By Frederick van Mierlo. Originally published on 2013/01/10
It’s not exactly a secret that Britain has not always been the most enthusiastic member of the European club. Yet, sitting in the Christmas waiting room of a Specsavers Opticians, as I browsed theDaily Express newspaper I was still disappointed to find that they are running a ‘crusade’ to pull the UK out altogether. Mr Cameron’s veto of the Fiscal Compact, opt-out from Justice and Home Affairs and hints of a referendum post 2015 all suggest Britain is distancing itself from its European partners, even preparing itself for theejector seat.
As a British student reading EU Studies at Leiden University, the Netherlands, I am constantly reminded of Britain’s distaste for all things Brussels. The mere presence of Britons is perplexing, even amusing, to some. Two years ago as an Erasmus student, at about 2AM outside a bar in Grenoble I was duly informed by a churlish French gentleman that “de Gaulle was right” – Britain would be the end of the European Community. He was bigger than me, so I didn’t press the issue too much.
However, nostalgic Frenchmen aren’t the only ones concerned about Britain’s relationship with the EU. Worryingly, our continental cousins now seem to be moving towards an acceptance of Britain’s self-imposed sidelining, perhaps even welcoming it. A ‘two-speed’ Europe is now an accepted discourse regarding the future relationship between the Eurozone and the rest. An attitude of “we want you in, but not at any cost” has developed a strong following.
In September of last year European federalists Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Co-President Greens/European Free Alliance) and Guy Verhostadt (President ALDE Group in the European Parliament) launched a Manifesto for a post-national revolution in Europe. In their vision of a federal Europe, they suggest that Britain should be presented with a ‘take it or leave it’ deal.
On this point, in an otherwise excellent manifesto for reform, I respectfully disagree with Messrs Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt. I believe that if the UK is to remain an asset to the EU, a joint responsibility exists to bring Britain back from brinkmanship. By all accounts, British diplomacy is failing in Europe. Holding the Eurozone hostage to the veto, while attempting a ‘renegotiation’ to Britain’s terms of membership is bad form. Irish deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore was right to stand up against it and argue that a separate category of membership for Britain will not work. This month his country took control of the reigns of the rotating presidency from Cyprus, It has promised to do everything it can to prevent ‘Brexit’, one sincerely hopes it will be listened to.
Making the case for Europe
Pro-European Brits do exist. Despite Euro-enthusiasts in the Conservative Party having been whittled down to the solitary Ken Clarke and euro-sceptics salivating over Cameron’s allusions to a referendum after the next general election, there remains a sizable portion who believe Britain should remain in the EU, albeit if they act like a belligerent teenager.
Their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats are the most pro-European mainstream party in the UK, yet with a few exceptions such as Steven Williams MP, the debate in the public sphere has largely been surrendered. Better it to be silent in the face of attack from the likes of the increasingly popular Nigel Farage than provoke the wraith of a euro sceptic electorate, so the thinking goes. Wrong! Great leaders do not merely reflect public opinion, they shape it. They argue for what is best for Britain and its people. If there is to be a referendum, defenders of British membership need to make their case heard now. 2015 will be too late.
Our bread is buttered with Europe now – and its time that was made clear. Business for New Europe is a Think Tank presenting the economic case for membership, a reason that has always resonated with the trade-minded British. Too often I have heard people argue that the euro and economic crisis besieging the Union as a reason to cut and run. The public need educating on the fundament economic case for continued membership, and for the euro. Business leaders from Britain and the rest of Europe are best placed to make it.
Trust the voters
There is hope however, and you don’t need to look far. When I told my Optician of the Daily Express’ ‘crusade’, he assured me that it does not speak for Britain. A silent majority exists in Britain in favour of the EU. I can feel it.
We need to speak out against euroscepticism, share ideas and arguments, awaken the silent and win over the doubters. Yes, the EU needs reform. When has it not? In a letter to theFinancial Times UK business leaders including the likes Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group make the case for British leadership in a reformed but extended and deepened internal market. If Britain takes a constructive role in doing what it has historically done best – advocating free trade and business, then we’re sure to find friends. Right?
This month Britain celebrated its 40th anniversary of joining the European Community. I’m hoping for another 40.
Frederick van Mierlo is an MA student from Leiden University, the Netherlands, reading International Relations: EU Studies.