Britain and Europe

From project fear to project hope

11 February 2016

There is a progressive case for Europe that can resonate with large parts of the electorate, but who will make it?

Roger Liddle

Progressives are increasingly worried by pro-European prospects in the forthcoming referendum campaign. The polls are mixed; some extremely worrying. The positive case for Europe is seemingly going by default: the present tensions within the EU itself, both over austerity and the refugee crisis, do not make things easier. While the various leave campaigns are hopelessly divided, not just on personalities, but on the fundamentals of what out would mean, the remain camp is so far failing to exploit these divisions, as its political leadership appears largely invisible. There is strong business support for our EU membership, but not yet as overwhelming and outspoken as it needs to be in order to counter the impact of an implacably hostile press. And there is of course the problem that business and ‘the establishment’ has lost its moral authority with large swathes of public opinion both among the Corbynista generation of university graduates and Ukip-tempted working people who left school at 15 or 16. Labour is almost 100 per cent united in support of our membership; yet the party comes across as largely an irrelevance because of its obsession with its own internal problems. In his recent shadow cabinet reshuffle the party leader demonstrated to the public how much Labour’s European commitment mattered to him by sacking the party’s front bench spokesperson, Pat McFadden, not for incompetence in his job (few would criticise his effectiveness) but for daring to speak his mind on key questions of national security.

Yet Labour is not the root of the pro-Europeans’ problems. It is David Cameron’s strategy of renegotiation, reform and referendum which is holding back the European case. I welcome the progress David Cameron has made in his renegotiations because this will enable him to concentrate on making the case for our continued membership. And galling as it is, he will be the Europeans’ major political asset in the forthcoming referendum. Therefore to spend our time criticising him is at best counterproductive. Yet so far the internal politics of squaring the Conservative party have predominated over the urgent priority that must soon be given to making the pro-European case to the public.

Also, the renegotiation’s focus on migrants’ benefits exposes the pro-Europeans’ greatest vulnerability with a section of the electorate. For the honest truth is that if people think the only issue that matters to them is stopping internal EU migration to Britain, then they should vote for EU withdrawal and be prepared to live with the consequences. So far this argument has been weakly put. For the remain side can amply demonstrate that these consequences would include acute labour shortages in British care homes, on construction sites, and in other essential low-paid jobs British citizens are either not available or unwilling to do. EU withdrawal would also result in less favourable trade access to European markets, an inevitable erosion of our present rights to travel, work, study and settle on the continent that millions take advantage of every year; more difficulty in cooperating with our closest neighbours on essential questions  of security; and relative UK isolation on the international scene. At the moment the anti-Europeans are being offered one free hit after another as the Daily Mail and other newspapers taunt Cameron for not stopping immigration at a stroke without having to face the harsh realities of what all that would mean. These outstanding renegotiation issues must be resolved in Brussels next week. Cameron has done well to win our partners’ acceptance of the principle of an ‘emergency brake’ on the immediate payment of full social benefits to EU citizens who newly arrive to work in the UK. But having won that important victory for the contributory principle that people need to put something in before they can claim benefits back – and also won other safeguards against ‘benefit tourism’ –is the government really going to allow the central question of our EU membership, with all it means for the nation’s prosperity and security, to hang on whether this brake can be applied for three years, five or seven? That would be an absurdity. The prime minister needs to draw the line under his renegotiation and start making the bigger pro-European case.

However there are also legitimate worries about how, once David Cameron can proclaim success in his renegotiation, he intends to make his argument for Europe. All electoral campaigns are of course a mix of hope and fear: they always have been and they always will be. Remember Tony Blair’s “seven days to save the NHS” in 1997. But what makes Cameron’s European message different is not its mix of hope and fear, but its carefully calibrated and constant equivocation. It appears he will make the centrepiece of his argument ‘why take the risk of exiting the EU when by staying in Britain can enjoy the “best of both worlds”?’

The assumption here is that the advocates of leave will find it difficult to argue that our EU membership has been bad for our economy and the British way of life, when as a country with the experience of 40 years of membership, we are a considerably more prosperous and at ease with ourselves than we were when we first joined in the 1970s. Warts and all, we know the EU has not done us fundamental harm: so why take the risk of leaving? This argument is very strong because none of the ‘leavers’ offer a convincing explanation of what being out would look like. On exit, we know most of the ‘leavers’ would reject the safest economic option: for that would mean Britain accepting the status of Norway and enjoying the benefits of the single market while not being part of the EU political structures, requiring Britain to accept swathes of EU rules that it had had no say in shaping.

So why, Cameron will argue, risk the status quo when at the same time Cameron will sell his renegotiation as dealing with the risks that some people still associate with our EU membership: being sucked into a European superstate as a result of the commitment to ‘ever-closer union’; being forced to sacrifice the pound and join the euro against our will; being brow beaten by a determined eurobloc into accepting policies that damage our interests; being made to participate in a European army.

Cameron will in effect be inviting the electorate to endorse Europe on the basis that he has protected us brave and exceptional Brits from the fantasy of a continental conspiracy. This message may have appeal to the genuine Eurosceptic and Euro-ignorant middle ground of British public opinion. But my fear is that it will leave important sections of the electorate stone cold. For example, all the polling suggests that there is, among the under 35s, considerable potential to secure pro-European support, but this group is the least likely actually to go to the polls. The problem for the Cameron campaign strategy is that the messages about Europe that might appeal to this group of potential remain voters are not messages that enthuse the Tory party base.

The Tories attack the EU for over regulation. But progressive young people support a market balanced by fair and proportionate regulation of social, environmental and consumer rights. The social rights the EU provides are crucial to fairness in an increasingly unfair labour market, particularly for the young.

Progressives want to see effective global action on climate change, for which an effective EU can be a real catalyst. They would like the EU to be a stronger force for good in the world and with the emergence of the Donald Trumps in the United States, resurgent nationalism in Vladamir Putin’s Russia and profoundly illiberal extremism in parts of the Middle East and Africa, surely Britain should be in the lead in arguing for a stronger EU, not simply a free trading area.

Progressives are open to the idea that the EU stands for an important dimension of the freedoms we presently enjoy. The EU underpins democracy, human rights and open societies across Europe. It allows people to travel, settle, form relationships as they please. It upholds gender equality and opposes all forms of discrimination. Of course there are blemishes in this EU record but no one can doubt that the EU is fundamentally on the progressive side.

As a social democrat, I would also like to see this progressive argument extended to making the case for a more social Europe and a more democratic Europe. But Labour has to face up to the reality that this is difficult to achieve without more regulation and more harmonisation of both tax, social benefits and minimum wages at EU level. And this is difficult to argue for unless at the same time we can reform EU structures to make them more democratic and accountable.

There is a progressive case for Europe that could resonate with sections of the British electorate. If Cameron is hesitant in making it, who will?

Photo credit: Baloncici / Shutterstock.com