In or out? With or without? Will they, won’t they? The sound and fury over a referendum on Britain’s EU membership has become almost deafening over the past few days. The debate has been confused and driven by a small and virulent band of anti-Europeans. Their success lies in a dual strategy of shackling the issue to others of much wider public concern, such as immigration, while simultaneously blackmailing one of Britain’s traditionally pro-European parties (the Conservatives) into adopting ever more anti-European positions.
Around Europe, the ‘British question’ is also furrowing brows – though the question on most of the rest of the world’s lips has been why on earth we would want to leave in the first place. Ireland’s Taoiseach made clear that “Britain benefits from its membership of the EU, and the EU is better off with Britain.” President Obama politely advised Brits that “you probably want to see if you can fix what's broken in a very important relationship before you break it.” And Le Monde pithily summed up Continental confusion at Britain’s self-destructive narcissism:
“We know originality is part of British DNA, the English in particular. But to push this delightful character trait to the point of leaving the EU would be a step which is hard to comprehend. For a very simple reason: Europe is British. … Ever since joining, Britain has shaped the EU with its own hand. … In today’s EU, power is in the hands of nation states. Westminster has less reason than ever to fear a European super-state which exists only in the gin-soaked nightmares of Tory MPs.”
The tragedy of Britain’s referendum debate – apart from its questionable quality – is that it is a sideshow to the real questions being debated in the EU. How do we boost growth in post-austerity Europe? How can Britain guarantee full access to the Single Market outside an economic union? And are current democratic checks and balances sufficient, or do we need a rethink? These are the questions we should be discussing and on which we should be engaging with our partners.
In precisely one year’s time, Brits will get the chance to vote in a national election on their future in Europe, in the next European Parliament elections on 22 May 2014. Everyone gets a vote, and every vote counts. But in this vote they will have to chance to address the substance of these questions – and have a direct say in how Europe works. Our MEPs are our voice in Europe: over consumer safety, animal welfare, aid for the developing world and clean fuels. They have an equal say with national governments over EU legislation and the European budget.
Yet according to a recent study, 57% of people in the UK are unable to correctly identify that British Members of the European Parliament are directly elected by British voters. It is time to make people more aware. All pro-Europeans must do their bit to inform people that 1) the EU is a democracy, 2) they have a direct voice in how decisions are made, and 3) if they care about Europe, they should use their vote next May. The countdown to Britain’s real EU vote starts today.
Giles Goodall is a Liberal Democrat candidate for the European Parliament in South East England