European vote in the UK: Silence is a mistake

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage (C) campaigns with fellow MEP candidates at a campaign event for the European Parliament Elections, in Brentwood, Britain, 16 May 2019. [Andy Rain/EPA/EFE]

Labour and the Tories will be equally to blame for not having challenged Nigel Farage, who is likely to be the big winner of the European elections in the UK, writes Stavros Papagianneas.

Stavros Papagianneas is the managing director StP Communications and author of Rebranding Europe.

Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said that he regrets not intervening during the Brexit referendum and that the EU had the possibility to destroy the lies that led to Britain voting to leave the EU.

Speaking at a press conference in early May, Juncker said that David Cameron, UK’s prime minister at the time, asked him not to interfere in the referendum campaign. It was a mistake to be silent at such a crucial moment, added the Commission president.

Sometimes, intervention from outside can be counterproductive. US President  Obama declared during his visit to London in April 2016 – only two months before the referendum – that its membership of the EU amplified the power of the UK. He warned it would go “back to the queue” in any trade deal with the US if the country chose to leave the EU.

Although Obama pretended that his opinion about Brexit was “part of being friends and being honest”, many British experienced it as an intervention in a domestic campaign. At that moment David Cameron did not see any foreign interference.

Instead, he told the UK citizens to listen to the advice of its friends. So why did he ask Juncker not to interfere and why did Juncker interfere in the Greek case and not in Britain?

Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message”. He meant that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. But it is more than that. To have an impact, every message needs a face. Every campaign message is personal.

In 2016, the debate on Brexit focused mainly on the opinions of the most powerful big business. Later, both camps understood that the referendum will have a significant impact on people’s everyday lives. Both campaigns learned to attract human faces, making their cases more personal.

When people feel connected to the issue, they feel motivated to vote. Nigel Farage is the face of Brexit. Remain does not have a face. David Cameron, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have failed.

Not challenging the Farage message that Brexit can help fix the UK makes Conservatives and Labour as much responsible for his success as the man himself. Silence is the worst strategy you can have in a time of crisis. If you don’t communicate your positions in a clear way, you are the loser. It was the case in 2016 and it is the case now.

With hours until the start of EU elections on 23 May, polls are predicting that the Brexit Party is on course for a big victory in Britain. There is a very simple reason for Farage’s promising prospects: he is facing no resistance. However, the is the problem of all pro-Europeans in the whole continent: pro-Europeans do not have a plan.

Macron is right, and the other EU leaders are wrong. Repeatedly extending the Brexit process reduces Europe’s ability to fix itself. Eurosceptics will do well not only in the UK. The most recent polling from Europe Elects predicts that anti-EU parties could win more than 30% of the seats in the European Parliament.

Convinced Europeans will also be saddened by the finding that a large part of young people in different EU countries has little or no interest in the European election campaign. After the EU elections, there will be a strong representation of anti-European forces in the Parliament and the EU populist nightmare will not end with Brexit.

Fifteen years after the last major enlargement with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the vision of an ever-closer union has lost its shine. It is possible that the movement for less Europe has already begun. Therefore, being silent is a mistake but not voting is a bigger one.

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