Britain and Europe – from awkward partner to unwilling fellow traveller?

With the referendum on British membership of the European Union nearing, the sequel to the 1975 unanimous decision to remain, the two camps – ‘in’ and ‘out’ – are clearly mapped out, and it remains to be seen which way the British public, perennially Eurosceptic, will swing in June. One thing is certain; the June vote, whether in or out, will not spell the end of the UK/EU saga. With more plot twists than a Woody Allen rom-com, Britain’s love-hate relationship with its European neighbours now faces the prospect of a messy divorce. But isn’t there a way to preserve their relationship, for the sake of the kids?

What is it about the European Union?

Writing in the Telegraph  back in February, Michael Gove, Justice Secretary, explained why he would be aligning himself with the likes of Nigel Farage on the ‘out’ campaign with what has become a famed quote: “Every single day, every single minister is told: 'Yes Minister, I understand, but I'm afraid that's against EU rules'”. The vision that he and the other hard-line Eurosceptics have created of the EU is of a backwards-looking, power-grabbing, interfering, illiberal, anti-democratic bureaucratic machine. In so doing, he and his fellow out-campaigners depict Britain as a passive entity having Europe ‘done’ to it by malevolent technocrats who aggressively force ‘ever closer union’ on isolated, unwilling Britain. By this framing, Britain thus becomes victim of Europeanisation; its national sovereignty is sacrificed, its democracy is jeopardised. The success of the ‘out’ campaign’s framing of the EU in this light is most clearly visible in the ‘in’ campaign’s arguments for staying. Mostly based in the potential losses  that a Brexit could cause, this pessimistic line of argument has led to accusations of a ‘project fear’ from the side of the ‘out’ campaign.

Reframing the debate?

But why is Europe incessantly viewed in this negative light in Britain, either as a necessary evil, or just evil? Is it not time to rethink the European Union in more positive terms?

Looking back at the achievements of the European Union, the most obvious one is the sustained peace it has brought to the continent. Indeed, when the founding fathers of the EU created the European Coal and Steel Community in the aftermath of WWII, the pioneering project was so successful that even stand-alone Britain decided it would do well to become a member of the club; applying twice for membership in the 1960s, only to be vetoed by Charles de Gaulle.

Since joining in 1973, Britain has gained much from its EU membership. Above and beyond access to what is now the largest single market in the world, and thus the most powerful trade bloc, Britain has seen its influence projected across the world through the prism of the EU. UK businessmen have unfettered access to 500 million consumers, without the burden of tariffs. However, the benefits go far beyond the realms of international trade.

 Freedom of movement across the continent, although much maligned as the trigger of uncontrolled migration by the ‘out’ campaign, has allowed over one million Brits to emigrate to other member states, free of the burdens of visa requirements that pre-dated the EU. UK farmers receive billions per year in EU subsidies. UK regions benefit from vast sums and exciting new projects coming directly from the EU. The European Social Fund has also led to exciting initiatives such as the Bad Boys' Bakery project, which has helped prison inmates develop employability skills, and thereby reduced reoffending rates in a London prison. Cheap flights and reduced roaming charges, which will disappear altogether by next year, are further benefits to the consumer; without mentioning workers’ rights to holiday pay, sick leave and overtime.

While it is true that the EU has its economic problems, which have been further magnified by the global economic crisis of 2008, the ‘out’ campaign would do well to remember that the crisis was global, and Britain was hardly an isolated by-stander in the financial chaos. While naysayers like Farage point to the EU’s lack of accountability to its population, the MPs expenses scandal further highlights that the UK is itself no role-model. In fact, any questions of a ‘democratic deficit’ that the EU has faced have been combatted by the granting of additional powers to the European Parliament – a parliament that, sadly, only 35% of Brits turned out to vote for in 2014; which is 7 percentage points below the overall Pan-European turnout. A fundamental change in British attitudes is surely the key to overcoming the UK’s difficult relationship with the EU – from unwilling fellow traveller, Britain must embrace its European identity in order to exercise its influence from within. This referendum is therefore a battle for hearts and minds: The British public deserves to hear about the good of the EU – for the good of its future therein.