Friday, February 04, 2005

Can the referendum be won?

A "yes" campaign perspective

In a paper shortly to be published in Nowa Europa (European Center Natolin in Warsaw), Kirsty Hughes, Associate Fellow, Birkbeck College, and Visiting Fellow, European Institute, London School of Economics, rehearses the background to the EU constitution and assesses whether it is possible for the "yes" campaign to win the referendum.

In 24 close-typed pages (available here), Hughes - as befits her Europhile background – believes a "yes" vote can be secured, but she does not exactly exude optimism. Rather, she says, "the answer has to be that a 'yes' vote can be achieved", a phrasing that suggests desperation rather than confidence.

At the start of 2005, she writes, the "no" side looks confident, active and relatively well organised, while the "yes" side appears "to be in a certain disarray." It has yet to decide how strongly it wants to make the argument that a "no" vote is essentially a vote about staying in or leaving the EU and it has "no precise or agreed set of arguments".

Furthermore, the government is too keen to accept the sceptics' ground, with the campaign hampered by its determination to keep Europe off the political agenda until after the general election.

The ill-worked out and underfunded strategy by the "yes" side, she writes, does not look like a successful way to mount a sustained and far-reaching campaign to counter the scepticism, nationalism and ignorance that has pervaded the British EU debate for so many years.

In order to win, she then asserts, "the arguments for Europe need to start now" with "a major, sustained, determined and confident plan of action".

The problem, she sees, is that there is "little understanding or factual discussion of what the EU does, how it does it and what the benefits have been, or could be argued to be, let alone of what it might or could do in the future."

That ignorance gives the "yes" side the chance to change opinion in part through getting out the facts of how the EU actually operates. But, she concedes, it also presents a major hurdle as the "no" side can exploit the public’s ignorance to present falsehoods.

Nevertheless, she is pessimistic about the government or the main "yes" campaign making a positive, upbeat dynamic case for the achievements of the EU. Thus, the chances of winning the referendum with only a defensive line on what the constitution does, together with some more or less explicitly made argument that a "no" vote could leave the UK on the sidelines or out of the EU altogether, "look slight." She continues:

If the government… aims to deny or ignore the political nature of the EU, the shared sovereignty it contains, the desire of many member states for more political integration… or even the fact that the constitution is not the end of the process but may well be changed again in ten years or so, then not only will this be contested by the "no" side but also by many on the UK "yes" side and by comments and campaigns elsewhere in the EU.
Furthermore, she adds, playing to public fears, such as loss of sovereignty, by insisting on the EU as a pure union of member states is not accurate and will backfire:

Presenting the EU as if it were a purely "European UN" type of body with governments cooperating voluntarily where they choose, with no acknowledgement or explanation for example of the vital – and quasi-governmental – powers of the Commission and its sole right of initiative in putting draft laws forward to the member states in the Council – is misleading and so inevitably unhelpful.
The answer, according to Hughes, is that the EU needs to be presented as a modern, progressive force in the world, a broad success story – promoting peace, prosperity and democracy, and a tool for positive, collaborative action on joint international challenges in the future.

With that, "a strong confident lead from all government ministers and from all pro-European backbench MPs – talking about Europe in positive, confident terms" could start to transform the situation.

If Labour started to do this, the Liberal-Democrats and pro-European Tories would have some clear reasons to follow suit. Thus, the "yes" side must not only inform – it needs to enthuse, to inspire, to persuade and to engage people. This cannot be done on the basis of defensive arguments about the limits to EU powers.

For all this to happen, she argues, would require a sea-change in UK politics. It would require the government to move strongly onto the front foot and away from its defensive "us versus them" EU arguments. "Without such a sea-change", she adds, "the prospects for a 'yes' are slight."

Altogether, if this paper is to be taken as a guide, the "yes" side is extremely pessimistic. But, as they say, the game is not over until the fat lady sings. And, in the paper also are some of the song sheets she will use. It is worth a read.

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