By not making their case, pro-Europeans bear much responsibility for UKIP's success

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The Independent Online

The elections to the European Parliament were one of the greatest exercises in democracy ever to have taken place anywhere. That they passed off freely, peacefully and essentially fairly, may be something that, as Europeans, we take for granted - we would have been shocked at anything else - but such expectations do not make this massive poll any less of an achievement. Such amity across so many national borders would have been inconceivable, probably even to the most visionary of the Common Market's founders, less than half a century ago.

The elections to the European Parliament were one of the greatest exercises in democracy ever to have taken place anywhere. That they passed off freely, peacefully and essentially fairly, may be something that, as Europeans, we take for granted - we would have been shocked at anything else - but such expectations do not make this massive poll any less of an achievement. Such amity across so many national borders would have been inconceivable, probably even to the most visionary of the Common Market's founders, less than half a century ago.

The remarkable phenomenon of Europe, as embodied in the European Union and the European Parliament, is something that its supporters need to talk about far more often and far more loudly than they do. For there was another aspect to these elections, especially in this country, which was little short of tragic. This was the extent to which the campaign was dominated by those not only sceptical of the benefits of belonging to Europe, but downright hostile to the whole enterprise.

In so far as we heard anything from anyone about the Euro-elections, we heard about the iniquities of a European super-state and the decisions supposedly taken out of ordinary citizens' hands. Much of the hostility trailed more than a whiff of xenophobia. Such discussion as there was slipped all too easily into arguments about the ease of crossing frontiers and the supposed "threat" from migration. The flashy campaign conducted by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) tapped into a Rule Britannia mindset in which patriotism and chauvinism are dangerously intertwined.

It would be defeatist to conclude, however, that the success of the UKIP campaign shows only how strong anti-European sentiment in Britain remains. At least one reason for UKIP's strong showing is that it ran an attractive, modern and energetic campaign. Another was that it had a single, simply understood, message of opposition to Europe. None of the other parties contesting the European elections ran a campaign that came close to UKIP's in terms of directness, simplicity or glitz.

Only the Tories, whose divisions on the issue are as corrosive as they are well known, had any real excuse for being tentative about Europe. The real shame, the real lost opportunity, was the mealy-mouthed support for Europe expressed by the supposedly pro-European parties, notably Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They allowed UKIP to run away with the votes.

The mainstream pro-Europe parties might say in mitigation that they, more than UKIP, were campaigning also for local council seats, and therefore had to address several constituencies, on several issues, at once. Yet among all the issues they did address, it was hard to discern any serious effort to present the undoubted benefits that accrue to Britain from Europe or to address the arguments that UKIP made. Who, out of all the pro-Europeans in the Cabinet - the Prime Minister included - came out with any forthright advocacy of Britain's future in the EU in advance of these elections? They did not even reprise the old arguments for EU membership: from 60 years of peace, through expanded trade and investment, to the freedom for Britons to travel and work anywhere in Europe. So used have we become to these advantages, that we forget to mention them. But they belong in the political debate.

The Euro-election campaign, such as it was in Britain, was a missed opportunity and a dereliction of duty on the part of our most senior pro-European politicians. But the outcome may not be wholly negative. A larger Euro-sceptic contingent in Strasbourg - not just from Britain, but from some of the hitherto most enthusiastic "new" European countries as well - means that the debate about the European Union may be joined at a more searching level by a parliament that is more genuinely representative of Europe's 350 million voters than ever before.

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