Chair of the JEF Europe Task Force for Small & New sections. Member of the 2013-2015 Executive Board.
Firstly, there are those who have always been around, and who have capitalised on their longstanding presence to compensate for their conspicuous absence in recent years. Amongst these foremost are the European Movement and their youth counterpart. Their history is a reflection of that which has made ‘the European issue’ such a minefield for the English political parties. Where its cross-party membership had once been a source of strength, the Movement has been slowly but surely undermined by infighting amongst its pro-European Conservative, Labour and Liberal members. An organised eating away of the organisation followed, where pro-Europeans became increasingly divided and ever less representative as the group splintered and lost more and more members. At the same time, the parties moved between being ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ European.
The Conservatives, who had been at the head of the movement to bring Britain into the European fold 40 years ago is seen today as the pioneers of the exit whether by ideological conviction or a pragmatic attempt at attracting UKIP voters. On the other side of the fence, the Labour Party, progeny of Blair’s ‘New Labour’ that pushed for a strong Britain in a strong Europe, did not hesitate to align themselves with UKIP on the EU budget debate in the House of Commons at the end of last year. That leaves the Liberal Democrats who are the only party who can claim to have almost always called themselves pro-European. However, having been weakened by their involvement with the coalition government and the scorching defeat they suffered at the hands of UKIP in the recent local elections, the European horse is for them at the moment simply too risky a bet.
Yet there is still hope! Even now there are many pro-Europeans in all of these parties, as evidenced by the recent foundation of the Centre for British Influence in Europe that has managed to reunite some of them. The Centre represents another line of pro-European thinking in the United Kingdom. Created in the wake of Cameron’s promise of a referendum, it is sure to have a prominent role in the run-up to 2017. However, whether by policy or by conviction, the name itself is representative of what has crippled the English pro-European at both the national and European level. It’s name reflects the unwillingness to in any way transform the UK to make it more European and in this sense differs from the European Movement in that it is willing to make no effort to fit in with its European partners. But the referendum will be held in the United Kingdom and not across Europe so in some ways this can be seen as justified as it points clearly to the crux of British membership.
Unlike France, unlike Germany, and even unlike others such as Poland, the UK has never made full used the potential of the European framework to promote its national interests. Despite the utilitarian ways of reasoning about this, it nevertheless has the merit of bearing the fundamental question to British people of what can EU membership bring to Britain in terms of European and global influence?
So what lessons can be drawn from studying the European Movement and the CBIE? Firstly, that British pro-Europeans exist who are committed to keeping their country in the EU. Secondly, that they have much to rebuild if they are to achieve their goal. In this sense, it is good to see that again, they are trying to reconstruct on cross-party foundations, that they are trying to bring young people on board and especially to see that they are fighting prejudices in the UK about the rest of Europe.
Their best chance they have to combat their largely Eurosceptic media is to bring into the debate the bits of hope and optimism it currently lacks, to explain what the EU is, and from the grassroots level, to reach people, young and old alike, and demonstrate the very real ways that the European construction has bettered their lives. In order to succeed, they will have to continually remind pro-Europeans who have slumber here that it is not sufficient for them to only identify the problems but that it is imperative to go out there and to roll up their sleeves, if they are going to bring about a positive outcome. If British pro-Europeanism can overcome its internal differences and fight on the grounds that the European project is itself a good idea for the Peoples of Europe, on their own initiative rather than by continuously reacting to UKIP, they can expect not only progress, but victory in the years to come. Watch this space!