We have become used in recent months to unrelentingly bad news about our relationship with Europe. ‘UKIP now the third party’, ‘Majority would say no to EU’ and ‘UK heads for the Brexit’ have become commonplace headlines. But while the current polls and general debate are still far from positive, several recent developments suggest the tide is starting to turn on the antis – and are enough to give cheer to pro-Europeans from all sides.
First – in case you missed it – the Obama administration has made clear in no uncertain terms to its concern about the UK’s Eurosceptic trajectory. The Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs may sound like an obscure official, but he’s actually Obama’s man on Europe. In London this week, he stated publicly for the first time the importance for America of Britain playing a leading role in the EU and his government’s concern about the recent momentum towards a referendum. The Sun put it succinctly on its front page: ‘Obama: Brits Twits to Quit’.
Second, British business is waking up to the very real dangers for the UK economy of being marginalised in Europe and losing its traditional position of influence. Sir Richard Branson and other business leaders, including the heads of the CBI, London Stock Exchange and BT, wrote to the FT to fire a warning shot to David Cameron. They highlighted the folly of seeking an unrealistic ‘renegotiation’ of powers agreed by successive parliaments over 40 years and the risks that this could lead to a British exit from the EU by default:
To call for such a move in these circumstances would be to put our membership of the EU at risk and create damaging uncertainty for British business, which are the last things the prime minister would want to do.
It is no coincidence that these two warnings come shortly before Cameron delivers his long-awaited and much delayed Europe speech, now expected within the next fortnight.
Third, there are plenty of reasons to believe that UKIP’s recent opinion poll success will be hard to maintain in the face of increasing scrutiny of their policies and personalities, a necessary rejoinder to their growing profile. And even without too much media scrutiny, the party seems content to do some of the work themselves, with not one, but two key UKIP figures airing their dirty laundry in public in the past week. First the party’s former youth chair revealed he had been sacked for voicing his support for equal marriage, against UKIP policy. Then Marta Andreasen, a UKIP MEP in the South East, slammed the party’s ‘anti-democratic’ European selection procedures, where it seems Nigel Farage will get to handpick top candidates – including Neil and Christine Hamilton, according to Andreasen.
All this goes to show that far from being over, the battle for Britain’s European future has barely begun. Liberal Democrats must be at the vanguard of the debate, using our position in government to fight for strong British influence at the heart of a changing European Union.
* Giles Goodall is a Liberal Democrat candidate for the European Parliament in South East England