We now know the main themes of the EU referendum campaign. On one side, trust and risk-aversion. Confronting that, mistrust and anger. In the middle, Euro-scepticism and paradox. David Cameron, the candidate of trust and risk-aversion, intends to capture the middle ground. He proposes to fight a Euro-sceptic campaign. He will proclaim – truthfully – that he has never had any emotional attachment to the EU. If he believed that it were in Britain’s interests to do so, he would vote to leave without a backward glance. But he is convinced that it is in our interests to stay.
This is where the paradox comes in. As soon as he has concluded a deal with our European partners, Mr Cameron will start to criticise them. He will argue that unless they deregulate their economies, they will condemn themselves to low growth and high unemployment. This could lead to social and political instability. There is an obvious retort. Why then, O Prime Minister, should Britain have anything to do with such a confusion of poltroons and populists? There is an equally obvious response. Because they are our nearest neighbours. Almost half of our trade goes to the EU. It is in our interests as well as theirs that they should reform their economies. Free trade enriches everyone, and economic growth promotes free trade. If we remained members of the EU, we could influence its policies. If we cut ourselves adrift, we would be more at the mercy of its failures.
Those of a religious persuasion may choose to thank God for creating the English Channel. Those who are confident of their good standing with the Almighty might gently suggest that He should have made it wider. But given the geo-political playing field that we are stuck with, our fortunes are inextricably linked with Europe’s. If things go badly for them – as they usually do – we suffer. That is one reason for refusing to condemn the EU outright. It and its institutional predecessors have helped to rescue Europe from the double dosage of original sin with which it appears to have been afflicted. On balance, the EU has been good for Europe and the world – and for the UK.
At this point, a mistrustful Brexiter might see his opportunity. He would argue that even if this had been true, it refers to the past. Largely by statist-based economics, the EU was able to pull its nations away from the abyss. But the world has moved on. The solutions which seemed appropriate in 1945 no longer work. Above all, that is true of political union.
For obvious reasons, the founding fathers of the EU despaired of the nation state. The very successes of the EU render that distrust obsolete. Yet by pressing ahead with the single currency when there is no democratic mandate for political union, the EU is in danger of jeopardising its own achievements. Economic failure, mass unemployment creating an alienated youth, political instability: does that remind anyone of a pre-War decade? Perhaps a British withdrawal might bring the rest to their senses.
The answer to that is simple: no. Although the mistrustful Brexiter has a point, his analysis does not cut deep enough. He is not paying sufficient attention to the profound cultural factors which underlie current politics. Ask one of Her Majesty’s subjects whether he is proud of his country and its history. Unless he is a chippy little sod who is waiting to be appointed to Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, the answer is likely to be a resounding, full-hearted, allegiance-affirming ‘Yes.’ Ask a Frenchman, a German, an Italian, a Spaniard – and even among those whose souls crave the joy of patriotism, its constantly-renewed secular baptism, everything is much more complicated.
That is one reason why the UK is widely resented on the continent. They are trying to come to terms with their past: to forgive themselves for war crimes, military defeats – and military victories. They have a chronic need to persuade themselves that their nationality is not an hereditas damnosa. We seem content to swan in or out, making book-keeping calculations on the basis of pounds and pence, wholly uninterested in the perilous grandeur, the vital existential importance, of the European project.
On this side of the Channel, the homme moyen Anglo-Saxon pragmatist will find all of that horrifying. They are using the EU as a form of psycho-therapy. Good luck to them. We do not need psycho-therapy, so we are off. Let them get on with their angst. All we want is a free-trade deal.
That would all be well and good, if we lived in a rational Europe. But the French, even while priding themselves on their rationalism, prefer their fantasy of Europe as a French jockey on a German horse. The Germans are still trying to forgive themselves for being German and for the way in which they bullied their neighbours to obey the Reich – while continuing to bully them into obeying the Euro-Reich.
We do not live in a rational Europe. On a twenty year view, once the war generation has died out and if the Euro could be prevented from strangling the economies of half of Europe and the life chances of its young citizens, political rationality might be possible. Once that happened, it would be safe for us to leave the EU – and there would no longer be tempting arguments in favour of doing so. In the mean time, we are safer off in.
While we can be sure that David Cameron will deploy few if any of the arguments stated above, they do identify a core position which should commend itself to Euro-sceptics. We live in a world full of risk. Indeed, there are no obvious geo-political grounds for optimism. A few years ago, everyone was enthusing about the Brics. Now, some of them have turned to straw. What will happen to China and Saudi Arabia over the next few months? Even if the answer turns out to be ‘nothing dramatic’, how long will that last? Britain itself is looking good. We have a growing presence in all the industries of the future. Large numbers of the most intelligent and energetic young people in the world want to come and work here. We are in a better position to thrive than almost any other major economy.
But we cannot escape the vulnerabilities and hazards of a fragile global economy. If we left the EU, the sun would still rise. But it is impossible to predict the consequences for foreign investment and free-ish trade. There is too much uncertainty already. This is no time to embrace more. The shrewdest of all Tory aphorisms was coined by Lord Falkland, not long before he was killed in the Civil War. Centuries later, the tragedy of his early death is still haunting: the phrase, still wise. ‘When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.’
Today, apropos the EU, it is not necessary to change. David Cameron should be able to persuade enough voters of that: to persuade enough of those who are doubtful that in current circumstances, Euro-sceptics should be in favour of continued British membership.