Political forecasting is dangerous business to be in these days, but it seems clear that the likelihood of a People’s Vote on our future relationship with the European Union, including full membership, has increased significantly in recent weeks.
Faced with the prospect of another vote, which includes the choice of continued membership of the European Union, those in favour of Remain must surely now be thinking about how best to frame the case in a far more compelling way than the approach of Project Fear in 2016.
Although many of the political and economic predictions which underpinned the last campaign have largely been substantiated, they clearly were not, and probably still aren’t, sufficient to convince a cautious, not to say sceptical, public about the benefits of our continued membership.
On the other hand, a forward-looking, progressive vision of our place in Europe, and our great power status in the world, would surely have to be at the heart of a renewed pitch to the people. It would have to emphasise the opportunity created by a secure and confident Britain, to lead the reform and renewal of the European Union, working in partnership with those Member States, especially Germany, who believe that Europe is at its best, when the UK is leading not retreating.
And this is surely not unrealistic. Before the 2016 referendum, the UK was on course to be the biggest economy in Europe, and one of the largest in the world, after the United States and China, by 2030. Taken together with our normal capacity for progressive and innovative political thinking – after all, the single market is a largely British creation and arguably the EU’s biggest achievement – and the advantages of language, (English is still the unofficial first language of the EU), we would be extremely well placed to succeed.
Indeed, the implicit argument of the Leave campaign was that the U.K. was not strong enough to lead in Europe and secure the reforms necessary and, therefore, we should withdraw from the fight.
This, arguably, is a cowardly, regressive view of the true power and influence of the U.K.
On the other hand, leadership in Europe secures, rather than undermines, our great power status, almost certainly guaranteeing the permanency of our seat in the United Nations Security Council and, perhaps even more importantly, the health and prosperity of the long- term transatlantic relationship with the U.S., which has always regarded the U.K. as the ‘bridge’ into Europe.
It would also strengthen the European Union in working in an international system which has become increasingly unstable since 2016 with a disruptive Russia, a threatening China, and an unreliable Trump led America.
From this perspective, continued membership and leadership of a European Union that we are reforming, renewing and strengthening, would enable the U.K. to project an influence on the world, not seen since the days or Empire and before the first world war.
If this is a vision of a strong, confident, open and inclusive Britain, with which to anchor a new campaign on our relationship with Europe, we must also address people’s very real concerns about EU membership, specifically immigration and the distribution of wealth.
Here we need to be honest with people and say that the failing is largely of our own making. EU law never stood in our way of asking migrants from other Member States to register, prove their income and addresses, and leave if they are unable to do this. The responsibility here is ours and not that of the EU.
On the other hand, the European Union must, collectively, take further steps to strengthen the external borders of the EU. The Schengen free travel zone was a truly progressive step but implementing it without securing the external border of the EU was a glaring mistake that is now plaguing governments across the EU.
On the other hand, one does have to acknowledge that the EU has taken significant action to stem the flow of migrants in the Mediterranean through bilateral deals with Turkey and Libya.
And finally, on immigration, we need to grasp the nettle of integration vs immigration. Living in this country, regardless of where you come from, requires one to contribute to the society and community which you have joined. Diversity is an enriching experience, but it must work both ways and too many immigrant communities, largely from non-EU countries, have held onto or perpetuated customs and norms from ‘home’ which are not consistent with the values and responsibilities of a western liberal democracy, which we celebrate here.
Together, this approach may well convince a public, which has learnt more about the benefits and trade-offs of membership of the EU in the last 40months than in the last 40 years, to support not only the UK’s participation in the EU but to accept its responsibility to lead it.
And if the country was to reverse its decision to leave, then the economic ‘membership dividend, which would surely total hundreds of billions of pounds, must be re-invested not just in public services like the NHS, but in rebalancing our economy, away from our over-dependence on London and the South East, which has a corrosive effect on our own Union.
Too many of our communities, especially those which voted heavily to Leave in 2016, have been left behind and the consistent failure to understand and respond to this over the past three decades lies at the heart of the outcome of the 2016 referendum.
Any new campaign for EU membership must commit to spending the ‘membership dividend’ on regenerating these communities by incentivising firms to establish themselves there, investing in the necessary education and skills for the local labour market, and ensuring the physical and digital infrastructure, and housing, are put in place.
To do all this, particularly if it is sold by a new generation of political leaders, would be the hallmark of our true Great Power status and the continued capacity of the British to renew and refresh ourselves, without the blood of revolution, that so many of our friends in Europe and around the world, expect of us.
That would be something worth campaigning for!