Who’d be a pro-EU type in this political climate?


Some thought’s from the Young European Movement’s 2013 annual conference in Cambridge

The Young European Movement (YEM) rocked up in Cambridge for their annual conference, which Puffles & I pootled along to prior to an annual gathering of some of Puffles’ earliest Twitter followers. (Some updated photos are here)

The context for them is frightening. As far as toxic brands go, the EU is up there with the worst of them (irrespective of why). As far as toxic themes go, party politics is also up there. Combine this with a climate of saturation advertising of consumerism, where do you start if, like the delegates at this gathering, you are in favour of some sort of ‘federal Europe’? Not easy with a political discourse is full of loaded terms.

“Yeah Pooffles, why do you want a technocratic dictatorship full of foreign people from foreign places telling us what to do? Do you want to enslave us?”

Thus illustrating my point – any ‘pro-European’ types will automatically be on the defensive as soon as the debate opens. The more ‘noise’ that comes from the Euro-sceptic press, politicians and commentators (and I separate this from the genuine scrutiny and flaws that they raise), the more time pro-Europeans feel compelled they have to devote to responding to them rather than making the case for whatever vision it is that they have. The pan-European organisation that YEM is part of – JEF has some idea of what a federal Europe may look like.

“OMG – Pooffles wants Napoleon to take over!”

The principle I’m working from (but have not got much further from) is this:

“If your firms are multinational, your regulator needs to be – and that regulator needs to be a strong line of accountability to the people of the world”

There are lots of problems and issues that then spring from that statement. For a start some people might argue that it sounds like ‘big state for the globe’ – while others might argue that the first thing multinational corporations will try to do – as they have successfully done with nation states, is to ‘capture’ the regulator. We saw this in banking. Big finance captured the politicians that mattered, solidified the theme of ‘light touch regulation’ and…the rest is history. It’s fine to have sound principles, but the real challenge is turning those principles into policies that people can relate to, then (assuming you end up in government) successfully delivering those policies.

“So, you’re not a member of them?”

As far as I’m aware, I’m not a member of any politics-related organisation – I need to protect Puffles’ party political neutrality. Though the Monster Raving Loony Party gig sounds like a laugh! Votes for dragon fairies and all that. On a more serious point, it’s the Cambridge branch of the Young European Movement that is one of the most active – one where a couple of the senior officers and the new president will be Cambridge-based.

Someone’s got to make a pro-European case, just one that’s not keeping things as they are

This is possibly the only thing the YEM and UKIP have in common: They don’t like the current state of play. They just have completely different views on how to deal with things.

It’s not just the political context the YEM are up against.

One of the big problems is our own (the UK’s) ignorance of our own history. Some of the origins of European federalism are UK-based – with the Federal Union of the 1930s and the founding of the Federal Trust in 1945. Ditto the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. Yes – we had more than a little part to play in the founding of all of those. Foreign ideas being imposed on us by foreigners…history and the interplay of EU policy-making over the years tells us otherwise. UK Civil servants and ministers regularly meet with their EU counterparts. It’s just politically convenient to blame rather than change the EU.

Given the cultural context of Britain – or rather England’s rivalry with France (Scotland and France were traditionally allies against the English for centuries – just watch any Tudors’ documentary) and Germany, the pro-European cause isn’t easy to argue. Especially if the mindset is: “No, WE won the war – without help from anyone else! Therefore, WE write the rules, not you!” (Conveniently forgetting that in the grand scheme of things, the UK had lots and lots of help from all over the place, and that the UK by and large got to impose what it wanted on a swathe of Western Europe). As the world evolves, so must the laws that govern the people of it.

Should local Tories and ‘Kippers be afraid of this lot?

They’ll find them interesting to debate with, that’s for sure. But I don’t think that’s their initial ‘target audience’ for want of another phrase. At this stage, the network is very small. On top of that, the greatest potential they have I believe is within existing political parties and groups that are already positively disposed towards a more internationalist rather than an isolationalist outlook. Hardly the sorts of audiences those on the more Thatcherite end of the Conservative Party will be looking to engage with. With that in mind, it’s one of those networks where people could be members of say either the Greens, Liberal Democrats or Labour – or even non-aligned, and be part of that network. That’s not to say simply rocking up to the youth societies of those parties will automatically join up. There are a number of challenges to overcome – aside from the big ones I’ve mentioned at the top. These include:

Being a small network

This inevitably means a large burden falling on relatively few people. The challenge for the new national board is whether they can work together in a manner that means their impact will be greater than the sum of their parts. Ditto for how they use their various social media accounts.

