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Yes to Europe – because life’s better there

Article by Mark and Dick Leonard

September 15, 2006

Tony Blair’s scathing attack on the failures of successive governments to take advantage of Europe’s opportunities was a welcome attempt to stoke up the european debate. But it also showed how far pro-Europeans have failed to connect the euro debate to issues which capture the popular imagination. In a week when even the most eurosceptic newspapers have complained about how far behind we are on health and public services – it is the arch-Eurosceptic Iain Duncan Smith and not the Prime Minister who is looking across the channel for inspiration.
Pro-Europeans have relied too much on the traditional arguments for Europe. Looking back over fifty years – to the days of Churchill, Monnet, De Gaulle, and John F. Kennedy – it’s easy feel nostalgia for the political giants that bestrode the forties, fifties and sixties. Their speeches are at once magical and hypnotic, capable of stirring hearts and minds and of articulating hope and inciting action. How different, it is tempting to feel, from politicians in the thrall of pollsters and spin-doctors – a world where they only feel safe reciting the five economic tests in a monotone, just in case they find themselves inadvertently launching a “Euro offensive” in the next day’s papers.
But unfortunately the Great Europeans of the past are part of the problem. The pro-European argument has failed to move on from their legacy: from visions of peace in the early post-war years, arguments for prosperity between the 1960s and the 1980s, to the democratic mission of Europe to reunite the continent after the fall of Berlin Wall.
This narrative no longer connects to a new generation. Today’s teenagers have never known an all-out war – but they do remember the EU’s failure to stop the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Economic prosperity is not something voters associate with the European Union, except in countries like Spain and Ireland where the impact of European money and membership has clearly bought material benefits and self-confidence. As for democracy, people fear as much that Europe will take it away as help to secure and enhance it.
In the absence of a convincing new case, the temptation has been to point to the failures of the past. Because Britain has never been in at the beginning, we have never been able to draw up the rules – whether of the EU’s budget, the Common Agricultural Policy, the European Monetary System, the Exchange Rate Mechanism or even the euro. But wallowing in this history of half-hearted engagement has stopped pro-Europeans from making their case on its merits. Citing the list of missed opportunities since Messina and Schengen does not itself supply positive reasons to make a different choice now. The public are more likely to be swayed by fear of the unknown than by fear of missing out again.
A debilitating defensiveness means that Europe continues to be seen as a threat to our way of life, rather than as a tool to fulfil our ambitions. The press has often goaded successive Governments – including this pro-European Labour Government – into adopting the occasional macho pose: rattling off boasts of crazy EU directives they have thwarted and British-inspired initiatives to inject Europe with transatlantic dynamism. It is easy to see why this is done: a referendum will only be won by changing the perception that the EU has a voracious appetite for devouring the powers of nation-states. But if British Ministers never mention the EU without exhorting it to change, then voters are entitled to ask why they should invite the European Central Bank to run our macroeconomic policy.
It is time to present Europe as an opportunity. If pro-Europeans do not benefit from the pioneering spirit which they had in the past, they do have one significant advantage – Europe today is no longer some alien imposition, but a fact of our everyday lives.
In areas as diverse as sport, culture and even the fabric of our cities, Europe is an ever-present and positive influence. Almost everybody has been on holiday to another European country. Half of British teenagers speak a second language well enough to have a conversation in it. The shelves of every supermarket in Britain are laden with fresh pasta, French cheeses, Greek olives and Danish bacon. And the polling evidence shows that a large majority of people accept that it makes sense to co-operate with our European neighbours to solve shared problems on the environment, on drugs and organised crime, on security and defence. Europe today is not an ideology but a lived experience that most people never want to do without again.
Pro-Europeans have not shifted their arguments enough to take account of this, which is why we remain stuck in a shadowy debate about abstract notions of sovereignty and identity which make little sense to most people. Instead of banging on endlessly about how to reform the EU, Ministers should set out the examples of success worth emulating. The European good life should be contrasted with our tired and crumbling infrastructure. They should show how European values can capture the public’s aspirations: a better balance between work and family, combining growth with environmental well-being, and achieving economic dynamism with social cohesion. A powerful script for a new European debate screams out from the European Commission’s comparative statistics which show Britain languishing at the bottom of tables on education, public services, health and literacy.
The Prime Minister’s promise this week that health spending should reach the European Average in four years might do more for the European argument than all of his keynote speeches on European reform combined. But he needs to go much further by developing a political programme which aims to have trains as reliable as the French, schools as effective as the Germans and industries as innovative as Finland.
Of course the economic arguments for the euro will be aired endlessly in a referendum campaign, but the polls won’t shift until the Government finally destroys the argument that all our problems come Europe and all the solutions come from the English-speaking world.
· Dick Leonard was one of the 69 Labour MPs who voted against the party whip in favour of British membership of the European Community. Mark Leonard is Director of The Foreign Policy Centre and a Council Member of Britain in Europe. They are joint editors of The Pro-European Reader (Palgrave, £16.99) an anthology of the most powerful historic and contemporary arguments for Europe.

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