David Cameron’s renunciation of a Treaty not even yet fully negotiated was the culmination of a process that began around 1992.
In 1992 a small group of Tory ultras, “the Maastricht Rebels”, began fighting their party’s traditional pro-Europeanism. It has taken 19 years to make their fringe views a normal Conservative Party and conservative press position. 1992 has led to 2011 like a river flows to the sea.
Anti-Europeanism’s hold on a major political movement has caused a poorly informed anti-Europeanism to take hold among many of our fellow citizens in the UK, as it has among some of our fellow citizens in other European states.
Nationalism germinates during economic distress. The early 1980s are an example in my own lifetime: would Labour have had its anti-European phase, or the response to the Falklands have been the same, if the economic life of the country was not so hard at the time?
By pro-European, I mean:
a) In favour of Britain’s membership of the EU, and
b) Generally positive and ambitious for the good that could be done by action at a European level.
Consider House of Commons debates on the Consumer Protection Act 1987. The 1987 Act implements a European Directive. One Tory MP attacked this. The response of all his fellow Conservatives was almost vitriolic. They saw the benefits of the Act and in the basic policy it implemented being universal across Europe – benefits for the consumer and for business who would not have to deal with totally different requirements in every state.
Now, a Tory MP speaking out for the benefits of shared solutions to common problems in Europe is rare and would be heckled by his own side. The euro-scepticism of Tory activists, who accept what they read in the Daily Mail, means pro-Europeans who were Tory Ministers and MPs in 1987 are unlikely to be selected even as candidates now.
Liberal Democrats and Labour must take some blame for changes in public sentiment. When the Conservatives talked about “Saving the Pound” it was expedient for us to concentrate on schools and hospitals, which delivered record numbers of Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs in 1997, 2001 and 2005. While Britain reaped the benefits of putting Tories out of power, it now suffers the effect of anti-Europeanism going unchallenged for too long.
Now is the time to start winning the argument. As we face the challenges of the 21st century we need the states of Europe to bind themselves closely together to ensure the survival and success of European values: like the values set out in the Oxford Manifesto of 1947.
Europe is not just a place or a political entity. Europe is a set of values.
The threats to these values are economic, social, environmental and military. They come from more than one point of the compass. Our best chance in answering each challenge lies in co-operation rather than isolation.
European co-operation remains the brave new frontier. The place where exciting things can happen. Where our fate does not rest solely on decisions of the G2 (America and China). Together we have the largest economy in the world and unrivalled combined diplomatic potential. We have huge combined military spending that should be able to see off any threat to our peace and security. By working together we can do more to conquer cancer, HIV and use science for the common good. We can reform our legal systems to protect the cross-border lives and businesses we enjoy today. We share a cultural heritage of Shakespeare and Mozart.
30% to 40% of British citizens still define themselves as pro-Europeans. We should aim to win every one of their votes. We are told that only 19% yet disapprove of the Prime Minister’s recent action. If all 19% vote Liberal Democrat in 2014 we will gain several more MEPs.
I am British and European. I am really proud of it. If you feel the same then let’s start telling everyone. To borrow the closing sentence of Barak Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, “my heart is full of love for this country”.
Antony Hook is Vice-Chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group and was a running mate of Sharon Bowles and Catherine Bearder in 2009.