By Claire Yorke:
Waking up to the European election results this morning I was drawn to a book of Historic Tables by S. H. Steinberg from 1949 that documents the history of the world from 58BC to the end of the Second World War. Through its pages it charts the key dates and events that shaped Europe before the two World Wars that marked the start of the 20th century. In the hundred years before 1914, each page tells a story of aggression: of empires shifting and expanding, of defeats and military alliances. Not one goes by without a nation fighting to pursue its own interests at the expense of another. How different, then, is our modern experience of Europe from the European Coal and Steel Community of 1952 to the European Union of 28 member states today. It is an evolution marked by efforts to build stability, where cooperation and political and economic union have been the guiding force. Yet the case for the successes and strengths of Europe as a unified entity has never really been made.
Politicians in Britain have often shied away from this task, aware that Europe is one of those toxic issues, particularly within certain sectors of the media who like to whip up fear over the loss of sovereignty and national values that come from closer ties to the continent. During the recent election campaign, out of the three main parties only the Liberal Democrats came out as pro-European. Labour and the Conservatives appeared to hedge on Europe – a strategy that is hardly inspiring to voters, but which gives them room for manoeuvre, at least on the domestic front.
There is a danger that in response to last night’s results these parties may move to appease wandering voters, andmake concessions to the rhetoric and politics of UKIP in order to bolster their votes in next year’s General Election. This strategy would be counterintuitive. Instead, what is needed is genuine leadership that does not play to the lowest common denominator but makes the case for Europe in a constructive and positive way.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that the more populist messages of the anti-Europe campaign have had greater traction. It is far easier to highlight faults and limitations than to prove the successes we take for granted: The ease with which we can travel or work in Europe without a visa; the access to foreign markets and investment that support the economy; the ability to project power and influence beyond our own capabilities through security and defence cooperation. Yet these are just a few of the achievements that should be championed. Cooperation, rather than isolation, remains the best means by which to face future challenges that do not observe sovereign boundaries or national interests.
This is not to say that Europe is without fault. It is a large institution in need of genuine reform: not least to update European institutions after its recent expansion and new members. Yet given its size, this is will not happen over night and will require the effort of all members actively involved in the process, including the United Kingdom. Withdrawing from that process will reduce our influence and ability to shape change. Nonetheless, criticisms of European bureaucracy point to a deeper issue: How much do people really know about the roles and functions of European institutions? The answer is not enough. Yet, no one from the political establishment, whether through desire or ability, seems able to articulate the role and importance of the Union in a way that makes it relevant to the wider British electorate.
As political leaders and supporters of the three main parties reflect on the results that gave Nigel Farage’s UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) almost 28% of the vote and made his party the largest British party in the EU, David Cameron’s remarks this morning that people are “disillusioned” with the European Union may hold some truth. However, it does not follow that a knee-jerk reaction against Europe will do anything to improve the real issue of voter disillusionment or disengagement with politics.
Indeed, it is interesting to examine what makes Nigel Farage so popular in spite of the revelations of his own views and those in his party, as showcased in his interview on LBC radio on 16 May. In an age when PR and media spin create a glossy veneer around the other party leaders, Nigel Farage appears, for all intent and purpose, as a typical man down at the pub. Through his willingness to speak his mind he has managed to connect with parts of the general public who view politicians as adept at platitudes and empty sound-bites. This in no way means his views are correct, far from it, but for some voters, conviction and sincerity are lacking from modern British politics and Farage is filling this gap. Party leaders appear reluctant to provide a vision and court unpopularity, although both are necessary attributes of leadership.
Looking ahead, there should be an honest debate about Britain’s future in Europe. This should not focus on the practicalities of an ‘In-Out’ referendum, which is unlikely to succeed when the debate is so unbalanced. Instead, discussions should revolve around where Europe does and does not work: what steps are needed for change and how reform can be achieved. What can the UK do to push for that change? Some of the core issues that have been revealed by the results, such as immigration and economic security, should also be tackled, while recognising that the concerns may have domestic, rather than European roots. How can concerns about immigration be addressed in a way that distinguishes fact from fear? How can Europe help rather than hinder economic recovery and job prospects? Politicians and leaders should articulate the purpose Europe serves for British interests, and the opportunities it provides for people rather than resorting to the populist messages that come too easily.
In his essay The Lion and the Unicorn written in 1940, during the Second World War, George Orwell writes: “Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward”. The European project, begun after the Second World War is not yet finished. A lot needs to be done to move it forward in a way that is fit for the 21st century, but it would be foolish to undo the significant progress made by retreating into an isolationist and backward policy before the story is complete.
Claire Yorke is a doctoral researcher in the War Studies Department at Kings College London and a member of NATO’s Young Leader’s Working Group. Prior to her PhD Claire was programme manager of the International Security Research Department at Chatham House in London and worked as a Parliamentary Researcher in the House of Commons. You can follow her on Twitter @ClaireYorke.