Paranoia, according to the mental health charity Mind, is a belief that you are being threatened in some way, even if there is little or no evidence that you are. Reading the headlines in Britain’s right-wing press a few days ago you might think that Brexiters are becoming slightly paranoid about the EU.
“France and Germany’s ‘secret plan’ to drag Britain back into the EU WITHOUT a referendum, aided by Starmer”, screamed the headline in The Daily Mail, while the Express claimed that: “‘Labour will unravel Brexit’: Urgent warning over plot to make UK ‘associate member’ of EU.”
The Telegraph was slightly calmer but talked as if the ‘secret plan’ had been drawn up with the express purpose of getting Britain to “rejoin the EU” as an associate member. GB News linked the reports to Tony Blair, a sure-fire way to wind up Brexiters and suggested the former PM had set up a meeting between Labour leader Keir Stamer and French president Emmanuel Macron to “coincide with the announcement of EU ‘associate membership’, a scheme which France is said to be keen for the UK to be part of”.
On social media among the usual suspects, there was near meltdown:
What triggered it all?
The furore was started by a 60-page report by an obscure group of 12 non-governmental experts from France and Germany, commissioned by Anna Lührmann, and Laurence Boone, Europe ministers of the two countries. The report: Sailing on High Seas: Reforming and Enlarging the EU for the 21st Century, was about future EU enlargement.
Published on 18 September, it was neither ‘secret’ nor a ‘plan’.
The twelve experts were charged with making recommendations for institutional reform to speed up decision making and “to strengthen the EU’s capacity to act, to protect its fundamental values, to strengthen its resilience, especially in light of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, and bring it closer to European citizens”.
UK barely mentioned in the report
The UK was barely mentioned, the only reference coming half-way down page 41 with eleven letters and four words: “….or even the UK.” That was it.
Here is the offending phrase:
It was the proposal for an ‘outer tier’ of countries called ‘associate members’ which might include Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway (non-EU countries in the EEA), or even the UK.
Out of 65,500 words, it was those four casually tacked on to the end of a sentence that sparked all the blaring headlines and hyperventilating on social media. You might think Brexiters would be more upset about the UK being bracketed with Liechtenstein and Iceland, but no, it was the idea that we might be invited to consider becoming an associate member of the bloc.
The cover of the report was at pains to caution that the opinions expressed are those of the authors only and not the official French and/or German position. That didn’t prevent the British media from portraying it as a devious Franco-German plot, as usual.
One of the report’s authors, Nicolai von Ondarza sought to reinforce the caveat. He played down the innocuous UK reference, pointing out that the report was “not about the UK at all but about EU enlargement” and suggesting that the headlines in the UK media, “reveals more about the UK’s insecurity on its place in Europe than our – independent, enlargement-focused – report”.
Others might think the headlines were aimed at what the UK’s foremost psephologist Professor Sir John Curtice has taken to calling the “diminished group” of Brexit supporters.