As an ardent believer in the need for European unity, I was devastated by the result of the UK’s European Union referendum. One important aspect was the almost complete lack of positive publicity for the EU in the UK media and public opinion.
The EU has a representative in the UK, but the person concerned (a lady) maintained a remarkably low profile both during the referendum campaign and in the years preceding the vote. Perhaps the EU leadership recommended her silence so as not to be accused of political interference. Maybe the UK government welcomed or even requested this strategy.
When UK media articles appear attacking countries such as Israel, Poland or Turkey, their London ambassadors often respond press statements, interviews and letters to leading newspapers. By contrast, many people appear unaware that the EU even has a representative in the UK, who might have been expected to be a prominent voice during the campaign.
There was much to comment on, for example, the nationalism, dishonesty and cynicism of the Brexit campaign’s leadership. I was especially struck by their disregard for the contribution EU membership has made to inward investment into the UK.
The previous negative attitude towards the EU of David Cameron, the then British prime minister, and George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, undermined their own credibility when they came out in the Remain camp.
The main theme of Cameron and Osborne’s campaign was that the costs of leaving would be excessive, implying that the EU was a ‘necessary evil’. The Brexiteers had only to argue that departure costs would be negligible for voters to conclude that this was a realistic option.
Nearly four months after the vote, British exports are benefiting from a lower sterling, and the UK economy may get some help from lower interest rates. The tabloids can claim that Brexit is an economic success; they have no need to emphasise that it has not yet happened, and that its terms including the impact on trade and investment are unknown
Because the EU was not willing to engage in the debate, the UK government had to lead the case for staying in the EU. But the task of sticking up for the EU – whether in the UK during the difficult negotiation ahead, or in any other country where there may be similar struggles in future – cannot be left to national governments alone.
With the UK experience in mind, the EU in future should defend itself better – and go on to the offensive where necessary if confronted by a largely hostile media. This requires EU representation combining skill and diplomacy with a certain activism.
It calls, of course, for better policies. With regard to migration, EU leaders must realise that, in a climate where Islamic terrorism is exploited by unscrupulous politicians, not just UK voters, but also the French, German, Danish, Dutch and other electorates will not accept millions more migrants.
The EU should make clear that, whatever membership category is eventually offered to Turkey and Ukraine, it will not include freedom of movement. This would help resolve one of the strongest anti-EU arguments.
With the right blend of strategy, activism and communication, the EU could achieve a much better image, not just in the UK but across Europe – to the benefit of the entire continent.