European Movement UK

Britain's future is with Europe! Join the debate and put your opinion forward!

by John McCormick ///

Last January’s announcement by David Cameron of a planned referendum on UK membership of the European Union – whether the vote happens or not – has had two positive effects. First, it has brought out of the woodwork many leaders of business who have rarely or never before made public statements on the significance of Europe, and they have overwhelmingly come down against Britain leaving the EU. Second, it has made clear just how much the debate over the EU in Britain has been driven by eurosceptics, how much they misrepresent the effects of EU membership, and how urgently the moderates and pro-Europeans need to speak up. It is impossible to have a productive debate about a key public issue when one side attracts most of the headlines.

In speaking up, pro-Europeans in the UK suffer three core handicaps: they have no easily identifiable leaders of the ilk of Nigel Farage, they have no political party that will voice pro-European sentiments with conviction and consistency, and – in voicing the benefits of EU membership – they routinely lag behind the abilities of eurosceptics to muster and express their arguments. It is supposed to be hard to prove a negative, but eurosceptics have done quite well in that regard; while many of their arguments are based on myths and misrepresentations, and they rarely allow the facts to get in their way, they hit home time after time, making appeals that resonate with a British public that mainly has little idea what the EU represents or how it works.

Since the Cameron speech, we have seen a mounting number of calls for pro-Europeans to speak up and more effectively spread the word about the benefits of the EU. This has been true not just in the UK but in every EU member state, where euroscepticism – on a steady rise since the debate over the Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s – has exploded in the wake of the crisis in the euro zone and the expanding public conversation about immigration (which is intimately tied to anti-integration sentiments). When Commission president José Manuel Barroso, in a February 2010 speech before the European Parliament, warned of the ‘intellectual glamour of pessimism and constant denigration’ that was doing so much harm to the EU and to Europe’s image, he was summarizing a Europe-wide problem.

As far as the UK is concerned, Eurobarometer polls reveal one glaring and essential reality about public opinion: while Britons are consistently among the leaders on levels of hostility to Europe, they also know less than their peers about how the EU actually works. So while in a 2012 survey, only 35% of Britons felt there were benefits to EU membership, and only 36% were optimistic about the future of the EU, only 40% could claim to understand how the EU worked. What kind of debate can we have when the majority of people involved have little familiarity with the topic of the debate? And is this the kind of healthy public environment into which to introduce a referendum?

This dilemma presents the pro-European movement not just with an opportunity but with a democratic obligation: we need to clearly identify the benefits of integration, arm ourselves with detailed examples of those benefits, and respond to euroscepticism in the lead-up to the referendum. Even if the latter never happens, which is quite likely given the unpopularity of the present government, there still needs to be a healthy debate in the UK over Europe, and it is time to give the eurosceptics as good as they get.

A Top Ten list of Reasons to like the EU might read as follows:

  1. It has helped bring a lasting peace to Europe.
  2. Mainly through the single market, it has promoted prosperity, innovation, opportunity and choice.
  3. Also thanks to the single market, it has raised standards and expectations.
  4. It has helped Europeans understand their shared values and what they have in common.
  5. It has reduced – yes, reduced – regulation and red tape by harmonizing national laws in numerous areas of policy.
  6. It has helped replace self-interest with shared interests, and exclusion with inclusion.
  7. It has promoted democracy and free markets at home and abroad.
  8. By bringing together 28 governments and more than 500 million people, it has allowed Europe to speak with a louder voice.
  9. It offers a benchmark model of civilian power, showing what can be achieved through peace rather than the threat or use of violence.
  10. It has encouraged a rules-based approach to international affairs.

As an academic, my primary interest has always been in education. But where I have focused so far on the students in my classes, or those who use my textbooks, I have had a new interest of late in helping give the pro-European movement more teeth by drawing more attention to how integration has improved lives not just for Europeans but the rest of the world. I hope more academics will pay more attention to this, moving out of the often arcane world of scholarly research and helping spread accurate information.

This is not a call for partisanship – we can all admit that the EU is less than perfect and that it is just as much a deserving target of criticism as any set of large institutions – so much as a call for the truth. UKIP and the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail and the rest of the edifice of euroscepticism have been able to function for too long in a vacuum of information, and need to be held to higher standards.

Barroso was quite right in noting how the denigration of Europe had achieved an intellectual glamour. Pro-Europeans now need to make sure that the aura of glamour switches to a balanced and informative debate about the pros and cons of Europe. Without it, the referendum will be less an exercise in democracy than one of manipulation.

