This week, I travelled up to London, to Portcullis House, for the official launch of New Europeans. This group aims to give a voice to those EU citizens living in the UK, and to UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU. As the group’s chair, Roger Casale, noted, there are 2.5 million of the former group, and the debate about Britain’s future in the Union gives much cause for concern.
With speakers from the three largest parties in the Commons, plus a beautiful venue overlooking the Thames on a rare sunny evening, it was undoubtedly impressive. It also left me thinking about several aspects.
The first one was as to the specific objectives of the group. Here there seem to be three main options, which could in turn be combined. The first is one of awareness-raising, both for the EU citizens and for British citizens, to remind everyone of their existence and their (potential) common interests. The second is that of more active lobbying of politicians, to secure a voice and (in a later step) a vote; the presence of of the Let Me Vote ECI was intentional in offering this as a possibility. The third is the more narrow issue of any future referendum on British EU membership, both in terms of its outcome and its process (could EU citizens be allowed to vote? how about overseas Brits?).
In fairness to New Europeans, they did not offer an answer to this, precisely because they want to reflect the needs and interests of those they aim to represent. It clearly also depends on the political landscape in the coming years.
The second big impression was about the framing of eurosceptics. As much as it was a cross-party affair, with parliamentarians speaking generously of each other and of Britain’s common interest in EU membership, UKIP was seen as beyond the pale (which I assume they can live with). For me, it was interesting to see that the dominant frame was the classic one of sceptics living in the past, fanatical and unreasoning in their opposition, and a minority. Personally, I see such a frame as ultimately counter-productive (if understandable): as the mere existence of the group demonstrates, sceptics might be a minority, but they are one that needs a response, and simply to rubbish them doesn’t strike me as a good way of winning people over. We could have a little detour here in the merits or otherwise of negative campaigning, but readers of my posts will know that I tend towards creating positive messages as a stronger strategy.
Again, much of this was air-clearing, rather than statements of intent and having talked with some of the group’s founders I know that they see the need for constructive engagement instead of mud-slinging.
The final impression was one of needing to tap into something more visceral. Just as sceptics have their sense of righteousness behind them, to carry them through the difficult times, so too does this group need to find itself. It was particularly striking to hear from from people who have lived in the UK for many years, who have evidently assimilated ‘British’ values of tolerance and fair play, who spoke of the sense of hatred that they feel, be it in the print press or in general conversation. Perhaps this offers a way forward, by showing the wider British public that non-UK citizens are part of the community and not a threat to it. Given that the UK already allows Irish, Maltese and Cypriot voters to vote in general elections, it is such a big step to open that to other countries with whom we have lived in peace for the past 70 years?