This is a tough year to be wracked with indecision. Not only do we American citizens have to choose between the devil and deep blue sea in November (Trump / Clinton, in case you missed it), but in about twenty days we British citizens get to make an equally momentous decision – or maybe still more so.
I have in front of me my postal vote, to be completed and mailed within the next few days. It reads: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” There are two big checkboxes: Remain or Leave.
It is a tough question, and I have no idea how to vote. I confess a key reason for writing this essay is to try to think it all through. This is not your typical election, when you pick a government and then life more or less carries on as usual. It is a moment in which we really get to decide the future. From what I hear, staying in protects our money and our security, while leaving shoves us into a backwater of decline. Or did I hear that wrong? Was it actually that keeping signed up to the EU will drag us down to bureaucratic collapse, while going on our own will liberate us to former glory?
In Britain the media talks of little else. There are endless debates, interviews, analyses and pronouncements from the great and the good. President Obama told us it would be a very bad thing to leave. So did Benedict Cumberbatch and the European Bank and Angela Merkel and a host of others. There are very clear opinions expressed, and compelling statistics presented. The value of our homes will drop 26.4% over five years if we leave! School overcrowding will increase by 34.6% if we stay! It is impressive that both groups know the future down to the decimal point.
The only problem is: it is clear to us voters that no-one really knows what will actually happen, and so we keep scratching our heads. In our Sheppard family reunion last weekend we kept coming back to the topic. At the office we toss opinions and questions around. But the common thread I keep hearing is that there is no clear picture of the pros and the cons, and that in the end we are just going to have to vote based on gut instinct. The opinion polls currently have an even split of about 40% each, with 20% undecided. I think they are wrong. From my experience I would put the “don’t knows” at about 60%. And that includes me.
For non-Europeans I suppose I should first summarise what the EU is. Shortly after the war six west European nations signed a trading treaty. Britain joined what was then called the European Economic Community in 1969. The EEC became the EU in 1993, and now comprises twenty eight European countries that are bound together through signed treaties, providing free trade between the countries and free movement of people. This includes moving between countries without restriction and claiming all the benefits of a local citizen. I have done it myself, when I moved to Germany for six years.
The dropping of the word “economic” when the EEC became the EU is significant: the European Union is now more a political agreement as it is a commercial one. The European Commission is empowered to enact laws that apply to all member countries, and the European Court is the court of last resort for matters of justice. Both can overrule national law. Many of the countries have an agreement removing all border controls between them, and sharing the same currency, the Euro. There is also a move towards common defence. The stated objective of the EU is “ever closer union”.
On June 23rd, we get to decide if we think this is a good thing.
It is tempting to simply not vote, in the same way as it is tempting not to vote in the upcoming US election. But that will not do. So I somehow have to try to get some firm footing for making a decision. What is becoming clear to me is that I am not going to get that firm footing from the debate raging in Britain. In all the arguments, about the impact on immigration, security, house prices, jobs, the cost of food, European trips, the health service and on and on, one thing is entirely lacking: the vision thing. The EU, for Britain, is purely a transactional decision: is what we get from the EU worth what we have to give up? The trouble is, this seems like too big a decision to base it on whether I will end up with a bit more or less in my pocket.
Pam, Jess and I spent a week in Germany a year or two ago. As our hosts welcomed us they saw our car’s licence plate. In Britain you can choose the format of the left-hand two inches of the plate. It might have a Welsh flag, or Scottish, or the Union Jack. Sometimes it is empty. Ours had the blue flag with a circle of yellow stars that is the flag of the EU. Our host noted it and observed how glad he was to see that we were the type of Brits who saw ourselves as Europeans. He talked for a moment about how important it is that we are all in this together – Europeans working to avoid repeating the tragedies of the past. I smiled and agreed. It is a marvellous thing, being united with our former enemies. What I didn’t tell him, though, was that car licencing works differently in our two countries. In Germany you get new plates when you buy a car. In Britain the plates never change. Someone else had put the plates on.
For our German friend, the EU matters in principle. And it clearly does in Belgium too. You may recall we spent a few days in Bruges before Christmas. Pam saw their flags and made an observation. Everywhere the flags of Flanders, Belgium and the European Union flew together. It was obvious, she suggested, that the country is heart and soul for Europe as a concept. That is not surprising since it is such a small country, with no natural borders, and is a sight too close to big neighbours with a penchant for invasion. The headquarters of the EU are in the Belgian capital. No doubt some shrewd Belgian at some point said: “So you’re looking for somewhere to set up office? We have just the place for you. Come and check out Brussels.” Yet a few days later, when we spent a day sight-seeing in London and tried to spot blue-with-yellow-stars EU flags, we saw none. All we could see were our own national flag.
The European project is self-evidently a noble ideal, a glorious vision even, in its purpose to learn from the horrors of the past and live in peace. Fellow Europeans together. It is something we should be buying into at a deeper level. It requires rethinking who we are and how we build our future. But there has been no such talk in Britain, no encouraging us to think of ourselves as part of something remarkable. There has been no debate about whether we want to be truly European.
There is a reason for this. The vision thing would be too risky. It is just too big a step for most people. Our identity is too deeply defined by our history. While most of us were not even born during the world wars, our history is engrained in us – we saved Europe from itself, for heaven’s sake. Twice. We refer to “our island nation” and it means more than geography. We still talk of “going to Europe”. So we debate the EU as a cost-benefit analysis.
