Yesterday evening the Young Fabians hosted a round table as part of our Labour in the World Policy Commissions with Labour MEP for London Mary Honeyball. The meeting got a little stuck on the tactics of how Labour talks about Europe, rather than the political direction for Europe. Specifically, the question discussed was: how do pro Europeans make the case for EU membership in a net contributing EU member state?
There seems to be two approaches: the rational and the romantic.
Of the large net contributors to the EU budget, the French and Germans seem to fall on the romantic side, they hold a deep routed historical and ideological commitment to the European project following the aftermath of WW2. However the significant CAP and Structural Funds they share between them bend towards the rational. The Italians have the EU to thank for ridding them of the Lira, another rational argument. But what has Britain got to shout about? And will it be rational facts or romantic ideals that will work to make case for EU membership in any potential future vote on the matter?
During our period in government, departments successively made the case for Britain’s EU membership rationally and dispassionately, dealing with hard-headed facts. We spoke about trade, jobs, market access and a single set of market rules all meaning British companies and jobs are better off with Britain in, even if we pay more to the budget than we get back in hand outs (the rebate included). So our position in effect was (and largely still is) this: we pay more in, but without it, we’d be poorer. So in effect, EU membership is an indirect fiscal benefit to the Treasury and thus UK taxpayers.
So far so rational, but it’s not exactly going to send people rushing to the polling station to cast a yes in any prospective future referenda. So what is?
Do we need instead need to break the issue down to the emotive and evocative, using stories and images backed up by hard-headed facts?
The image that Europe, a continent that had been in conflict for centuries, has been at peace for over half a century is strong but it doesn’t seem as relevant today as in the last century. But twin that with the rational facts of our inter-dependent trade and we might just have a script.
So to tell a story evocatively, as well as dealing in rational facts, Labour should weave a narrative of Britain needing to stand on the world stage with others and not alone, needing to draw on the resources of others to forge a way forward, needing to help those in their greatest need and a Britain that looks outward not inward and to quote a phrase, looking forward not back.
Brian Duggan is Young Fabian Policy Officer.