Britain and Europe

Brexit would force the rest of Europe to either close ranks or disintegrate

5 May 2016

It is an error of historic proportions to mistake European sorrow at the prospect of Brexit for sympathy and the potential for special treatment

Roger Liddle

Britain’s membership of the European Union hangs by a thread – to be honest, a fraying thread. The outcome of the in-out referendum on 23 June is in the balance. If Brexit wins, because their support among older voters is more committed to turn out and vote than younger people where support for remain is much stronger, within days the government will have no alternative but to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and begin the long, tortuous and economically damaging process of withdrawal.

For the leavers though, this will be a process of painless simplicity. For them the emotional excitement of recapturing the lost sovereignty they believe Britain’s EU membership entails outweighs any rational political calculation of the consequences and how our partners will react. In their eyes, any sense of bitterness on the continent at Britain’s rejection of the EU will be temporary. They ignore the inevitable sense of hurt that the lengths to which the EU has gone in order to accommodate British exceptionalism (our legally tight ‘opt-outs’ from the euro and Schengen; the ‘special status’ acknowledged in the Cameron renegotiation) have been spurned by the British people: they do not appreciate how a British vote to leave will send shockwaves through the EU body politic, assailed as it is by populist minorities on its right and left.

Brexit will force the rest of Europe either to close ranks or disintegrate: all Europe’s history since the second world war tells us that politicians on the continent will fight to the last breath to keep Europe together. Unlike the British Brexiteers, they know that Europe is the only alternative to the centuries-old curse of European civilisation: nationalism. As Francois Mitterrand put it in his magnificent farewell speech in 1995 to the European parliament, “La nationalisme: c’est la guerre’’.

If Britain turns its back on Europe on 23 June, there will be real sorrow across the continent – but it would be an error of historic proportions to mistake real sorrow for sympathy, special treatment and a free ride. Yet that is what our Brexit prime minister ‘in-waiting’, Boris Johnson, appears to think awaits him in the chancelleries of Europe.

Britain will then reap the harvest of decades of establishment failure. In reality, our membership of the EU has been at the heart of our ‘national strategy’ as a country since the 1960s. The EU has become, as a consequence, the centre of our trading relationships – our home market in truth. It has been Britain’s magnet for inward investment from all over the world. And since the collapse of the postwar illusions of Britain as one of the ‘big three’ world powers at Suez in 1956, EU membership has been the focal point of British influence in the world and a pre-condition of a continuing close relationship with the United States. Yet few British political leaders have had the courage to explain to the British people that our EU membership is the necessary (though inevitably, not sufficient) foundation for our prosperity and security.

The Conservative party had great difficulty adjusting to the loss of Empire. It retained a romantic attachment to a ‘mother of parliaments’ view of Westminster democracy, despite its increasing constitutional archaism and dysfunctionality. It never fully bought the argument that by ‘pooling’ some national sovereignty, we added to Britain’s strength, influence and power in the modern interdependent world. And it hated the Jacques Delors concept of economic integration with the euro in a more social Europe.

As for Labour, for decades Europe seemed at odds with the creation of a post 1945 British socialist commonwealth and the post-imperialist view that Britain had a distinctive role of ‘moral leadership’ in the world.  This half-heartedness about Europe persists in Jeremy Corbyn’s depressing but obvious reluctance to engage in the British referendum debate.

Yet without much stronger leadership, the leavers will end up winning the day. They are playing the emotional cards so much better than the remainers. However spurious the arguments, the Brexiteers make a gut, emotional appeal that Brexit is the chance to ‘take back control’ of our future. Remainers are making some progress by pointing out starkly the risks of Brexit. But ‘project fear’ has to be balanced by ‘project hope’.

Essentially, our EU membership is the foundation of the ‘open society’ Britain has become. That society, for all its gross inequalities and flaws, offers Britons the opportunity to lead more fulfilling lives than previous generations enjoyed. Yet it faces major threats, both to its future economic competitiveness and national security. The essence of the question is whether we are stronger or weaker defending our open society through membership of the EU. Those voting for Brexit essentially want to pull up the drawbridge and reject modernity. Yet, in a world of chaos in the Middle East, with a resurgent Russia and a troubled Africa on Europe’s borders, and huge challenges like climate change and migration, does not it make sense to work closely with our nearest neighbours whose interests and values we largely share? Working with our EU partners can be at times frustrating, as other countries are entitled to defend their national sovereignty and interests as fiercely as we do. But the EU provides a successful framework for working together that for decades has guaranteed peace, democracy and a social market economy. If we abandon Europe on 23 June, there is no way back. Yet, isn’t our committed membership of the EU the only way of demonstrating a ‘modern patriotism’?


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