only one part of achieving the specific aim.

Euroscepticism needs ideas and these ideas need to be deployed effectively. We need to shift the terms of the debate in the political mainstream. We need to convince policy makers all over Europe of the viable alternatives to EU-federalism and we are playing an important part in that process. This is something I want to build upon. I want to create a Nexus of the EU’s opponents, opinion formers that can change this, from the UK, Europe, North America – whereever they are. Change what Euroscepticism means and promote the alternatives.

TT What then were the ideas advanced?

RO The International Conference reached the conclusion that a certain type of free trade alternative was possible, not just for Europe, but for the North Atlantic, the whole world even. And with influential people advocating these ideas from across Europe and North America, at this event, and having spoken to many other people afterwards I know that this is a feasible alternative. There is a growing political will to overturn the federalist consensus.

TT Your approach to Constitutional Convention on the Future of Europe?

RO Well we know what they are going to conclude. What the Bruges Group’s approach must be is to show the media that the Convention is a sham, a PR exercise if you like and that there is a better way. Perhaps then all this talk of the ‘Future of Europe’ will play into our hands and then it will have no future.

TT How can people actually actively participate in the Bruges Group – aren’t you a bit elitist, is it difficult for people to have an input into your work?

RO Well what I say to that is, we are elitist in the sense that we are a quality product and set an intellectual benchmark for Euroscepticism and have spearheaded the more learned battle against the notion of ever-closer union. But difficult for people to suggest, new ideas, and new strategies and to help – most certainly not. Take yourself for an example, David, you have greatly contributed to keeping the Bruges Group’s message fresh and we have been working together for some five years now and I would like to think that we have been quite successful.

Many others are also involved in a similar capacity to you. All you need is a few ideas. Something that may be unthinkable at the time, but together we can develop it, push it and set the political agenda. Lo and behold everyone will talk about it, eventually anyway. Like I said, we set THE intellectual benchmark for Euroscepticism.

TT There are so many Eurosceptic Groups in Britain some say too many, what do you say?

RO One should look at it this way. A major reason that we are opposed to European integration is because of their one-size-fits-all approach. This, we say, ‘limits innovation and the free market’ and at present the Eurosceptic scene can be described as a Free Market of Ideas. What I mean is since the Bruges Group was founded in 1989 there has been a kind-of ‘Big Bang’ explosion in Euroscepticism, partly sparked by us. This has led to the diversity we have at the moment and I think that this is a strength. It makes the Eurosceptic movement much stronger than if we all come together under some umbrella organisation. This would limit the strategies that we can use to fight integration. We have at the moment numerous organisations, some are think tanks, some are campaigning groups others are grassroots organisations. All these groups have their own distinct brand and approach, and there isn’t really any cross-over anyway. No one is stepping on each other’s toes.

I think that the Eurosceptic scene is alive and dynamic – we would lose all this if we came together in an umbrella organisation. Besides, people have been trying to set-up some kind of umbrella for years and it just does not work.