But here is the thing. The world has changed, and I have to ask myself whether it is time for me to change. When I had a day-trip to Brussels recently for a meeting I went on the train, and, engrossed as I was in conversation, did not even realise that we had gone through the channel tunnel until we were a few miles into France. The two-hour trip was shorter than to Manchester. As I think about it, I think I can make that transition. There is a limit to the virtue of national pride. I love the richness of Europe as a whole – its cultures, art, languages, music, beauty, buildings, history. I have met fellow Europeans while in America and immediately felt a kinship. I can embrace European-ness. Just as long as I don’t have to let go too much of my Englishness. But I have taken that heart step once before, with the USA. I can do this again.
But the other equally important question to ponder is whether the European Union is the right vehicle for that European vision? For me it comes down to this – where is the EU going? It seems to me there are three alternative outcomes: a modern Holy Roman Empire, or a United States of Europe; or, catastrophically, Eurasia. If you recall George Orwell’s “1984”, he describes a future that is divided into three super-states: Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania. It is a nightmare world in which all semblance of democracy has been lost in the enormity of the countries, in which the people are controlled by an all-seeing and all-controlling bureaucracy, and in which the three states are in constant collision.
The American model is where the European visionaries appear to want to end up. Remember the phrase, “ever closer union”. Brussels becomes Washington. The European nations become the member states and the rights of the states and the federal government have to somehow be balanced. This seems to work pretty well for America, though the massive bureaucracy there, the edicts from on high and the encroachments on state rights are a constant source of worry for democracy there.
The Holy Roman Empire, on the other hand, was a loose confederation. It had been founded by Charlemagne in the tenth century, recreating the spirit of the Roman Empire in Germanic northern Europe. It was not powerful enough to force any of its members, but facilitated trade and a degree of unity and identity. The empire was only broken up by Napoleon in 1806. A council (the Imperial Diet) was held periodically at which representatives of the various Germanic peoples met and made decisions. Yet they maintained their own sovereignty. (I read recently, by the way, that the concept of “Germanic” in later centuries seems to have been was based on the language. Dutch and English were both regarded as close enough, and throughout the eighteenth century Britain sent a representative.)
Britain has always wanted a sort of Holy Roman Empire: informal, cooperative and without final authority. There is scepticism about how the EU works and whether we are throwing away our hard-earned and hard-protected freedoms and democratic institutions – in other words, whether we are headed towards Eurasia.
This is a valid fear. Can democracy in general survive more and more centralisation? Do super-states inevitably at some point become so disconnected with their citizens and so controlled by distant powerful entities that “United States of [fill in the blank]” inevitably becomes Eurasia? Who was it who said the democracies only have a limited shelf life before they begin to implode? This happens when there is a governing class who periodically pander to the baser demands of voters but do not represent their real concerns. The EU is not famous for its democratic impulses. Referenda in 2005 in France and the Netherlands rejected treaty changes that gave more power to Brussels. Somehow those rejections were simply ignored and the changes went ahead anyway. Not auspicious. Of late, with migrants pouring in, any raising of even legitimate concerns by the populace has been branded as bigotry and brushed aside. The European Commission, who make the laws, is not elected. If we don’t like the decisions being made, what happens then?
Whatever the reason, Britain is constantly fighting a rear-guard action in Brussels to try to restrict the federalising process. Just prior to this referendum our prime minister conducted a major negotiation with the other EU countries. His announced list of objectives included controlling our national borders and the right to more control over our economy. He failed abjectly. If even the threat of leaving cannot enable Britain to change the direction of the EU, then there is clearly little chance of ever changing things in the future.
The only real result of the negotiation is a British exclusion to “ever closer union”. But since that is a fundamental purpose of the EU, you have to ask – why are we in, then? Do we want the United States of Europe, or don’t we? It appears that if we vote to remain that Britain will end up in an isolated corner, huffing and puffing and generally being a drag on the whole integration process, while the European project forges ahead. We either will keep getting in the way or we will get sucked in. What is clear is that voting to remain is not a vote for the status quo. It is a vote to reluctantly go along with the ongoing process of unification, with more conflict and frustration ahead, unless we change our perspective and become good Europeans.
We are not the only ones realising this. Andreas Sowa, in a German blog, wrote: “A less formal link between Britain and the EU seems to be a necessary evil on the way to an institutionally and conceptually functioning Europe. If you are not willing, then we shall proceed without you. For the next few years, Europe does not need Britain.” Maybe he is right. Maybe Britain is bad for Europe, unless we decide that a) we are willing to be proper Europeans, and b) we can trust that the United States of Europe will not take us in a very un-British direction. Meanwhile the rest of Europe gets impatient and wants us to either join in properly or clear out.
So what is it to be? I have read comments in Britain to the effect that “learning to cooperate with our neighbours just seems like something grown-ups should try to do”, and “I don’t think it makes any difference whether we are ruled by a turkey in Brussels or in London”. There are those, including me, who note a rise in extremism in the world and fear that Britain leaving will foster nationalistic movements in other countries. I am instinctively conservative – I don’t like sudden changes, and taking big risks. And there is a big risk that Britain’s economy will go through some major convulsions.
But after this exercise of wrestling with my soul on paper, I have to conclude that those arguments are not sufficient. Extremism can grow through helpless frustration. We can get on with our neighbours without incurring the risks of staying in. Creating the United States of Europe is a project fraught with danger, both through replacing democracy with faceless bureaucracy and through hoping that different populations with different languages, histories and cultures can somehow become a single federal state without ongoing suffering and loss of control (think Greece). I like being both British and European but I fear Eurasia. I would rather focus on our being good neighbours.
Therefore, with much trepidation, and with anxiety for the consequences, I will be voting to leave.
Wish us well.
P.S. – I am on a plane to Utah. I still therefore have a couple of days before I can mail my vote. Let’s hope I can keep this conviction for more than a day.