With David Cameron and Ed Miliband both talking seriously about a UK referendum on the European Union, the EU elections fast approaching on 22 May and the Scottish referendum raising questions about EU membership, Europe is proving a relevant topic for the politically engaged. The Saint sat down with three members of the new St Andrews Young European Movement – Alex Gadré, Ariane Forgues and Isaac Benson Leaver – to talk about their new society and how to get involved.
The Saint: Tell us a bit about your aims in St Andrews. What do you hope to achieve as an organisation?
Alex Gadré: We want to bring up a platform of open debate both for the university and the locals in the town. We plan on organising events which foster European identity and a feeling of citizenship.
Isaac Benson Leaver: On a broad level I think we’ve set up at a very pertinent time. The EU elections are approaching in May and the turnout for EU voting is traditionally very low in the UK, either through contempt for the EU or just a lack of knowledge and interest. It’s the latter that we’re trying to promote: an interest in the European Union before the elections so that our representatives in Brussels can be more representative of the general public sentiment. Also pertinently, coming up in September is the Scottish referendum that will have implications for Scotland in the EU. It’s important, therefore, that we facilitate something to do with Scotland’s place and potential future in the EU.
AG: There is a feeling of euroscepticism in the UK so it’s important to tackle this issue. We’re not trying to say to anyone that they have to be for or against it, but have an opinion on that and be receptive for the right reasons. That’s the duty of citizenship. The European Commission leaders are going to be elected by the European Parliament this year, so there’s another issue of political representation which is brand new in the European political system. We’re planning on organising a talk with political parties, MEPs and SNPs that should present the new elements of the upcoming elections. We want to inform people how to vote and present the political programmes of each party. Our other goal is to organise two or three sessions of meeting people in the street and providing informational leaflets about the elections. We also have a programme funded by the European Commission where we go around to local primary schools and talk to pupils. Currently we have several teams working in St Andrews and Dundee.
TS: Have you seen much interest amongst the students and locals in the European elections?
Arian Forgues: We’ve seen during the meet and greet sessions a trend in people coming to our events who were interested in European events but they didn’t know much about it. They didn’t really know about the role of the European Commission and the European council. There are only a few political societies in St Andrews. We have the Conservative and the Labour parties being represented, as well as more international societies like Democrats Abroad, but I think St Andrews lacks a lot of political involvement. Of course, we’re going to try and stay as neutral as possible.
AG: We weren’t sure about the impact we would have or the turnout for events. I was personally very surprised to see so much interest. Especially with the School of International Relations, there are people from all around the world, and a large number from other European countries. Since the general background in the UK is a feeling of euroscepticism, it’s quite surprising to see so many people from Britain and abroad with interest in our project. Other European movements in Oxford and Cambridge, for example, have had to struggle.
TS: Is it the diversity of the St Andrews community then that has led to such interest?
IBL: We have a huge international base, many being European, but I’ve also heard interest from outside the European sphere. The EU is still a very pertinent body throughout the rest of the world. What also helps here is that the other European society is now dormant so we are, as far as I know, the only society to promote Europe as a broad entity.
AF: Lessons in the EU from the School of International Relations only come in third year. I think it’s 80 per cent of legislation that is coming from national parliaments that actually comes from the European level, yet we have only the one module on it.
TS: What are your views concerning David Cameron’s proposed referendum regarding the UK’s relationship with the EU?
IBL: I have to say that I’m more concerned about the recent Labour party pledge to have an EU referendum. I think what you have is the conservatives in the Labour party playing to a eurosceptic gallery, one rooted in swing seats in England more than anywhere else. It’s electioneering more than anything else to take seats away from UKIP. The is no broader political strategy, which in some ways makes it more concerning.
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