Can someone now start the real EU debate, please?

We arrived home from holiday last week to find campaign literature from both sides of the EU referendum campaign in the letterbox. I was dismayed by both: the arguments presented were dubious, to say the least, and it seemed to me that neither side dares to say what it really believes.

Humans are tribal creatures and the EU debate is ultimately about the size of the tribe. Do we want a tribe which is large and strong (if possibly fragmented and slightly fractious), or do we want our tribe to be small and cohesive (if possibly short of resources and clout)?

The Eurosceptic viewpoint seems to me to be driven by two fundamentals. The first is the image of Gulliver strapped down by the Lilliputians: Eurosceptics hark back to the days when the United Kingdom was a great power in its own right and feel that it could be so again if it were not enmeshed in a web of European bureaucracy and compromise. The second is a deep discomfort with immigrants, the idea that we are losing our country to invaders and not even putting up a fight over it.

European history My own beliefs are the opposite. I was born in 1958, which makes me pretty much the first generation for as long as anyone can remember to live sixty years without a major European war, and I attribute this not merely to nuclear weapons but largely to the EU – not to its specific institutions, but to the change in mindset that makes European governments start with an assumption of co-operation.

I don’t buy the “UK can be great again” argument. The UK is great: I love my country for the creativity, humour and fundamental sense of decency of its people, not its empire – which was lost not because of the EU but because the UK bankrupted itself over two world wars and because the prevailing ethical climate made it impossible to continue with the colonialist principles on which that empire was built. I’m only too pleased that historical episodes such as slavery, the opium wars and the salt tax  are well behind us, and if a Brit ever feels the need to preach to the world about genocide, they would do well first to consider the question “why are there no aborigines in Tasmania.” (Answer: because we killed them all). And I fundamentally believe in government by compromise – at the European or the UK level. To get technical for a moment, I actually believe in stuff like pooled sovereignty and subsidiarity.

Turning from those who hark to the olden days to those who merely say that Britain is the world’s fifth largest economy and can stand perfectly well on its own, I would reply “yes, but for how long?” As education globalises, can a heavily populated small country with depleted natural resources really maintain the productivity lead that we have had in the past?

These are huge issues, and I’m more than happy to debate them with an open mind – and I believe we should be debating them. In my view, it is neither evil nor racist to feel uncomfortable at living in a city where you often can’t understand the language of the majority of the people in your street, or to be concerned at democratic deficit. But that’s not the debate we’re having.

Rather, on both sides, the debate so far has been about nickels and dimes, with statements being made that are deeply misleading. Consider this one, from the “Leave EU” side:

“We can remove our politicians who are answerable to us. Unlike unelected European commissioners”.

European commissioners are the equivalent of our senior civil servants, who are every bit as unelected. The laws in the UK are written by civil servants and voted on by politicians, just as EU laws are written by commissioners (and their staff) and voted on by the Council of Ministers and/or the European Parliament, who are people we elect. At heart, it’s not the existence of appointed officials that Eurosceptics dislike – otherwise, they should be trying to get rid of the whole of Whitehall – it’s the idea of appointments being made by what they consider to be the wrong people.

The Stay camp hardly fares better. “AA warns of pain at the pump with possible 19p rise if Britain leaves EU,” trumpets the leaflet, quoting the authoritative source of The Sun. Really? Even if it’s true, which sounds highly dubious, is the future of our country’s international relations really to be decided on the basis of motorists’ worries about their next petrol bill?

Or “Good for women, with the EU protecting women’s rights in the workplace, including vital anti-discrimination and equal pay laws”. I’m sorry, I may be an ardent supporter of the staying in campaign, but I can’t accept the idea that the UK Parliament is in some way incapable of enacting wise gender equality laws without having to rely on the EU to police it.

So please, let’s debate the real issues. Will a Brexit do irreparable damage to our relationship with European countries? Can an independent UK continue indefinitely to punch above its weight economically? Is it real or illusory that ordinary people will gain more control over the decisions that affect them? Should we wean ourselves off immigration, which we have relied on to cope with the economics of an ageing population? And if the answer is yes, is it feasible for an independent UK go about doing so?

For me, the answer is simple and emotional. It lies in a clip from the unashamedly anti-Brexit Great European Disaster Movie, in which a German lady lays out on her table a series of Iron Crosses, each representing a parent / grandparent / great-grandparent who died in a European war. She is of the first generation not to add to that list, and is unspeakably proud of it. Long may that trend continue. Being part of a whole, peaceful Europe enhances my life.

3 thoughts on “Can someone now start the real EU debate, please?

  1. OK, here’s the real debate, how can a political union of more than two dozen countries, many with no common language, culture or history be held together?

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  2. That is indeed a valid component of “the real debate”. To answer each point:

    As goes language: (a) my experience is that simultaneous translation at conferences works surprisingly well, (b) languages can be learned (I learnt Italian in my 40s and am most of the way to learning German now), and (c) we are in a fortunate position that English has become a near-universal second language.

    As goes history: we have a great deal more common history with the vast majority of EU countries than you may think, in all sorts of ways. To give some examples from different centuries and different corners of the EU: Portugal was a very close ally in the struggle against Napoleon, Denmark is a country from which many early settlers came to Britain and from where many of our place names come, Croatia is a country which, just like us, was a province of the Roman empire.

    And as goes culture: I cannot think of a European country whose culture is massively different from ours – certainly by comparison with the cultures of Asia, Africa or the Caribbean from whom the majority of non-EU immigrants have come. Visit Japan (as I’ve just done) the Middle East or India (or, I would argue, the U.S.A.) and you will see real cultural difference, beside which the cultural differences between us and the rest of Europe pale into insignificance.

    Of course, building the political institutions is difficult. And of course, they’re imperfect at present and need reform (as are our own). But I think that’s normal, not a reason for quitting the whole thing.

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    1. Thanks for replying. I agree that we do indeed have a common culture with our continental near-neighbours. Denmark, as you point out, has left a huge influence on the English language, including all those place names in Yorkshire and the East Midlands. However, as the EU has expanded further east and south, that common culture has diminished. The Eurocrats now want to expand ‘Europe’ in a political sense into countries that are only marginally ‘European’ (Turkey and Ukraine) and certainly not ‘Western’ in the sense that we know it.

      Personally I feel no sense of common identity with Greece, or with any of the former Soviet bloc countries. let alone with Turkey. We don’t even share the same alphabet with Bulgarians or Greeks. If the EU had fixed the eastern border at say Stettin to Trieste, with only the former DDR incorporated from the Soviet Bloc, then economic integration could have taken place without the mass migration that has happened over the last 12 years. In other words the EU would have remained Western, as per the EEC that we joined. As it is I think that the EU has gone way beyond the point where it can now be reformed.

      I have visited both Canada and New Zealand. Although the former is American by lifestyle in all but name, the latter isn’t and I feel a greater sense of common identity with New Zealanders than I do with our French neighbours, I’m afraid to say. There is one other significant issue in how the world has changed since 1992 (when we should have had a referendum) and it is that the internet – invented by an Englishman of course – has reinforced the status of language communities over geographical ones. Because of the internet, the Anglosphere has now superseded the Eurosphere in cultural terms.

      By the way, I admire you for learning German. I did German, French and Latin ‘O’ Levels.

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