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The EU membership referendum awaits us

It is Europe Day, and I am writing this in Britain, where a government has just been elected promising to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Those of us who believe in the merits of Europe need to find a way to help David Cameron achieve a “yes” vote in the referendum even if our politics are the diametric opposite of his.

This means being very clear about the advantages that the European Union has brought for all of us – and this should go beyond the familiar shopping list of common standards in a single market or the enhanced rights of consumers such as the lowering of mobile phone roaming charges. Although positive, these details will not inspire. Let us remember that the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize for being the cause of peace in Europe since its first incarnation in 1951. Ah, reply the sceptics, it was NATO and mutually ensured destruction that kept the peace, not the trading agreements of the European integration. But what the sceptics haven’t thought of is that the European Union’s institutions and agreements guarantee a stability between member states that prevents the kind of descent into chaos that Europe experienced in the 1930s or the summer of 1914. In 1929, the Wall Street Crash led to an economic crisis that the democratic Germany of the Weimar Republic could not withstand, given the costs of World War I and reparations. In 1929-1933, there was no European Union or other international institution with solidarity at its core that could step in to rescue the German economy. The result was a totalitarian regime that produced a nightmare for my grandparents’ generation.

Compared to the events of 1929 to 1933, the response of the European Union to the crash of 2008 has shown the value of European unity in salvaging, at considerable cost, the economies of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus and preventing a reversion to all the instability of authoritarianism. Given the rise of the populist far-right across Europe, of which UKIP is an expression, salvaging the economies of Europe and protecting ourselves from authoritarianism is a work in progress that has to be finished.

To succeed, the “yes” campaign for continuing British membership must be decentralized; indeed it will need to run as multiple “yes” campaigns, given the very different sorts of voters that have to be convinced in order to win: skilled and unskilled working people, those in precarious employment, small and medium entrepreneurs, farmers, public sector workers – across different parts of the country and through different media. If David Cameron talks only the language of de-regulation to the Left, we shall fail to win a “yes” vote. Let Cameron talk to the CBI and small businesses. The multiple Left(s), including the trades unions, the professional apparatus of the Labour Party, community  or environmental activists, Greens, and Welsh and Scottish nationalists will each need to run their own campaigns. Diverse “yes” campaigns may have to be off-message and in mutual contradiction.

The Scottish unionist campaign won the independence referendum using fear and fear will have to be part of the mix in the EU membership campaign(s). But the “yes” sides will also have to borrow the techniques of the Scottish pro-independence campaign in social media, spontaneity, and inspiration, particularly for young and first-time voters for whom the future matters. One of the failures of previous pro-European campaigns during the time of Tony Blair was their uninspiring centralization, control, and use only of boring economic arguments like lower roaming charges. British exit from the European Union would be very costly and these costs, notably falling employment due to disinvestment, need to be communicated. The tasks then of the “yes” campaigns must be to inspire but also to warn of the risks of exit to the British economy and to Britain’s status as an open and welcoming society.


Posted on Saturday, May 9, 2015 at 04:50PM by Registered CommenterDr Giacomo Benedetto | CommentsPost a Comment

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