The dream will never die

The period of grieving should now be drawing to its close.

But first, allow me a few retrospective remarks about the campaign. The referendum was unnecessary. There had been no great clamour for it. Europe rarely figured in any list of the top ten concerns of electors. It was simply a response to the logic of party management but Mr Cameron is not the first politician to discover that referendums are the political equivalent of raising the lid on Pandora’s Box. He has now learned this lesson in the cruellest possible way.

The campaign was vigorous and certainly engaged public interest but it did not provide the kind of public education on the EU which was required. And it degenerated into claims and counterclaims from the main protagonists many of which were unsubstantiable if not downright false. The Leave campaign in particular resorted straightforward lies (about the UK’s budgetary contribution and Turkish accession, for example) but stuck to them with almost breath-taking chutzpah, even after their falsity had been proven.

There was no serious debate about the alternatives to membership quite simply because the Leave campaign had not thought them through. So the answer to the question about Plan B was ‘We’re British. We’ll win through just as we did in 1940’. Some business plan!

The misrepresentations of the campaign were not exposed in the media, not even at the BBC which seemed to believe that political neutrality required it to give equal and largely uncritical coverage of truth and lies. 

On the Remain side, the weakness and political invisibility of the official body heading up the campaign meant that the heavy lifting was left to Mr Cameron and his hapless chancellor, George Osborne. They committed fully to the exercise but in so doing created a political problem. It had been obvious from the outset that the key constituency which had to be won over was in the traditional Labour heartlands; these voters were never going to be supportive of a campaign effectively led by the Tory hierarchy.

To some extent Labour voters felt disenfranchised. By the time the Labour leadership understood the need to raise its game to avoid so many of its Labour voters in alienated and less prosperous areas had been seduced by the anti-immigrant strand of the Leave message, and by UKIP in particular. Labour’s efforts were - until the last two weeks - woefully inadequate. Its answers on immigration and free movement were contradictory and confused. It pays the price with those heartlands having handed victory to the Leave campaign and with a potential 30% drop in support for the party. It risks seeing punishment meted out again at the election. Its leader Jeremy Corbyn is being and deserves to be censured for a failure in leadership.

So the campaign concentrated on just three questions:

-would Brexit harm the economy (an argument essentially won by the Remain side);

-was controlling immigration compatible with the free movement of EU nationals? (where the Leave camp had the easy, and sometimes borderline xenophobic answers);

-and the simple affirmation ‘We should take back control’ (which repeated parrot like by all pro-Leave spokespersons gained real traction, and to which the Remain side seemed unable or unwilling to counter).

The TV debates rarely strayed beyond these three elements, with a level of discussion struggling to rise above crude sloganizing. Any attempt to broaden the debate to real external relations threats (Russia, the Ukraine, the Middle East) or to the environment, curbing tax evasion, or excessive corporate power seemed to interest very little either media or voters.

The whole mood of the campaign was ugly and angry. The referendum seemed to many to be the occasion to punish elites, politicians, experts or any in authority; the Leave side managed quite implausibly to wrap itself up in the colours of an Insurgency, with Brussels the perfect sitting duck for the hurlatori- the same type of moaners and screamers who have elsewhere brought us candidate Trump, or a Mayor of Rome with no political experience whatsoever. You shout and stamp your feet. You applaud any disrespectful, crass insults thrown at the Prime Minister or mainstream politicians. You make excellent copy for the media. You are never asked for and never give any constructive proposals to deal with the problems you have identified. That this has now come to the UK, which used to be recognised for the quality of its public debate or of its broadcasters and for the politeness, decency, restraint of its people make some ask whether this is still the same country they knew twenty or thirty years ago. Or is coarseness now acceptable with people shouting at hard-working, tax-paying Polish residents (‘vermin’) to go home?

And who stood up for the EU in all this? It was striking that the common ground between the two camps appeared to be that the EU was fundamentally flawed: they differed only on the remedy- the Leave side logically wanting divorce, the Remain side sharing in the criticism but trying to reassure voters that it had built in safeguards which would stop the EU encroaching further on UK prerogatives. Never once was there an audible, stout defence of European integration, pointing to its many achievements. Disconcertingly this tone of milder euroscepticism (‘Europe does too much’, ‘Europe interferes’, and Europe’s ‘self-regarding institutions’) crept into the rather cackhanded interventions of leading non-UK politicians either in Brussels or Berlin. If the presidents of EU institutions and leading members of strongly European governments cannot be more supportive of the project than this then one can hardly be surprised at the absence of British cheerleaders.

