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British and EU flags hang outside Europe House in London (Photo: EPA/Andy Rain/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Uphill struggle

Joanna Impey
January 8, 2013

The push for a more detached relationship with Europe is gaining ground in Britain, so how do pro-Europeans hope to counteract that momentum? And whom can they rely upon to take a stand?


Later this month, UK Prime Minister David Cameron will make a long-awaited speech about Europe. There is feverish speculation about whether this will be the beginning of the end for Britain's membership of the European Union, with momentum building towards a possible referendum on the matter within the next five years.

There is a sense that the euroskeptics have run away with the European agenda since the present coalition government came to power. Polls consistently show that anti-EU sentiment is sweeping Britain: A survey carried out by The Observer newspaper in November 2012 found that 56 percent of the British public would probably or definitely vote for the UK to leave the EU if they were given the choice.

The polls make sobering reading for pro-Europeans. That's compounded by the fact that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which wants the country to leave the EU, has moved from the margins of politics to the mainstream over the past year. The party is even threatening to displace the pro-European Liberal Democrats in some areas as the "third force" in British politics.

Andrew Duff (Photo: Ali Ozluer/AFP/Getty Images)
Andrew Duff thinks Britain is going in the wrong directionImage: Ali Ozluer/AFP/Getty Images

Pro-Europeans lack strong political leadership

It seems that few British politicians are prepared to speak up for Europe, for fear of alienating the electorate. Lib Dem Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Andrew Duff, however, is among those who are keen to prevent Britain from heading towards what he calls "inglorious EU isolation." He's critical of his own party's stance on the matter: the Liberal Democrats, he says, have left the country's European policy almost wholly in the hands of their Conservative coalition partners:

"I think that the [Liberal Democrat] ministers - Mr. Clegg and colleagues - have essentially been trapped by the Tories on European policy. And they have tried for too long to avoid speaking frankly about the scale and scope of integration. And too often the British have blamed Brussels for everything that has gone wrong," Duff told DW.

The problem for the pro-Europeans is that skepticism has, as pro-European MP Shaun Woodward put it, gone viral. And they are struggling to counteract that momentum on a political level.

While the euroskeptics have their champion in the much-derided but charismatic figure of UKIP leader Nigel Farage, and they enjoy support from several senior figures in the ruling Conservative Party, it's hard to name a leading pro-European politician.

British Prime Minister David Cameron at the EU council headquarters (Photo: Reuters/Yves Herman)
Cameron's speech on Europe could start the dash for the exitImage: Reuters

Probably the most well-known is veteran Conservative politician, Ken Clarke, whose pro-European views conflict with his own party's stance. Now aged 72, he was recently demoted from the post of Justice Minister to that of Minister without Portfolio.

Another prominent pro-European, this time from the opposition Labour Party, is Peter Mandelson, a former EU trade commissioner. But far from being admired, he's long been a divisive figure in British politics and was famously forced to resign twice from Tony Blair's government. He now sits in the House of Lords.

Backing from business leaders

Given the lack of clear pro-European leadership in the political sphere, it may be up to business leaders to take a stand. British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of more than 400 companies, has warned against quitting the European Union, stressing that the EU is the UK's biggest trading partner.

Head of the Virgin Group Sir Richard Branson in front of SpaceShipTwo in Mojave, California (Photo: EPA/Andrew Gombert)
Businessman Branson wants Britain to remain in the EUImage: picture alliance/dpa

"An exit would be very bad for British business and the economy as a whole," Branson said in his New Year blog post.

For Tony Koutsoumbas, London chairman of the European Movement, which campaigns for closer integration at the EU level, pro-European business leaders could have a major role to play if there were to be a referendum on the matter.

"Business leaders, who are really at the front of Britain's trade and economic relations with the rest of the world, are the ones who are starting to come out and make that message very clear: Britain must be at the heart of the EU," Koutsoumbas told DW.

"But as chair of the London branch of the European Movement, it's my job to engage with people at a local level, at the grassroots level," he added. "And to make sure that we clear up the biggest problem, which is simply a lack of information about what the European Union does and how it's relevant to their lives on a daily basis."

It seems he has an uphill struggle ahead of him. But for Andrew Duff, speaking out is the only way forward:

"I think that some rather frank truths ought to be told," Duff told DW. "The idea that there's a choice between the current state of integration and something less for Britain is absurd."

But he doesn't expect much of Cameron's speech: "I think it's probably destined to be a disaster, or it'll be very bland and filled with platitudes, which he's very good at."

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