Two weeks have passed since the first debate on Europe between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg, two weeks with two debates that were filled with boisterous remarks and personal attacks, but very little content of quality.
I expect fellow pro-Europeans on the left will have grown frustrated by the lack of content, by the myths that were allowed to be spread unchallenged, but also, and to no certain degree, by the lack of response from you.
I understand that Europe is a tricky issue, but ignoring it, or refusing to share a platform with those who want to debate it will not make it go away. People are uncertain about what Britain’s membership in the EU means for them, and what its role in the world would be without it, and they want answers. After two painful hours of Clegg vs Farage I have learned that Mr Farage thinks MEPs aren’t involved in the European law making process (which isn’t true), I have learned that Mr Clegg used to participate in trade negotiations (which I don’t think impressed any sceptical voters), but I haven’t learned what your, or what Labour’s position on Europe is.
You say that, although quietly, you are pro-European; you think that Britain’s future will be better in than out. But through your silence, you have allowed Mr Farage to tell a tale on Europe that has no ties to reality and you have missed a crucial opportunity to engage in a debate the public wants to have. So if you are out campaigning for the European elections which are after all only 6 weeks away, and you are confronted by those who did watch the debate with some of the “facts” that were voiced in it, here are three things you should say:
1. European Foreign Policy
One of Nigel Farage’s key themes in the second debate was that a membership in the EU would drag Britain into unwanted wars in the Middle East. In fact, none of the military interventions Britain has participated in since world war two were based on an EU mandate, which is, of course, mainly due to the fact that there is no such thing as a European army, nor is there a joined-up EU policy for military action. The intervention in Libya in 2011 was based on a UN mandate, as was the military action in Kosovo in the late 1990s. There was, for better or worse, no agreed military action on Syria at an EU level either. You said in your first speech as leader that Iraq was a mistake, so you can comfortably remind voters that the majority of European countries actually stayed out of Iraq. Whether Britain chooses to intervene through military action or not is much more dependent on support from the US than potential pressure from fellow European countries.
2. EU as an elitist institution
Another of Farage’s key lines in both debates was to depict the EU as an elitist institution; it is a theme often happily picked up by the Eurosceptic left. This accusation is unjust. EU’s credentials on empowering workers and people from modest social backgrounds are quite strong: The Working Time Directive gives workers the right to a minimum number of holidays a year and a right to rest breaks in any working day, strengthening the well-being of workers. Travelling and studying abroad used to be mainly a privilege for the wealthier, but programs such as ERASMUS have made studying abroad more accessible for those on lower incomes. The Centre for Economics and Business Research recently published a report which shows that over 4 million jobs in Britain depend on EU exports. The results of isolationism would be disastrous for those on low incomes, for workers and students – the elites would probably be hit the least.
3. Trade negotiations
Despite noting on several occasions that he used to represent the UK at trade negotiations, Nick Clegg never actually challenged Mr Farage’s claim that the UK was unable to sign its own trade agreement with countries. This is simply untrue. In an interconnected world and in the absence of a successful conclusion of the Doha Round, most countries prefer to negotiate in blocs to reduce and simplify the already numerous and complicated global trade agreements. Yet in addition to the negotiations the UK accesses through the EU, it has its own bilateral trade negotiations with countries such as the US, Canada and China (though Beijing has made it clear that it is more interested in pursuing closer links with the entire EU). If we were to leave the EU, we would miss out on access to markets that are opening up. Britain could once go it alone as an empire and when it held a competitive advantage through technological progress, but those days are long gone. Modern Britain’s access to the world is as a front runner of the EU’s economy.
In the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, you could also remind people that Farage’s claim that “we will never go to war together again” was proclaimed by many after the Great War. Fewer than 20 years later, history taught them different. And when you tell people that, you may want to remind yourself that, as Labour leader, you should not take Britain’s membership in the EU for granted, and should not shy away from a debate the public wants to have.