Opinion: A new group to urge close EU ties and fight the growing isolationist tide

European Union flags - Some rights reserved by tristam sparksAs a Lib Dem member who supports membership of the EU but sometimes finds this hard to verbalise to my friends, I have often noticed that Europe brings out strong opinions in people.

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.

If you want to join us please click onto our website to find out more or follow us on Twitter @CBIE_UK

* Adam Nathan is Deputy Director of British Influence, the campaign to keep Britain in a reformed Europe, Director of the Our Biggest Market campaign, and a Lib Dem candidate in Blackheath.

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  • “Facts can be in short supply.” And this article has added some?
    “So the three parties essentially agree?” You mean a cabal?
    I hope you do manage to get more air-time for the likes of Mandelson, Clarke and Kinnock. I’m setting up a business on eBay, selling those sponge bricks, for throwing at the TV, that were popular sellers some years ago.
    @Adam : How about this for an idea to stop the ‘source of heated argument?
    We all stop being cowards, and have an in/out referendum NOW!. Then we all abide by the democratic result (whichever way it goes!), and then we can all shut up, for another 40 years?

  • The problem in this approach of Euro enthusiasm is that often it deliberately brushes over the ambition of many in the EU for further centralisation and power grabs rather than devolving power to nation states where this is a most effective means of operation and where citizens want it. The often quoted Guy Verhofstadt is among the main proponents of further strengthening of the EU’s centralised powers. In seeking to obscure this fact, many Lib Dems are being flagrantly dishonest in a way that will come back to bite them later on.

    This is the elephant in the room and unless we recognise it and discuss it openly, people are not going to trust us on Europe in any way whatsoever.

  • The big problem for the EU is that it’s supporters tend to promote the “bigger picture”, thinking about the benefits for Britain, but its detractors focus on the minutae of EU decisions – the ones that can easily be understood by the voter. People understand that being in the EU means a greater likelihood of immigrants from a foreign country, EU regulations dictating what we can and can’t do, but they don’t understand – and by and large are not interested in – the “bigger picture” projects because they simply don’t know or don’t understand how it relates to them.

    What a pro-EU campaign really needs is a Monty Python approach – “What has the EU ever done for us?” Simple examples which can be easily understood and which have a clear benefit to the average man on the street. For example, the reduction in roaming charges for mobiles – forced through from Europe, not our own Parliament. The “open skies” and competition between airlines in the EU, which led to Ryanair and Easyjet. The Regional Development Funds, which enabled companies to move to deprived or rural areas in the UK. The European Search Warrant, and the number of criminals caught as a result.

    There. That’s four I’ve thought of in less than 30 seconds. I’m sure that those who know more can think of at least twice as many – each. But until we start pitching the argument in simple terms – in the same way that the Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Sun do for the other side – we’ll never properly win.

  • John Dunn,
    I agree we should have a referendum, but the correct and proper time for a referendum is after a serious debate.

    The media has conspired to give anti-Europeans an unchallenged pulpit for more than two decades now, so you’ll excuse us if the rest of us offer some balance before minds can be made up.

  • In UK terms it seems to me that it is Westminster that is the “elephant in the room” it seems to want to arrogate powers that are best resolved at a local level as well as powers that depend upon international cooperation.

    the watchword is subsidiarity.

  • I think the question to ask is, would it be sensible at all for the UK budget deficit be capped by the EU at 3 percent this year? That’s what’s happening in Euroland this year. If not, then the party needs to decide whether it should continue to be in favour of joining the euro and not justhide behind some kind of fantasy that we would have been able to talk the rest out of their policies, simply if we’d been more involved, because actually this idea we often see on here, that EU politicians are like blank slates for UK politicians to write on, due to their superior rhetorical capabilities, is actually the worst kind of nationalism of all.

  • Richard S, you make some good points worthy of expansion. With a budget deficit of two to three times the 3% or lower target, it does look as if Poundland is in much more trouble than Euroland. 2017 is now the earliest date that the treasury hopes to achieve a reasonable budget deficit.

