Tony Koutsoumbos, Chairman of the European Movement’s London branch and member of the European Movement’s National Council spent 45 minutes with Sir Richard Lambert and discussed Britain, the EU and what pro-Europeans need to do to win the EU debate. We republish this interview here with permission of the European Movement UK.
RL: I think he got himself into a position where it was almost inevitable that he would make such an announcement and I don’t agree that the catalyst was the speech. I think the arguments had been brewing for years. If you look at the Euro Barometer readings, you’ll see that the UK had always been sceptical about EU membership, not wildly so – roughly in line with France, but it was three years ago (at the height of the Eurozone crisis) that the polls really started to swing as people asked: what is this club that we want to be members of that is in such economic chaos? Politicians here blamed, in an exaggerated way, the UK’s economic problems on the problems of the Eurozone and in the meantime the views of the Conservative party have hardened considerably, partly because membership of the Conservative party, like the Labour party, has shrunk considerably, so people who select candidates for the Conservative party, just as for the Labour party, are not really typical of the public as a whole and so a strong Eurosceptic streak developed in the new parliamentary intake of 2010, such that the Prime Minister was already under pressure even before the local elections when UKIP started peeling away at their support.
TK: A recent poll by the Bruges Group claimed that the UK could enjoy all the benefits of the Single Market without the costs incurred by full EU membership by joining EFTA, to which it predictably received a very positive response from those surveyed. Claims such as this appear to be largely routed in the belief that Britain can negotiate an exit from the EU on its own terms because: ‘they need us more than we need them’. What do you make of this claim?
RL: That shows how ignorant these people are, basically. First of all, you can make a poll come up with any answer you like depending on how you phrase the question. Second, I think if one looks at the example of Norway… is a little unfortunate in that it has to pay a substantial slab to the EU – in money terms. They have to obey all the rules. They have no say over the way those rules are formulated, which is a democratic problem. The third thing is that some countries are very keen indeed for us to stay in the EU – some are less enthusiastic than others – but the important ones, like Germany, are. [However] they are not going to make concessions that would unravel the whole of the European Union. So, Germany would like us to stay, but not at any price.
TK: The greatest beneficiaries of growing anti-European sentiment in Britain are surely the UK Independence Party. How does the prospect of Nigel Farage and UKIP setting the agenda ahead of the 2014 elections, and possibly 2015, make you feel?
RL: I have mixed emotions. I think they will do very well in the 2014 elections, but not in the 2015 election because unfortunately we have a very unfair voting system in this country. Part of me says that across the European Union and beyond, the public are expressing their dissatisfaction with establishment politicians and politics in different ways, some of them violent, and some of them racist. So, I am glad that the UK escape valve is one that is democratic, non-violent, and non-racist. So part of me thinks that’s fine: let the public make up its mind. I think, though, that the anxiety they are bringing to bear on the Conservative party, which is after all the biggest member of our coalition government – because of the Member of Parliament’s concern that UKIP will strip away some of their votes and make it harder for them to win the election in 2015 – is driving some fairly nutty politics; for example a group the other day said they would like to bring back the death penalty, to reduce the number of foreign students in our universities and concentrate on increasing our trade with the Commonwealth as opposed to the Eurozone.
TK: Are you worried about them taking the step from being the release valve of a dissatisfied electorate to being king-makers or key players in what will be a very important decision for the UK?
RL: Good numbers of our fellow citizens are concerned and anxious about our membership of the European Union and don’t like it and so I think it’s right they have a voice that represents that – that’s what democracy is all about. I think if you ask the British public as a whole, Europe doesn’t come in their top ten (in their ranking of most important political issues). What annoys me is that it is a huge distraction; here we are, a country with very high levels of youth unemployment, big questions about energy security and climate change, big questions about our skills and education structure, big questions about the benefits structure, big questions about fiscal and economic balance, and we spend all our time talking about something which is a distraction.
TK: In your Gresham College address in June, you focused purely on the business case for continued membership of the EU, as most leading pro-Europeans tend to do, in spite of the growing impetus for closer political integration, especially in the Eurozone. Is this because you consider political union to be an undesirable outcome or an unwinnable argument?
RL: It’s because I know about business. I’m not a politician.
TK: Do you have a view?
RL: It’s likely the resolution of the Eurozone drama will result in close political and economic union and it’s likely the UK won’t be part of that and that’s a problem. I also think that as of the Eurozone crisis, the move towards ever closer union has gone – five, six years ago. That was then and now is different.
TK: In 2010, more than 75% of the electorate voted for a party that publicly supported (and continues to support) Britain’s membership of the European Union. Why are they so reticent to publicly defend their positions on EU membership?
RL: We know why the Conservatives are: because their greatest disagreement is within their own party. I think the Liberal Democrats are pretty clear where they stand. I think Labour has an interesting problem. Mr Miliband has made a number of speeches, which have been very pro-European and I’ve admired them for that reason. He has to balance short-term political considerations to a degree – for example: there will be pressures on him to agree to a referendum, but at the same time, he must be aware that if he does agree to a referendum and he wins the general election, then the first two years of a Labour administration would be up against a much more aggressive Conservative party as Mr Cameron would be replaced by someone much more eurosceptic than him. He’d [also] have the media against him and he might lose the referendum – and then he’d be toast.
TK: You have previously referred to the number of job losses predicted in the event of our exit from the EU, which is currently at the core of the pro-European defence of our membership, as a questionable assertion not based on fact. What arguments should pro-Europeans be making to the British people and who should take the lead in making them?
RL: I think there are lots of fact based arguments that can be made. My concern there was that the pro’s should not move into the space occupied by the anti’s of making up numbers and trying to scare people. 3.5 million jobs will not be lost if Britain leaves the European Union. Over time, there will be losses, but Nissan will not close. The arguments they should be making from a business point of view is that it’s to do with foreign direct investment and it’s to do with trade.
TK: Last year, the public responded to a poll on EU membership which asked them if they favoured co-operation at the European level and then separately if they supported giving more powers to EU institutions, with two sets of highly divergent answers, while just 7% of them said they had a good knowledge of how the EU worked. Is the lack of education on the workings of the European and a reluctance to connect the benefits of cooperation to the costs of membership distorting the public debate on Britain’s membership of the EU?
RL: Most members of the public get a view of the European Union through the lens of a eurosceptic media. That is a problem, but I think the British public is pretty sensible by and large. Why should they think about the European Union? They don’t think much about Westminster. Why should they spend time worrying about something so remote? But when required to do so by a referendum, I think they will consider the arguments. They are usually relatively conservative and being asked to leave a club they’ve been a member of for many years is something they won’t do.
TK: What are business leaders saying to you behind closed doors?
RL: That the challenge for pro-Europeans is to provide a convincing European dream. Martin Luther King didn’t get anywhere by saying ‘I have a nightmare’. We should be celebrating how 500 million people of different backgrounds and cultures are living together in peace and prosperity. It is nothing short of a miracle and it is no surprise that Croatia has recently joined.