Trying to understand why nothing bloody works

RSS

Why you haven't heard of the five most important (only) pro-European movements

They punch… well, they pretty much punch their weight.

Danny Alexander, the star of our story. Photograph: Getty Images

I’m pro-European. I very much want to make that clear. 

I don't just mean in this article: it's something I increasingly want to make clear all the time. When I'm talking about politics; when I'm discussing my holidays; when someone tells me it's my round – whatever the topic, I find myself compelled to tell people that, I know it's flawed, I know it's imperfect, but yes, I remain committed to the rather unlovely continental bureaucracy hanging around at the far end of the Eurostar. 

The reason I'm beset by this urge to tell all and sundry that I'm pro-European is simple: no one else seems to share it. You can't throw a stone in Westminster without hitting a dozen people who'll lecture you on the Norwegian model or the fact the European Parliament costs us a million zillion quid per day. But vocally pro-Europeans – those willing to say, out loud, that there might be benefits in not pissing off our neighbours and abandoning the world's largest free trade zone – are in distinctly short-supply. 

1. Britain in Europe

Twas not always thus: 1999 saw the launch of the non-partisan Britain in Europe (BE) campaign, intended to improve Brussels' image in the UK. Its supporters included such big hitters as Tony Blair, Kenneth Clarke and Charles Kennedy; its head of communications was one Danny Alexander. 

BE's initial purpose was to make the case for the single currency. But that, it swiftly became clear, was a non-starter, so after a couple of years it instead moved to focus on getting a 'Yes' vote in the referendum on the EU constitution. Once the French and the Dutch had killed that, BE wasn't fighting for anything in particular. So in 2005 it was wound up. Google 'Britain in Europe' now, and you'll find this site, which promises you the facts without bias, but also includes the disarming admission that "The factuality of the information is not guaranteed". This seems to sum up the entire debate.

2. European Movement UK

There are other groups purporting to speak for Europe, but all are so titchy as to be little more than flies buzzing round Farage's head. There’s the European Movement UK, which is part of a continent-wide pressure group and which calls, uniquely, for greater integration. It promises to brief journalists, correct mistakes and counter anti-European bias.

But if it's had any success in this job, it's keeping it quiet: most of what little press coverage it's received was concerned with the fact that Danny Alexander used to work there, too. Its Twitter followers number fewer than 1,500, which is diddly squat in social media terms, but those who do follow are in for treats such as stock images of Euro-fans, explaining what the EU means to them. For some its travel opportunities; for others, environmental cooperation. For Daniel and Christine and their baby Hector, meanwhile, it's the fact that "EU Judicial and policing co-operation helps fight international organised crime", which is quite an advanced political position for a toddler to articulate, I think you’ll agree.

3. Centre for European Reform

The other pro-European think tanks are not only small, they're also not that pro-European. The Centre for European Reform, for example (followers: 3261) writes comment pieces in the FT, the Guardian, and so on. But it positions itself as Atlanticist, facing Washington as much as Brussels, and while it says it "regards European integration as largely beneficial", it also recognises that "in many respects the Union does not work well". No help there, then.

4. Open Europe

More successful, but more tepid, is Open Europe. It's by far the best at making its voice heard, garnering frequent press coverage and a whopping 19,300 followers. It started life, vexingly, as the campaign against the 2004 European constitution. Today it claims to back Europe, and has the highly cosmopolitan staff roster to prove it – but true to its roots it wants a different Europe, one that emphasises free trade and the nation state.

It wants, in other words, a Europe that does the bits the British like, but none of the nonsense we don't. This might explain why its backers include such prominent right-wingers as Ruth Lea, Maurice Saatchi and Kirstie Allsop – and, as so often happens when the Tories talk about Europe, it ends up satisfying nobody. To the pro-Europeans Open Europe is just a cover for exiting via the back door ("insidious", Peter Mandelson calls it); while to the sceptics, a campaign for a Europe that isn't on offer amounts to little more than a promise of a free unicorn for every supporter.

5. British Influence

Last January, a cross party group of pro-Europeans (Mandelson, Clarke, Lord Rennard) decided it was finally time to resurrect BE to counter UKIP's lies. British Influence describes itself as "more than another think tank", and promises to be the "go to source for journalists and policy makers who want to hear a more balanced side of the debate". 

How successful it's been is difficult to judge – like all these think tanks, it’s cleverly chosen a name that's almost un-Googleable. Despite being four months old, its Twitter following is already twice the size of the European Movement's, and it did somehow persuade the Telegraph to run a pro-European comment piece written by Lord Mandelson. But the only person who seems to have treated it as any sort of a force is a writer at the right-wing website the Commentator, who angrily suggested that Clarke's involvement should be enough to get him sacked.

Two conclusions present themselves from all this. One is that those pro-European pressure groups that exist are entirely reactive. They're not making the case for Europe, they're just waiting for Nigel Farage to open his mouth so they can blurt out, "Isn't!" Perhaps the British press makes it hard to be otherwise, but there's little sense that anyone's even trying.

The other is how unenthused even our pro-Europeans are about Europe. This may be because it's hard to shout "Bureaucracy! Yay!" with a straight face, but nonetheless it has consequences. As it stands the Overton Window – the range of policies and views seen as acceptable to the public – clearly leans towards scepticism. The result has been that the Eurosceptics are out and proud, while the pro-lobby are nervous and cowering.

But this process is self-reinforcing. The more Eurosceptic the public seem, the more timid the pro-lobby has become, the less likely people are to hear their arguments – and the closer to the exit the mainstream of thought has moved.

The only way to change all this is for the pro lobby to be as loudly, cheerfully, brazenly pro-European as UKIP is Eurosceptic. They might not make many friends that way at first. They might not even feel like it. But the less we hear of the case for Europe, the harder it becomes to make. Someone should make it, before it's too late.