    This makes your points about UK nationalism more pointed and the criticism of the EU from the London side of the channel harder to take seriously. Of course the 3% will not be anywhere near achieved by Greece and Spain for example, but it will still be lower than it will be in the UK.

    Whether it would have been better or worse had we joined the Euro with other countries is now academic but nonetheless fascinating to speculate. Is the conclusion that UK governments (like Greece’s?) are too irresponsible to be trusted with the Euro?

  • Richard Dean 22nd Jan '13 - 2:38am

    A bit of financial regulation can like this can surely be of enormous help to governments? Both in terms of the discipline that it imposes, and in terms of the implied pooling of knowledge and resources to handle the crises that are inevitable from time to time? There are always other solutions, debt is not the only way.

    Government borrowing shot up dramatically when the financial crisis began to hit. At the very least a agreed European rule might have allowed a bit more thought about the long-term consequences. And of course politicians could have blamed the rule for any tough measures, rather than admit their undoubted incompetence.

    Working together also has other benefits. If a crisis hits just one country, others can help, out of self-interest. If a crisis hits everyone, then everyone can stand together to resolve it, rather than have one country resolving it in a way that damages another country, and then tit-for-tat.

    So although the spin about a deficit cap makes it look like a restriction, even a loss of sovereignty, the reality seems to be that it can be highly useful. By providing security and consequent freedoms. By providing better control of the future, and so increasing the sovereignties of all the countries that participate. Perhaps that is why Europeans like it?

  • @Keith Legg
    I think Keith hit’s the nail on the head with how opponents of the EU use the detail of unpopular policies to their advantage. We need to win the argument at both levels to nullify this and a what has the EU ever done for us campaign would be a great idea.

  • Keith Browning 22nd Jan '13 - 3:14pm

    I’m a great supporter of the EU, but have to admit they have fallen short of the Romans in the provision of aqueducts, under-floor heating, hot baths and chariot racing. Still plenty of work to do..!!

  • “Democracy is a continual conversation.”
    No it isn’t. Democracy is a debate that culminates in a vote at some point. By the way I voted for the EEC in 1975. It was the biggest miss-selling scandal of the 20th Century.

  • Alex Macfie 22nd Jan '13 - 8:58pm

    EU policies may be unpopular for good reason. We should not seek to “nullify” opposition to specific EU policy, but discuss how we would reform it. For example, the European Arrest Warrant is associated by most people not with catching terrorists and paedophiles, but with pursuit of decent people over trivial offences (or non-offences) allegedly committed long ago, particularly by Poland where there is apparently no prosecutorial discretion whatsoever over which cases to pursue. Our party leadership missed a trick when the tories talked of withdrawing from the EAW: they should have said that instead of withdrawing, we would (i) reform our own implementation, which (in typical UK fashion) doesn’t even implement the safeguards that are permitted, and say that we would give our courts wider discretion over whether to execute warrants, as other countries have done, and (ii) push at EU level for further essential reforms such as an EU-wide proportionality test, and automatic invalidation of refused warrants. As liberals, we should argue that any extradition system should be consistent with natural justice, and surrender within the EU should be no exception.
    We cannot afford to just sound like we slavishly support whatever any EU institution does. By doing so, we would be accepting the media narrative in which Euroscepticism has flourished, that the only permitted positions are uncritical support or withdrawal. By talking about what we would reform, and how, we would be challenging this lie.

  • Helen Dudden 24th Jan '13 - 10:30am

    You have forgotten one thing, law. I have had an interest for sometime, in the problems with family law and the use of the Hague Convention and the Brussels 11. Anyone, who knows about law in this area, will understand the problems on the subject. I know Spain as an example, are doing much on the subject, we need to work together. This can only happen if, we are willing to work on the basis of respect for different cultures and law.

    Incidentally, I know for a fact this country with others, is suffering, it is time we thought of other things that simply the political view on the subject. Perhaps this too, could be an addition, this type of law is very expensive and emotional for all. Cross Border Funding does not go very far.

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