Time for pro-Europeans to stand up and be counted

In, out, in, out, shake it all about: debate over EU membership is coming to a head within the Conservative Party. Rock Cohen via Creative Commons

Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech in 1990, in which he cited differences with his prime minister over Europe, is generally credited with precipitating the fall of Margaret Thatcher. Now the Tory grandee has intervened again, also referencing Europe, this time accusing sitting prime minister David Cameron of losing control of his party on the issue.

The Conservative government had hit a “new, farcical low” in its shambolic handling of Britain’s membership of the European Union, Howe wrote, blaming Cameron for opening a Pandora’s Box of Euroscepticism which, he said, had infected “the very soul” of his party making defeat at the next election a very real possibility.

In the heat of the politics, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of the issue at stake. But if the British public are to vote in an in-out referendum on EU membership in 2017, then they need to be properly informed about both sides of the debate.

This hasn’t happened up until now. Since the 1975 referendum, pro-Europeans have not had to make their case to the British public on the benefits Europe has to offer. This pro-European silence only left a void for Eurosceptics to capitalise on what has become a one-sided debate.

Pro-Europeans should not underestimate the aversion among British citizens towards Europe. Old arguments of peace and prosperity, and the far-too-technical items such as the common market, monetary union and enlargement are unlikely to resonate with younger generations or produce much public interest.

The new case for Europe must provide compelling evidence revolving around geopolitical, economic and cultural reasons to convince the British public to vote in favour of staying in.

In November, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) outlined its case for staying in the EU. By 2020 the UK economy will be ninth largest in the world – being passed by the rapidly expanding BRIC nation economies. This has significant geopolitical consequences for the United Kingdom which will no longer have a seat at the influential G8 table. The only route for Britain’s voice to still be heard at the G8 is through the EU.

Economically, leaving Europe could lower British GDP by 2.25 per cent and with the upcoming EU-US free trade deal – which Cameron himself acknowledged could add as much as £10 billion to the UK economy – this figure could be even higher.

Reform will be challenging

Rather than making the case for membership as it currently stands, Cameron’s strategy is to attempt a new settlement for Britain followed by a referendum in the next parliament. There is compelling evidence from YouGov that the public would be more likely to vote in favour of staying in if he is successful.

So far, however, Cameron has been very vague on what exactly a new settlement would entail until the government’s conclusion of the “balance of competences” review in 2014. These may include a repatriation of powers on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, criminal justice and social and employment law – each mentioned in the 2010 Conservative manifesto.

Any attempt in renegotiating Britain’s arrangement with the EU will be challenging. Cameron’s approach towards Europe has been dubious at times, including two veto threats – the first in December 2011 on the “fiscal pact” and the second in November 2012, prior to the budget negotiations.

Entente not-so-cordial

He has also received outspoken noncompliance from both France and Germany in their refusal to participate in the government’s “balance of competences” review. Despite his recent quarrels with other European leaders, Cameron’s biggest error of judgement was pulling the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party in 2009, effectively isolating himself from potential centre-right allies who may share similar concerns over Europe.

The prime minister has already missed an opportunity in encouraging meaningful reform through the EU budget. Had he pushed for a more growth-orientated budget, including meaningful reform of the CAP, and in doing so offering Britain’s rebate up as a show of good faith, he may have been able to form a grand bargain with other leaders. Even if a resolution on CAP reform had been blocked by France, Cameron’s demonstration of leadership and co-operation would have placed him in a more advantageous position for any future discussions on reform.

Pro-Europeans cannot wait for Cameron if they’re going to convince the public to continue EU membership. Regardless of what he brings back, UKIP and other Eurosceptics will march on towards the exit. The longer pro-Europeans allow this debate to remain one-sided the more difficult it will become to convince the public otherwise.

Still, there are encouraging signs that the power of pro-European voices can have a significant effect on public attitudes. Shortly after Cameron’s referendum speech last January, a YouGov poll showed for the first time those wanting to “stay in"’ outnumbering those wanting to leave.

In the days running up to the poll a number of key politicians and business leaders became more vocal in making the case for membership. These included Ed Miliband, Douglas Alexander, Richard Branson, and even the Obama administration. Despite support slipping back, the January bounce suggests that when significant individuals discuss the importance of Europe public attitudes shift positively.

Since the 1975 referendum there hasn’t been a set-piece for a national debate on the future of Europe. However, this hasn’t stopped Eurosceptics from relentlessly making their case. Conversely pro-Europeans have been silent, and at times overly defensive rather than making a consistent positive argument for a more integrated Europe.

Rather than waiting to know if and when a referendum will happen, now is the time to make the case to the British public - otherwise they may find it’s too late.