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The EU is not a necessary evil
09 Jul, 2019

Let’s be positive

London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg writes that we must not compromise with Leavers’ take on the EU. We should be relentlessly positive. The recent speech by Tom Watson MP shows us the words to use.


Ted Heath was a European idealist. So, in a different way, was Winston Churchill. But sympathy with or support for the European project has been rare in Britain.

Attitudes to the EU even amongst its supporters have generally been severely transactional, totting up the benefits and costs – with the implication that if the balance sheet went the other way we would leave. Political cohesion and freedom of movement have been presented as a price worth paying for the economic benefits.

With that approach we are bound to lose. We give up on our best arguments (we like international co-operation and solidarity; we desire freedom of movement) before we even meet the other side. We make it easy for people who disagree with us to conclude that the economic benefits are not worth the price.


The build-up to the 2016 referendum

Theresa May’s April 2016 speech was almost her sole intervention in the campaign. She showed that she understood the limitations of sovereignty and the need for – and trade-offs implied by - multilateral bodies. She ran through a list of pros and cons and came up with mainly pros. Yet she rejected the EU’s rôle as guarantor of peace (strictly she rejected that it was “only” the EU that guaranteed peace, a claim no-one makes). Her main concrete proposal was that we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights because we invented human rights and don’t need Johnny Foreigner to tell us about them. Sure, she came down for Remain. But, without wishing to be too much of a heresy-hunter, she was hardly what I would consider a Remainer.

Jeremy Corbyn’s big speech was given in April 2016. It was billed as explaining his personal journey from Lexiter to Remainer, but barely did so. He referenced enlargement and the rise of social Europe since the Europe of the Six, but that seemed to be it. Mostly the speech was an attack on the Conservatives. He saw the EU as a defence against a Conservative government on workers’ rights and the like. He did understand that international collective action was needed on the environment, to deal with global corporations, terrorism and the like. But he worried that the EU was still too pro-business. So he campaigned on Remain and Reform.

Still, that was better than his line in the 2015 Labour Party leadership hustings: "I would advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free market policies across Europe”. 

That reflected a pattern in British politics whenever the British and EU political cycles were out of synch. If the EU was more social democratic than the UK, then Labour would favour it and the Conservatives oppose it – and vice versa. In other words, support for EU membership was short term and contingent on the domestic political dynamics of the moment, rather than based on longer term structural factors. The right argument is that the EU is the best locus for certain decisions, even if you disagree with the decisions that are made.

Nor was David Cameron that different. His 2013 Bloomberg speech announced the referendum. He fully recognised the importance of the EU to peace in Europe. But he saw that as job done. His statement that for the British “the EU is a means to an end, … not an end in itself” while at one level true for every country was also an absurd thing to say given that the EU existed and that Cameron had no plan for a replacement. He proposed a series of EU reforms – fine, the EU like every organisation always needs reforming. But by putting his ideas in the context of his proposal for a referendum on membership he made his call for reforms into a threat.

Cameron’s referendum strategy was to say to the electorate in effect: I was a Eurosceptic. But now I have won these reforms. So the EU is now OK. So, trust me: we should stay.

It was a remarkably similar pitch to Jeremy Corbyn’s, except that Corbyn pointed to the past reforms of Delors’ Social Europe and the future reforms that Corbyn thought were necessary – but which were at best uncertain to be delivered.

Well, we know how well it worked. A luke-warm message of support, a requirement for reforms as a condition for support, a dry transactional adding up of debits and credits – these were not the methods to overcome forty years of anti-EU rhetoric from the press and many politicians.


Let’s see co-operation as desirable

We need whole-heartedly to campaign on the basis that international co-operation is necessary and good. That there is no basis for a country to go it alone – unless the size of the USA or China, and even they will find it lonely if they turn the world against them. That the EU will be there whether we are in it or not, so there is not going to be some other way of managing international co-operation and solidarity in Europe.

Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson MP put it well in a speech in June 2019. He said:

“The European Union is not something to apologise for. It is a good thing. It is Good with a capital G. An enduring, deep, benevolent collaboration between sovereign states unique in the history of the world.

“It produced a lasting peace from the ashes of war. It produced prosperity where there had been deprivation. It produced transnational partnership where once there was suspicion and division. It’s not perfect, but what large institution is?

“The core values of the EU are internationalism. Solidarity. Freedom. Those are British values.

“We’re lucky to be living through this golden age of European cooperation. We are extraordinarily fortunate to live in peace.

“The institutions of the EU formalise – and democratise – the natural bonds between us. We are not diminished by our membership of the EU. We are recognised, enhanced and empowered by it.

“Our relationship with Europe is about far more than economics, and far more than political cooperation. It’s about what kind of country we are. What we want for our children. The scale and the scope of the horizons we can offer them. What we’re able to bring them up to be.

“And the kind of country we are is European. It is a fundamental part of our national identity, our culture, our history. Britishness is not distinct from Europeanness. These are not warring identities competing for space. To be British is to be European.

“And only by remaining in the EU can we remain the same Britain at heart that we’ve been for 1000 years. If we leave, we become less than we were and less than our children have a right to expect.”


He concluded with a call for a referendum and for Labour to campaign for Remain in that referendum.




The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author, not necessarily of London4Europe.