It’s been a strange week for statements about the European Union and why we should support it. Government ministers here and in Brussels have been musing on the issue in public, not always in a helpful manner.
In Brussels, first, the EU institutions have reached a joint agreement regarding communication. They will work together in planning and prioritising how they communicate Europe to citizens. This, apparently is new, even “a little bit of history”. If various different parts of the EU system are trying to do the same thing, it makes sense for them to be coordinated. (The same lesson could be usefully learned by the people who run foreign policy, but that’s another story.)
However, there is always a downside. Margot Wallström is quoted as saying that result in the Irish referendum on Lisbon was down to “emotional arguments and disinformation”, and the anti-Europeans think this is a bad thing. She shouldn’t patronise or belittle the people who voted No, or suggest that their votes were in error. A vote is a vote is a vote.
But is this really true? Are we entitled to look beyond the actual vote to look at the reasons as well? On this question, you will not be surprised to learn, the anti-Europeans are inconsistent.
Many of them claim that their Yes votes in 1975, on Britain’s membership of the EEC, were for something other than what we got. Some say they voted for a free trade area and not a political institution (well, we left a free trade area to join the EEC), or that Edward Heath lied to them about sovereignty (read the statements he made and you find that he was quite clear on that score). So the reasons why they voted the way they did do matter.
For people who vote No, though, it is different. Whatever the reason they voted No, those reasons should respected, protected as though they were rare orchids. How dare Margot Wallström come in and tread all over their delicate blooms with her brutal, insensitive facts. If people want to vote No to the Lisbon treaty because they are against conscription to a European army, they must be allowed to do so. Unfair to point out that the Lisbon treaty actually contains nothing that leads to conscription to a European army. She should have more respect.
But do emotions count in politics? What happens if someone votes the right way for the wrong reasons: is that a regrettable outcome, or simply part of the game?
My view is that there is truth on both sides. In the end, what counts are the votes in the ballot box, not the reasons why voters put them there. Part of the skill of a political campaigner is to get the debate on to the ground where it is more likely to be helpful. (That’s why the Democracy Movement has chosen that name, for example. They think that claiming to be democrats will be more seductive than claiming to be nationalists.) If the pro-European campaigners don’t like the ground they are fighting on, they need to be more skilful themselves.
But on the other hand, there needs to be a certain honesty about the arguments used. Arguing against the Lisbon treaty in the name of preserving national corporate taxation isn’t fair, given that the Lisbon treaty itself preserves national control of corporate tax. The debate should be about the things the treaty does say and not about the things it doesn’t.
And worse than the politicians and campaigners are the newspapers. They have a huge ability to reach the public, enormous sums of money at their disposal and a completely shameless attitude. Add to that the fact that they are completely unregulated and we have a real problem on our hands.
All that fuss over whether George Osborne asked for £50,000 from Oleg Deripaska. £50,000 would buy one page in the Daily Mail. Think what the value of all that biased and tormenting coverage adds up to in the end. If newspapers behaved with a sense of responsibility and restraint, then it would not matter, but too many of them do not. It is fine for newspapers to have opinions, but not to tell lies.
But the Lord helps those who help themselves, and the pro-Europeans have not always been their own best friends. The new Europe minister, Caroline Flint, attempted to set out the case for Europe in a speech this week, where to be pro-European is to eat pizza and shop at Zara. That’s hardly enough, is it? I’m all in favour of making an emotional case for Europe but it needs to be a bit better than that.
A speech that denies that the UK is a “half-hearted partner in Europe” doesn’t really grasp what’s going on, nor does a government minister who can say “I’ve yet to meet a European politician who wants a federal Europe.” It is fine to say that what matters are the problems of delivery of policy and not debate about the institutional flaws, but what happens when the problems of delivery of policy are the institutional flaws. The simple hope that “this institutional era is starting to draw to a close” at some point has to confront the reality of a half-built EU.
No-one is demanding that people should love the EU, but people do need to identify with it if it is to thrive. Any kind of political institution needs the engagement of its citizens and not merely their acquiescence. The choice of Yes or No to Europe is more than a simple choice about where to go to eat this evening.