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Don’t give up on us yet. I haven’t.

It’s not exactly a secret that Bri­tain has not always been the most enthu­si­astic mem­ber of the European club. Yet, sit­ting in the Christ­mas wait­ing room of a Spec­savers Opti­cians, as I browsed the Daily Express news­pa­per I was still dis­ap­poin­ted to find that they are run­ning a ‘cru­sade’ to pull the UK out alto­gether. Mr Cameron’s veto of the Fiscal Com­pact, opt-out from Justice and Home Affairs and hints of a ref­er­en­dum post 2015 all sug­gest Bri­tain is dis­tan­cing itself from its European part­ners, even pre­par­ing itself for the ejector seat.

As a Brit­ish stu­dent read­ing EU Stud­ies at Leiden Uni­ver­sity, the Neth­er­lands, I am con­stantly reminded of Britain’s dis­taste for all things Brus­sels. The mere pres­ence of Bri­tons is per­plex­ing, even amus­ing, to some. Two years ago as an Erasmus stu­dent, at about 2AM out­side a bar in Gren­oble I was duly informed by a churl­ish French gen­tle­man that “de Gaulle was right” – Bri­tain would be the end of the European Com­munity. He was big­ger than me, so I didn’t press the issue too much.

Con­tin­ental Impatience

How­ever, nos­tal­gic French­men aren’t the only ones con­cerned about Britain’s rela­tion­ship with the EU. Wor­ry­ingly, our con­tin­ental cous­ins now seem to be mov­ing towards an accept­ance of Britain’s self-imposed side­lin­ing, per­haps even wel­com­ing it. A ‘two-speed’ Europe is now an accep­ted dis­course regard­ing the future rela­tion­ship between the Euro­zone and the rest. An atti­tude of “we want you in, but not at any cost” has developed a strong following.

In Septem­ber of last year European fed­er­al­ists Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Co-President Greens/European Free Alli­ance) and Guy Ver­hostadt (Pres­id­ent ALDE Group in the European Par­lia­ment) launched a Manifesto for a post-national revolution in Europe. In their vis­ion of a fed­eral Europe, they sug­gest that Bri­tain should be presen­ted with a ‘take it or leave it’ deal.

On this point, in an oth­er­wise excel­lent mani­festo for reform, I respect­fully dis­agree with Messrs Cohn-Bendit and Ver­hof­stadt. I believe that if the UK is to remain an asset to the EU, a joint respons­ib­il­ity exists to bring Bri­tain back from brink­man­ship. By all accounts, Brit­ish dip­lomacy is fail­ing in Europe. Hold­ing the Euro­zone host­age to the veto, while attempt­ing a ‘rene­go­ti­ation’ to Britain’s terms of mem­ber­ship is bad form. Irish deputy Prime Min­is­ter Eamon Gilmore was right to stand up against it and argue that a sep­ar­ate cat­egory of mem­ber­ship for Bri­tain will not work. This month his coun­try took con­trol of the reigns of the rotat­ing pres­id­ency from Cyprus, It has prom­ised to do everything it can to pre­vent ‘Brexit’, one sin­cerely hopes it will be listened to.

Mak­ing the case for Europe

Pro-European Brits do exist. Des­pite Euro-enthusiasts in the Con­ser­vat­ive Party hav­ing been whittled down to the sol­it­ary Ken Clarke and euro-sceptics sal­iv­at­ing over Cameron’s allu­sions to a ref­er­en­dum after the next gen­eral elec­tion, there remains a siz­able por­tion who believe Bri­tain should remain in the EU, albeit if they act like a bel­li­ger­ent teenager.

Their coali­tion part­ners, the Lib­eral Demo­crats are the most pro-European main­stream party in the UK, yet with a few excep­tions such as Steven Wil­li­ams MP, the debate in the pub­lic sphere has largely been sur­rendered. Bet­ter it to be silent in the face of attack from the likes of the increas­ingly pop­u­lar Nigel Far­age than pro­voke the wraith of a euro scep­tic elect­or­ate, so the think­ing goes. Wrong! Great lead­ers do not merely reflect pub­lic opin­ion, they shape it. They argue for what is best for Bri­tain and its people. If there is to be a ref­er­en­dum, defend­ers of Brit­ish mem­ber­ship need to make their case heard now. 2015 will be too late.

Our bread is buttered with Europe now – and its time that was made clear. Busi­ness for New Europe is a Think Tank present­ing the eco­nomic case for mem­ber­ship, a reason that has always res­on­ated with the trade-minded Brit­ish. Too often I have heard people argue that the euro and eco­nomic crisis besieging the Union as a reason to cut and run. The pub­lic needs edu­cat­ing on the fun­da­ment eco­nomic case for con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship, and for the euro. Busi­ness lead­ers from Bri­tain and the rest of Europe are best placed to make it.

Trust the voters

There is hope how­ever, and you don’t need to look far. When I told my Opti­cian of the Daily Express’ ‘cru­sade’, he assured me that it does not speak for Bri­tain. A silent major­ity exists in Bri­tain in favour of the EU. I can feel it.

We need to speak out against euro­scep­ti­cism, share ideas and argu­ments, awaken the silent and win over the doubters. Yes, the EU needs reform. When has it not? In a let­ter to the Financial Times UK busi­ness lead­ers includ­ing the likes Sir Richard Bran­son, founder of Vir­gin Group, make the case for Brit­ish lead­er­ship in a reformed but exten­ded and deepened internal mar­ket. If Bri­tain takes a con­struct­ive role in doing what it has his­tor­ic­ally done best – advoc­at­ing free trade and busi­ness, then we’re sure to find friends. Right?

This month Bri­tain cel­eb­rated its 40th anniversary of join­ing the European Com­munity. I’m hop­ing for another 40.

– Frederick Van Mierlo

 

Dis­claimer: This art­icle was ori­gin­ally pub­lished as ”Don’t give up on us yet. I haven’t ” on January 10, 2013 on The European Student Think Tank, a PB cooper­a­tion partner.

 

(Featured photo: AttributionNo Derivative Works bisgovuk. Creative Commons, Flickr)

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