With the insult of coming third in Peterborough adding to the injury of a fifth-place finish in the EU elections, the Conservative Party needs to coalesce quickly around a new leader – one who can heal the party’s historic divisions and set out a distinctive agenda for Europe.
Whether the UK leaves the European Union on WTO terms on 31 October or negotiates a further extension in order to close a deal, this country’s relations with the continent will continue to shape our politics for decades to come.
It is essential, therefore, that the fallout from any further rupture with Brussels should not be allowed to poison a relationship that goes far beyond the political.
Most of the European debate in Britain – and indeed elsewhere on the Continent – devolves to the transactional and economic: infrastructure, jobs, subsidies, opportunities to travel and work elsewhere. The notion of ‘Europe’ is reduced to the institutions of the EU and the risks/rewards of membership, refracted through the prism of each country’s perceived national interest.
What gets lost is what sits underneath all our national identities, the powerful undertow of belonging to something bigger and more enduring: in short, our nascent ‘European’ identity. And with it, the key to an emotional appeal which could help overcome the acrimonious binary debate of ‘in vs out’ – and perhaps even save a Europe threatened by disintegration.
We know this sentiment exists – our own research in an Eastern European country in recent months uncovered a strong layer of European as well as a national identity at work. At an almost primordial level, the idea of some kind of pan-continental connection resonates.
The Brexit campaign understood this territory intuitively: ‘take back control’ spoke directly to people’s inchoate fears about the erosion of British identity and its impact on our national life, its rallying cry of defiance chiming with an instinctive underdog spirit. It provided a template for populist movements across the continent. Rather than responding in kind, by identifying and celebrating the invisible ties we have in common, the Remain campaign hit back with facts, statistics and, some would say, fearmongering – lamentably devoid of any persuasive advocacy for Europe.
It’s easy to blame ignorance of the issues, to cite facts about the benefits of the EU, or to characterise those who voted to leave as motivated by baser instincts, but to me, it constitutes an abject failure on the part of pro-EU campaigners. As a man who deals in data, I say this without irony – we are all, fundamentally, emotional creatures. Facts and figures can and should be used to educate and substantiate, but to really connect with people there has to be a cause they can believe in. We all know what those who backed anti-EU MEPs last month were voting against, but what were those who cast their ballot in favour of pro-EU parties voting for? What is it that binds us? If these parties want to succeed there needs to be a rallying cry for togetherness to combat the myriad disparate groups across the continent who want out.
The European Commission has been studying European identity since the 1990s. Scholars have identified nine conceptually distinct dimensions of European identity – including multiple social identities and transnational intimate relationships – but how these are linked and the forces that make people feel more or less European are questions that remain unanswered. Yet never has the need to make the invisible and unconscious both visible and conscious been more pressing. Shouting loudly and proudly about Europe and being European is not a luxury, but an imperative.
So – what are the things that unite us and can help us carve an identity that people can believe in, be proud of, and ultimately vote for? Or, adapting a line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, what has being part of Europe ever done for us?
Part of this answer surely lies in the richness of our shared social and cultural heritage. When politicians hymn the greatness of democracy, they are explicitly praising the roots of representative government laid down in ancient Greece and Rome. As thousands of music lovers gravitate to London’s Proms or Switzerland’s Verbier Festival they are going to commune with music that is both quintessentially European and, at the same time, universal. The artistic masterpieces, from Beethoven’s Sixth to the Sistine Chapel; the philosophy, from Plato to Descartes; the architectural marvels, from the Parthenon to St Paul’s (and yes, a near-on millennium-old cathedral in flames); the scientific, technological and medical breakthroughs; the Ryder Cup and the Champions League. These are examples of the many ties that bind all Europeans. It’s our shared legacy.
So why has none of this ever formed part of the European debate? The Union has shown itself unable to take either pre-emptive or corrective action and build ‘Brand Europe.’ If we are to do so it will mean using all the tools of 21st-century communication.
For example, behavioural psychology is developing new research techniques to interrogate our multi-layered identities, how we switch between them and what images and associations trigger feelings of ‘belonging’ beyond our national, religious or ethnic selves. Social media listening tools can sift resonant themes and ideas from millions of public online conversations, using semantic analysis and natural language processing to extract meaning and nuance from the global debate. We can now collect and analyse information on a scale previously unimaginable, and digital media allows us to target with far greater accuracy, analysing each interaction to test and adjust messages which resonate most strongly with different audiences. This may sound scary to some – but it’s no different from the political communications of the mass media era, except that today’s leaflets are digital, and appear in our newsfeeds rather than through our letterboxes.
The recent rise of populism has often been attributed to echo chambers and tight pockets of anger that recycle angst and animosity. These angry little whirlpools, that go undetected and then pop up with alarming size and instant contagion, are real threats to unity and stability. Data analytics can help us understand how these feedback loops form, and more importantly how they can be broken, tapping into communities of shared interests which cross national, cultural and even language barriers.
We have more in common than that which divides us. Easily said, but across 28 countries close to 100 million people are still unsure whether this common European home of ours is worth defending. Pride in our European heritage could be a hugely powerful adhesive in cementing the mosaic of a common identity, sitting comfortably alongside a sense of national patriotism. If one of the leadership candidates could tap into this idea and build a story around it which reinforces a genuine feeling of a shared cultural identity, he or she might find it a winning ticket in the election – something that most Conservative Party members can vote FOR.