UK - EU: two unions in a disunited relationship

3 February 2014
Diogo Pinto (External authors)

In the coming two years, both Britain’s relationship with the EU, and within itself is due to be questioned in referenda. Time will most certainly tell whether the Kingdom will remain internally united and whether it will continue its long standing relationship with the EU. Whatever the UK’s citizens decide, the outcome is set to affect the nation’s relationships within the European project.

What we see through the European Movement’s work with our partner organisations both in Britain and across Europe, is that there is a gulf between perceptions in Britain of what ‘Europe does for us’, and the reality of what is actually delivered. For instance, it is rarely acknowledged that the UK greatly benefits politically and economically from its relationship with the European Union. Yet, on the streets of Britain, Europe seems to be viewed with a candour that recalls historical ties to ‘the Continent’ – a relationship that was built through war and competition. This idea stands at odds with the reality of today, as it not only ignores the benefits a UK-EU relationship represents, but also ignores future advancements that are only possible from within a Union.  With the upcoming European elections in May 2014, this gulf in perceptions seems set to widen.

Following Prime Minister Cameron’s announcement that the UK would hold an EU referendum after the next General Elections in 2015, a discussion has started on what that will mean for the UK’s future in the EU. Such a move was welcomed by Eurosceptics for showing a strong hand to ‘Europe’. On the opposite side of the Channel however, Cameron’s move was understood to be a reaction to internal politics, rather than a rational decision with national interests in mind. It begs the questions: Where would the UK turn to if not towards the EU? How, through what means, would it influence the international debate? Who would be its natural allies in the world if not its European neighbours?

Pro-European voices seem somewhat muted in this critical political debate, and yet many business leaders and national governments have come out in support of the UK remaining in the EU. Elsewhere in this blog it is mentioned that ‘the giant Japanese Nissan and Hitachi companies, which have invested heavily in UK car manufacturing plants, have warned bluntly that they might consider relocation if the UK was to find itself outside the EU’.

Research from the EEF, the manufacturing sector's biggest trade body, shows that UK voters would be likely to vote to stay in the EU if they feel that Mr Cameron was a strong leader on these issues. This needs a clear political vision and a willingness to engage and inform the public as a necessary part of the debate. Mr Cameron has taken a political gamble in calling this referendum, relying on the notion that he can secure Treaty change beforehand.

To understand that such change is possible in the future however, one needs to reconsider the idea of the European project. The project remains in a constant state of flux, and, as such, is always changing. The European Movement thus also supports the idea of Treaty Change, but instead believes this should be made through an open, democratic and participative process in the form of a Convention. This goes hand-in-hand with the European Movement’s mantra for a more democratic EU and that continues to eliminate divisions between nations that previously led so disastrously to division in Europe. This is a vision that the European Movement is committed to achieving and, through our European network, it is one that we actively promote. With this, the European Movement UK has also consistently campaigned to inform the debate around European integration and the benefits of EU membership.

The European Parliament has already launched its campaign for the European Elections 2014, and soon we will see individual campaigns from MEPs from all over Europe fighting for a seat at this table of European decision-making. In Britain however, there may be a very different picture taking shape – one that will be dominated by UKIP and its crusade to remove the UK’s seat from the table. There are many down sides to a UKIP victory in the next European Elections, not least the presence of a large number of MEPs from a party which has traditionally done very little to represent its constituents. Let’s be clear: if the UK is not at the table, it cannot impact decisions being made. UKIP MEPs not doing their work means that Britain has less say in the European Parliament’s decisions.

Mr Cameron may well envision himself one day returning triumphantly from Brussels, having secured a repatriation of powers back to the UK in the manner of Margaret Thatcher’s rebate. This really would only be a short term victory though, as future Treaty change should be made in the interest of all European citizens and for the long term benefit of all. It is therefore clear that the debate in the UK on how it interacts with the EU needs to intensify, and this debate needs to include all voices to consider practical, rather than emotional aspects of the European relationship. With the European Elections in 2014 being just months away, now seems the perfect time to begin this conversation.

Diogo Pinto is the Secretary General for European Movement.

This is an update of an article ‘A need for balance’ originally posted on 03/10/13 at