A landmark speech by British Prime Minister David Cameron later this month will trigger campaigns to persuade young people to choose between staying in or opting out of the EU, as the issue moves to the fore of the country's domestic political agenda in 2013.
Representatives for and against UK membership in the EU told EURACTIV they are on stand-by to set campaigns in motion to woo the country’s biggest swing demographic: those aged between 18 and 44, in a year which will see Europe move to the forefront in domestic politics.
Popular advocates will include pop stars and high-profile business leaders, such as Sir Richard Branson.
Cameron’s speech, to be delivered in mid-January, will commemorate the 40th anniversary of Britain's EU membership, and clarify his Conservative Party’s plans for the UK’s continuing engagement with Europe.
The prime minister will seek to mollify eurosceptic Conservative deputies with promises to repatriate powers from the EU and a general pledge of a referendum on EU membership after the 2015 general election, without specifying what question may be asked.
Incubating the campaigns
“We have created and are incubating a 'better off in' campaign, we have that domain name and that web site registered,” Peter Wilding, director of the Centre for British Influence Through Europe (CBIE), told EURACTIV.
The CBIE is a new umbrella group formed this year to campaign for the UK to remain in the EU.
Current opinion polls show the country finely balanced on the issue of EU membership, with euroscepticism gathering pace.
Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – which will campaign for the UK to leave the EU – is putting pressure on Cameron to make a clear referendum pledge in his speech. "The only way to properly engage young people is to have a clear, definitive question,” Farage told EURACTIV.
Although all the major parties are likely to campaign for continuing EU membership, there is unease, particularly amongst Conservative MPs, about growing popular support for UKIP, which polls suggest jumped almost 10% to 14% in the last year.
A UKIP source told EURACTIV that the party is already readying itself to campaign using social media and to appeal to the younger generation “who have no recollection of the last referendum”, which was held in 1975, two years after Britain's entry into the then European Common Market.
Pro-EU membership Wilding said UKIP was correct in its analysis that 18-44 year old Britons represent the key swing constituency to attract in a referendum.
Both sides want to look attractive to young people
Another reliable UKIP source said that the party is considering using a young pop singer as the ‘face’ of its campaign.
Meanwhile, leading figures in the pro-Europe campaign are seeking to obtain the endorsement of a charismatic business figure, such as the popular Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, who could appeal to younger voters, to act as a figurehead for the pro-European cause.
Those hoping Branson – who is known to favour EU membership – might be persuaded to fulfil this role, will be encouraged by a New Year’s blog post he penned in which he warned that “an [EU] exit would be very bad for British business and the [UK] economy as a whole”.
Branson warned in his blog that Britain would be foolish to quit the EU because Europe is likely to be in “far better shape” than the United States in a few years’ time.
The issue of the UK’s continuing role is also being debated in Europe. Over the Christmas break, Council President Herman Van Rompuy warned Cameron that excessive demands for repatriated powers threatened to derail both the EU and the UK.
"If David Cameron proposes a catalogue of opt-outs, derogations, red lines and rebates for Britain to pick and choose, then he will strengthen the argument for a formal association for the UK," Andrew Duff, a Liberal Democrat MEP who heads the Union of European Federalists, said in The Times newspaper on 31 December.
The Liberal Democrats, governing coalition partners of Cameron's Conservatives, are traditional backers of the country's EU membership. Cameron's speech could unsettle his coalition partners.
The Union of European Federalists is expected to publish its own draft new EU treaty within months, which will include such an "associate membership" proposal, Duff said.
Such "associate membership" could see Britain lose its commissioner, its MEPs and seat on the Council of Ministers.
Meanwhile former EU Commission President Jacques Delors also joined the debate, telling the German business daily Handelsblatt on 29 December that he could envisage the UK having a looser relationship with the EU, with a new free trade agreement, or as a "privileged partner".
“Far from leaving Europe, Britain should be leading Europe into the next 40 years,” said Peter Wilding, director of the Centre for British Influence through Europe (CBIE).
“We are an influential country. Since we joined, Europe has become an English-speaking power in which the UK has led in spreading the advantages of open markets, economic growth and a political culture based on social responsibility and democracy. These are attractive and self-evident British values,” Wilding concluded.
"Young people won't just be fooled into voting one way or another by celebrities or Apps; my experience of speaking at schools, colleges and universities across the country is they're far more anti-EU than older people," said Nigel Farage MEP, the leader of UKIP.
"We're now at a point where there ought also to be the option of various formal tiers of [EU] membership," Andrew Duff, a Liberal-Democrat MEP, heads the Union of European Federalists.
“The UK has always been a successful trading nation and has built relationships around the world to help its companies prosper. However, today global business relies on large trading agreements created by regions and not by countries,” said Sir Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur.
"If the British cannot support the trend towards more integration in Europe, we can nevertheless remain friends, but on a different basis," former Commission President Jacques Delors told the German business daily Handelsblatt on 29 December.
"The British are solely concerned about their economic interests, nothing else. They could be offered a different form of partnership," Delors said.
Meanwhile Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper that a British exit would cause immense damage to Europe, hurting both Britain and its EU partners. It would be like seeing a "friend walk off into the desert".
"All member states can, and do, have particular requests and needs that are always taken into consideration as part of our deliberations. I do not expect any member state to seek to undermine the fundamentals of our co-operative system in Europe," Van Rompuy said.
Britain must use the upheaval created by the eurozone crisis to forge a new relationship with the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron said on 14 December, following the last summit of heads of state and government in Brussels.
Cameron is grappling with a rising anti-EU mood at home that could threaten his chances of re-election.
Speaking at the end of the summit that secured the first part of a banking union, Cameron played down fears Britain's future lies on the margins of a two-tier Europe, while eurozone members build an ever-stronger core.
- Jan. 2013: Cameron to give landmark speech on Europe
- May 2015: Last date by which UK must have next general election
- Financial Times: Branson warns against quitting EU (paywall)
- Handelsblatt: Article (in German) on UK’s 40-year EU anniversary
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