Communicating the need for Europe
During the recent Labour Party Conference in my new city of Manchester, I attended a fringe event on the European Union, entitled “From Austerity to Plan B”. The EU plays a massive role in our lives, and our being a part of Europe as a continent is something we cannot deny. But in Britain, even the word “Europe” is often maligned, as if it represents only foreign interests and bureaucrats.
My first observation on leaving the meeting, other than the quality of the free lunch provided, was the trouble the panel had in presenting Europe and the EU project as anything other than a perpetual bore. The women on the panel did better than the men, but not by much. My friend who I had dragged along almost fell asleep, which is impressive for someone renowned for a love of statistics and policy.
The only time news on Europe is presented as interesting to the British public is the horror of some regulation that has just been discovered and which a newspaper editor believes could be misapplied. Europe is alternately “over there”, “foreign”, “a threat to Britishness” or plain irrelevant. In reality, it is absolutely none of those things.
I was in Copenhagen a few years ago, discussing the forthcoming Climate Summit mobilisation, when a friend stopped me, mid flow and in front of quite a crowd, to ask me a simple question. “Graham, why do you keep saying things are different in Europe to Britain, when Britain is in Europe?”. It was a very good question, and I’m glad they asked me about it. I’d internalised one of the most stupid dichotomies perpetuated by the media and many politicians, namely that Britain and Europe are two separate things.
At the fringe meeting, more than one contributor reminded us of the positive employment legislation put in place by Europe, or the Human Rights Act. The EU has, by and large, been better at defending workers’ interests than the British parliament, and with very good reason – no country should gain a trade advantage by flushing it’s workers’ rights down the drain.
We had the question of federalism, which I think is massively misunderstood by the British, both in how a federal Europe might work and in how US federal government works in practise. It would be possible to put in to practise something called “European Federalism” that had less impact on our sovereignty than the current approach. Federalism doesn’t mean becoming one uniform bloc, and to imply as much suggests ignorance of the diversity between states within United States of America, or even a failure to understand the constitutional limitations on the Washington government.
So what should we value, and even celebrate about the Europe Union? The EU, despite its increasing neo-liberal tendencies, remains the largest and most successful experiment in practical Internationalism. It brings together in peace some of the most historically violent collections of countries. At 503million residents, it contains more human potential than the USA and Russia combined, and is a credible competitor to India and China. It gives us most of our remaining employment rights, and perpetuates the Human Rights of some of those the UK would seek to divest them from. And it gives us some of the most incredible scientific research and discovery on the planet.
It also has potential; potential to knock off some of the harsher corners of Britain’s relationship with the wider-world, and to give us insight into other possibilities for policy and governance. To expand our horizons beyond the English Channel and maybe even to show us that those weird Europeans are actually quite a lot like us, what with their relatively similar needs and desires, and our largely shared heritage in the last 200 years at least.
The question remains: how do we communicate this without sending people to sleep?!