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

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

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.

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

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.