Wednesday 9 January 2013

What have we ever done for the Romans?

The prospect of a referendum on British membership of the European Union, in itself, does not fill me with trepidation. With the right campaign, the case for staying in can be won.

The fear is that the same sort of people who ballsed-up the AV referendum will be put in charge of the campaign.

EurActiv reports that both sides are already limbering up for a campaign and that both plan “to woo the country’s biggest swing demographic: those aged between 18 and 44” (although EurActiv’s description of such campaigns as “youth-focused” is rather generous to thirty- and forty-somethings).

This seems a bizarre strategy for UKIP and the ‘out’ campaign. A referendum will have a turnout no higher than about 30% (unless it is held on the same day as a general election, which is unlikely), so the result will hinge on differential turnout. The ‘out’ campaign has a built-in advantage because support for UKIP – and for euroscepticism in general – comes mainly from older voters, who turn out more reliably than younger voters.

If the ‘in’ campaign’s strategy is to woo younger voters, there is always a risk of the ‘dad at the disco’ syndrome. The idea that Sir Richard Branson would make the campaign look ‘hip’ is a case in point.

There has not been an effective pro-EU campaign in Britain since the 1975 referendum. Pro-European opinion has tended to rest on its laurels. When Europhiles do get off their backsides, they usually present their case in abstract or dry constitutional terms. Most people outside the political elite cannot relate to such arguments.

Even when the discussion turns to concrete benefits, the arguments are mainly of the ‘what the EU does for you’ variety. Well, yes, the EU does promote jobs and trade. But to achieve a more effective campaign, why not turn this argument on its head and ask what you can do for the EU?

To understand what this would mean, begin by asking yourself what you most admire about other EU countries. What sort of things make cultural and commercial exchanges so enriching? The chances are that these are things of quality, which are also a unique expression of those countries’ cultures. Belgium? Chocolate. Denmark? The Killing and Borgen. Spain? Rioja. Germany? Mercedes. Poland? Reliable plumbers.

Now think about similar British things that other Europeans might admire and want (and which have nothing to do with stereotypical images of bowler hats and red double-decker buses).

Fortunately, a recent trend has provided many such things for Britain to offer its European neighbours. Over the past decade, there has been a renewal of pride in local identity, and a revival of interest in local heritage and craftsmanship. The shame in Britishness and especially Englishness that was fashionable in the right-on era of the 1980s has been ditched. Last year’s Olympic opening ceremony marked the point when the British finally kicked the habit of national self-flagellation. Instead, they are celebrating their local cultures – in particular, there has been a boom throughout the country in locally-produced food and drink.

A pro-European referendum campaign that presented the EU as a bigger stage on which British people can promote themselves and their local cultures would be much more effective than dreary talk of treaties and constitutions. For example, British supermarkets sell French cheese, Italian ham, German sausages and Spanish wine. Imagine a campaign that aimed to stock supermarkets elsewhere in the EU with English ales and ciders, Bury black puddings, Lincolnshire sausages, Cornish clotted cream, Welsh lamb and Scottish beef. Imagine a campaign that aimed to force shops in France and Spain to declare how much of their fresh seafood actually comes from Cornwall or the Hebrides. Imagine a campaign that aimed to make a fish and chip shop as common a sight in Italy as a takeaway pizza joint is in Britain.

It’s not just about food and drink. Imagine a campaign that aimed to help young British people pursue careers elsewhere in the EU. Imagine a campaign that aimed to sell more effectively our tourist attractions to other Europeans. Imagine a campaign that aimed to make BBC TV and radio programmes more easily available throughout the EU.

A ‘what you can do in Europe’ campaign would be more ‘real’ for most people than a traditional campaign. It would also involve more people because it is about enabling anyone with pride in something, and because so many local interests have something they want to brag about.

And the real beauty of such a campaign is the way it would put Euroscepticism on the back foot. Euroscepticism starts from the assumption that local identities and the EU are incompatible and therefore antagonistic. This campaign would redefine that relationship as symbiotic. Conversely, Euroscepticism would be redefined as a force that limits the scope of local identities and prevents them taking wing.

But if we seriously want to win this referendum, before we do anything else, we must first make sure that no one puts the usual tossers in charge of the campaign.

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