An even smaller ‘home grown’ component

By this I mean people who have been educated in the UK school system. It’s one thing to be linguistically fluent in a language, but quite another to be culturally fluent in it. The latter can take decades – sometimes even spanning the generations before people feel ‘culturally at home’ in where they live. Four generations of my family were born in three different continents. What each generation culturally identified/identifies as ‘home’ is something & somewhere very different. My point? Empathising, relating to and understanding where your audience is coming from. Even if given the same message to present, a young French undergraduate from an affluent background is likely to come across differently to say someone from the UK from a working class background who never went to university.

Turnover of activists

This will always be a problem for any organisation run by and for young people: Age-wise, young people don’t stay young forever. Hence an interesting question put to those that stood for election to the YEM board was on what their ‘succession plan’ was for their replacement. How will they ensure that there is going to be someone else to stand for election in their place? (All bar one of the posts was uncontested). That question could apply to pretty much every voluntary organisation I’ve been associated with.

Communicating a positive vision that’s not shackled by the current crisis in the EU

This is where they need to be painfully honest about the past and current failings of the EU institutions, as well as being clear about what they *are* for. ie. “We are about X, Y and Z – what we currently see with the EU is definitely not these. We want to change that”.

What they do have going for them is the increasingly global nature of the challenges we as a society face. Climate change, international migration, food and energy security, trade, serious and organised crime – all of these challenges are international by their very nature. Thus they requires solutions that go beyond the structures of the nation state. Can the YEM make the case for an EU that tackles these issues while dealing with the many criticisms thrown at it?

Being in it for the long game

This is related to the turnover of activists and the lack of ‘home grown’ members. How do you get that stability needed to increase your impact? Which are the organisations that you need to form alliances with? The two dates that were mentioned – the 2014 elections and a possible 2017 referendum form two targets. These inevitably mean strategies for campaigning within political parties as well as beyond them. Some of the political parties I’ve mentioned have a strong strand of Euro-scepticism in them too. It’s not just confined to the right wing of politics. Some groups and party branches may not welcome pro-European campaigners and speakers.

Will we see anything happening in Cambridge?

Yes – but it remains to be seen in what context. Will they target only university/education circles? Will they expand to local political parties? Will they manage to break into, and then out of both bubbles? It’s not an easy task.


8 thoughts on “Who’d be a pro-EU type in this political climate?

  1. Interesting argument

    “If your firms are multinational, your regulator needs to be – and that regulator needs to be a strong line of accountability to the people of the world”

    First I would disagree that we need an international regulator, our government can set the regulations for this country and any company who wants to do business here would have no option but to agree to our rules.

    Moving to a world wide regulatory system removes the real control we the people have over our lawn makers, it is already doing that, so I do not see the possibility of any kind of democratic control over any international regulator.

    We already have the situation with the EU where the rules makers are divorced form voter control, the effect of this is we cannot change those rules by changing our government, and those making he rules cannot be held responsible for their actions.

  2. I’m constantly scared by the EU debate in the EU. It seems that the debate has become increasingly infantile and I applaud anybody prepared to stand up and make the case for the EU.

    There are varying degree of sophistication to the anti-EU argument but in all instances they basically boil down to “we can tell those meddling foreigners to get stuffed and in the process we will make ourselves a richer wealthier happier country”. Its a wonderful simple message that resonates well with people and really is very difficult to counter by the pro European movement. The only problem with it is I’m yet to see how this would work in practice!

    it seem to me that Anti Europeans get away with having it all ways. They claim (as above) that EU rules reduce the ability for us to implement our own legislation implication being we can set the regulatory bar where we want. In reality outside the EU we would effectively be forced to deregulate as far as possible to make ourselves competitive with those inside the free market. In any case the massive trade imbalance with the EU (50% of our trade goes to the EU and only 10% of the average EU countries trade with us) means that the EU would still have a strong hand in ensuring we confirm to their basic legislation.

    They also claim that freed from stifling legislation we would be able to get rich… which may be true for a limited sub set of investors (assuming we could deregulate and the EU didn’t put up significant trade barriers – both big assumptions). But most of the popular support for leaving doesn’t come from free-marketers but angry folk in market towns who are upset about EU migrants ,,,, in effect people who want protectionism (via border controls). Assuming we did leave its difficult to see how the supply side/free trade types would then win any arguments given much of the anti-EU movement draws its support from little Englanders seeking protectionism!

    I fear that UK could easily end up with the worse of all worlds – low growth, poor public services, trade barrier to our main partners and falling behind in competitiveness cause by immigration controls,

  3. I do not know if you were referring to my comment Paul but if so you misquoted me I was not referring to EU regulations but are ability to control our law makers.

