by Ranjit Sidhu
If we are really honest, the United Kingdom has never fully bought into the EU. Like the sulking teenager on a family holiday, we have been sitting there, slightly away from the others, looking in the opposite direction and when asked our opinion mumbled something unintelligible or shouted back “You all do what you want, just leave me alone” (see any EU treaty since inception).
This position has led to the EU institutions being shaped by others so as to appear completely foreign to the eyes of the UK general public.
This refusal to get fully involved has also lead to the UK pursuing policies on Europe that have evolved into reasons for leaving.
It is often forgotten that the expansion of the EU to encompass the Eastern European states such as Bulgaria, Romania and Poland was a policy pushed hard by the Eurosceptics.
It was a policy that John Major used to provide some semblance of unity for his Government in making Europe “wider rather than deeper”, i.e. enlarging the Union to prevent the great fear of the Eurosceptics in the 1990s: a Franco/German/Benelux political union.
That it was a Eurosceptic policy that has led inevitably to budget flows from the rich Western European countries to the development of the poorer Eastern European countries and the inevitable flow of workers in the opposite direction is ironic, but also instructive; if we do not fully get involved in the decision-making at the heart of the European project our policies will come back to haunt us.
Another forgotten detail of European history is that when Margaret Thatcher made her famous “No, No, No” speech in Parliament, it was in part against the suggestion of the then European Commission president, Jacques Delores, of making the European Parliament more central to the decision-making process in Europe.
Our approach to Europe has contributed to the European Parliament never being given the rights it should have as the elected body in a democratic organisation. This political inertia, born from our insecurity, now gives a truth to the Brexit arguments of the European organisations as being “undemocratic”.
The above could be answered by the Eurosceptic, quite rightly with a, “well this just shows that we are not invested as a nation and we are better off out of Europe”.
It is a strong argument, and may ultimately be the way we go. The only counter is to go back and understand why the institutions of the European Union were formed in the first place and how, more than ever, in their foundation we find a good reason for staying and playing our part.
The EU was formed from the blood of two world wars.
After the tragedy of the First World War when the mantra of the survivors was “never again” to a Second World War only 20 years later it was clear that a new idea was needed to bind together the European states uniquely sitting so cluttered together and at each others’ throats.
The EU was an idea to bind, economically, legally and politically, those nations together so that they were less likely to kill each other. And for 60 years it worked well for those countries in the EU, if not for all of Europe as the crisis following the breakdown of Yugoslavia testifies.
Then came the great financial crash of 2008, which laid bare the fault lines of a fatally ill-designed monetary union of countries who were not similarly close fiscally.
What is left is a mess, a desperate situation of failed economies, tragically high unemployment and the rise of neo-fascist parties with more than a passing resemblance to the 1930s.
It would be arrogant of us not to learn the lesson of the past and even more arrogant to believe that we can sit in splendid isolation from Europe. The history of the last 2000 years, let alone the last 100 years, makes that clear.
In 2002 Roger Helmer, then a Conservative MEP who later went to UKIP, gave the reasons for the Conservative policy of enlargement of the EU.
He stated the:
“Tory policy on enlargement is clear. We are in favour of it, for three reasons. First, we owe a moral debt to the countries of central and eastern Europe, which were allowed to fall under the pall of communism after the second world war. Second, by entrenching democracy and the rule of law in Eastern Europe, we ensure stability and security for the future. Third, an extra hundred million people in our single market may be a short-term liability, but long term will contribute to growth and prosperity.”
His reasoning seems to assert why keeping the faith in Europe is key.
Further, from climate change to the refugee crisis to tax evasion scandal the great problems we face as a nation are no longer national concerns but supranational in their essence, surely we need to be part of one of the most economically powerful geo-political organisation in the world to have an effective voice?
So, we need to say “yes” to the EU, but an EU where we stand central and ready to remould to provide greater accountability and democracy.
Something that has resonance across Europe as the foundation of organisation diem25 testifies.
There are also lessons to be learnt from the Scottish referendum where the lack of a positive narrative for the union almost lead to a break up.
In the far closer to call EU referendum the current lack of a positive argument is what academics are labelling the “enthusiasm gap”, which may lead to a Brexit even when the majority of people may want to stay in the union.
We are again living in troubled times: history warns us that this is not the time to walk away. It is time to grow up, stop being the sulking teenager of Europe, and become the dynamic, responsible and participating adult member of Europe that the UK and Europe needs.