By Susanne Ganss (Staff Writer)
Since the results of the UK General Election became clear, the debate about the future of the UK’s membership in the European Union has become much more serious. The possibility of a ‘Brexit’ seems ever more conceivable. David Cameron now has two years to ‘strike a deal’ with the EU, change the conditions for British membership, and thereafter to convince the British public that it is in their interest to stay in the Union. It is no understatement to say that this will be an extremely difficult task, especially as he will also have to please dissenting backbenchers in his own party. The arguments put forth by ‘Europhiles’ and supporters of UK membership are for the most part based on economic concerns and appeal to people’s rationality. Several commentators, as well as numerous politicians, argue that because the British “are not emotionally attached to the European Union”, a campaign to stay in the Union should not attempt to appeal to people’s emotions. I would argue that a campaign based solely on rational arguments will fail to encourage the broader public to become involved, to vote, and especially to vote in favor of staying a member of the EU.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) has, to a large extent, been driving discussions regarding a referendum on Europe and have been effective in boiling it down to a question of immigration. Those in favor of the UK staying a member of the Union most often counter this by arguing that Britain’s economy will suffer if it becomes an outsider. As a result, large segments of debates regarding whether or not the UK should leave the EU have revolved around numbers and calculations: how many million jobs would be lost if the UK were to leave? How much money could be saved by dropping the annual EU ‘fee’? How many immigrants cross the UK border each year as a result of the freedom of movement? How many of those take advantage of the welfare state without giving anything back? Young people are likely to be particularly important in this election. Even though they tend to be more pro-European than the elderly, turnout is usually lower among this group of voters. The ‘In’ campaign will therefore need to convince the youth vote that this election is important specifically for them and that their future will be impacted by the results.
It is in this context that I think the rationalist arguments are in danger of falling too short. The argument in favor of EU membership cannot simply be that it is less disastrous to stay in the Union than it is to leave it. Highlighting the importance of the work that the EU has done, both Europe-wide and more specifically for the UK, needs to be a priority. This includes its pivotal role in establishing peace in Europe; promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy both within the EU and across its borders; and, enhancing living standards and stability in Central- and Eastern Europe. For the UK in particular the EU presents the opportunity to influence and shape international relations and to be a world leader. It is widely believed that Britain would lose rather than gain influence if it were to leave the EU. Furthermore, the work that the EU has done for the young people of Europe needs to be emphasized. The Erasmus program is one EU’s initiatives which is highly tangible for young people and has been most successful. Since it was launched in 1987, more than 3 million students have benefitted from the Erasmus grants, and the number of students choosing to do an exchange semester or year abroad is increasing every year. The updated Erasmus+ has increased funding and it is estimated that some 250,000 UK students will undertake activities abroad under the program. If the UK leaves the EU, not only will students lose access to this funding, studying abroad will require a lot more work and preparation, as visas will be necessary. This would also be true for those wishing to complete a whole degree, do placement, or work in another European country.
There is no secret that the “Out” campaign has been and will appeal heavily to emotions such as sovereignty, nationalism and the protection of British culture, jobs and values. Countering this argument with a purely economic one, saying that the UK is likely to suffer more on the outside of the Union than within it, might not be enough to get people off the couch and into the polling stations. Moreover, when backed by a majority of the political elite, there is a danger that such arguments might come across as elitist. This is why it is important to run a campaign that speaks to the voters about why the EU is beneficial for them, what it stands for and what it has to offer.