This article was written for bloc, a left leaning political forum based in Yorkshire, where it appears in a slightly edited form. Being a busy collective, with real jobs and everything, they were down to the wire on publishing, so this appeared here first. Nonetheless, I would like to thank them for all the cool stuff they do, and for letting me be a part of it.
Over the last few months, we have heard a great deal about the mechanics European Union membership from both sides of the referendum debate. Competing claims about the economic benefits or costs of our membership, about control of our borders and about the percentage of our laws which emanate from Brussels have been splashed all over the news. Opposing sides have interpreted the same data and reach radically different outcomes, which goes to prove the old adage about “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. I believe, based on this debatable and much debated evidence, that the case for remaining in the European Union is much stronger than that to leave (see for example here, here and here). A decision to leave would be a gamble at best, and it would take us down a path from which there is no turning back. A vote to remain is pragmatic – it allows us to keep our options open. Leave is a one-way street, and I don’t like look of where it will take us.
All that being said, I believe the debate has largely ignored the strong, ideological case for continued membership of the European Union (though the Green Party are taking steps to address this). In contrast, the Leave campaign has emphasised its ideological identity through rhetoric about regaining control of our borders and laws. This seems strange since, in an uncertain world I believe the European ideal is vitally important.
The European Union began life as an economic project, which ostensibly aimed to improve trade between its members. Yet from its earliest beginnings, this economic project was expected to bring unity and stability. After two wars in which Europe tore itself apart it was believed that shared economic success would prevent such divisions – and it has succeed. You may have noticed that Germany and France haven’t been a each others’ throats since 1945, despite the formers post-war division. Similarly, smaller states like Holland and Belgium have not been the victims of external aggression, even in the height of the cold war, in part because they were part of a larger block which had a shared commitment to stability. 70 years of western European peace is not something to look askance at. Living in Coventry, I am constantly reminded of the damage that we can inflict on each other. Anything which helps prevent such folly should not be lightly abandoned.
Of course, the “it has prevented another war” argument is slightly spurious. The post-war balance between the capitalist west and communist east arguably had a bigger impact. Still, unity and stability remain laudable aims, embodied in the foundational principal of “ever closer union”. This, of course, makes UKIP supports’ skin crawl, but it needn’t be interpreted in a strict political sense. Ever closer union doesn’t automatically mean a United States of Europe (though I am not sure that would necessarily be a bad thing). What it means is that we focus on learning about, and developing what we share with our European neighbours, by living, working and openly mixing with them. It means we engage more deeply and more effectively across the region, both as individuals and states..
The last century was dominated by what the philosopher of peace and conflict, J. P. Lederach calls ‘identity conflicts’. Identity conflicts are the result of divisions we have created ourselves: Black vs White; Jew vs Arab; Tutsi vs Hutu; Bosniack vs Serb. These conflicts existed because the parties involved chose not to cooperate with one another. If we turn away from Europe we are establishing another such contrived division. Yet this seems to be what a lot of people want. They want an insular turn, believing we can simply remain aloof. Isolationism for the 21st Century. Isolationism was tried by the USA nearly a century ago. Americans believed sorting out the world’s problems had cost them enough. They hoped to remain aloof and independent. That went well, until the great depression hit ten years later. In the end, Pearl Harbour brought them crashing back to reality, and forced them to re-engage with the world. Hardly the strongest track-record for a political perspective, and they were an emerging super-power, in a world before globalisation.
In contrast, despite a decent military, a strong economy, and a few far flung islands, the UK no longer controls a global empire on which the sun never sets. Alone we cannot do all that much to make the world a safer, fairer place. But as part of the European Union, we are part of one of the largest economic blocs in history. We have the combined human and capital resources to achieve great things. For example, including Human Rights clauses in EU external agreements since the 1990s has achieved far more than the UK would have alone, acting as a carrot for good behaviour, and a stick (used against Belarus, Myanmar and Sri Lanka) when standards are not met. Collaboration also means we can handle big problems. The EU has struggled to deal with the ongoing refugee crisis, brought about by turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, not because it is too united, but too divided. Further division will only worsen this situation. And we haven’t seen anything yet. As climate change progresses through this century, millions of people will be displaced, food and water sources will be lost, there will be social conflict and open war. When that happens, we will be glad to shared the burden with our European neighbours.
Try as the campaigns might to focus on economics or immigration, at the heart of the European debate is a deeper question. What kind of a country do we want to wake up in the day after the referendum? Do we want to work together, or do we believe we are better off alone? For those of us in the remain camp, the answer is obvious. If we vote to leave the EU, we will be falling back into past follies. Believing we are better alone, we will cut ourselves off from the people who should be our closest allies. This will prevent us handling the existential threats of the new century, and will condemn us to repeat past mistakes.
“History repeats itself. It has to. Nobody listened the first time”.