The closing space for pro-EU arguments

A couple of pieces this week have brought me to consider how difficult the non-sceptic side of the EU debate has become in theUK.

My rather awkward choice of ‘non-sceptic’ is used advisedly, following Jon Worth’s line about the pointlessness of being ‘pro-European’. As I have discussed before, there is no one euroscepticism, but rather than scepticisms, and Worth rightly points out the same is true of non-sceptic positions, to the point that scepticism itself is not necessarily the key cleavage or dimension.

See as such, the debate shouldn’t (and isn’t, albeit to a lesser extent) about ‘more’ or ‘less’ Europe, but about what kind ofEuropeone wants.

It was thus with some trepidation that I read the piece by Julian Priestley in The Guardian. Priestley’s argument is that Labour should rule out a referendum on the EU, because the Tories’ offer of one is opportunistic, that people don’t really care about the EU in any case, and that even if won it probably wouldn’t change again in any case.

While I can sympathise with the final point – especially given that any renegotiation is unlikely to produce any substantial change in UK-EU relations – Priestley’s piece comes across almost as a parody of the attitude that anti-EU voices have been able to exploit for many years now: in the lovely German phrase, a Besserwisser.

A focus on a referendum has never been the right one in my view. That’s not because I think people shouldn’t have a voice, but rather because I don’t think it’s the best way for them to have a voice.

As political rhetoric, it is a wonderful stick with which to beat opponents and with which to challenge the weight of the status quo. As political action, it’s at best an imperfect tool and at worst a dangerously reassuring device.

If non-sceptics are to gain any traction in the debate, they need to refocus their efforts on to substance, not process. This means a constructive engagement with specific issues of policy and standing mechanisms of participation and accountability; it means an informed debate with the electorate about how politics works and the compromises it implies and requires. It also requires a problem-solving attitude, rather than a blame-apportioning one: it would be both churlish and counterproductive to deny that the EU needs work to minimise its failings and strengthen its benefits.

This might seem to be whistling in the wind, but in a context of declining trust in public institutions of all kinds, a little bit of honesty, reflection and nuance might be the best way to move the debate forward, whatever one believes.