The UK and Europe
Four reasons why the UK referendum is a lost opportunity for real debate on Europe
Paola Buonadonna / Jan 2016
The forthcoming referendum on UK membership of the EU is looming large - not so much over the public’s consciousness, not yet, but over the life of most commercial and not profit organisations alike. The former need to strategize and prepare for a possible Brexit. Many of the latter are in the same position – their causes and fields of action (from global warming to human trafficking) are directly impacted by Britain’s membership of the EU. But even those who theoretically have no connection to the membership question are having to take advice about how the Lobbying Act will affect their power to continue to campaign for their own causes during the referendum period.
Our Wake Up Europe! campaign was not created because of the referendum and is far from narrowly focused on the question of Britain’s membership. Our aim is to facilitate a transnational conversation among ordinary people about the crises facing Europe from a pro-European standpoint. But there is no denying the fact that the referendum has now become one of the dominant threats on the horizon for Europe, as well as the UK.
But I would argue that the referendum is turning out to be a lost opportunity to have a serious discussion about reforms that would be helpful to the whole of Europe. I think there are four main reasons for this.
The renegotiation panto
Having commissioned a long and expensive sector by sector public audit of the balance of power between the UK and the EU, last year the government quietly buried the result of the review and no public discussion of its conclusions has been held since. The reason? Who can tell. Perhaps the £5 million it cost were considered small change even at a time of supposed austerity. But it’s worth noting that it contained not a single recommendation for powers to be ‘returned’ to the UK, in any of the 32 sectors which submitted evidence. So much for the intolerable interference of the Brussels federal super-state.
Still, having called for a new deal from Europe to put to the British people, Number 10 had to belatedly produce a list of ‘demands’, some of which seem to have been plucked out of thin air to address non-existent problems (such as benefit tourism) with unworkable solutions.
But the UK Prime Minister remains the best advocate for Britain staying in, so the theatre surrounding his renegotiation feat - a drama performed for the exclusive sake of the one third of voters who are still undecided - has pre-empted real debate on concrete measures that could reform Europe for the better. Pro-Europeans, even if political opponents, will have to pretend that what he ‘gets’ out of Brussels will constitute a radical change for the better in our relationship with the EU.
The black and white effect
The referendum currently dominates the news, its repercussions are all-encompassing, but the debate, so far, has not been, far from it. In fact the coming vote seems to be having the opposite effect, polarising the public discourse in an unhelpful black and white way. One side claims Europe is a terrible idea and thoroughly unreformable. The other side concentrates mainly on the dangers of leaving the EU, rather than what sort of Europe might be worth having.
Self-censorship vs aggressive victimhood
The dynamics of the referendum debate itself are actively muzzling many pro-Europeans, who feel that any criticism they might express about how Europe works or any vision for a better Europe will be seized by the other side, defending in the process a status quo few people actively love.
The outers have no such qualms: their rhetoric of loud, aggressive victimhood (taking our country back, getting rid of the Brussels yoke etc) belies a complete lack of vision for what life outside would look like. So far the media circus has focused on the minutiae of the renegotiation – no one is (yet) systematically asking hard hitting, probing questions about the kind of country Britain would be outside the EU and what relationship it will have with a presumably still unreformed EU in the throes of its worse existential crisis.
The official campaign
Finally Stronger In, the cross-party organisation that hopes to become the official campaign for In, seems strangely paralysed – poised between paranoia and inaction. The tone of its communication is negative, focusing on threats and dangers. It has alienated many natural supporters by ignoring any other pro-European groups and communities, hosting no information about them or about what the EU is or does. Its spokespeople are very much denizens of the Westminster bubble.
Theirs is a thankless, gargantuan task and I have no doubt they are doing the best they can. They might even succeed. But it all feels far from inspiring - in fact it feels a bit dismal.
Never, it seems to me, has Europe been mentioned more and explained and discussed less. It does not bode well for a process which is about to hand the British people one of the most important geopolitical decisions of the next few years.