    You do pose some questions which could be contested, your initial point being just the first, anti EU types do not think “we can tell those meddling foreigners to get stuffed and in the process we will make ourselves a richer wealthier happier country” Anti EU is perhaps the wrong term anyway, perhaps pro democratic would be more actuate, it is not that these people are foreign but they are uncountable to the voters. The EU also makes our own government uncountable, because so much of the bread and butter of political choice is moved into an arena beyond the control of the British voter, hence voting for representation at Westminster is becoming a meaningless exercise.

    You say 50% of our trade goes to the EU, the actual figure is about 11% as 80% of our trade is internal the rest, that which we export, goes about 50/50 to other EU states and non EU states.

    1. “You say 50% of our trade goes to the EU, the actual figure is about 11% as 80% of our trade is internal the rest, that which we export, goes about 50/50 to other EU states and non EU states.”
      The external trade is however important. A loss of external trade would significantly reduce the quality of life for people in this country as good that cannot be produced in the UK would become prohibitively expensive to import. (Worryingly we are net importers of food and energy!)

      “Anti EU is perhaps the wrong term anyway, perhaps pro democratic would be more actuate, it is not that these people are foreign but they are uncountable to the voters.”
      I think the term pro-Democracy is a bit disingenuous. As I stated previously we need international trade – so large bodies that we trade with would have an impact on our legislation. Equally multinationals given the choice of being inside or outside a trading block would probably (all things being equal) prefer to be located inside the block. So in reality we would struggle to have higher regulatory standards (and in any case we can already go higher than the EU minimum).

      You might have more local accountability through parliament but in reality the same international forces would be at work but we would have fewer friends to work with to mitigate some of them!

  4. Thanks Paul, and thank you site owner for allowing me this freedom.

    The idea that leaving the EU would affect our trade is an effective scare tactic that has been used a great deal, however it has no basis in fact and has been answered on several fonts.

    The most basic (accepting your scenario) being what if it does? We might prefer to do a bit less trade if it means we regain out democracy. Because the EU is about a great deal more than trade and making corporate bosses even richer is not actually helping us the normal people.

    The anti EU grouping is unfortunately split, but it is split about how to achieve an independent Britain without disrupting trade. Here I ignore the idea that we can renegotiate and stay in, that is nothing more than an attempt by the Conservatives to spike UKIPs guns it has no chance of success because it argues for the EU, just not this one!

    UKIP is looking like it is leaning towards the sort of relationship similar to Switzerland, total independence but with a series of trade deals (achieved by repealing the 1972 act of accession to the EU and then negotiating trade agreements or negotiating first and then repealing the act) whilst others think the Norway solution would be more productive (that would be achieved by employing article 50 of Lisbon and using the negotiating period to set up membership of EFTA) doing this they argue negates all of the arguments based on trade because we would still be in the single market.

    We are then faced with the “fax democracy” argument that is always produced to show that Norway has no choice but to accept the EU rules without having a voice. But actually when you look at the reality of how the relationship between Norway and the EU works, that is very far from the truth of the matter, in fact in many instances Norway has much more influence than does Britain.

    For one thing although it is complicated Norway is represented in its own right in the very international bodies you mention those which do produce much of the basic legalisation later adopted by the EU. Whist Britain has no place at these negotiations because it has to agree a common position with the other EU states and the commission in the interests of the EU, of course agreeing a common position in the interests of the EU might not always work in the favour of Britain.

    I think I have addressed your first and last point, on your second point I would simply say it is not about the quality of the regulatory standards it is about controlling those who make them apply to us.

  5. Thanks for your response. This is my last comment as it clear you have a fixed position (which I strongly suspect will be ruinous for the UK).

    Unfortunately despite being long I didn’t addressed very many points. Any post EU settlement would be determined by what the UK could negotiate on leaving. Given the trade imbalances (between a larger entity the EU and smaller entity the UK), we would not be negotiating from a position of strength. It’s difficult to see why the EU would want to give us Norwegian or Swiss deal. In any case this assumes the Norwegian or Swiss model would be a good deal for the Uk something the Norwegian foreign minister has questioned http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20830201 )

    Initially I stated that the anti EU position was “get rid of meddling foreigners and all will be okay”… The fact that you claim we can completely ignore any treaties whilst expecting to get all the trade benefits of being in the block I’m afraid only seems to confirm this.

  6. I do not have a fixed position on how we leave a project which can have only been built because it is anti democratic, a project which has removed democratic choice in many areas of government authority, and made out political parties just different arms of the same construct by removing choice from the people of this country.

    I did not think I indicated we could ignore any treaty the idea is we negotiate our exit from the EU, with the EU, that is not ignoring anything, it has taken nearly 40 years for this country to become embroiled in the EU we will not leave overnight. Thank you for an interesting exchange of views.

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