Wary Britons resist union sales pitches

September 17, 2004

British conservatism keeps Europe at arm's length despite the benefits of European Union membership. Huw Richards asks academics how the Government could change voters' minds

Among the benefits European exchange students derive from their time at Bournemouth University is an insight into why British governments have always found relations with the remainder of the Continent so troublesome.

"Students from somewhere like Germany see themselves as simply travelling from one part of Europe to another and are puzzled that we see ourselves as somehow separate from Europe," explains Darren Lilleker, marketing lecturer at Bournemouth.

Thirty-one years on from accession to the European Union (then the European Economic Community) "somehow separate" remains a good description of British attitudes. Tony Blair's stated desire for Britain to be at "the heart of Europe" remains far off, and the big gainer at the most recent European elections was the UK Independence Party.

While other problems, notably Iraq, may seize more immediate attention, the issue of how to win two European referendums - one on the new EU constitution and a second on joining the euro - looms worryingly for the Government.

What advice do the academic experts have? Julie Smith, deputy director of Cambridge University's Centre for International Studies, argues that the Government has missed chances because, despite Blair's pro-European words, the Government has always put other issues first. "Domestic policies and links with the US have taken priority. In its first term, the Government's priority was to secure a second full term, and this made it wary of doing anything that might lose it votes. In its honeymoon period in 1997 it could have won a referendum on the euro, but it wouldn't take the risk."

But Simon Lightfoot of Liverpool John Moores University's Centre for Social Science argues that overemphasis on Europe is politically risky. "It is important, but it is not a bread-and-butter political issue. The Government knows that Europe won't win it an election, but public services might lose one. After the election, things might be different."

Lilleker and Aleks Szczerbiak, senior lecturer in contemporary European studies at Sussex University, both point to the evident Euroscepticism of much of the electorate as a further disincentive to raising the political profile of Europe. "Why open up a front on a subject where you feel you are weak?" Szczerbiak asks.

Lilleker notes deep-rooted conservatism in apparently unlikely groups.

"You'll find 20-year-olds who'll argue passionately for keeping the pound, saying that the money in France or Germany seems like Monopoly money."

The politicians' task is complicated by voters refusing to conform to conventional political logic. Lilleker says he knows people in Poole who voted for Ukip candidates in the European elections and for Liberal Democrats in the general election because they felt the Lib Dem candidate was a good local representative even if the Lib Dems were the most pro-European party standing.

Lightfoot argues that problems are exacerbated by the way British politicians present EU issues and the manner in which they are reported. He says: "The instinct to blame Brussels for anything unpopular but to take the credit for anything that voters are going to like is deep-rooted among our politicians. EU matters tend to be treated as an adversarial zero-sum game, with the question of how much Britain 'wins' or 'loses' each time predominating. This goes on in other countries, but it is particularly pronounced here."

So how are mindsets to be challenged? As a former chair of the Eurosceptic Bruges Group, Martin Holmes, fellow in politics at St Hugh's College, Oxford, is not unhappy with polls showing 60 per cent or more opposed to Britain adopting the draft EU constitution. But he believes the Government's main objective is the adoption of the euro, and that the constitution referendum will be employed mostly as a means of enabling a win on the euro. "I think they'll be prepared to use it as a kind of loss leader, aiming to soften Eurosceptic opinion to the point at which it becomes possible to win a subsequent vote on the euro."

Szczerbiak, in contrast, sees the main battle as taking place over the constitution. "Britain has to have a referendum at some point in the next couple of years to decide whether it signs up to the constitution. There is no requirement that it should have a vote on the euro at any time, so that at the moment looks like a long-term, almost academic proposition."

Jeff Kenner, a senior lecturer in law and European law specialist at Nottingham University, regrets that the word "constitution" has been used and says it obscures the real issue - how to deal with the expansion of the EU.

He argues that there are things the Government can do to shift the terms of debate. "One of the problems is the lack of connection between individuals in Britain and the EU as personified by its institutions. There is a feeling of remoteness."

This is partly the result of a genuine lack of awareness of what the EU is and what it does, compounded by poor news coverage. Kenner argues for the creation of a Europe minister in the Cabinet. "Any other EU state automatically has a minister of cabinet rank. It would mean that issues were taken seriously, that they were reported more systematically and there would be a better chance of contesting the sort of myths about Europe that form so much of the current coverage."

Similarly, he argues for a properly constituted House of Commons select committee to be created to scrutinise European legislation, in place of the current system of examining it via a closed House of Lords committee. "It should be an open committee, with its meetings broadcast."

This greater openness and accountability would, he argues, make it easier to tell voters about the benefits of EU membership, such as equal pay for women. "Do people know that cheap air travel was made possible by the EU policy on freedom of movement?" he asks.

Elizabeth Meehan, Jean Monnet professor and director of the Institute of Governance, Public Policy and Social Research at Queen's University, Belfast, argues for a similar approach, backed by pointing to areas of policy where single states are at a disadvantage. "Polls show that most people recognise that you need larger units than single governments to deal with the environment," she says.

Lightfoot would like to see more noise being made about popular projects made possible by EU support. He lives in Liverpool, which benefits from funding under the Objective One programme for areas with average incomes well below the EU mean, and says: "There ought to be big signs saying that it is thanks to the EU that it has been possible to refurbish St George's Hall."

Smith suggests that, particularly with the referendums in mind, more should be made of the potential costs of Britain's propensity for standing on the edge complaining even when it proclaims a desire to be at the heart of Europe. "The EU should be sold as something that is good for Britain, with an emphasis on the danger of lagging behind the rest of Europe, losing jobs and inward investment, unless we participate fully."

When it comes to the referendum on the constitution, Lilleker points to the "small c, if it isn't broken, don't mend it conservatism" of Britain, always an advantage in the argument to keep the status quo. He notes that Britain's previous European referendum, in 1975, took place after entry to the then EEC so that the "small c" choice was for rather than against membership. The constitution referendum will be tougher, asking voters to accept change.

Szczerbiak, noting that a lot depends on the wording of the question, argues that the Government may have to take a considerable risk to get the result it wants. Noting the same small-c tendencies as Lilleker, he points out that anti-Europe attitudes become a minority only when voters are asked if Britain should continue to be a member of the EU and he suggests that the question should be couched in these terms.

On the euro, Meehan points out that it already circulates freely in Northern Ireland and is widely accepted in Belfast shops. Holmes notes that referendums are invariably contested on issues other than the question on the ballot paper, and he expects to see a Labour government campaigning to maximise its tribal vote. "They'll say to Labour voters, 'you don't want to see the Conservatives celebrating the humiliation of your Government'."

Blair is arguably the least equipped of all Labour leaders to appeal to tribal loyalty but, argues Holmes, "He has tried everything else."

However the Government campaigns, and whatever polls on the euro say in 2004, Holmes has no doubt it will be an extremely hard-fought contest. "It won't be like 1975, which turned into a landslide. I've got no doubt that it will be very, very close indeed."

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