Andrew Wilson: Time is right to re-secure consent on EU

HAVING to prove yourself in life is no bad thing. ­Challenged and stretched we strengthen and grow. Unchallenged we end up lazy and our muscles – real and ­metaphorical – can atrophy. Complacency sets in and we are diminished; less than all we can become.

HAVING to prove yourself in life is no bad thing. ­Challenged and stretched we strengthen and grow. Unchallenged we end up lazy and our muscles – real and ­metaphorical – can atrophy. Complacency sets in and we are diminished; less than all we can become.

This is true of the institutions we ­depend on, as well as our own lives. Everywhere they have built walls to defend themselves from scrutiny and challenge. They grow weak inside and the walls come crumbling down.

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It is a clear feature of the era we are living in that all the institutions need to open up, reappraise and reform. Crisis is sweeping through all of them: banks, supermarkets, broadcasters, the print media, Westminster, churches. Some will survive and ­re-establish, others will wither.

The European Union has, of course, had its own existential crisis and ­numerous mini ones across its member states. What is it for and how well does it perform? How does it justify its existence to the peoples it serves?

It is in a difficult position. It sits way above the people with ­numerous layers of politicians between. As a result it can become an emblem for the disaffection of our times and the cynicism of the people who feel badly served by all institutions, government more than most.

At the same time the mission and ambition of the European project have developed apace and reached beyond the initial consent many member state populations gave when they joined.

The UK had a referendum in June 1975 and more than two-thirds voted to remain in the European Economic Community that we had joined in 1973. With turnout at 64 per cent the only counties in the UK voting against Europe were Shetland and the Western Isles, which is interesting. At the edge of the continent, Brussels must have seemed a long way away. It remains so now.

The world has changed very fundamentally since then. The Community is now a Union with ambitions to grow “ever deeper”. Its institutions are transformed as is its membership, which now extends to 28 states and more than half a billion people.

The founding ideal remains pure and positive. Removing barriers ­between countries to aid trade, exchange and freedom of movement. This is a very good thing for the ­welfare of all, as is co-operation across a range of policies.

The debate about where government best sits and how democracy works has ebbed and flowed. There can be no doubt that the direct democracy of the EU is more symbolic than real. Turnouts for European ­Parliament elections are derisory and the role and effectiveness of the legislature is difficult to discern. Europe functions as a creature of its member state governments and is as effective as their ability to deal with one ­another and secure the consent of their own populations for what must be done.

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In my estimation it is now both inevitable and necessary that the UK government re-secures that consent for the European Union’s role in our system.

By my reckoning fewer than one in ten of our current population exercised the opportunity to vote “Yes” to Europe in the last referendum. It is now time to re-engage the population so that the modern picture of how we are governed is both understood and supported, and is a diversion tactic in our politics no more.

The Scottish referendum has taught us many things with, I am sure, some lessons still to be realised and appreciated. But we know that our own population in Scotland got and ­remained engaged in the question of how we are governed to immensely powerful effect. What political ­leaders do with that energy remains to be seen, but my sense is that the power for good can and will be ­transformational.

Meantime the lessons of the campaign are stark. The “Yes” to independence challenge to the status quo establishment started in the late 20s, early 30s and ended on 45 per cent. In the face of a wall of noise from the governing institutions of life telling the people not to dare, they dared, in huge and growing numbers.

Try that strategy in a referendum on Europe and the people of the UK will vote “No” to the status quo ­establishment. The polling puts this position already at around 45 per cent. Get the campaign strategy wrong and we are but a hop, skip and jump from exit.

The European Union is flawed, what individual or institution isn’t? But it is my heartfelt belief we must work to reform it from the inside ­because the benefits it can bring far outweigh the costs. Reform it must. But if we allow kicking it to become a surrogate for challenging ourselves on how we govern ourselves then we are all diminished.

So the case for Europe must begin now. It must be positive and real, recognising the reality of its flaws, but stressing the purity of its mission and how we all gain. What it must not be is the same wall of cant from the very people and institutions the voters are crying to reform now. Repeating the tactic would both misunderstand what truly happened in Scotland last month and throw away the best chance we have of securing our best interests for the long term.