Give the Eurosceptics a seat at the table

Fascinating times we live in. One of these rare times when the EU is likely to get out of its wonkish bubble and make it to the mainstream in the UK. As the debate on ‘Brexit’ is picking up speed, it’s crucial that the so-called ‘pro-EU’ camp asks the right questions and avoid the traps it so often finds itself walking into.

First of all, it’s crucial to shed the tendency for knee-jerk reactions in response to the slightest criticism of the EU. Yes, the EU project is overwhelmingly positive but mistakes have been made and will be made. There is room for improvement and, yes, sometimes there have even been indefensible actions and choices. Those favouring a strong EU should not fall into the trap of trying to defend every single thing the Union does and reject any healthy and often well-founded criticism. Admit the mistakes and come up with ways to correct them.

At the same time, invite the critical voices to have a seat in the table, which means genuinely seeking their views and listening to their concerns. The question is a simple one: ‘well, you don’t seem to like the way things are now, what would you propose?’. UK ‘anti-EU’ attitudes often resemble a dog chasing a car: it barks and chases but if it catches it, what is it going to do with it? In other words, other than the – sometimes justified – piecemeal request for certain legislative exemptions or not agreeing with some decisions, what is actually the kind of EU they would like to see?

There are a number of benefits from that strategy. First, and most important, you control the agenda, you set your own terms for the debate and take the initiative rather than being constantly on the defensive. Second, rather than allowing the ‘anti’ camp to take the easy way out, you force them to articulate a positive message, a move that could isolate the most extreme elements, splitting the camp in two or more fractions. And finally, it could serve to tackle the – again, sometimes justified – image of a ‘holier-than-thou’, high-brow ‘pro-EU’ camp, which looks down condescendingly on those raising legitimate concerns about the future of the EU construct.

The referendum campaigns are not yet in full swing but are fast building up steam. There is still time for better message development. Let’s hope that the ‘pro’ camp plays smart and refuses to be drawn onto the defensive. As the late Philip Gould used to say, political campaigning is about building and maintaining momentum. And, might I add, momentum is best built on the offensive.