JOHN KAMPFNER: It’s time to make the case for Europe as never before
- Credit: Empics Entertainment
Britain faces a generational struggle to relocate itself to the heart of the European project. With relations and reputation at rock bottom, what better time to start the fightback? asks JOHN KAMPFNER
The parliamentary pantomime is the shop window to the trashing of Britain's reputation. But the problem lies far deeper than the voting chaos in the Commons and the make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to our constitution, courtesy of the hapless Theresa May and the heedless John Bercow.
I wrote back in December of the extent to which the UK is now the object of pity and ribaldry around the world for the way it has dealt with Brexit. The events of the past three months have turbocharged that trend.
No matter what transpires now in the House of Fools, as the Daily Mail pithily put it last week, the damage is done. Britain's political ties with Europe are more fractured than they have been for half a century. But contrary to our delusional assertions at the start of the process about the indispensability of the UK, Europe has shown that they can do very well without us. We are truly on our own, and it will take herculean efforts over many years to restore our reputation and our place.
Ever since Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet mooted the idea of a European Steel and Coal Community, the UK has struggled to forge a position. Winston Churchill may have called for a United States of Europe in 1946, but the sad truth is that post-war Britain has always been on the sidelines.
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No sooner did we finally join in 1973 than within two years we were holding a referendum. That passed, but within a few years Margaret Thatcher was declaring 'no, no, no', encouraging the media to denounce the EU at every turn, creating a feedback loop from which we have never recovered.
The one great opportunity to turn things around came with Tony Blair. He tried, but did he try hard enough? The answer to that depends on whether you are of a 'half full' or 'half empty' disposition.
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The optics were tailor-made for the dashing, young prime minister, the first of the generation born after the war. He was allowed to 'win' a cycle race among the leaders in Amsterdam at his first summit. He was given the Charlemagne prize, awarded for great figures of the European cause, at Aachen cathedral.
Blair spoke good French. With Gerhard Schröder he sought European alignment for his 'Third Way'. The EU was enlarged. The so-called Lisbon agenda focused on economic reform. But, in typical Blairite form, this added up to everything and nothing.
Did he really challenge the vituperative media coverage of Europe? Did he devote enough attention explaining to voters the many benefits of being in the bloc, and being part of the leadership of the bloc? To have done so concertedly would have meant taking on the press barons, and he needed their support for his domestic agenda. World leaders became less receptive to Blair's strictures on reform after Iraq.
Still, if small mercies are the stuff of politics and diplomacy, one should be thankful for Blair's efforts. Gordon Brown didn't bother to endear himself to Europe or to make the case. John Major, on taking office in the early 1990s, did make positive noises initially, but that was shattered by Black Wednesday. As for David Cameron…
In the 10 years since the end of Blair, British attitudes to Europe have gone into freefall. The Remain campaign during the referendum campaign of 2016 very rarely had anything good to say about the alliance it was supposed to be defending. It lacked the stomach for a fight against those spreading half-truths and outright lies about the real-life benefits of being at the heart of Europe.
A new narrative must be developed to proselytise about the benefits of Europe; when better to start it than now, with relations and credibility at rock bottom.
Three ingredients are essential – the economics, the practical benefits and the psychology.
The first two are relatively easy to explain. The latter less so.
On the finances of our membership, to all those fulminating about 'waste' or 'bureaucracy', the simple reply is to run through the numbers. Had campaigners done so with more conviction during the referendum, the £350 million NHS nonsense would have been easily debunked.
One need look no further than the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund (how the Brexiteers in west Wales and south west England got away with their hypocrisy is one of the great mysteries). Horizon 2020 transformed funding for UK science and research; Creative Europe provided a huge boost for culture. The list goes on. But the case was never going to be made on economics alone.
Then there is the 'lived experience'. Would any of the following have happened without our membership? Easy cheap flights to pretty much anywhere in Europe from anywhere in Britain? Clean beaches? Access for young people to study abroad with consummate ease? Football clubs the envy of the world, with players from everywhere?
None of this is a preserve of London, or the 'elite'. Far from alienating people in small towns and rural communities, the EU has helped keep some of our most left-behind areas afloat. Young people everywhere have enjoyed opportunities previously denied them. Do we really think a UK in blissful isolation would ever have replicated any of the advantages?
Both financial and practical are necessary, but insufficient. Ultimately the case for Europe cannot be made through money and benefits alone. It comes down to the simple question: what kind country do we want to be? Do we want to cut ourselves adrift, angry and backward looking? Or are we proud to see ourselves as part of a bigger community of nations?
When did you last hear a senior politician shout to the rooftops about the European dream? Could we imagine Downing Street raising the flags of the UK and European Union, as is commonly the case in Germany, France and other countries?
The answer, at the moment and for the foreseeable future, to questions such as these is a ribald 'no'. That therefore is the long-term challenge, because unless we learn not just to tolerate Europe but to love it, we will never be comfortable as a nation with any meaningful association with the continent.
This is a culture clash – I refuse to use the term culture war as that plays into the hands of the Brexiteering 'bulldog spirit' type of Englishness that is long past its sell-by date.
If Brexit is delayed for a long period, the chances of a better outcome than May's deal or no-deal significantly increase. But the schism within our country and between our country and the EU will not go away.
This is the start – not the culmination – of a generational struggle to relocate Britain into the heart of the continent, loudly, proudly and confidently. It certainly won't be easy. Out of this mire, something remarkably different might, just might, emerge, but it will take a political courage that nobody has shown before.
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