ON his arrival at the EU Summit in Brussels, David Cameron joked that at least he was on time after arriving 25 minutes late for a meeting with the president of the European Parliament earlier in the week. “My aeroplane was working today so I’m on time,” he said.
This reminds me of a joke doing the rounds in Brussels when I was first elected as a MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber in 1984: “How can you tell if an aircraft is British? Because it continues to whine after the engine’s switched off.”
The first lesson which Cameron has obviously learned during his prolonged odyssey around the EU capitals is the need to schmooze continental politicians, because Britain is often seen as stand-offish and arrogant – and we expect everyone to speak English.
However, in the coming weeks, it is going to be essential for him to continue to keep continental politicians on board as domestic pressure mounts on them from electorates who do not share – or understand – the economic and strategic imperatives for Europe’s strongest military power, and in many ways its most successful economy, to stay within the EU.
At the weekend, former French prime minister Michel Rocard grumbled that the “European project” could never be completed with Britain on board. This is a commonly-held view in the longstanding continental EU countries, but less so among ex-Soviet bloc politicians.
However, Jean-Claude Juncker – then prime minister of Luxembourg and who now heads the European Commission – rounded on MEPs criticising Britain and said “if Britain hadn’t been with us in 1940 we wouldn’t be free today”.
As the Remain and Leave campaigns open, my perspective stretches back to the 1975 referendum when I was a joint regional organiser for Keep Britain In. As one of the UK’s longest-serving MEPs I later served for four years as leader of the Conservative MEPs, while the party became increasingly anti-EU, first under William Hague, then under Iain Duncan Smith.
At that time, I sat on the Shadow Cabinet for EU questions, as well as the party’s board. So I know many of the key players, including David Cameron, whose 2009 split from the mainstream European People’s Party undermined his credibility – and led to my own departure from his party.
Today’s media will play a decisive role in shaping the debate but is far more diverse both in attitudes and structure than in 1975. Then there were a handful of radio and TV channels whereas now there are hundreds; then only the Morning Star and the Spectator opposed Britain remaining in, but now the print media are much more evenly split. The role of social media has exploded in recent years and knows no constraint, political or personal.
Today, largely thanks to the EU, low cost airlines carry Britons routinely to airports which have sprung up in every corner of the continent and its islands. There we have learned new cuisines and cultures.
However, the most fundamental difference in Europe between 1975 and today is the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the subsequent enlargement of the EU to embrace its emerging democracies. Our generation has had the happy task of creating the world’s largest Single Market within a democratic framework.
The roles of Nato and the EU in the fall of the Berlin Wall are often discussed, but their close relationship was foreseen in their earliest years. Today, they are stronger not just because they are both located in Brussels, but also because there is a plethora of working arrangements between them, such as a shared 24-hour situation room.
So while it is understandable that The Yorkshire Post has urged David Cameron and his supporters “if they are to win the referendum, their best chance surely depends on mounting a campaign based on hope rather than fear” [Editorial, February 22], the uncertainty of what the PM calls “a leap in the dark” must be part of the campaign.
There is no doubt that the fear factor contributed to Cameron’s winning the general election through the portrayal of Ed Miliband, untrusted on the economy, in the pockets of Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. Fear on the economy and use of the pound were also major factors in the Scottish referendum.
While fear is a legitimate political strategy, there is much “hope” to be positive about. A young Labour activist who was campaigning for Remain over the weekend told me that many older voters, while mentioning immigration levels as an issue, said that their children or grandchildren’s future weighed more with them.
As David Cameron told the House of Commons on Monday: “There are more British jobs in financial services outside the City of London than within it.” But we can only influence the outcome from within.
Edward McMillan-Scott was a Yorkshire and the Humber MEP from 1984-2014. He is a Patron of the European Movement.