The EU has changed Britain – and mostly for the better

Besides the money for infrastructure projects, EU membership has given Brits the chance to see how Europeans do things, and what we could do better

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The Independent Online

The irony remains delicious.

Europe House in Smith Square, where the European Commission and the European Parliament have their joint London headquarters, is the very building – the former Conservative Party Central Office – where Margaret Thatcher celebrated her election victories. And when it was officially inaugurated in its new guise, a little over two years ago, much fun was had by the assembled Europhiles speculating how the Foreign Secretary might contrive not to be photographed beneath the European flag – public buildings in the UK being almost unique in the EU in not flying the blue and gold confection alongside the national flag.

So there were plenty of ghosts at the party when the troika of prominent British Europhiles chose Europe House for the launch of their proto-Yes campaign this week. Ken Clarke (Conservative, minister without portfolio), Lord Mandelson (Labour, former EU commissioner and spin doctor supreme) and Danny Alexander (Liberal Democrat, chief secretary to the Treasury) are jointly fronting the Centre for British Influence, which will argue the case for the UK to stay in – when, or if, David Cameron gets around to holding his promised In/Out referendum on the European Union.

Talk about low-key, though. The very name, the Centre for British Influence, makes the new group sound almost like an affiliate of Ukip. There are outright anti-EU organisations that sound more engaged with Europe than this. If the CBI – an unfortunate, or perhaps deliberate, overlap – is to be the kernel of a future Yes campaign, it looks awfully like a lobbying effort by stealth. Is the thinking perhaps that a below-the-radar approach is the only one that will persuade British voters to grasp the pro-EU message?

In fact, this might not be a bad strategy. Not only because polls have, until recently, shown a rise in pro-Europe sentiment only when the subject leaves the headlines, but because – rather like the EU planting its flag discreetly on London’s enemy territory – the EU’s impact on Britain has been so gradual as to be barely perceptible. Seen overall, however, from the perspective of the past 40 years, it has been enormous, and almost entirely beneficial.

You could argue that it is hard to separate the influence of the EU from the general process of internationalisation that has accompanied improvements in transport and communications. But for a glimpse of how the UK might have developed – or not – without membership of the EU, or the European Economic Community as it was, you might consider Australia as it was 20 years ago, before it reconciled itself culturally to its geography. It was self-absorbed and seemingly content with its lack of ambition, its housing frozen in time and its tasteless English food. Just as we were.

It took Britain’s entry into the EU, and the ending of Commonwealth trade ties, to force Australia back on to its own – immensely rich – resources. The same process forced Britain to discover its European self. Closer to home, you could take Malta; 20 years ago, it was introspective, parochial and potentially the object of a tussle between the UK and the Maghreb. Now, it is identifiably, positively, part of Europe.

Many benefits of EU membership are tangible, and Britain has not been excluded. There is money for infrastructure projects, which – unlike most EU countries – we choose not to announce with grateful placards. And there is the mass of common standards to be met, which make us part of a bloc that has become a global regulatory force. To Eurosceptics this is Brussels “red tape”; we might rather describe it as an entry ticket to civilisation.

But the greatest change for the better from our four decades inside the EU has to do with the country’s general outlook. Membership has given the Scots and the Welsh a sense of security that allows them to affirm their national identity in a positive way they were not able to before – an effect that could also be seen in the smaller accession countries. It may eventually do the same for the English. Most of all, though, by exposing Britons to other Europeans and vice versa, it has made us individually, and collectively, more aware of how other Europeans do things, and what we could do better, too.

It has socialised us to an extent many have perhaps not realised. Join the queue to board the Eurostar at St Pancras station, or line up at the easyJet departure lounge at almost any airport in the land, and you will meet a European world, which seems normal and familiar, but would not have been a generation ago.

The difference is not about food or café culture, or the arrival of Zara or Novotel – though the EU has improved our quality of life in all these respects. Nor is it about language per se; Britons retain a foolish pride in their hopelessness at foreign languages. What has changed is our awareness and acceptance of the different European accents and mores. I still remember that one girl in my junior school class went on holiday to Spain. It was such a novelty that the teacher had us all making a model bullring. And now? There can be no return to that parochialism. Not only because European consciousness is now lodged inside our heads – yes, even in the head of Nigel Farage – but because our friends and neighbours will do their utmost to prevent it.

Since the start of the UK’s latest in/out spasm around a year ago, I have lost count of the diplomats in London who have asked, not in glee, but in trepidation, whether it is really possible that Britain could leave the EU. They include Europeans, of course, but also Chinese, Japanese, Russians and, not least, Americans. The warning from Philip Gordon, of the US State Department, followed by President Obama’s telephone appeal to David Cameron – made public by the White House – should have left no one in any doubt. Britain’s strength, its international influence and its 21st-century identity are perceived by the outside world, above all, as European. That is how others see us. It is also, deep down, how tomorrow’s Britons will see themselves.