The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

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Euro-scepticism: Past, Present and Future

Jonathan Collett

DESPITE my lack of years and relative newness to the euro-sceptic cause compared to those of you who may have been fighting since the 1975 Referendum and perhaps before, I feel my own experience, working for the Bruges Group since July 1993, allows me to comment on both what has been, what now is, and what will be.

THE PAST

It is easy to think that euro-scepticism has always a popular cause. But not so. After the 1975 Referendum the movement was demoralised and its defeat was repeatedly thrown back in its face. Those who opposed the EEC were labelled nutcases and public figures such as Benn, Powell and even Teddy Taylor were viewed as extreme. The UK press was almost universally in favour of entry (after many newspapers had earlier been opposed to entry) and the few dissenting voices were removed from the comment pages in the run-up to the vote. Many supported the EEC because of those who opposed it. It was felt to be needed because of threats from the Soviet Union and trade unions at home.

Two events changed this:

Mrs Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech was the starting point for a resurgence of British euro-scepticism. Its revival stunned its opponents and gave new credibility to opponents of the EU. Furthermore, the speech inspired a generation of new academics, particularly the young up-and-coming bright sparks.

The next event in the resurgence of Euro-scepticism was the Maastricht Treaty. The public were now confronted with the very real consequences of the European project and their opinion changed. A new group of MPs chose to fight. At that time they were not particularly well known. Today, they are household names.

THE PRESENT

By comparison today’s euro-sceptics have an embarrassment of riches. Many refuse to accept just how far we have come and what we have achieved. There is large support from most of the print media, many in the academic community are firmly on board and public opinion is clearly behind the euro-sceptics.

The pace of integration has slowed down considerably and Blair has stated that he will not call a single currency referendum during this Parliament because he does not dare. That’s a victory for the euro-sceptic movement.

More important is the fact that the British public don’t like the way the EC operates. For example, I recall a few weeks ago watching BBC’s Question Time and seeing the audience outraged at the government spending on Single Currency preparations. I have never seen a QT audience so fired up on the European issue or indeed on any issue since the 1980s. We should trust in the British public’s sense of fair play. I do not believe that the British people will ever accept British participation in a Federal Europe nor do I believe will they vote to abolish the pound.

Euro-sceptics should move with the grain of public opinion and seek to keep them firmly on side. We should take pride in our position of strength. We shouldn’t be concerned with exerting our energies on fighting internal battles or trying to create a unifying Euro-sceptic body. Our strength comes from diversity and the different traditions we represent. We are supposed to oppose monolythic and false federations not trying to create one. If you need proof look at the failure of that monolythic federation, the European Movement, which has so spectacularly failed to influence British public opinion in the last 25 years.

Unity can only come from evolution. One of the most dispiriting and regular occurrences in Euro-scepticism is the emergence of new supposedly unifying groups who comment on supposed failings of the movement and state that they "will take command, handle the fundraising for all groups and control others egos." This has happened at yearly intervals since I started my present position and has only resulted in yet more groups and more egos. I do have hopes for the Congress for Democracy which is well organised and has worked informally respecting the differing groups activities. I believe that this will form the embryo of the "No" campaign in any future referendum.

THE FUTURE

I am very optimistic about the future path of euro-scepticism.

The EU will break-up because of its contradictions. Just in the way that the USSR broke-up then the EU will suffer a similar fate. This is the fate of false federations.

The lesson of British politics is that you have to work within and through the major parties. What for example did the Referendum party, with all its resources actually achieve? They only saved a few deposits. With the money spent Sir James Goldsmith could have "bought the Conservative Party".

The effect of UKIP may well be akin to that of the SDP. In that they serve to delay the realisation of their goals. Were the victors of that split Owen, Rogers, Jenkins and Williams or Hattersley, Shore and Healey who stayed and fought for the party they grew up in and loved? The SDP delayed the reform of the Labour Party and the Blairite project by ten years. Will UKIP similarly handicap Euro-scepticism?

I now hear that a new party, the All Party Alliance Against Brussels, has been recently formed by Alan Sked. This UKIP/AAAB split reminds me of a small country’s government in exile arguing whether on its return the country should be a monarchy or republic. The more they argue the less their chance of actually returning to their homeland becomes.

The election of William Hague was a sea-change for euro-scepticism. But the desertion from the Tory party by euro-sceptics left it shorn of activists at the last general election and more crucially, weakened the opposition to Europe-leaning candidates being selected to fight the Euro Elections. One thing we can look forward to is that after the Euro-Elections the Conservative MEPs will split from the European Peoples Party grouping in the European Parliament.

Recently Richard Heller spoke to the Bruges Group of his optimism about the instincts of the Labour voter and their hostility to the Single Currency. I applaud and welcome the efforts of Labour Party euro-sceptics. And who knows, perhaps Nick Harvey may change his mind back to being sceptical and perhaps the banner of Euro-scepticism may rise in the Lib Dems.

This is an age of volatility in voting and it is possible for a major euro-sceptic party to win a general election. So we must concentrate on concrete issues and not fanciful ideas. But we must be patient. It is no use the “we want withdrawal yesterday” brigade striving for the presently unattainable. People shouldn’t be looking to achieve goals which won’t succeed and who’s failure will aid our distracters to rubbish the cause of euroscepticism. The forthcoming London March is a prime example of this. Instead they should be seeking attainable goals and planning for the future for more expansive and achievable plans.

The image of euro-scepticism needs to evolve, developing a young and positive view of Britain’s future. It must draw on a wide scope and not hark back to old stereotypes of people who fought the Germans in the WWII. So, no union jacks or poorly organised and attended marches.

British euro-scepticism must be dynamic, confident and well-organised. Based on provable facts, not conspiratorial fantasies about secret groups deciding the future of the free world. So let’s openly debate our opponents because their arguments are demolishable.

The future for euro-scepticism is bright and healthy.