Everything about the referendum campaign so far has been dispiriting. The Brexiteers, with gleeful support from much of the media, continue to peddle their myths about the costs and iniquities of the European Union. The analysis is all about what “they” inflict upon “us”, and what “we” are failing to wrestle back from “their” corrupt, sclerotic fingers. The InFacts.org website is doing impressive work exposing the falsehoods and distortions, but there is no let up.
On the other side, there is overwhelming support for “Remain” – from the business, educational, scientific, military and security communities (including Nato), young people, the political party leaders – even world leaders, for heaven’s sake – yet the outcome is still in the balance. How is this possible? Partly, it’s explained by a general revolt in Europe against trusted elites (mirroring the Trump phenomenon in the United States). The lure of Brexit also reflects the parlous state of the EU itself, and the sense that it is spinning out of control.
Europe’s travails have triggered a fear of contagion, and an illusory belief that Britain might insulate itself from danger if only it could “take back control”. This week brought a tragic example. After the bombings in Brussels, the reaction of swashbuckling Brexiteer Allison Pearson on Twitter – at once inappropriate and utterly illogical – was to say “and Remainers dare to say we’re safer in the EU”. And that chant has now been taken up with enthusiasm by the whole Ukip claque.
Brexiteers tend to be passionate about their cause, which they mistake as a patriotic one. Most of those making the case for Europe, by contrast, are lukewarm – motivated more by fear than enthusiasm. Remember WB Yeats? “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”.
I have no doubt that Britain would be poorer and less secure outside the EU. But that is not what will drive my own vote.
My vote will reflect my conviction that the European Union has been one of the great achievements of my lifetime, and that we would be fools to squander it. The world wars of the 20th century were the culmination of centuries of bloodshed, as the nations jockeyed for supremacy. The European Union was conceived to break the destructive cycle, recognising the independence of the separate nations, but also seeking to represent common interests through common democratic institutions.
And the experiment has been an astonishing success. It cemented democracy and market economies in Greece, Spain and Portugal after their dictatorships. It provided the basis for economic growth in Western Europe, including economies such as Ireland’s and Portugal’s that had been very backward. It eliminated debilitating border obstacles all over Europe: we forget that before the introduction of the Single Administrative Document, a lorry needed 70 different forms and stamps to travel from UK to Italy. It established the freedom to travel, live and work freely throughout the Union. It provided an anchor for the countries emerging from Soviet dictatorship. It provides (still) the basis for stability in the Balkans – the ambition to join the EU is what restrains destructive nationalism in Serbia, and the Serbia/Kosovo Agreement, brokered by the EU, still holds.
Above all, perhaps, the EU has been a pillar of rules-based, democratic, liberal market internationalism and human rights – which is why Vladimir Putin would be so delighted if Britain pulled out, and why Russia gives financial support to parties such as France’s Front National.
Of course there is much that is wrong with the EU. The euro project has gone very badly awry. The migrant crisis is imposing unprecedented pressures. But we should surely be facing such problems in a spirit of generosity and solidarity – both with our partners, and with wretched refugees and resourceful economic migrants who had the misfortune not to be born, as we were, in safe, rich, well-governed democracies. There must be a better course than to return to the dark days of barbed wire, border posts and mutual suspicion across our continent.
I have just been rereading the prescient article on the United States of Europe that Winston Churchill wrote for The Saturday Evening Post in February 1930:
“Nationalism throughout Europe, for all its unconquerable explosive force,” he wrote, “has already found, and will find, its victorious realisation at once unsatisfying and uncomfortable. More than any other world movement, it is fated to find victory bitter.”
He was right – as the subsequent world war was to prove. At that time, in the early 1930s, Churchill saw a different destiny for Britain, as an imperial power. But he came to support our application for membership of the new European institutions – and he would have had no truck with the Brexiteers’ quasi-religious veneration of theoretical sovereignty. As he said in the House of Commons in 1950, in response to the Schuman Declaration which launched the whole EU project:
“We are prepared to consider and, if convinced, to accept the abrogation of national sovereignty, provided that we are satisfied with the conditions and the safeguards … national sovereignty is not inviolable, and it may be resolutely diminished for the sake of all men in all the lands finding their way home together.”
I would be delighted if voters in June could show that sort of Churchillian resolution.
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