Britain in Europe: learning from the long view

Everyone in the UK, and in London especially, has been waiting for London’s mayor to express a view on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. We now know: in the national referendum that’s been called for June 23, the likeable Old Etonian Boris Johnson has decided to declare for the Out campaign. Prime Minister David Cameron is furious. And the pound has dropped three cents against the dollar.

Mr Johnson has been accused of promoting an alternative view ahead of his expected bid for the PM’s job some time in the next three years. But he has also held lengthy discussions with Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, two Conservative ministers who, however unpopular in some quarters, are undoubtedly big thinkers. Mr Johnson is also a thinker, albeit a playboy too. The scion of seriously political parents, he has written a history of imperial Rome and an assessment of Churchill.

No one could accuse Mr Johnson of not having thought deeply about the UK’s options; he has said, himself, that the process that led him to his decision was tortuous. Ultimately, what decided him in favour of leaving was his worry about Brussels’s lack of democracy—the inability to vote its leaders out of office and the difficulty of challenging its mandarin class of civil servants—combined with the prospect of Europe’s sleepwalking into a federal superstate.

These are also the fears of the UK’s most marginal political figures, including the UK Independence Party, whose growing popularity it was that prompted the Prime Minister to commit to a referendum in the first place.

But this is not how the debate has been framed by the more centrist parties.

The primary issue has been economic. According to the Prime Minister, Britain is benefitting hugely from the status quo and will only suffer if it leaves. A second and more recent issue is that of immigration which, fuelled by the Syrian migrant crisis, has highlighted the cost of benefits paid to new arrivals.

The Prime Minister has attempted to appease critics by calling on the EU for concessions and internal reforms. Few have been impressed by what his negotiations have achieved or by the certainty that Brussels will deliver the goods if a Yes vote is achieved. (Michael Gove, the UK’s Secretary of State for Justice, now says that any referendum vote that displeases Europe could be overturned by the European Court of Justice, which sits above all member nations.)

It is for this reason that Mr Johnson argues that a decisive and once-in-a-lifetime break is needed: Britain will either be better off by placing itself beyond the reach of the EU or, by its departure, will shame the EU into reforming itself, making possible the UK’s later re-entry in the unlikely event that a less arrogant Europe emerges.

There is, however, a bigger approach to the European argument and it requires a broader vision. The question of Britain’s economic welfare cannot be answered definitively: it’s a coin toss whether the UK is better off in or out, and there are any number of models that advocates can quote, and any number of experts who can deploy them.

Historically, however, Europe isn’t just about economic competitiveness but political stability and peace, and its problems go back more than a millennium. Following the death of Charlemagne in 814, the empire that he founded was broken into three regions, the central one of which (a zone separating modern France from modern Germany) went on to be disputed by the other two repeatedly over the next 1,200 years, leading to Germany’s invading France three times between 1870 and 1940.

The very purpose of the European Union, as conceived by Jean Monnet after the Second World War, was primarily to lock France and Germany into a peaceful union. The participation of other states was only secondary. Monnet’s concept is problematic in two respects, however.

First, he did not anticipate that the EU would expand eastwards. The present membership of 28 nations makes the EU a decidedly Central European rather than Western European phenomenon. That gives Germany a massive geographic advantage, quite apart from its having always been Eastern Europe’s capitalist partner of choice during the days of Soviet Communism. France, by contrast, is left looking stranded on Europe’s western edge.

Second, the original conception of the EU gave prime importance to the polarity between France and Germany. This locked these two dominant economic powers into a state of permanent suspended opposition, relegating all other political questions to subsidiary importance.

The presence of Britain as an EU member makes Europe a considerably healthier place. It dilutes German-French polarity and gives enhanced importance to the agendas of all other member nations. In addition, its position off the continental shelf helps restore Europe’s overall balance.

In short, Britain in Europe equalises the stakes for all and makes the EU a fairer institution. Irrespective of the financial and bureaucratic flaws that rightly offend us, Britain is the country best placed to guarantee the harmony of a continent that has proved, over centuries, to be implacably fractious. That may count for much more than the details of economic gain here and there.

There are other issues. If the UK pulls out of Europe, it will re-open other dangerous polarities. To the west, the nationalism of Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland is likely to be re-ignited against the nationalism and Europeanism of the South.

Meanwhile, to the north, Scotland will undoubtedly respond to a No vote by detaching itself from the UK and embedding itself as a separate nation in Europe, creating a new land border from Berwick to Carlisle that Britain hasn’t seen, and hasn’t been troubled by, for 300 years.

Many in the UK fail to appreciate the conditions that have created the stability they now enjoy. They therefore think they can safely abandon them. This is short sighted and delusory. The natural condition of Europe is one of constant and violent unrest; fortunately, a Europe has emerged from two world wars to enjoy peace and cooperation. It would be a terrible mistake to throw that achievement away, because it was hard won and won’t be easily won back.

The alternative—nationalism—starts out as a lovely dream but, as we have seen, habitually turns into a toxic nightmare.

PS: Why run this story in the Times of Israel? Because there’s a message here for the whole Middle East.

About the Author
Stephen Games is a designer, editor and award-winning architectural historian, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has been involved in synagogue activism for many years, and is in his spare time editing various volumes of the Tanach.