One of the more encouraging developments of the past few weeks is that pro-Europeans seem to have woken from their decade-long slumber. Business groups are writing public letters, front pages are awash with the roars of pro-European ‘big beasts’, Clegg and Milliband are busily repudiating Cameron’s strategy and, most remarkable of all, it turns out that Pro-European Tory MPs still exist.
As gratifying as this is, I have found myself becoming equally concerned that the pro-Europeans cause is in deep-freeze. Where is the new generation of British Europhiles? The campaign seems to rest of the shoulders of the retired, semi-retired or soon to be retiring. Tainted by the pro-Euro campaign, Clarke, Mandelson and Heseltine discredit today’s pro-European cause rather than further it. As the Independent on Sunday complained, ‘Heseltine, you are not helping!’
It’s true that Lib Dem, Labour and indeed some Tory MEPs have been fighting hard but, as is the lot with the European Parliament, they get little media coverage (Graham Watson’s recent indiscretion aside). Sadly, MPs don’t seem to be taking up the mantle. Lib Dem frontbenchers are somewhat restrained by their role in government but where are backbenchers like Chris Huhne? And where is the Labour frontbench? Milliband and Alexander are talking the talk but it comes more from necessity or opportunity rather than conviction. They lack a strong pro-European voice to take the place of the disgraced Dennis Macshane and, given the public’s widespread euroscepticism, they are unlikely to find one.
A deeper problem is the message. Milliband and Alexander yesterday failed to clearly explain their dividing line with the Tories, essentially because all three major parties agree there should be reform of the EU but disagree on methods and priorities. This is muddling the pro-European message, so what needs to change?
As I have been writing this week, pro-Europeans need to categorically reject the Tory repatriation agenda, not just for strategic reasons as Clegg & Milliband have been doing, but also for policy reasons. They must defend the principle of EU policy on the environment, justice & policing and financial services where national intiatives can no longer address their cross-border nature.
Crucially, pro-Europeans need to articulate what they want from Europe. It isn’t enough to say “we want to be in the EU because of trade and the single market but don’t forget that we also want to reform it”. This becomes painstakingly clear in terms of a referendum. What would the yes campaign be calling for – full integration, more integration, status quo? As the Eurozone integrates, the status quo is not an option any more, full integration into the Euro is not politically feasible but a case can be made for ‘more integration’.
Coupled with our proposed reforms, we need to state what new initiatives we want from the EU and identify new areas where we want further integration. It is interesting to note that even this government has overseen significant integration with the EU patent deal, possibly the first example of Britain integrating where others (Spain & Italy) haven’t. In this vein, British integrationalist attention turns to trade and the single market – even the Fresh Start Group wants more trade agreements and the completion of the single market in services.
But we should not limit our ambitions to the economy. Take the EU’s foreign and defense policies. The EU, and Britain by extension, will not be taken seriously as an international player if we continue in the divided way that characterised the Iraq and Libyan wars. I would also argue that we should abolish the UK opt-out on justice and home affairs where it’s not clear what we gain apart from less civil liberty safeguards for British citizens and less effective cross-border police cooperation. There is also, in light of the Starbucks tax scandal, a strong argument for greater EU tax cooperation and, in light of the financial crisis, British involvement in the single European system of financial supervision. Finally, the UK should stop carping from the sidelines about the ‘democratic deficit’ and actually push for greater democratic accountability including through direct elections for the Commission President.
Without forging such a vision which encompasses both what we want and what we don’t want, the pro-EU ship will sink. We can’t pretend that the EU is the same as it was in the 1990s, it has changed and so must our arguments. Pro-Europeans must rediscover how to argue in favour of European action and articulate that Europe isn’t always a problem and can often be the solution.
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