The European tide has turned. But can we be honest about it?

Though many British people may not understand exactly what has gone wrong with Europe, they know that it is something big and toxic

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Britain and the EU; there are two obvious historical conclusions.

First, it is “and”, not “in”; we have never really joined Europe. In the early 1970s, there was transplant surgery. The new European organ was inserted into the British body politic, with the help of immunosuppressant drugs. The assumption was that they would soon be unnecessary. Not so; 40 years on, the rejection mechanisms are stronger than ever.

One of the ablest and most formidable of the EU-country ambassadors in London said recently that Britain would not leave the EU because the British were not a nation of quitters. Yes, and no. In terms of great national purposes, the compliment is deserved. But the EU has never been a great national purpose. A departure would lead to political turbulence. If David Cameron were to recommend a “Yes” vote but lose the referendum, he would have to resign, while a hundred or so Europhiles who had devoted their lives to the European cause would feel desolated. But most people would not think that Britain had failed.

The second conclusion is that Europe and Britain are fundamentally divergent: geography has shaped us for different destinies. Look back to Charlemagne and Lotharingia: back indeed to Varus and the lost Legions. Forget Rheingold; it is more a case of Rhein-krieg. The Rhine frontier has been the most contentious in all history. That great river has been a highway of trade, civilisation, culture – and conflict. In 1945, many good Europeans decided that this had to cease. Europe was broken, ravaged, powerless. Its peoples were cold, hungry and frightened. The nation state had betrayed them. Nationalism, once thought of as the political wing of the Enlightenment, had turned into the political wing of the jackboot. If Europe was to be reborn, there had to be a supra-national entity.

Some future British politicians agreed with this: Ted Heath and Roy Jenkins were the best-known. Most did not. Over the centuries, the sea, our moat, had protected us from the wars of nations. The threat to us had come from the attempts to create a superstate: Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler. The war over, let the foreigners worry about jackboots. Most Brits could not wait to get home and take their boots off, secure in their country which had once again safeguarded laws, lives and liberties.

The British Europhiles who shared the continental Europeans’ anxieties and ambitions had a difficulty. How could they persuade their fellow-countrymen? That was compounded by a further problem. The Euro enthusiasts were intellectuals, and like many intellectuals in politics, they were adept at ignoring data which did not fit their theories. They also believed themselves to be wiser than ordinary people. There ensued what Hugo Young described as “the Blessed Plot”: a conspiracy to finagle Britain into Europe by pretending that it was only a free-trade area and that membership would enhance our prosperity.

In essence, the Platonic Euro-guardians treated the British electorate as if it were an ill and fractious child which was refusing to take the healing medicine. Somehow distract the brat’s attention, shove the teaspoon into its gob, quickly follow up with a sweet: “There, there: what was all the fuss about?” That reached its apogee over the Lisbon Treaty. A referendum had been promised, which ensured that Europe would not be an issue at the 2005 election. That promise was broken. Company promoters who issued a prospectus on such a basis would be liable to imprisonment. (Apropos prison, and the proposals to jail reckless bankers, how long a sentence should be passed on those who devised the euro?)

The voters are not fractious children. I suspect that the long travails of the eurozone have had a profound effect on public opinion, hardening scepticism into hostility. Though people may not understand exactly what has gone wrong with Europe, they know that it is something big and toxic. Thank goodness we are clear of it; perhaps we should get clearer still.

We certainly need a clearer public debate. At present, there is too much naive extremism. Nick Clegg tells us that leaving would cost three million jobs, a nonsensical claim which merely discredits his side’s case. On the Ukip wing, we are assured that our departure would be financially beneficial: a foolhardy assertion. If Britain were to leave, international big business would not be applauding. That is not a conclusive objection; businessmen always prefer stability and certainty. But it would be unwise to jeopardise inward investment.

There is also the threat to the City. Some Europeans blame our banks for their troubles. That may be self-pitying rubbish – we did not invent the euro – but lots of Europeans are envious of the City’s successes. Greed and resentment could form a powerful coalition, threatening the revenues on which this country is absolutely dependent. We are also under threat from American lawyers, inciting their courts to demand jurisdiction over British firms – and then plunder them. This is the most overweening attempt at legislative imperialism since we British put down the slave trade, and that had stronger moral foundations.

The Royal Navy is not what it was. In a world beset by complexity and risk, there is a constant argument for caution. The British table has several legs: the EU, the Commonwealth, the US, a long tradition of global trade. Internationally, the arguments for free trade seem to be making progress; the World Trade Organisation appears to be strengthening. But free trade is a fragile plant. It flourishes in benign climes; it can rapidly wilt in crises.

The international order is uncertain. In such circumstances, we should not lightly discard potential allies. The UK is far from alone in  believing that the EU needs to be reformed. It is also possible that an implosion of the eurozone will impel reform. Reinforced by a political elite – a Euro-nomenklatura – which sets the terms of the EU debate in almost all its member countries, the single currency has proved much more durable than Anglo-Saxon common sense would have believed possible. But it still resembles a tightrope artist without a rope. There must come a moment when it is no longer possible to defy reality. Equally, the Europeans know that David Cameron is in earnest about renegotiation – and almost all of them want us to remain members.

Given the state of the world economy, the threats to the euro, the still graver threats to order in the Middle East, the anxieties about stability in China, the weakness of the US under a president who makes Jimmy Carter seem like Theodore Roosevelt, and the volatility of the British electoral system, it is hard enough to predict the past, let alone the future. But it is time for the UK to have a serious and un-self-deceiving debate about our relations with the EU. 

In one respect, this is likely to have a negative outcome. Most people will be unimpressed by any attempts at idealism, whether it be the embrace of our common European home or the UK in splendid isolation. They are much more likely to vote for the lesser evil. That has much to commend it, in a fallen world.

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