Yes – and they’ve been active in Cambridge of late
I’ve been aware of the wider pan-European movement for quite some time – even before I met Jon Worth who is a former president of the Young Europeans. Not so long ago I discovered they launched a Cambridge branch.
“OMGz Pooffles! They’re the advanced guard for the invasion! Well done you for uncovering the secret conspiracy!”
Reading too many headlines again? It’s hardly a secret conspiracy if they’re trying to publicise themselves. It’s not like they’re like this bunch coming to Watford very soon…are they?
So I went along to find out.
Tory MEP James Elles (who’s standing down at the 2014 European elections) came to Cambridge for a talk with Cambridge’s new branch. Given that the event was hosted at the building that hosts the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, I took Puffles along. Puffles sort of like has the unofficial status of *permanent local visiting dragon fairy* so is often seen at events hosted there. Puffles helps raise the social media profile of events that are going on there to wider audiences, while at the same time raising the social media presence of all sorts of things to people inside the university.
“A pro-European Tory MEP? That’s like…that’s treason! A constitutional outrage!”
Or is that just the media narrative?
James Elles’ views on Europe are at odds with the very vocal right wing of his party. His blogposts speak for themselves. His comments made for interesting consideration too. In terms of disposition, he’s a Conservative. He repeated the narrative of the cuts being necessary several times. The reason I think why he differs from a large number of his Conservative colleagues is that he has a different world view and a different perspective of time. It was only after his talk that I began to realise just what an impact this can have on a person’s take regarding the EU.
The current administration seems to take its ‘world view’ from a financial perspective more than anything else. Understandable given the rhetoric around finances in general, but one that has a huge impact on public policy. This is reflected by the commodification of things like higher education and even (as my previous blogpost explained) our justice system as a means of increasing export earnings. Hence the various attempts to tap into the large markets in the Far East.
It’s also been reflected in the rebalancing of assets in the Foreign Office, with embassies and consulates in some places being wound down while in other places new ones have opened up. What impact does this have on the countries – several of which are in the EU – where consulates in particular have closed or have been cut back significantly?
Perspective of time
One of the advantages of having at least a few older hands on board – as in those in their 60s and 70s, is that they can have a greater perspective of time than those much younger than them. In particular those that were in and around institutions from decades ago. This is the case with Elles, who became an MEP for the Conservatives in 1984 – the year before Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union. He said that at that time, he could not have conceived of a future where the Berlin Wall had come down and where the borders of the EU would stretch as far to the baltic states and the Black Sea.
This led onto an observation about UK social culture stemming from a history of gradual evolution: The UK doesn’t like rapid change – least of all violent rapid change. Unlike much of continental Europe, the UK hasn’t had vast hostile rampaging armies marching across its lands during the lifetime of its population. Continental Europe has. Between 2004-06 I did a fair amount of travelling across Europe too. One of the things that struck me (being passionate about all things history) is the cultural impact of a whole series of different events that happened at various points in history – and how that has an impact on the European politics of today. Whether it’s Germany and Austria and their relations with the A10 EU states that joined in 2004 (mindful that large areas of those EU states used to be part of the German and Austrian Empires prior to 1918) or the negotiations around Turkey’s proposed entry to the EU in the context of the former borders of its predecessor state the Ottoman Empire at its zenith (where it once threatened Vienna), consideration for, or at least awareness of these things cannot be ignored.
What difference does this make?
A big one. If you have the historical perspective of where the UK was as well as where it is, along with a world view that can account for all of this, the conclusion that you come to – irrespective of your party politics or domestic political disposition – is influenced. This came through in Elles’ remarks in his talk – coming across as much more … ‘cerebral’ and pragmatic compared to his Euro-sceptic colleagues.
That’s not to say the likes of Bill Cash are not ‘cerebral’ themselves, or don’t have a place – they do. I may not particularly like his politics, but as chair of the European Scrutiny Committee in the Commons, he and his colleagues get through a fair amount of work. Jacob Rees Mogg, Penny Mordaunt on Tory benches, and Kelvin Hopkins on Labour’s – all Euro-sceptics, all cerebral in their own way but do the essential job of scrutinising the huge amounts of rules and regulations that come from EU institutions.
Does this mean the Young Europeans’ Movement is pro-red tape?
I hope not!
