Monday, 12 December 2011

The Lib Dems are the real Eurosceptics.

Ever since the UK's disastrous bungling of the EU negotiations, I've been reading about the 'Eurosceptics' and getting steadily more annoyed. Because our framing of the debate between 'eurosceptics' and 'europhiles' plays into the hands of the anti-Europeans.

You see, 'Europhiles' implies some kind of starry-eyed love affair, far removed from daily reality, a borderline obsession, and an uncritical view. It has an unctuous, slippery feel to it, and implies being somehow craven to some outer force.

'Euroscepticism', on the other hand, implies intelligent criticism. A willingness to interrogate the facts, and draw sensible, considered conclusions - and accept the positives of Europe when appropriate. To use a phrase that has become popular in Lib Dem circles when discussing the coalition, it implies being a 'critical friend'.

But that's not what the Tory right are like at all. Their opposition to the EU isn't considered and evidence-based. It's instinctive, knee-jerk and borderline hysterical. They don't acknowledge it's positives - they seek to identify flaws and paint them as the project's whole. Their attitude, not only to the EU but to the concept of Europe as a whole, is one of contempt. It's a relationship of fear and hatred rather than scepticism, and we should call it that - Europhobia.

Because after all, labels matter. Time and again, as a proud pro-European, I have been asked whether I support the transfer of wealth to the Duke of Westminster. Of course not, I say. How about the lack of democratic accountability? No, I'm a Liberal, of course I believe in democracy. How about the waste of having two seats? Don't be ridiculous. But how can you criticise all that, and say you believe in Europe?

As any pro-European knows, the answer is that being pro-European doesn't involve ignoring or whitewashing the EU's flaws. It means seeing yourself as part of Europe, both as an identifier and as a political construct, and commitment to making the EU work. But it also carries a responsibility to identify the EU's problems, and seek to change them - because what's the point in believing in an institution if you don't see it as it is and seek to improve it. In other words, it implies being sceptical.

So the way I see it, we pro-Europeans are the real Eurosceptics, and the Tory right that are celebrating this week are Europhobes, as blinded by their own prejudice as they imply the 'Europhiles' they so deride to be. And we need to reclaim this ground. Opinion polls show that EU reform is popular - more popular than withdrawal. Most people in Britain are Eurosceptic - not Europhobes - and by painting ourselves in this way, we show that we understand their concerns and can represent them better than Little Englander Conservatism. But if we allow the Tories to dictate the terms of the debate, they will be drawn between withdrawal on the one hand, and slavish adherance to the EU in its current form on the other - and we will lose.

If there's one thing we learned from the AV referendum, let it be this - it's the side that is most ruthless in determining the debate that wins. For years, pro-Europeans have allowed the Europhobes to claim that they represent the sceptical majority. It's time to challenge that - stop being apologists for Europe, and use this disaster to move forward.

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