David Cameron, seeking to reassure business, international allies and moderate opinion, says his Eurosceptic agenda is not about leaving the EU, but about reforming it.
Labour, seeking to reassure sceptical opinion, says its pro-European position is about reforming it.
Even the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-European of the main political parties, rush to outline their own shopping list of necessary reforms.
They all may have different ideas as to what reform should mean, but for the wider public that difference is not clear. It is indeed welcome that all 3 parties exclaim their wish to keep the UK in the EU and to work towards making it even more effective and efficient. But the word reform often sounds like just another form of criticism, especially if it is not followed by reference to all the things the EU does well.
So the EU is in the dock, facing a whole host of prosecution lawyers and with no defence lawyer. Very few people in Westminster defend the EU, which, to a large extent, is a creation of its Member States’ wishes.
Unlike national governments or other public authorities, where there will always be defenders as well as critics of their decisions and so a more balanced debate, the EU in Britain always lacked leading political figures prepared to justify it. Instead, by focusing on things that are wrong with it, even pro-European politicians sometimes unintentionally re-enforce the ample mythology pumped out for decades by the overwhelmingly anti-EU newspapers. Today’s qualified (to varied degrees) pro-Europeanism displayed by Cameron, Miliband and Clegg often sounds like an apology rather than a confident case in favour of the EU.
This is a sliding slope towards ever greater euroscepticism and even exit. Far from it being “realistic” and “hard headed” to be critically pro-European, this kind of triangulation simply plays into the hands of the Europhobes. Cameron and Osborne making Britain’s membership of the EU conditional to such “reform” risks driving the country out of the EU.
Of course, the EU makes mistakes, has its rotten apples and has policies that need changing. That is the routine stuff of normal politics at any level. But the current debate around reform ignores the fact that the EU constantly reviews, improves, replaces and when necessary completely removes laws and policies that do not work. It is all done through the normal decision-making process between Member States, the European Parliament and the European Commission.
Reform and improvement is a constant state of being for all public bodies. The European Union has been undergoing a process of institutional, political and economic reform for a while now, with the Convention on the Future of Europe, the Lisbon Treaty and now the redrawing of the eurozone’s governance architecture. Making the EU work better should be a continuous effort of course, undertaken by Member States and EU institutions in tandem. But talking about “reform” in a vacuum risks re-enforcing the negative image installed in the public’s subconscious after decades of negative tabloid campaigns.
The relentless questioning of the EU’s very structure or even existence is peculiar to Britain. Unless political leaders are prepared to stand up and defend the EU, triangulation will take us down a road that no-one wants to reach the end of. Merely reminding the costs of a possible exit is not enough. Pro-European politicians must also defend the EU and promote what it does for the wellbeing of Britain and its citizens.