The EU ?outers? must win hearts and minds in 2017
A Europe without Britain looks possible now, but the out campaign will need strong leadership, not Little Englanders at the helm
Michael Fabricant MP
A starting pistol has been fired by the outgoing president of the European commission, Jos? Manuel Barroso. His strongly expressed views this week have put fire into the bellies of many Eurosceptics, and the demand for an in-out referendum will now grow ever more strident. But would a vote in 2015 yield the result that Eurosceptics, including me, so want?
It is now almost inevitable that a simple in-out referendum will be held on our continued membership of the EU. David Cameron?s commitment to hold one in 2017 will have to be replicated by other parties (though they haven?t done so yet) through the pressure of public opinion and the reality of a changing Europe under Jean-Claude Juncker.
Almost immediately, off the back of the Scottish independence referendum, we could be on the eve of another such campaign. For seven years I have helped run byelection campaigns for the Conservative party, and I do not believe that an out vote could be won right now.
Imagine the campaign. The polls ? as they currently are ? hint at a knife-edge vote. Business leaders, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, some Conservatives and the European Union itself, along with heads of state and prime ministers, will warn Britain that it would be worse off out. The in campaign will be run by a consensual, passionate businessperson or statesman. They will offer guarantees of reform and their campaign will be showered with money ? some of it from the EU ? and use slick advertising.
The out team will be very different, with no leader who commands popular support. Before you can even make the case for Britain becoming a mid-Atlantic economic hub, freed from the shackles of Brussels diktats, the Eurosceptics will be all over the place. No clear leader, and angry looking grey men who have been arguing the toss on Europe for years, will fail to impress. Yes, Nigel Farage is clearly the most charismatic Eurosceptic in years, but does anyone really imagine Farage being the Alex Salmond of the out campaign? Would he be persuasive enough to seduce a nation?
It couldn?t be a Conservative MP because Ukip wouldn?t buy in; nor, for that matter, would the Eurosceptic left ? remember, the late Bob Crow was an ?outer? too. The campaign could only be won if a credible and different type of head could be found. I have no doubt that the argument can be won, but perceptions are crucial, and credibility more so when shaping our future.
When the SNP won their election in 2011, the Scottish referendum campaign had been long in the planning. It was clear that Salmond and his deputy had the credibility to lead a very strong, and uniting, positive campaign.
Both the Scottish and the 2011 AV campaign need to be scrutinised carefully by Eurosceptics. May 2017 is not very far away and the bulk of the Europe-out campaign could not be more split. Those who want to leave the EU need to think carefully about how a campaign is crafted, how it may be led and by whom. And for businesses, Scotland was almost a rehearsal of how they could use their sway in shaping public opinion.
The timing of the referendum is key. The outers need time in spades: first to prepare an effective and united campaign, and second to allow time for the electorate to see that negotiations with Europe were exhaustive and that no more options were explorable. Ukip and others who demand a referendum in 2015 are naive: they would not get the result they wish for.
The nature of the campaign will, of course, depend on David Cameron?s success at renegotiating Britain?s relationship with the EU. It?s not just immigration. Directives that may adversely affect the viability of the City of London, Britain?s industry and our everyday lives need also to be addressed. So it?s a tough call. But the UK is a major net contributor to the European budget, and a British exit could jeopardise the entire European project. This is not lost on Angela Merkel?s Germany which has had its own fair share of immigration and a disgruntled electorate.
Helmut Kohl and Fran?ois Mitterrand submitted to a British rebate all those years ago because they thought Margaret Thatcher was ?mad enough? to leave the EU. David Cameron will also have to deploy similar ?madness? and determination if he is to succeed. He has allies among some of the net contributors to the EU budget, but France and other nations remain implacably opposed to change, and are fast losing their patience with us.
And the success of the negotiations will be subjective. One politician?s success will be seen by another as failure. So the prospects of a united Conservative party ? or a united Labour party, come to that ? all campaigning for in or out are remote indeed.
But the game is now on. In the corridors of Berlin and Brussels, a Europe without Britain is looking possible ? although for those who advocate leaving the EU, the little Englander approach just won?t cut the Dijon mustard. Eurosceptics like me need to think carefully about how we craft the argument.
We should avoid negative, anti-European messages and xenophobia, and instead instil positive images of the sunlit uplands that will open to Britain as a prosperous global trading nation free from EU directives and dogma.
My Euroscepticism is born of economics, and the campaign will need to be anchored there. But as with the Scottish debate, the heart counts too. A simple ?numbers drone? won?t win over people who don?t understand every directive and detail, but who would be alarmed by the onslaught of scaremongering bound to come from European leaders and some in the business world.
Eurosceptics need someone to lead the campaign who can balance the philosophical issues of the heart with the tangible economic arguments. Until this can be done, I don?t hold out much hope for the out campaign.