our future in the european union

For every country in the European Union, except perhaps Britain, the Union has been a means of burying history. For some, it promised the end of war on the continent; for the Spanish, the Union gave them the status of a full European democracy; and in January, the Croatian Ambassador to London said that Europe secures their human rights, and guarantees that there will never be a coup.  Even the Swedes, Danes, and Dutch (who share many of Britain’s economic instincts) find deeper purposes and meaning in the European Union, which justify the compromises they have made to stay within it. But Britain seems to be in the European Union only for the money.

British politicians sold the common market to voters in the 1970s only as a free trade area. We were never convinced by French statements about ‘the European civilisation of Shakespeare and Moliere’.  We wanted to know only what was in it for our economy, and what we envisaged by a single market, was quite narrow.  We thought in terms of getting rid of customs and tariff barriers, but not in terms of tax harmonisation, or limits on working hours. And we have since resisted joining some of the most fundamental parts of the Union, leaving us as part of a very small minority. 25 out of 27 countries in the European Union are now committed to things which in Britain seem inconceivable: to open internal borders under Schengen, and to the Euro. We stare across a gulf of cultural difference. (You should have seen one of my colleagues faces, when a Polish minister said ‘the Euro may be a sinking ship but we want to get on it as soon as possible’.)

Many Europeans, feel they are free, democratic, peaceful, and prosperous because of Europe. Many Britons feel that we were free, democratic, peaceful and prosperous, before Europe; and that if we remain so at all, it is in spite of Europe. These contrasts reflect very different historical experiences. It hardly makes sense to ask who is right and who is wrong. The important fact, is that, for a long time, we have had quite different visions. Which is why it can feel as though, having spent a decade trying to join a golf club (with Secretary de Gaulle refusing to let us in), Britain has spent the next forty years complaining that we didn’t like the membership fees, or the other members; and we weren’t even sure whether we wanted to play their style of golf. And as the relationship has deteriorated we have got less from Europe, and put less in (we now have only about a third as many British representatives in the commission as our rivals – in part because we didn’t invest in learning languages, in part because we haven’t pushed). Now there will almost certainly be a referendum. That is right.

For forty years, British politicians have said – often half-heartedly – that Europe is good for us, while seventy per cent of the British people have remained unconvinced. Such a consistent gap between elected politicians and the electorate is wrong. Differences of opinion occur – as when the public supported capital punishment, and MPs abolished it – but when the difference is sustained, almost unchanged, over four decades, on a major issue, it is a national crisis. And the European Union matters – it is central to our sovereignty, and goes to the very heart of the question of what kind of country we want to be – and that is exactly the kind of issue (constitutional reform is another), where the public should be given the final word. So the question is do we stay or do we go? And we are a long way from having a satisfactory answer.

Some of the anti-European arguments do not really acknowledge any of the benefits of membership, or risks of departure, and present us simply as having our goodwill and generosity exploited by our neighbours. In short, they see us as passive victims, rather than the third largest– and perhaps by 2050, the largest – population in the Union, with complex trading links, enormous capital, wealth, reputation and influence. And most of the pro-European arguments are equally disappointing. They suggest that leaving the European Union would destroy our economy, and that the contemporary world is all about large countries like the US, China, or India; that we need to negotiate in huge trading blocks; and that Britain would be too small to survive on its own. It is based on a pessimistic vision (we are too small), and fear (our economy will collapse).  The antis imply that all our problems are someone else’s fault, and that everything would be fine, if only we had our own way. The pros sound like someone saying “I won’t leave a toxic relationship because I am worried that I will lose the house.”

All such positions are and will always be doomed. Because they are negative, reductive, and self-pitying. They suggest two terrible scenarios – that we leave, believing everything will be easy, lose confidence, and eventually beg for readmission; or stay, bitterly, grumbling, and half-hearted, wishing we had gone. Which is why, we need to look hard not at Europe, but at ourselves. And when we vote, take final responsibility for our future, whether inside or outside the EU. Leaving or staying in Europe will carry risks, and challenges. But there is a greater risk, in bad faith. Whichever way we vote, we must not do so on the basis of fantasy or fear, victimhood or pessimism. Instead, we must create a more mature, serious, and confident debate. And we must use the vote to generate a fuller, richer, more positive vision, not only of our relationship to Europe, but also of the kind of country we are, and would like to be.

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