There are few issues in Britain that provoke as much passion or cut across the usual party lines as sharply as membership of the European Union. Being labelled pro- or anti-European has come to be regarded as a term of abuse or a badge of honour, depending on your view. It is an issue that provokes massive scepticism about what party leaders say in public and what policies they pursue in reality.
The issue is also one that also divides politicians from the electorate more sharply than any other. Huge numbers of people will gather to protest or march through London on anti-austerity marches, for example. Few will gather to support or oppose the EU.
Yet, the issue is a running sore. Four million votes for UKIP at the recent general election shows that there is a large number of people willing to support a party whose reason for existence is to see Britain leave the EU, while knowing full well it has little chance of ever electing many MPs or ever being part of the government. UKIP’s performance at elections show that they challenge in Labour areas just as strongly as in Conservative areas too. UKIP is just as much an issue for Labour as it is for the Conservatives.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament and Commission does little to endear itself to the peoples of continental Europe let alone to the people of Britain. Weariness about how the EU works, its remoteness, lack of transparency and accountability and its sheer unwillingness to accommodate differing national priorities shows the weakness of an institution that lacks the flexibility to update itself. And although Greece has to take responsibility for spending and borrowing itself into its current position, the way the country has been treated in recent weeks serves as a stark warning to other countries that might find themselves in trouble that they can expect pretty robust and unsympathetic treatment.
David Cameron has understood that if Britain is to remain a member of the EU, then a new settlement needs to be reached. Reforms and changes have to be made. Updating the terms and conditions of membership, to ensure it is practical and workable, has become a principal policy priority for him for the first half of this Parliament. He has a track record of delivering on his Euro-promises. Where William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard balked, David Cameron withdrew the Conservative Party from the federalist EPP grouping. He was the first British Prime Minister in living memory to effectively veto a piece of European policy he found unacceptable. That David Cameron has the nerve and the steadiness of purpose to deliver on reform of Britain’s membership of the European Union there can be little doubt.
This will be of no comfort or interest to those who, as a matter of principle, want to see Britain leave the Union. Nothing Cameron can, or indeed wants to, deliver in terms of change in the relationship will interest this group of people. This is a respectable position. It is a principled position to hold and a noble cause on which to campaign.
For those who hold the opposing view equal respect is also due. There is a perfectly sensible and reasonable analysis that leads one to conclude that, frustrating and irritating as it is, Britain’s membership of and full participation in the European Union is vital to Britain’s political, diplomatic and economic interests. This too is a position of principle and a noble cause to campaign on.
However, since David Cameron won the General Election and has been able to put his referendum policy into action there has developed a rather unpleasant tone to the debate.
It involves something similar to the debate over Scottish independence. And it is one that should not be allowed to become a characteristic of the EU referendum debate specifically or British public discourse generally. It is this: that somehow this debate should be confined to those who know best – certain groups of politicians and their supporters. That only certain commentators or media outlets have the right to have their voice heard. That others in business or from other groups somehow do not have the right to be heard or to express an opinion.
“Business”, however that might be defined and that ought to be the subject of a separate essay, was repeatedly warned to keep out of the Scottish referendum debate, as it has been with the Euro-referendum debate.
This debate on the EU is too important for it to be confined to politicians and newspaper columnists. It is too important for it to be confined to the view of “business” and just the economic case for or against leaving or staying. What is needed is grassroots involvement.
The subject goes to the heart of what sort of a country we are in Britain and what we want to be. It is not just about sovereignty and economics, it is about how we see ourselves in the family of nations and our view about Britain’s role in the world. If that all sounds too grand or abstract this debate, will speak volumes about whether we are a confident and secure people, or a nation that is edgy, nervous, looking over our shoulder, fearful about what the future holds.
Every person eligible to vote should think about the issues being debated. Groups and organisations, including business, but also across the voluntary, private and public sectors, in every community, town, village and city, should hold meetings, get-togethers and debate the issue in the coming months and years. This is what politicians and commentators are actually fearful of. This is what they want to stifle – us having and expressing a view. But it’s too important to leave it to them. It is for us, all of us right across the UK to get stuck in, learn about the issues involved, debate them and then vote.