Who will come out fighting for Europe?

Politicians and industrialists alike have been cowardly and inept at promoting the pro-EU case
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The Independent Online
Yesterday was Europe Day, the day that marks the very foundation of the European Community in 1950. It was celebrated in Britain in our customary fashion - not at all. Following hard on the heels of VE Day celebrations, this year could have been an ideal opportunity for pro- Europeans to wave the star-spangled blue flag for a community of nations born out of the war. But every ingredient of our VE Day commemorations was deliberately backward-looking, in praise of a better past, and fearful of the future. Spam and snoek, Our Finest Hour, gas-masks and ration books, it was a curious and sometimes tasteless blend of kitsch and ersatz history. If it tipped over into moments of meaning, that was almost accidental.

So the British pro-Europeans let another opportunity go. Hardly surprising. This past year has been a catalogue of cowardice, ineptitude, bungling and complacency on their part, while anti-Europeans have effected a stranglehold on the media, public opinion and the party in power.

A somewhat secretive embryonic group, the Referendum Party, backed by Jimmy Goldsmith, is advertising four £40,000-a-year posts, each with car, computer and mobile phone. The plan is to seek out candidates in every constituency to stand on an anti-European, pro-referendum platform. At £1,500 a time, 650 lost deposits will be expensive, but they will get free publicity and party political broadcasts.

Another as yet unnamed "grassroots" anti-Euro campaign is being put together with a £280,000 launch budget and two full-time staff. This is in addition to the existing European Foundation, chaired by Bill Cash MP, which publishes the European Journal. Not unlike Militant, this body has no membership, you just subscribe to the journal.

In normal times, all this would be off-the-wall extremist nonsense. But in the past year we have seen a wild group of previously maverick no-hopers in the Tory party make virtually all the running in the Euro-debate. In a campaign of intimidation the antis have silenced the voices of those who should be speaking out loudest for Europe - industrialists and financiers. And they have reduced the pro-European Tories to a bunch of frightened rabbits.

A potent mix of misinformation, lies and myths has been poured into the ears of newspapers eager for ammunition, stories that are funny and memorable, while the rebuttals are grey and invisible. Myth: EU fraud accounts for £6bn of taxpayers' money, a tenth of the EU budget. Truth: it's 1 per cent. Myth: Standard-sized condoms, too small, are being imposed on Britain. Complete lie: British pizzas, double-decker buses, chalet girls, toilets and curved bananas to be outlawed by EU.

So where are the voices on the other side? The all-party European Movement, founded by Churchill and Duncan Sandys, has been hopelessly ineffective and dogged by cross-party tensions. Its members bleat a lot about the unfairness of the press. But if they are waiting for a level playing field before they bring out their bats, then the case will never be made.

Then there is ACE, the Action Centre for Europe. A Tory-only outfit, it has Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine, David Hunt, William Whitelaw and Lord Howe on its council. Its affable head is the former Euro MP Michael Welsh. "We do not seek to propagandise," he says firmly. "We are a charity, so we can't engage in political controversy."

Business will only donate to this quiet front-organisation if it is a charity, as it means their donations will not get listed on their company accounts. For business has become terrified of the antis, and this is their greatest achievement. Personal abuse, the prospect of a stern letter from Norman Tebbit, or threats of stirring up the shareholders silence the pro-European businesses. Where is the CBI, for instance? Mainly on the retreat. In any case, British captains of industry, unlike their European counterparts, rarely accept the public role that should go with the power they wield. Most are frightened of the press and inept at dealing with it.

Those who are not afraid are simply complacent. Grandees, former heads of the Foreign Office and back-room power brokers can't believe there is a real threat. Full participation in Europe is so self-evidently essential to Britain's survival that they can hardly rouse themselves from their establishment lassitude to make the case. The old buffers who fought the good fight in 1975 speak out, but cut little ice now.

Shouldn't the European Commission at least be selling the European idea? "It would be counter productive" says Geoffrey Martin, head of the EC's representation in the UK. "Recently I put out an information booklet to schools, and MPs immediately protested that it was giving propaganda to schoolchildren."

And what of the pro-European vision thing? On both sides the vision is essentially political and not economic, but the antis are making all the running with their nationalist nostalgia for a bold little sea- faring island looking towards India, South Africa, and Latin America. The pros usually reply with talk of the nuts and bolts, and rarely with a vision of European peace and unity.

In the Conservative Party the European idea has become a tragic victim of internal warfare, a rallying cry and a symbol for quite other things. Fin de sicle ( and possibly fin de gouvernement) malaise has seized the party, and as ever, foreign scapegoats are easy targets.

What hope for the future? Tony Blair came out with his most impassioned pro-European speech yet at a recent seminar. The European Movement has just been taken over by the Labour MP Giles Radice, who understands the need for a rousing campaign. "It's time to be nasty about the Euro-sceptics," he says. He will call them unpatriotic, selling Britain short. He will fight like a skunk and put out horror stories about the effects of being left behind in Europe. The danger is, the more he succeeds the more the European Movement will look like a Labour Party outfit, and the pro-European Tories may retreat still further into their burrows. Conducting cross-party politics in this fevered climate is not easy.

Last week a group of chemical industry leaders went public with a warning to the Government that rows over Europe were beginning to affect international chemical companies decisions about whether to invest in the UK. Will other industries dare follow? Euro-enthusiasts say that outside the capital, the regions are drawing nearer to Europe: Kent and the Pas de Calais jointly won a European grant as border zones, by working together. Twinning is becoming serious and students are queuing in their thousands for Erasmus scholarships. If only, if only, bleat some of the Tory pros, the press would write all this good news. But it is politics that makes news.

Meanwhile the mountain in public opinion is still to be scaled. Only 41 per cent of the British currently think membership of the EC is "a good thing' (The European average is 57 per cent). The blame lies squarely withpusillanimous and over-fastidious pro-Europeans who have failed to fight back.