One of the most depressing features of British politics in 2013 is the unstoppable rise of political isolationism. This applies to public hostility to immigration and the European Union but also to the conflict in Syria, where the West refused to take military action last summer not out of a desire for peace, but rather because we hoped we might have a quieter life as a result.
Yet as we turn away from the world, those unfortunate enough to live under despotism are increasingly looking to the West for leadership. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ukraine where, lest we forget, the protest movement which ousted president Yanukovych last month began as a reaction to that government’s rejection of closer ties with the Europe Union.
Indeed, Eurosceptics should have been watching Kiev with embarrassment. Instead they are in the ascendant, with Ukip expected to win this summer’s European elections and perhaps even a seat at Westminster in 2015 - largely due to widespread fear of immigration but also based on a deep suspicion of the European Union.
And truth be told, there are plenty of reasons one should be suspicious of the EU. It is bureaucratic, expensive and at times profoundly undemocratic. It can also seem as if politicians sitting in the European parliament are busy formulating legislation which bears almost no relation to the lives of ordinary people. Widespread torpidity on the part of our elected representatives does little to improve public perceptions, either. A 2010 survey found that British MEPs had the worse attendance record of all their European counterparts (ironically, Ukip were named the laziest MEPs in 2012).
Yet none of this diminishes the European project as an idea, however hopeless it may sometimes feel to make the case in Britain for anything which conjures up images of foreigners legislating on our behalf.
In fact, contrary to the received wisdom of Eurosceptics, on most of the big issues of the day the behaviour of single nation states is irrelevant. On everything from taxation to national security to climate change, meaningful reform will in future only come through concerted transnational action; and no amount of bluster about ‘nutty EU officials’ legislating against straight bananas will change the fact.
For those on the left, the continued importance of the European project should be self-evident. Corporations and wealthy individuals already behave globally, and the labour movement will have to do the same unless it wishes to sink into irrelevance and see the social gains of the 20th century wiped out by a rampant and borderless capitalism.
Even modest social democratic reforms can no longer occur in a single country, as was demonstrated by the previous Labour government. A common misconception about the Blair/Brown years is that Labour failed to significantly reduce inequality because it was ‘incredibly relaxed’ about the filthy rich. In truth the rich got an easy ride because of expediency rather than ideology. Being incredibly relaxed about vast wealth was in reality cover for being unable to do a damn thing about it, for there was - and remains - nothing to stop those with a few hundred thousand in the bank from upping sticks and moving abroad when they’re feeling a bit stingy. Those who wish to create a more equal society will in future have to think in a similarly borderless fashion - or at a minimum throw their lot in with bigger democratic institutions that have the power to set cross-border tax rates such as the EU.
Europe is generally considered anathema for conservatives, yet it is difficult to envisage Britain punching above its weight on the world stage in the coming century if it goes it alone. Indeed, any thinking conservative ought to be excited at the prospect of a democratic community where people are relatively free and prosperous as a counterweight to an autocratic and expansionist Russia. Vladimir Putin is terrified of a democratic and liberal Ukraine precisely because his greatest fear is a democratic and liberal Russia, which would be a Russia without Vladimir Putin. As leading candidate for Ukrainian presidential elections Vitali Klitschko put it last week, “What happens in Ukraine, if we reform, is a good example for Russia”. What happens in Europe can be a better example - not just to Russia but to the world.
Cynics will invariably scoff, as they invariably scoff at any sort of idealism; but contrary to popular feeling it is the mentality of the Little Englander which stands athwart the wrong side of history yelling ‘stop’. There is no turning the clock back to the days of hangings and tripe shops, and all the talk of ‘stemming the flow of migrants’ and ‘keeping Britain independent’ is sentimental hot air when corporations are highly mobile and the City of London is propped up by Russian money (and anyway, why are companies permitted to move about freely but not people?).
Rather than cracking jokes about bizarre EU directives, on the Centenary year of the First World War it’s worth noting that peace in Europe is the historical exception rather than the rule, and that the recent period of calm (Bosnia notwithstanding) is the fruit of receding nationalism and the acceptance of the European idea. Calling UKIP ‘fascist’ would be hyperbolic; but still, why would any European wish to start back down the road to the sort of jingoism which ripped the continent apart so often in the past?
Europe has a long way to go if it is to be truly democratic rather than a vehicle for the interests of corporations or an entrenched bureaucracy. Were Britain to leave the EU we would probably sink quite comfortably into the ranks of other small and middling nations. However it would be a mistake to believe that this would result in a stronger democracy or the individual having a greater influence upon politics. Unless you happen to be Chinese, Indian, American or perhaps Russian, the era of the nation state is over, and the average person is better off throwing his or her weight behind a body which has at least some gravitas in the world, instead of romantically clinging to the misty-eyed notion that Britain is a world power.
Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement is right: Europe is the future, even if we seem temporarily to have forgotten the fact.