The last British European?

by guest contribution

guest contribution

Mathew Shearman, 25, is political editor of Europe & Me magazine and a contributor to New Eastern Europe and Visegrad Insight. He writes on UK and German foreign policy, the EU and Eastern Europe and has appeared as a political analyst on BBC News 24. He currently works and lives in London, UK. As there currently is no British FutureLab Europe participant, we have invited Mathew Shearman to contribute the British perspective to the series of articles published at Süddeutsche online.

I once joked to a German friend of mine that I was ‘probably the last British European’. That was 2009, and a comment that I could not make today without people thinking that I must be pro-European, federalist and out of touch with British views. Even politically minded friends laugh when I raise European policy issues, as if I’d been abroad too long breathing the Parisian air and had come back with an strange, esoteric interest.

Today I say, I’m ‘Euro-interested’ an invented phrase to position myself beyond the narrow definitions and ill-informed discussions that are stifling the EU debate in the UK. Despite there being many years before any future referendum there are increasingly only two ways to talk about Europe – in or out.

At the core of the British distrust of the EU is the feeling that it is an unnecessary, bureaucratic attack British sovereignty. The de facto response that the EU has brought ‘peace and prosperity’ to the continent holds little weight in a country that views itself as the one to secure the peace of Europe. Instead, the EU is a ‘foreign’ invention more interested in banning yogurt and cheese from school dinners and strangling British business. If these are the main messages received about the role of the EU in the UK, it is not hard to see why the debate favours an exit over continental discussions about the future of the EU.

Since last January, David Cameron’s strategy has been to promise a referendum ‘no later than 2017’ and to campaign for remaining within the EU after securing reforms. To the recent cry from political circles in Berlin to ‘tell us what you want then?’ I can only answer that Prime Minister Cameron has yet to find the key concessions that will convince Britain to vote ‘in’. The answer, I fear, may be nothing short of a negotiated exit.

Angela Merkel’s recent speech to the Houses of Parliament in London may be remembered for being the most and possibly last pro-European speech made in those grand halls but it did little to create a space for a balanced debate on the EU. Her warning to those who want her to “pave the way for fundamental EU reform based on British wishes,” “will be disappointed” gave journalists the evidence they needed to call Cameron’s campaign  for remaining within the EU a stillborn failure. A Daily Mail editorial wrote that with “depressing predictability… the unashamedly federalist Mrs Merkel delivered platitudes about reform.” And the Economist was in agreement that Cameron’s strategy will have to find the necessary support among key German, French, Dutch or Polish allies to secure fundamental reforms through multilateral negotiation.

As Europe heads towards the European elections in May 2014, recent polls suggest that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) will attract a fifth of British votes, possibly coming second after Labour – and ahead of both Government parties, as they did against the Labour Government of 2009.  Following a strong showing in recent local elections, UKIP’s electoral successes are reinforcing dissent among members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s conservative party, particularly those who view an exit from the EU as the central question of British national  interest.

UKIP, to their political credit, have successfully cornered the mainstream political parties by positioning themselves as the populist party to represent people’s ‘true’ feelings across a range of issues.  ‘Europe’ in fact regularly falls low on people’s political priorities below immigration, the economy or unemployment.

The UKIP leader Nigel Farage has achieved a neat political trick: He has harnessed the broader issues, immigration in particular, that people do care about as a platform on which to argue that mainstream politicians are a ‘political class that had sold out to Brussels.” One cannot, for example, control Britain’s borders when the EU upholds the right of free movement. Utilising this heuristic, UKIP continues to make the case against the EU not through detailed and informed EU arguments, but by appealing to the feeling of social and economic exclusion that is running through much of society.

What few pro-Europeans there are in Britain have simply not yet turned up to the fight against UKIP and lazy journalism has flowed into this vacuum. The junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, have begun to position themselves as that party but remain unpopular in their own right and Labour has just rejected calls for an early EU referendum, but few are listening. Misinformation and fear-mongering among the tabloid press has dominated public perceptions of Europe for too long. The recent furore over the ‘flood’ of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants to the UK (that never materialised) in January 2014, demonstrates the challenges that are facing those who would argue against a “Brexit” (a “British exit” from the EU). Never has the disconnect between people’s perception of the EU and the reality of its impact on UK been so great.

There is  hope however that the Brexit debate may yet capture the complex balance of interests that the UK must consider for remaining and reforming the EU. Business groups like Business for New Europe (BNE) are emerging to make this positive case and their members, reliant on remaining in the common market, are keen to support tackle the anti-European vote.  If there is a successful way for framing EU politics in a way that will support an ‘in’ vote then I suspect it will rely on arguing the need to defend British interests abroad.

As we enter the next stage of European reform, one that increasingly looks like a multi-speed Europe, the question of ‘what kind of Europe’ will continue to recur across the continent. Perhaps the main lesson that the Brexit debate can offer Germany and the continent is just how easy it is to lose sight of the terms and facts of that necessary debate.

I remain relatively optimistic that the British people will become ‘Euro-interested’ before they are asked to vote on Britain’s membership of the EU. It is often argued in the UK that the EU is an undemocratic organisation subverting national citizen’s wishes. But for truly democratic referendum on the EU to take place in the UK, the facts of the issue cannot remain as unknown and as warped as they currently are.


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