In the end, the Leave side was puffed up with self-belief and conviction: the Remain side was too often technical not emotional, insipid in its expression and almost utterly defensive. Leave lost the argument but won the campaign which in the end is what matters.

Where Now?

The pressure is now on the UK government to start the Article 50 process as soon as possible. It needs to be explained to London that the unnecessary referendum and the aftermath already promise being for at least two years an extreme distraction from pressing EU business. Prolonging the process with all the attendant uncertainty will just add to the harm perpetrated wilfully by UK politicians to the conduct of EU business. If the GDP of the UK suffers from Brexit, so may the fragile recoveries in some other EU member states. And now the EU is expected to twiddle its thumbs awaiting the outcome of the Conservative party leadership before tackling these issues? This will further poison future negotiations. So a little humility from the British Prime Minister whenever he meets his colleagues from the EU, a little less of his customary insouciant superbity, might contribute to a slight improvement in the climate.

In any case, much of the Article 50 negotiations will have an important technical aspect - not so for the other negotiations required for an EU/UK trading or association arrangement which will be highly political and which will require the UK first to decide what it wants and then level with its partners about what price it would be prepared to pay to gain full or nearly full market access to the internal market: eg free movement; budgetary contribution, acceptance of the acquis. It is at this point that the pack of lies perpetrated by the Leave campaign will finally collapse. If the UK wishes to avoid the relationship being downgraded to that of  any  old third country (WTO rules, tariffs etc.) then the key elements of the Leave offer and which constituted the gravamen boosting its appeal – taking back full control over immigration and  market rules, as well as the Brexit ‘budgetary dividend’ -  will fail to materialise. Already the Leave campaign leaders - those who have not yet taken to the hills - are busy jettisoning their promises.

So the 27 are right to want to accelerate the process but should not make a fetish of the date for sending of ‘the letter’: equally, the UK should understand why their future ex-partners want to move rapidly. Both sides should permit technical work to start and the UK must rapidly define its negotiating stance with a clear statement as to what it actually wants. 

What should we the pro-Europeans be doing?

We lost, and I believe we have to come to terms with this. A second referendum to be held simply because the result was close is now sought by a petition which has attracted around four million signatures making a fair polemical point which may be useful in the ongoing debate.  But the referendum law made no reference to quorums.

It is true that many people who supported Brexit now appear as aghast at the outcome as those who voted to remain. The full extent of the almost limitless complications in extracting the UK from the EU after 43 years of membership is dawning on people who also have had a foretaste of the chaos which is beginning to descend on the markets with the economic and financial consequences starting to be felt by business, financial services and employers. With the first rapid downgrade in the UK credit ratings, fluctuations in interest and mortgage rates further down the track are looking inevitable. And price rises will follow the devaluation of the pound which continues its plummeting of new depths.

But the referendum will stand unless the Courts were to overthrow it and rightly there is a reluctance in the judiciary about intervening. The pro-EU majority in the House of Commons will give a Brexit government a rough time and so it should. But holding a referendum and ignoring the outcome may have worked in the particular economic circumstances in Greece. It would be incendiary in the UK. Any attempt to use the current anti-Brexit majority in the House of Commons to thwart the referendum outcome would be a disastrous error which could lead to the ugliest of division and make the European cause even less popular.

Of course were a political party at the next election to campaign clearly and unambiguously to override the referendum result, and were that party to gain a mandate, that would be a more solid basis for remaining. But it would be a brave party which took this route – the Liberal Democrats have done so but, frankly, ‘so what’? Labour, the only pro-European party in with a shout of winning the election, faces an acute problem in its heartlands where traditional supporters believe that it has stopped listening to its concerns. And in the next few months Labour will in any case be too busy tearing itself apart over the leadership. On balance a second referendum remains highly problematic and hence improbable.

No, the result will stand. During the negotiations the pro-Europeans should be pressing for the closest possible form of cooperation with the EU short of membership, and one which is most likely to protect jobs and living standards in this country. We have to make the best of a very bad job. We must avoid ‘la politique du pire’.

During the long period between now and the actual exit of the UK, it is vital that the progressive internationalist forces in our parties and in civil society continue and indeed strengthen our involvement in European structures – the European political parties, foundations and in civil society. This relationship should be set at the highest level compatible with our new status. The orderly exit from the Parliament and the other institutions, probably to coincide with the 2019 elections, should not cut off our politicians from the debate about Europe’s future. Labour in particular which has often been so half-hearted in its involvement in the activities of the European party should now give some substance to the idea mooted in the campaign of working more with other progressives for real reform in Europe.

