Comment

Education wanted

John Peet / Dec 2023

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

A Labour government will need to do more to teach Britons about the realities of the European Union

Britain has seen two big changes in political opinion this year. One is that Labour has established a large poll lead, making it almost certain that it will win the election that will be held by the end of 2024. The other is a clear shift among voters to the view that Brexit was a mistake, suggesting that, were a referendum held today, Remain would win comfortably.

Despite this, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is being extremely cautious about Brexit. He has talked up the need to improve EU/UK relations; to expand the current trade agreement in such areas as mobility, mutual recognition and veterinary standards; and generally to “make Brexit work better.” But he also insists that Labour will not seek to overturn Brexit or to rejoin the EU’s single market.

This reflects a fear that being too overtly pro-EU might cost Labour votes. It is true that 80% of Leave voters from 2016 still believe they were right. But that means 20% have changed their minds.Those who did not vote in 2016 and those too young to vote then are overwhelmingly Remain backers. Would-be Labour voters are now strongly anti-Brexit. That may not imply an urgent wish to reopen a painfully divisive debate, but it means there is little risk that proposing closer relations with the EU will damage Labour.

So why did a majority back Brexit? There were clear short-term reasons, notably hostility to high immigration (making it ironic that the Conservatives have since presided over a near-tripling of the numbers). But Brexiteers also insist that Britain is inherently different from the rest of Europe in its history, geography and culture, that Britons are more attached to sovereignty and democracy, and that the country looks more to the world than to its own continent.

Yet such claims are unconvincing. With rare exceptions, Britain’s history and geography have revolved around the continent. Culturally and socially, Britain is more like the rest of Europe than, say, the United States. Other European nations such as the Scandinavians, the French and the Poles are as fierce about their democracy and sovereign identity. The British empire and the second world war briefly gave Britain a world role - but France also had such a role, while Germany and Italy have long been stronger in global trade.

The real roots of Britain’s antipathy to the European project lie elsewhere. One, going back to de Gaulle’s vetoes in the 1960s, is that its engagement has been so adversarial. When Britain eventually joined in 1973, the terms of entry, from farming to fishing to finance, were plainly disadvantageous. The early years were devoted to renegotiating them, culminating in Margaret Thatcher’s demand for “my money back”. This set a pattern in which governments of both parties treated the project as a zero-sum game in which the goal was always to defeat the other side.

The second is widespread ignorance about how the EU works. It is true that such ignorance is shared across Europe, but it seems deeper in Britain. Soon after 1973 institutions such as the civil service and judiciary quickly grasped the significance of membership and learnt how the Commission, Council, Parliament and Court of Justice operated. But most MPs and much of the media were far slower.

All EU members have their share of Eurosceptics, but British MPs and many newspapers have been almost unique in always portraying the EU as a bunch of unelected foreign bureaucrats imposing unwanted laws whom it would be beneficial to escape. A big contrast is with Denmark, which started in almost as Eurosceptic a mood as Britain. Danish MPs and citizens soon learnt about the European project through the Folketing, which set up tough control of the government’s actions in the Council. Denmark still has its opt-outs, including from the euro, but public opinion is now far more favourable to the EU.

There is an important lesson here for Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader. It is not enough merely to propose remedies for the obvious damage caused by Brexit. What is needed is a serious effort to show Britons, including their popular media, that working more closely with the EU and even, one day, considering rejoining its single market, would not merely boost the economy but would also not constitute a serious threat to democracy or sovereignty. If it did, countries like France, Denmark or Sweden would never be members. More than anything else, it was the long years of failure to explain any of this to voters that led to the Brexit decision in 2016.

 

 

John Peet

John Peet

December 2023

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