The big problem the YEM/JEF has is that its members are trying to ‘sell’ something that is very publicly riddled with massive imperfections. How do you go about persuading people to back something that is inevitably ‘work in progress’ – especially in a country where the weight of public opinion seems to be swaying the other way? In particular, what do you do when political discourse frames European institutions as being a threat to the liberty and livelihoods of UK citizens? (There are one or two parallels with communism in the 20th Century here I feel).
In? Out? Shake it all about?
“Politics is about the art of what is possible, not what necessarily desirable” Or words to that effect that Elles’ quoted. This is where politicians have allowed themselves to be trapped by a political discourse that has significantly reduced their room for manoever. Part of it has been their failure to stand up to large media conglomerates. Another part has been the nature of party-political policy-making within both Labour and the Conservative parties. Another has been the creation of imperfect European institutions whose hold of public confidence and consent can best be described as limited.
Given that state of play, where do you even start trying to promote what is effectively a European federalist movement?
That’s the challenge they face. That’s not to say it’s insurmountable.
“OK, where would you start if doing something locally?”
For a start, I wouldn’t even consider ‘selling’ the EU as is. You can’t. There have been too many major screw ups (ones that have cost lives (the break up of the former Yugoslavia) and livelihoods (the banking crash & Euro-imposed austerity)) as a result of structural and institutional failure as well as a lack of political courage. Acknowledging these is a must. Remember that some of the people that the YEM looks to reach out to will not have been born at the time of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. My generation and older on the other hand will remember the regular news reports of the atrocities committed.
I’d also look at framing discussions and debates in the context of solving problems and finding solutions. There are a whole host of these that, sooner or later a European dimension comes into play. The debate about the power of large media corporations – particularly multinational ones. The debate around tax avoidance by multinational corporations. The fight against climate change. The regulation of a multinational banking sector. Cross-border crime. With all of these issues, sooner or later a European dimension comes into play.
Once there, then you look at the institutions, systems, processes and controls that are suitable for tackling those problems, mindful of the social and technological age we live in as well as the wider environment and ecosystems we live in too. What would those institutions – if at all – look like? How are they similar to what we have today? How are they different to what we have today? How would we make a transition from A to B? What institutions need reforming? Which institutions need abolishing altogether? Which institutions need creating? How can you do this while trying to gain the public’s consent at the same time? Finally, does your overall solution look like whatever it is that you are promoting?
“OK, then what?”
Get out there…and listen.
“Listen? To whom?”
Wherever and whoever’s events you are going to. What’s really interesting in Cambridge at the moment is the growing but at the moment very disparate public policy movement in the city. I’ve been going to lots of events of late hosted by a number of different groups, organisations, institutions and networks. People in Cambridge clearly want to debate about politics and policy – just not within the very restricted party political frameworks that exist today.
There is no magic social media wand to wave on this. Social media is part of the solution, but it is there to complement getting out and about, meeting people face-to-face. This means listening to what their issues and concerns are, and thinking about how those issues apply in a European context. In some cases, there won’t be a European context because the very nature of some of those issues might be hyper-local. It also means allowing yourself to learn from what others are saying, feeding it into your own analysis of what’s going on in this big wide world. It also means finding those who might be your political adversaries and engaging with them too. Easier said than done, because some may take an instantly hostile viewpoint to your disposition. (Which may also reflect in social media exchanges). How do you decide who is worth debating with and who is not?
“But…you’ve not even mentioned recommending telling people about the movement!”
Personally I think it’s bad manners to rock up to someone’s event and be all “Oh Hai! Come join my crew!” – ditto when trying to get access to someone’s message board or Facebook group. Especially so if what you are trying to get people involved with has some sort of financial cost to it. For me, it’s more a case of allowing things to be raised in the course of normal discussion at whatever event or gathering that you’re at. If your membership/activism with the Young Europeans’ Movement is relative to the conversation, by all means raise it. The same goes for other interests and activities that you have. Just don’t do the hard sell. Not only because in this social media age people don’t like hard sell, but the EU in this present political climate is very much a ‘hard sell’.
“So…are you going to join them Pooffles?”
Puffles isn’t – Puffles being a dragon fairy has to be party politically neutral. As for me? I’ve not decided yet – I don’t know enough about them to make a judgement call. (Also, I’m notoriously cautious and hesitant about joining any movement or organisation as I like the freedom that independence has).
Young European Movement: Annual Conference 22 June in Cambridge
Details are here & here. I’m going to head along to this, hear what they are all about and throw some questions into the mix too. (Can’t stay too late as London calls in the evening). So if you’re interested in all things EU but from a non-Euro-sceptic perspective, this event may interest you.