John McCormick is professor of political science at Indiana University in the United States, a dual UK/US citizen, and author of Why Europe Matters: The Case for the European Union (Palgrave Macmillan) and two university textbooks on the politics and policies of the EU.


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  1. We can all agree that the prospect of a referendum has put an edge on the already existing debate on EU membership that has been occurring in the UK for many years.

    I suspect that the Liberal Democrats will be disappointed and surprised to read that they are not seen as having been consistently pro EU since their founding in 1988. All their leaders, Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy, Menzies Campbell and of course Nick Clegg have been forthright in their constant support for the EU and pushing for ever greater integration of the UK. Given the media coverage they have it is hardly fair to claim that they are not easily identifiable. It is just that they have been singly unsuccessful in persuading the electorate.

    Many in the UK (and I might add cross Europe) do not have a clear idea of the workings of the EU, but then the various byzantine structures do not readily lend themselves to transparency. Some of the more important elements (e.g. COREPER) are conducted without any public access and with no public record. The role of lobby groups and interest groups in the ‘comitology’ system is similarly obscured. The fact is that those who claim to understand the EU are often only fooling themselves.

    With regard to the suggested Top Ten list of reasons to like the EU one could respond that many of the comments are highly subjective and alternative views are entirely possible.
    1. The existence of the EU is a symptom of the peace created by NATO and democracy rather than the cause of it.
    2. The Sapir Report on behalf of the Commission specifically described the stultifying effect of the EU on innovation.
    3. The single market applies almost entirely to goods alone and therefore does not impact on 85% of the UK economy. (“The single market has been an overhyped, but mostly disappointing programme, with no measurable impact on GDP.” Wolfgang Munchau Financial Times 26/11/12)
    4. The people of Europe has shared values with many other parts of the World, e.g. the entire Anglo sphere. The existence of the EU is not necessary to share values.
    5. The EU estimates the single market has removed 70m+ customs forms per annum. They may well be right, what they don’t trumpet quite so loudly is the fact that they then issued EU Reg 3330/91 to provide data for intrastats (temporary until a unified system of taxation across the EU is implemented sometime in the future). Additional cost to UK industry estimated at £1bn pa. Then let’s remember such costly suggestions as the banning of refillable olive oil jugs as recently as May 2013. etc.
    6. Many would argue that the EU is totally riven by self-interest, the CAP, CFP, regional funding etc are classic examples.
    7. Promoted democracy ? Well the referenda ignored or re run suggest that the EU is very far from promoting democracy.
    8. Europe has a small and declining voice in the World because of its declining economic importance. (27% of world GDP in 1990, estimated to be 18% by 2016). The drag effect of the EU (mentioned above) is accelerating the problem.
    9. If by civilian power you mean compliance with the law then I need only point to the actions of the ECB in direct opposition to Article 123 of the TFEU, and Article 21.1 of the Statute for the ESCB and ECB. Besides which I don’t remember the military or police having much political control over the UK.
    10. Again, a great many countries have a rules-based approach to international affairs, membership of the EU is not a precursor to such behaviour.

    I have no doubt that the pro EU camp will contest each and every point above, but they are just as valid as the original ten set out by the author.

    While it is beyond argument that he Daily Mail, Times, Sun and Telegraph take a eurosceptic approach, the Guardian, Mirror, Independent, Economist and most importantly the BBC are just as markedly pro EU. Indeed it is this variety of views that seems to be unusual in the EU where a single pro EU message appears to be the only one which is acceptable.

    I would suggest that the denigration of the EU (which is not at all the same thing as Europe) has come about because of the experience ordinary people, contrasting reality against the claims of the bureaucracy. This, at least in part could help explain why euroscepticism is found across the EU and not just in (according to the pro EU camp) the poor ill-informed and confused UK.

  2. Always love to hear some expatriate squawking at us from overseas telling us we need to stay in the EU.

    Notice how John McCormick resides in an Anglosphere country, the US, not a continental European one.

    IIwantout above has already blown McCormick’s arguments out of he water, so I won’t add to them except to note that I too am an academic and one score I don’t take particularly is people’s claims about how much they know about anything. That only 40% of Britons claims to understand how the EU worked merely means that the British people are simply more honest in admitting their ignorance about the EU works.

    Until you can test peoples’ knowledge independently, you really have no idea how much they know.

    For example, Professor McCormick doubtless believes he understands both British Euroscepticism and the reasons why Britain should say in the EU.

    Unfortunately, Iwantout has just demonstrated how little he actually knows….

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