UK European Movement: Injecting balance into the debate over the EU

Last January’s announcement by David Cameron of a planned referendum on UK membership of the European Union – whether the vote happens or not - has had two positive effects.

First, it has brought out of the woodwork many leaders of business who have rarely or never before made public statements on the significance of Europe, and they have overwhelmingly come down against Britain leaving the EU. Second, it has made clear just how much the debate over the EU in Britain has been driven by eurosceptics, how much they misrepresent the effects of EU membership, and how urgently the moderates and pro-Europeans need to speak up.

It is impossible to have a productive debate about a key public issue when one side attracts most of the headlines.

(crédit: Euromove)
In speaking up, pro-Europeans in the UK suffer three core handicaps: they have no easily identifiable leaders of the ilk of Nigel Farage, they have no political party that will voice pro-European sentiments with conviction and consistency, and – in voicing the benefits of EU membership – they routinely lag behind the abilities of eurosceptics to muster and express their arguments. It is supposed to be hard to prove a negative, but eurosceptics have done quite well in that regard; while many of their arguments are based on myths and misrepresentations, and they rarely allow the facts to get in their way, they hit home time after time, making appeals that resonate with a British public that mainly has little idea what the EU represents or how it works.

Pro-Europeans air their concerns

Since the Cameron speech, we have seen a mounting number of calls for pro-Europeans to speak up and more effectively spread the word about the benefits of the EU. This has been true not just in the UK but in every EU member state, where euroscepticism – on a steady rise since the debate over the Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s – has exploded in the wake of the crisis in the euro zone and the expanding public conversation about immigration (which is intimately tied to anti-integration sentiments). When Commission president José Manuel Barroso, in a February 2010 speech before the European Parliament, warned of the ‘intellectual glamour of pessimism and constant denigration’ that was doing so much harm to the EU and to Europe’s image, he was summarizing a Europe-wide problem.

Ignorancy leads to hostility

As far as the UK is concerned, Eurobarometer polls reveal one glaring and essential reality about public opinion: while Britons are consistently among the leaders on levels of hostility to Europe, they also know less than their peers about how the EU actually works. So while in a 2012 survey, only 35% of Britons felt there were benefits to EU membership, and only 36% were optimistic about the future of the EU, only 40% could claim to understand how the EU worked. What kind of debate can we have when the majority of people involved have little familiarity with the topic of the debate? And is this the kind of healthy public environment into which to introduce a referendum?
This dilemma presents the pro-European movement not just with an opportunity but with a democratic obligation: we need to clearly identify the benefits of integration, arm ourselves with detailed examples of those benefits, and respond to euroscepticism in the lead-up to the referendum. Even if the latter never happens, which is quite likely given the unpopularity of the present government, there still needs to be a healthy debate in the UK over Europe, and it is time to give the eurosceptics as good as they get.

A Top Ten list of Reasons to like the EU

  • It has helped bring a lasting peace to Europe.
  • Mainly through the single market, it has promoted prosperity, innovation, opportunity and choice.
  • Also thanks to the single market, it has raised standards and expectations.
  • It has helped Europeans understand their shared values and what they have in common.
  • It has reduced – yes, reduced – regulation and red tape by harmonizing national laws in numerous areas of policy.
  • It has helped replace self-interest with shared interests, and exclusion with inclusion.
  • It has promoted democracy and free markets at home and abroad.
  • By bringing together 28 governments and more than 500 million people, it has allowed Europe to speak with a louder voice.
  • It offers a benchmark model of civilian power, showing what can be achieved through peace rather than the threat or use of violence.
  • It has encouraged a rules-based approach to international affairs.
As an academic, my primary interest has always been in education. But where I have focused so far on the students in my classes, or those who use my textbooks, I have had a new interest of late in helping give the pro-European movement more teeth by drawing more attention to how integration has improved lives not just for Europeans but the rest of the world. I hope more academics will pay more attention to this, moving out of the often arcane world of scholarly research and helping spread accurate information. 
This is not a call for partisanship – we can all admit that the EU is less than perfect and that it is just as much a deserving target of criticism as any set of large institutions – so much as a call for the truth. UKIP and the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail and the rest of the edifice of euroscepticism have been able to function for too long in a vacuum of information, and need to be held to higher standards.
Barroso was quite right in noting how the denigration of Europe had achieved an intellectual glamour. Pro-Europeans now need to make sure that the aura of glamour switches to a balanced and informative debate about the pros and cons of Europe. Without it, the referendum will be less an exercise in democracy than one of manipulation.
John McCormick is professor of political science at Indiana University in the United States, a dual UK/US citizen, and author of Why Europe Matters: The Case for the European Union (Palgrave Macmillan) and two university textbooks on the politics and policies of the EU.
The European Movement UK is Britain’s longest standing pro-European organization, campaigning for decades to inform the debate around the benefits of EU membership. It is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization, funded exclusively by its members. Visit