It can be a source of heated argument around the dinner table and on TV studio sofas. The stronger the views on one side, the more entrenched the other can become. Facts can be in short supply.
The hard truth is that Europe represents half of all our trade in Britain, that over one-third of all inward investment comes from the EU, and that Europe is playing an increasingly important part of (not replacement for) the UK’s foreign policy, defence and security strategy.
That is why Britain’s strategic political and economic relationship with Europe needs to be managed effectively by all three parties as well as supported by the wider community.
So where do the parties sit right now?
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has warned of the risks of the UK leaving the EU “almost by accident”. He has said a concerted push to renegotiate its relationship could cause uncertainty and deter foreign investors at a difficult time for the British economy.
Labour, both party leader Ed Miliband and foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander, have echoed these views saying a commitment to hold a referendum at a future date would cause uncertainty and suggest to international investors that the UK is “closed for business”.
Of course, we don’t know quite what the Conservative Party think because David Cameron’s speech was postponed due to the hostage crisis in Algeria. But leaks suggest that he would have called for a “positive vision for the future of the European Union. A future in which Britain wants, and should want, to play a committed and active part”.
So the three parties essentially agree?
Perhaps, but with the threat of a referendum hanging over the country either through treaty change triggering the UK’s European Union Act or through a manifesto promise by one of the main UK parties, British Influence has been formed as a cross-party and cross-sector campaigning organisation that seeks to positively unite all those who believe the UK should keep its EU membership.
That last wording is deliberately phrased. It suggests that we are aiming to be an umbrella organisation for those who – whatever their views on its development – are in favour of the UK staying in the EU. Not just the three main political parties, but also the wealth of pro-membership businesses, academics, the diplomatic community, think tanks, civil society and the media.
This is a broad church which might not agree on everything but is an important group to assemble as – come a referendum which may be either directly ‘in or out’ or be taken as such in any event – this is the group that should, on polling day, all come together to vote for the UK to stay in Europe.
It is our strategy to hold this grouping together in campaigning mode. Because with messages that all can agree on, we should be able to win over the popular vote from a country, which, whether through lack of political leadership all round or genuine disenchantment, routinely expresses, through polling, its dissatisfaction with the status quo in Europe and a willingness to walk away from a key strategic alliance for the UK.
This same public dissatisfaction was (indeed is) due to be another major element of Cameron’s speech. According to theBBC’s Gavin Hewitt, and British Influence was also briefed by Downing Street on the same intent, the PM planned to say:
There is a gap between the EU and its citizens which has grown dramatically in recent years and which represents a lack of democratic accountability and consent that is – yes – felt particularly acutely in Britain…If we don’t address these challenges, the danger is that Europe will fail and the British people will drift towards the exit.
At the same time, Downing Street insists that the UK has allies within the EU who “share its views on the need to reform institutions and alter the balance of powers between Brussels and national capitals.”
Indeed, there are wider moves being considered to change the power dynamic between the council of ministers and the commission, driven by the Germans. There are already moves towards bolstering the European Parliament, with stronger national parliamentary links.
But part of the wider problem with the democratic gap may be that, whilst our European allies can read everything we say about them, most of us can’t read their press and don’t speak a foreign language fluently.
The question remains for most of us: what does Europe think of the UK and who are our allies? What are they saying about us? Do they like us?
Well, actually they do still like us and they often look to Britain for leadership. A piece in the Huffington Post this week by Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal and Democrat group in the European Parliament and a former prime minister of Belgium, states:
Britain’s destiny, like its history, will always be inextricably bound with the rest of Europe. And in the past, Britain has never been a country to cut and run when the going gets tough. It has always stood and fought for its interests and principles in Europe, profoundly shaping the history of our continent.
British people – even those who basically support membership – do sometimes feel isolated in Europe. British Influence – which I am helping with others to grow and had considerable press coverage for its launch – is all about making sure this isn’t the case and, just as importantly, that people (and the mainstream media) are reassured this isn’t the case with factual examples from the foreign press and media, like the one above, plus a positive and uniting policy agenda.
Over the next five years and in the run-up to any referendum we will work hard to project a more balanced view of the world than is found on web portals such as Open Europe as well as often in the mainstream press. And we will campaign vigorously on behalf of the broad church of Britons who instinctively know and feel that, as a country finding its way in the 21st century, we are better off in Europe (building alliances and friendships) and not outside on our own.