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Getting Britain's Pro-Europeans off the Floor and Fighting Back

By Adam Hug. Source: Huffington Post UK

It's difficult to think of a more tricky time to support Britain's continued active participation in the European Union. The EU's standing has rarely been lower in the minds of the UK public, with only 27 % of people believing our membership has been broadly beneficial for the country, with 60% disagreeing. Turmoil in the Eurozone has put a severe strain on the EU and the UK coalition government, divided over the issue, is content to sit on the side-lines and keep the EU off the domestic agenda, pleasing neither Conservative backbenchers nor pro-Europeans. Even some longstanding keepers of the flame for greater British involvement in the EU, such as Martin Kettle and Sir Stephen Wall seem to have thrown in the towel. So what is a pro-European to do?

The recent essay collection, The new British politics and Europe: Conflict or cooperation?, co-published by the Foreign Policy Centre puts forward some ideas in answer to this question. Put simply, the real challenge for pro-Europeans is to address the EU as it is, warts and all, and develop a campaign that seeks to build public understanding and acceptance of the principle of European engagement through persistent, practical examples of how action at an EU level can address problems that are relevant both to people's everyday lives and to the important domestic political issues of the day. To fill the void left by the 2005 collapse of Britain in Europe, what is needed is a pro-European organisation in the same mould as eurosceptic group Open Europe. That would be a dynamic pressure group which is both pragmatic and reformist but which can promote the basic central premise that the EU can be (and often is) a platform for solving transnational issues that matter to Britain, while understanding that Europe isn't the answer in and of itself. Pro-Europeans need to adopt both the same guerrilla warfare tactics used by their opponents and channel the energy of sympathetic bloggers and other independent researchers, giving a sense of energy and drive that has been sorely lacking on the pro-side of the argument in recent years.

Amongst some in the wider community of pro-Europeans, there remains a desire for a 'big vehicle' to get behind to mobilise public opinion in a more positive direction. This must stop. In the UK, such a vehicle is not going to come naturally and this desire c lead to a dangerous flirtation with the idea of an 'in or out' referendum, something that would create more heat than light and would be unlikely to settle the issue for any great length of time - an engineered crisis that would risk becoming a real one in today's volatile political environment.

Mainstream pro-Europeans must clearly show that they are committed to a Europe of nation states that pragmatically work together to face common problems. The flirtations with federalism by some more ardent europhiles should be knocked on the head. Pro-Europeans must at all times show that they understand that sovereignty and legitimacy flow from the people alone, up to the various tiers of government and that the goal of politicians is to assess the best level at which to manage political issues on behalf of their populaces. Subsidiarity, Subsidiarity, Subsidiarity.

Continually complaining about the eurosceptic bias in the print media isn't going to get anyone very far. No matter how effective a pro-European campaign may become, there will always be more negative stories about EU activities than positive ones, and this is not in and of itself linked to the anti-European sentiments of a handful of newspaper proprietors. It is fairly simple; the EU is, in effect, a tier of government. We do not express surprise that press coverage of domestic politics or government action tends to focus on the comparatively few areas of controversy rather than the majority of cases where it goes about its day to day business. To be honest there are few people who are more intrigued by puff pieces than they are by incisive critiques. To place stories about the EU's ability to solve important cross-border challenges, it remains essential to spell out the nature of the problems it is looking to tackle in fairly explicit detail in order to set the scene for how action at a European level might help.

The British public is never going to love the EU. Just as with any other level of UK government, there will always be a degree of inherent scepticism about the institution, as befits our national character. So the goal for British pro-Europeans must be to finally gain British public acceptance of the EU as part of the furniture of UK governance, shifting the focus to the content of EU action and where it should do more and where it should do less.

September 2011

Originally published at the Huffington Post UK