And the period ahead should give the EU a possibility to address the most pressing issues; the failure to do so, and the general sense of drift in the EU, contributed mightily to widespread disillusion with the European project among Europeans. From this point of view, the timing of the referendum could hardly have been worse, coming in the midst of the great humanitarian refugee crisis where Europe through internal division and lack of solidarity cut a pitiful figure; linked to this, the scrappy agreements with Turkey creating the illusion that Turkey’s membership could be accelerated, with its citizens gaining free movement rights almost overnight thus allowing the Leave campaign to brandish the threat of 75 million Turkish Muslims knocking on Britain’s door (bringing with them any number of terrorist operatives ready to strike); and at the tail end of the Greek bailout crisis where, in the name of austerity, the European institutions seemed insensitive to the hardship and misery inflicted on Greece and on others, making for many the EU synonymous with mass unemployment and welfare cuts.

My friend and colleague Philippe Deschoutheete has, in a piece for Euractiv, outlined some practical measures the EU now needs to take to show that its capacity for action must not necessarily be impaired by Brexit. This is not a moment for grand designs and constitutional change, for which there is no consensus. But were member states and Germany in particular to agree that where unemployment is high austerity measures be softened, and on an expansionist policy domestically, this would do far more to show people throughout Europe that the EU is open for business than any institutional tinkering.

Is this all the British pro-Europeans can hope and do now?

Do we have to draw a line under the UK’s involvement in the process of European integration? Does the proud and noble tradition of British pro-Europeanism dating back seventy years or more just come judderingly to a halt to be respectfully remembered but discontinued? Has Britain become somehow less of a European country? Has it moved, towed out to the mid-Atlantic by some  UKIP swashbucklers with piratical midshipman Farage at the helm? Is Britain no longer culturally, historically, socially part of Europe? As another friend, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, put it, ‘L’Europe sans Shakespeare, je souffre’. 

So if we are forever a European country and if we believe our destiny and our way of life and our capacity to exert any influence in the world are all inextricably linked with the survival and success of the European Union, and if we do not wish to betray the proud internationalist heritage of statesmen and many others who had a clear European vision for our country, then that means affirming loud and clear that June 23rd is not the last word in the final chapter of our European story.

It means climbing a new mountain, undertaking a Long March - possibly for a generation - but with the clearest objective, returning the UK to its rightful place at the heart of the European project.

This will of course have to be on a new basis. We could not begin to hope to persuade our partners to reopen this discussion if we come to the table with our opt outs already prepared, our red lines already listed. No, if the UK were ever after this Long March to apply for membership, it would only make sense and would only be acceptable were it to involve full participation in all the policies, activities and structures of the Union as they would then exist

The immediate task for the pro-Europeans is to build and to organise.

Paradoxically the electro-shock of the defeat could galvanise people into action, particularly those young supporters of the EU who feel their future has been stolen. Just as the SNP recruited so many members after the referendum defeat in 2014, there is now a small window of opportunity to recruit to and to fund the pro-European organisations. Those organisations need to be rejuvenated for the exacting tasks ahead. They must be organised in every town and region. That ‘override’ petition with four million signatures (and email addresses) is a marvellous tool for future recruitments. And, if there are to be future national campaigns, we have important lessons to learn from this referendum. It isn’t just the economy, stupid. You have to address wider concerns and above all rekindle some enthusiasm for the idea of Europe, and cease to be ashamed of the notion of political union. And the structures themselves must be led by figures more representative, more convincing and more inspiring than superannuated businessmen and think tank policy wonks.   

No one believes that public opinion can be decisively turned round quickly. But that does not mean giving up on our hope and vision for Britain’s future. The dream of a successful, confident Britain in a Europe which counts in the world and which can be the global agency for peace and development, ‘the greatest peace project in history’ is too powerful, too noble, too affirmative for us to allow it to shrivel and die.    

Julian Priestley


Sir Julian Priestley was Secretary General of the European Parliament from 1997 to 2007. In 2013 he founded Pro Europa, a Brussels based organisation committed to Britain being at the heart of the EU. Since retiring he has written and commented on European politics. His latest book, ‘Putsch’ is a political thriller set in a world of party upheaval and crisis and almost eerily writes some of the script for the present mayhem.

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  • Honni soit qui mal y pense. Béni soit qui bien le panse !