James Reed: Europe has more to think about than a ‘Brexit’

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SOMEONE who works in the European Union once told me that its often fraught relationship with Britain was, in some part, down to the English language.

Many European politicians, they said, criticise the EU at home when it suits them. The difference, they contend, is that British politicians do so in a language widely spoken in Brussels and used by international media outlets sniffing out any rift or row.

So there is no hiding place in Brussels from the debate now already under way over this country’s future in the European Union despite few people expecting the referendum itself to be held until 2017.

Visit Brussels, however, and you will see little outward sign of concern. As this is a union of 28 countries, each with their own priorities, it would be naive of Britons to expect their demands to be at the top of the ‘to do’ list.

The EU has members coming to terms with global economic competition, the aftermath of a war that took place within living memory, the continuing repercussions of the financial crisis and, in the case of eastern Europe, more than a generation of economic stagnation.

There are new challenges, too, in the shape of Russia and its increasingly muscular approach to global affairs and, most acutely of all, the migrant crisis on the EU’s eastern and southern flanks.

There is a sense, too, in which the EU has a momentum of its own which is out of sync with the Parliamentary timetable here. With commissioners serving five-year terms, there is a natural rhythm to the lifespan of a commission and its myriad initiatives, plans, funds and goals which is not easily diverted.

For the overwhelming majority of those employed by the EU, there is little they can practically do to impact on whether Britain stays or goes. The renegotiation of Britain’s membership is in the hands of heads of state and those at the very top of the European Commission. For everyone else it is business usual because there is appreciation that any public intervention over the issue that could be interpreted as Europe meddling in British affairs would be entirely counterproductive.

However, there is a widespread recognition that the possibility of the so-called Brexit is a real one. Some officials are still unsure why David Cameron ever committed to a referendum and others are surprised that he has not found a way to get out of it. More widely held is the view that having promised to secure change, Mr Cameron should be helped to demonstrate he has done just that.

It is hard to find anyone who actively hopes the UK will go, but there are fears among some that the EU may not be able to do enough to persuade it to stay. That may become clearer when the Prime Minister confirms the UK’s demands next month.

When the referendum is finally held, it should represent a new chapter in Britain’s relationship with the EU, whether the result is ‘in’ or ‘out’. Among many in England there is a sense of grievance that the Scots voted to remain in the UK last year, but that this was not sufficient to stop the SNP hinting at a second vote on independence.

If the UK votes to remain in the EU, European nations will similarly feel aggrieved if the outcome is so narrow that it is only a matter of time before Brexit is put back on the agenda.

That is not to say Britain should become an unconditional cheerleader for everything that happens in Brussels and Strasbourg – every member country has its grievances – but it means accepting that we will not always get our way as part of a 28 country club.

When a decision is made in Westminster against Yorkshire’s interests, that triggers an angry response but not suggestions this region should declare independence. Yet, when an EU rule affronts the UK, this is invariably presented as evidence the whole system is broken beyond repair and it is time to leave.

If the UK stays, our response to laws and regulations that damage our interests should be to build coalitions of support to change them rather than threaten to take our bat and ball home.

As a region, Yorkshire should reappraise its relationship with Europe, too. In the days of regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, this region used to have an office in Brussels and serious consideration should be given to reestablishing it. When so much of the EU’s activity is focused on regions, and Yorkshire is a significant recipient of money from Brussels, then we should not be relying on the UK Government to fight our corner.

Voters, too, have their part to play. In Hull last year, just one in four people bothered to take part in the European elections. The turnout across the whole region was little better at just 33 per cent.

If the UK is to remain in the EU, voters need to take European elections seriously and engage with some of the issues over which MEPs have a say. Yes or No vote, the referendum must mark a new chapter in the Britain-Europe relationship.

James Reed is The Yorkshire Post’s political editor.