The Guardian 22 October 2013
Why does the British press avoid debating EU membership?
Denis MacShane attended a European conference in Brussels last week. The event’s main sponsor was the French newspaper, the Nouvel Observateur. Several other European papers acted as sponsors too.
I was interested by his revelation that British papers were approached but, despite there being no request for funds, were not interested. So I am delighted to offer MacShane, a former Labour minister for Europe, a guest spot here to reflect on the absence of our press at the conference.
More than 8,000 people, most of them young, attended three days of debates earlier this month around the theme “reinventing Europe”.
They heard from not just the great and the good of Europe – such as Jacques Delors and Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who bring a curl to the lip of true-born English Eurosceptics – but a range of other speakers.
They included novelists Douglas Kennedy from America and Peter Schneider from Germany, opera director Gerard Mortier, Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, US senator Peter Galbraith and the chief executives of some of France’s biggest firms.
The only British politician to attend was the Ukip MEP William Dartmouth. The organisers, the left-wing weekly, the Nouvel Observateur, tried hard to get Labour MPs or MEPs to come but none, ahem, were available.
They also asked British papers – such as the Guardian, the Independent, the Financial Times, the Economist and the New Statesman – to be co-sponsors of the event along with Spain’s El Pais, Italy’s La Repubblica, Belgium’s Standard, Poland’s Gazeta and France’s biggest-selling daily, l’Ouest-France.
All the British papers said no, or didn’t even bother to reply, despite the sponsorship being without payment and the chance to be in the company of some of Europe’s best papers.
The event, held in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, was like a giant Fabian new year conference or Hay Festival. It was far from a federalists’ feast. Ideas on what to do about Europe, and what Europe means or should be after its unhappy start to the 21st century decade, ricocheted all over the spectrum.
Are we to assume from the lack of interest by both Britain’s politicians and Britain’s media that our nation wants no part in the debate now taking place between the next generation of Europeans?
Must pro-Europeans in Britain resign themselves to talking to each other?
Why are Britain’s more open-minded journals so wary of being associated with European debate when, whether from Warsaw or Madrid, those editors think the future of Europe is worth discussing and supporting?
It is a standard trope of English media-political discourse that there is no interest in Europe, which leaves the ground open to anti-Europeans.
So we hear non-stop attacks on the EU from Nigel Farage’s Ukip and Conservative party fellow travellers, as we do from the Europe-hostile press owned by off-shore proprietors.
Anti-EU campaign organisations, like Open Europe and Business for Britain, are out in force at every opportunity.
But those in favour of European construction appear to cower under the duvet, too frightened to utter a word.
Ed Miliband is a committed pro-European but did not use the word “Europe” in his address to the Labour party conference. He is being pulled this way and that on the question of a referendum.
In a powerful column in the Guardian last week Jackie Ashley urged him to avoid a referendum at all costs. That view isn’t shared by many, including shadow cabinet members who think the EU referendum is a seal-the-deal offer to voters.
Labour’s yes-no internal, and relatively private, conflict on an EU referendum will continue at least until after the 2014 EU and local government elections and the need for Labour to set out its stall to win power in 2015.
So Labour is likely to stick to the view that it’s better, for the time being at least, to say as little as possible.
The argument is that Europe is low on voters’ priorities and there is little point in stirring up a Euro hornets’ nest.
Newspapers that remain silent are partly responsible for that situation. So, with the next Nouvel Observateur conference on Europe scheduled for Athens, may I respectfully ask Alan [Rusbridger], Amol [Rajan], Lionel [Barber] and Jason [Cowley] to call its editor, Laurent Joffrin, and take part?