Britain’s bizarre relationship with Europe has reached a new apex in the upcoming referendum on EU membership. Rhetoric abounds on trade, immigration, the European Convention on Human Rights, ‘taking back control’ (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean), and much else, and media coverage is reaching saturation point as the vote itself looms. All of which is doing a fantastic job of overshadowing what should be the central tenet of the debate around leaving the European Union.
It’s a really stupid idea.
In part, I think, this stems from the weird and fallacious tendency that Britain, and its inhabitants, have of viewing Europe as somehow ‘optional.’ The tiny strip of water separating the UK from France (which we in our hubris like to call the ‘English Channel’ and the rest of Europe call La Manche) has done more than stop the Wehrmacht marching right on in, and several other armies before them. It has given the British psyche an air of detachment concerning European affairs which simply cannot be allowed to stand in the world we now inhabit. ‘When I was in Europe…’ or some variant is uttered so often by the British that we seem to forget we live in Europe as a permanent state of affairs. Europe is not a load of sunny Mediterranean towns, French farmers on strike and slightly mysterious Slavs trying to shape democracy out of post-Communism. It’s us, it’s here, and it always has been.
This psychological tendency to separate ourselves may have worked, in a strange way, when firstly the British Empire stood firm, as far as anyone could tell, with the Royal Navy ruling the High Seas and protecting British trade and interests wherever they were threatened, and secondly there were constant wars on the European continent (there’s the distinction we keep meaning to make and lazily half-making). The UK, much as it would like to be, is no longer a Great Power in any of the traditional senses of the word, and this arrogance about the global clout of the UK is the root of a large part of the rhetoric and paranoia evident in those who speak of ‘Brexit’ like it’s some great next step in the national evolution. The first of these two points is a simple exercise in history. The power of Britain collapsed after the Second World War, the Empire torn apart and the country’s budget exhausted, and the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as global players to fill the vacuums of the Old European Powers. This is a fait accompli, one so old it should not need explaining, yet the country and its leaders seem constantly to think the rest of the world regards them with the importance of centuries past.
The second point is no less important. Wars in Europe have not occurred on what can be generally termed a ‘large scale’ since the Second World War. Not to gloss over the horrendous suffering caused by the wars in the Balkans in the Nineties or in Ukraine right now, the massive destruction of events such as the Thirty Years War, or the Napoleonic Wars, or the World Wars of the last century has not been seen in Europe for decades. This period of abstention from wholesale slaughter on the continent is without precedent in recorded history, and almost exactly coincides with the existence of the European Union. While a certain post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning is tempting here, and it is certainly over simplistic to ascribe the lack of large-scale wars in Europe to the EU alone, only an idiot would deny any correlation at all between the existence of the EU in its various forms and the admirable restraint of its member states in killing each other, as they have tended to do regularly in the past.
The ‘otherness’ with which Britain tends to view itself in relation to Europe is also a problem here. Just as Britons tend not to see the UK as part of Europe, so they do not always see themselves as European, at least not in the way many Europeans from continental countries do. If the British truly thought of themselves as European then I seriously doubt the country would consider jumping ship entirely in the way it now seems poised to attempt. Rather it would wish to use its clout, and its votes and influence in the key organs of the EU, to adjust and negotiate for change where it sees it is necessary. Effectively storming out and saying ‘I don’t want to be in your stupid club anyway’ is more than unproductive. It’s childish.
Which raises another question which Leave campaigners seem to enjoy pretending either doesn’t exist or won’t matter. What is the In/Out debate and referendum doing to Britain’s image in other European countries? We supported the Bush administration’s wildly unpopular (and, it turned out, misjudged) war in Iraq. We nearly ripped off a chunk of our own country in the Scottish independence referendum. Now we are apparently fighting among ourselves over whether to remain in one of the largest regional organizations in the world, of which the UK is a founding member. Is everyone in the ‘Vote Leave’ camp so monumentally arrogant that they cannot see the political ramifications of such a move? The fact is that some of the Leave camp’s points are certainly valid. The EU needs reform in certain areas, it needs better focus and a leaner, more executive structure in others. All of these goals are achievable, and if done correctly will lead to a more efficient, effective union. How does one of the founding members walking away from the table entirely help to achieve any of this?
The fact that Leave has some valid points should not come as a shock to anyone, and it would be remiss of any who disagree with the idea of leaving the EU to dismiss everything the other side has to say. Consolidating everything under the EU into monolithic entities, such as an EU Army or an EU Intelligence Agency, is not productive. Duplication of effort, resentment from other regional organizations which exist parallel to the EU between some or all of its members, and reluctance of member governments to contribute time, money and resources to such projects are all valid arguments against some such ventures. Again, however, Britain’s answer to the problem seems to be to run away and hide rather than debate the pros and cons within the EU. Time and again the fact that Britain, or at least certain sectors of it, want to use any displeasure at all with the way things seem to be going as an excuse to leave keeps popping up with undeniable regularity.
The arguments for leaving also completely ignore a generational issue. Young Europeans, including many Britons, see themselves as just that – Europeans. We want to be part of an integrated, trans-national European community, with distinct identities but shared cultural values, shared curiosity about each other’s countries and cultures, the opportunity to travel freely and work in any other European country, to marry and raise a family with partners from other European countries and even move between them as work or personal issues dictate or allow. This European-ness of many young people is a relatively new and still developing aspect of European culture, but the EU helps enormously in facilitating travel and communication between young Europeans (and older Europeans who are open-minded and adventurous enough). This aspect of the EU is incredibly important, and will continue to be long after the older British generation, which polls repeatedly tell us are much more likely to vote Leave, are dead.
The EU is not perfect, so let’s help to improve it. Many European countries still struggle with issues such as migration, economic development, internal political insecurity and fears of external security threats. A regional organization which, at its best, tries to build a sense of community, of mutual support and shared beliefs and ideals while also supporting open and active engagement with the rest of the world is a brilliant idea. It’s an idea that has been evolving, growing and maturing for decades, and continues to do so. It’s an idea that the UK was part of from the start, so let’s continue to be a part of it. It’s not just a case of the EU being worse off for the UK’s absence. The UK will be worse off for the EU’s absence, and nothing about it that Britain doesn’t like at the moment is going to be changed if we walk out. I identify as a British European, and that will stay the same whichever way this referendum goes. What will change is the ease with which I can travel or move there, and the way that the rest of the EU sees us. What will also change is the level of respect I hold for my own country and its farsightedness. There’s a lot on the line, and one chance to get it right.
Come on Britain, don’t screw this up.