Thoughts on EU stuff, including intergenerational equity and EU membership as a variably-valued asset

8 Jul

BrexitThis month I attended a Gatehouse Roundtable event, which focused on ‘Brexit: What future for Europe and the UK’.

The roundtable explored the declining British influence in the EU and the deficits of the current EU system, involving a lovely confluence of: a breakdown in relations between Germany and France; the issue of a democratic deficit within the EU; and the internal weakness of leadership in the European Commission.  Let alone the ongoing economic crisis.

The discussion also assessed the current UK-EU relationship.  Something I personally believe in pretty strongly is that a messy, “accidental” and prejudicial UK exit from the EU is growing increasingly likely.  This is due to strategic miscalculation and the UK’s (gravely) declining ability to signal and credibly engage with our European partners, leading to tactical miscalculation.  The subsequent impact on Britain, Scottish independence, the UK’s relations with the US and Europe, and the UK’s relevance to international partners further afield would be seriously detrimental.

There is, moreover, a real inter-generational difference in UK attitudes to the EU that is not currently being sufficiently factored into the current EU membership discussions in the UK.  The issue boils down to this: should a more vocal and active older generation set the decades-long-term context for the UK’s ongoing relationship with its geographic neighbours for the subsequent generation?  An Ipsos-Mori poll from Nov 2011 showed that only 28% of over 60s would vote to stay in the EU should a referendum be held immediately, versus 50% of under 35s.  I would go as far as to argue that there is basis for incorporating EU membership into the current “inter-generational inequity” narrative: a key national asset (UK’s EU membership), valued highly by the younger population, is being squandered by the older generation who will pass onto the next set of political leaders a UK-EU relationship significantly poorer than the one they themselves inherited.

It will not come as any surprise that I am very pro-public engagement on the European issue, as all issues.  I am still trying to formulate my views on the referendum question, but have serious doubts about the value of a referendum without quality debate.   And I am pretty gloomy about the state of the likely discussion leading up to any possible referendum given the current dynamic means there are few political returns and zero leadership in coherently framing the value of European membership for the UK.  Where is the leadership going to come from?  Who is going to give a voice to the positive side?  Who will be the civic leaders who will promote a discussion that reflects and different and complex concerns that is a natural form of discussions about sovereignty, nationalism and identity in a 21st century (oh, and currently relatively economically vulnerable) world?

This year’s thoughtful YouGov PASC polling on national strategy showed that despite other concerns about UK EU spend, 70% of pollees thought it was important for the UK to be a leading voice in the EU.  Most interestingly, this was the one question regarding the UK’s role in the world where there was LEAST difference between under 25s and over 60 year olds. A very different picture to both the older ipsos-mori result and also current polling results.  The apparent contradictions are NOT a sign of intransitive and illogical responses by citizens.  They are instead indicators of interesting sense-making, underlying perceptions and hidden values that need to be explored.  To do this, we need urgent leadership and deliberative engagement with citizens on the EU membership issue, starting now.

See the full Gatehouse RT summary here.

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