Sitting in the courtyard of the Café Plùm in Lautrec in the Tarn, one of my favourite haunts, I am reflecting on the notion that the EU has destroyed the national identities of its member states. And asking myself whether anyone who expresses such a view can ever have been to the Café Plùm, or anywhere in the Tarn, or anywhere in France, or indeed anywhere beyond Dover.
I was planning to write three blogs on the referendum: why we should stay; why we should go; and why – on balance – we should stay. But, vital though the issue is, I must admit to feeling bored with it by now. This no longer seems the right moment to go on and on and on about Europe, whatever the point of view. In a way, that has been the the problem for too long. For decades. So it’s just the one blog.
I have a long pedigree as an EU-sceptic. I was opposed to joining the Common Market in the first place. At the 1970 Conservative Party Conference, few hands went up in opposition to Ted Heath’s European policy, but mine was one of them. (One of the others belonged to someone who went on to become Government Chief Whip at the time the Maastricht Treaty went through Parliament. I forget his name now.)
So I don’t need convincing that the EU is bureaucratic, corrupt, incompetent and anti-democratic, nor that the days of the Eurozone, as presently constructed, are almost certainly numbered. I know that. So why did I, quite cheerfully, not at all reluctantly, choose to ignore it and cast my postal vote to remain?
My main reason for opposition in 1970 was this. I felt that nationalist sentiment, poisonous though it might often be, was a fact of life. I also felt that if you tried to suppress strong emotion – whether in an individual’s life or in national life – it would eventually erupt more violently, and often in a perverted form. I felt, therefore, that in attempting to suppress nationalist sentiment, the European movement was in fact making future conflict more likely. I see that the same argument is now being paraded again.
I still think that my original proposition had merit, in theory, and would cite much of 20th century psychology, and especially the writings of Carl Jung, in support of it. But the EU, or its forebears, has now existed for two-thirds of a century, which on the canvas of modern history is quite a long period, and my worst fears have shown no signs of being realised. They still might be realised, of course, but maybe it’s time to start giving the EU the benefit of the doubt. Let me go further. The migrant crisis is vast and will be long-lived. It has already spawned the growth of far-right anti-immigrant parties. I would rather trust a united Europe to resist their further growth than a collection of nation states.
So the first reason for me to want to stay in is that my main original reason for staying out has not so far proved correct. I was wrong. There. That didn’t hurt much, did it? Must try doing it more often.
The second reason is that, like any historian, I am aware that British foreign policy has been based for centuries on trying to prevent the emergence of a single hostile, over-mighty state on the continent of Europe. Sometimes we have resisted such a development by alliances; sometimes it has needed to be by war. Sometimes the fear has been of Spain; sometimes of France; sometimes of Germany.
I am a firm believer in this policy. The circumstances in which it needs to be applied may have changed out of all recognition, but the imperative remains. The over-mighty state already exists. It is called the EU. The question is whether it will also be hostile. Do we best mitigate its potential ill effect on us by being a part of it, or by staying out of it? No more than a nano-second should be required to answer that question.
This is one issue that the Exiters don’t get. They seem to believe that, if we vote to leave, the rest of the EU will shake our hands, say “good luck”, and line up to offer us new trade deals. They seem to have no idea of the fury that will be vented on us if we go. It may not be expressed in public, but anything that can legally be done to bring us down, will be done. Or, in the case of France, anything at all, legal or not. Unlike with the creation of the Euro, when it made sense for global companies to locate inside the EU but outside the Euro, it will make no sense to many of those companies to remain both outside the Euro and outside the EU.
I don’t know whether we would be economically better off if we stayed or if we left, and perhaps neither does anyone else. But, since it is a two-horse race, staying in the EU must be the favourite in the prosperity stakes, and leaving the EU the rank outsider. Of course, rank outsiders sometimes win. But I spent enough of my teenage years bunking off school to betting shops to know that usually they don’t.
Finally, I can’t help but feel that the Exiters are essentially backward looking. They talk of the future, but their hearts are in the past, and in a past that no longer exists. I am not a natural progressive. I don’t believe that things necessarily get better. But, at all times, it is the future that lies before us and, if we don’t embrace it, it will engulf us.
I believe that Britain’s future (and the world’s) lies in more being done internationally and in more being done locally. It is the middle ground that needs to be squeezed, and that – as the Scots will tell you – means Westminster.