Changing approaches to European Integration: a view from Salisbury

Salisbury Cathedral – Source: Visit Hampshire

For some light holiday reading I purchased the Guardian on Saturday and the Observer on Sunday after Christmas.  I found it cathartic to move away from the epidemic towards something equally depressing.  I should first vent my frustration because I feel the present tricky position is relevant to all our futures. But don’t worry dear friends, I do not plan to re-visit oven-ready deals, sunlit uplands or even the technologies we are told will allow free and easy passage of goods across borders.

As a proud Brit I am invited to feel good about my new relationship with my neighbours, ready to unite with former adversaries who fell for stories or created antagonisms since before 2016. After all, it is refreshing to realise that now we are cut loose from the shackles of the EU and bankrupt Britain can at last seek to ‘level up opportunities’ for all?  As I sign up for Johnson’s Conservative vision of Little England (I cannot speak for the other nations), I even suspend my schadenfreude as Radio 4’s Nick Robinson grilled (or better kippered?) Michael Gove by commenting on the upset conveyed by Barrie Deas, Chief Executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, around dumping his industry. I remember, as a Remain Campaigner, being barracked about the fishing industry that so complicitly become an icon for Brexit.  It is, after all a miniscule part of the economy and arguably unsustainable.  Ironic that our government has treated it like a sacrificial lamb or should that be mackerel!

The real trouble is that larger and more essential industries are not facing anything like certainty. We now talk of real transaction costs for certain goods to comply with new regulation. Brexiteers never became so worried about (for example) agriculture or vehicle manufacture. The issue is now that we are ‘rule takers’ rather than ‘rule makers’. Britain is no longer sitting at the top table in policy making. Other problems lie in wait for recognition of qualifications gained in the UK, exit from the Erasmus scheme which enabled students to study in EU states (and vice versa) and much, much more. None is good, most is vague and all is worrying.

But what about future campaigning?

Last March Salisbury for Europe (S4E) circulated the outcome of a consultation process with its supporters. I can confirm our supporter numbers have remained healthy, and keeping the flame alive’ was the emergent theme. Personally speaking, I was weary of acting like a would-be MP using the kinds of methods that might have got a political party elected. The pro-European movement first lost the Referendum, then the option of a People’s Vote. Johnson’s regime was then shoe-horned into office on ‘get Brexit done’. S4E needs a new approach and we might keep arguments around re-joining the EU at arm’s length. Instead, we promote what is positive about Europe. The many good things about the EU such as a right to study and work in other member states will disproportionately hit the younger UK citizens. At a stroke, the character-forming opportunities of Erasmus are removed from so many young people. Johnson and his regime have hit at hopes and aspirations and lowered horizons.

We need to inform and educate the British public. We need to hold politicians to account. We need to support and value the EU citizens resident in UK. But most of all we need to exert soft influence to promote Europe positively. We must build on existing arrangements including ‘twinning’, educational exchanges and facilitating visits to Brussels to see how the EU works. With various professionals including educators and publicity experts in our frame, we would hope to attract speakers of national importance once more, such as A.C. Grayling, Dominic Grieve and Andrew Adonis among others, who have spoken to S4E previously.  Hard as it has been in this Conservative stronghold, S4E has always sought to hold our politicians to account. Our MPs have a duty to represent all their constituents – at least in theory.

S4E has agreed an alliance with some of Wiltshire’s pro-European groups such as Swindon, Devizes, and West Wilts so that we can build campaign strength whilst retaining local representation. Nationally I would suggest that over the coming months there will be an urgent need for a collective approach to emerge to represent the pro-European groups that exist across the country. What does the shape of such a progressive alliance look like? Without effective national standard bearers is it possible to provide a dynamic campaigning framework for the activities of the pro-European movement?

The concept of the Overton Window is used to describe the range of ideas that voters find acceptable. Some claim that introducing an unacceptable idea can be used to make your desired idea more acceptable. Brexit and Trump used this to good effect. We should now campaign that the reality of Brexit is an unacceptable idea, in order to make the idea of Europe more acceptable again.

Ed: Hadrian Cook serves on the Salisbury for Europe Executive Committee