The United Kingdom is choosing between two very different futures in today’s EU referendum: Opinion

By on 23/06/2016
Matt Ross argues "The European Union is built on the belief that collaboration serves us all better than conflict"

As voters go to the polls in the UK’s EU referendum, Matt Ross argues that much of the campaign has missed the bigger picture – and that Europe’s security could rest on the result

Today the UK makes a big decision – and we’ve heard too many small debates.

British citizens’ heads are full of arguments on the economy, immigration, sovereignty, trade, democracy and regulation. But each has been skewed in a thousand media reports, distorted by a thousand suspect politicians. If people want to believe that leaving the EU won’t harm our economy or that David Cameron’s EU-approved benefits reforms will cut immigration, they can find a quote or a factoid to reassure themselves.

The EU isn’t easy to love. National politicians have kept its parliament weak, because if it was properly democratic or accountable they’d have to give it more of their powers. And no nation likes to be overruled, so the voting systems require near-consensus: that means horse-trading; sclerotic decision-making; an inability to reform; an absence of leadership. The EU is a civil service run by 28 competing governments – no wonder it’s dysfunctional.

But there’s a much bigger picture. For hundreds of years, Europe was a battlefield: a patchwork of competing tribes and factions, each united around a national identity. For centuries, we fought for space in a zero-sum game where one’s gain meant another’s loss. It took us two world wars to try to find a way past identity politics, narrow nationalism and cultural competition. That way was the EU.

The European Union is built on the belief that collaboration serves us all better than conflict; that we share this continent, and need to share its management; that we all thrive when we work together. It’s about looking for what unites us rather than what separates us; for common humanity rather than narrow parochialism. And it worked. There has never been an armed conflict within the EU. Our economies have grown massively. For millennia, we made all the biggest wars; but for 70 years, we’ve been the safest and most stable group of nations on earth.

If you think that we’ve somehow evolved past the risk of conflict within Europe, you don’t know enough history. Before World War I, the consensus was that the huge growth in international trade tied our economies together so closely that war was unthinkable; economic self-interest, the thinking went, would keep the peace. Yet nationalism, rivalry and leaders’ egos proved more powerful. After World War I, the League of Nations was established to manage international tensions. But key members began to ignore its rulings, and its authority collapsed; the United Nations is in a similar position today.

David Cameron was ridiculed for pointing to the EU’s importance in preventing conflict. Yet those who laughed at him suffer from the illusion that affects every new generation: that somehow these are exceptional times. Certainly, our economies and technologies have advanced. But look around you: have our politics and our group identities evolved so as to eradicate the risk of war? Tell that to the Ukrainians, the Georgians, the Turks – war-torn nations on Europe’s borders, sitting just outside the safety of the EU. These are not exceptional times; instead, in the EU we created an exceptional institution.

That institution is under threat, on several fronts. It over-reached itself with the euro project, creating internal stresses laid bare by the credit crunch. And the resurgence of nationalism and its contemporary twin sister, identity politics– both within Europe and on its fringes – is a huge danger. For these are the very forces that the EU was created to challenge; the philosophical counterpoint to the internationalism and collaborative working on which the European Union was built. They are the kryptonite to the EU’s doddery, pigeon-chested Superman.

There are plenty who’d like us to separate ourselves from one another; who prefer a group identity to a common humanity. Sunni Islamist fundamentalists – the ultimate identity politicians – and western neo-cons can’t wait to bring the ‘clash of civilisations’ to a head. Putin’s Russia, powerful, unprincipled and deeply nationalist, would love to play Europe’s nations off against one another. The nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland enjoy the EU’s subsidies and economic opportunities, but in countries like France, Holland, Sweden and Denmark, EU-hating nationalists are close to power. And in the UK, of course, we have UKIP.

Fifty years ago, the global battle was one of political and economic philosophies; today, it is fought on the narrow, reactionary stage of religious and cultural identities. And the key struggle is not the dead-end conflict between the fundamentalist identity politicians on every side. Instead, it is the one between the nationalists and the internationalists: between the people who see the world as a battle between their self-defined fraction of humanity and everyone else, and the people who prefer to reach out through the inherited clutter of culture, language and tradition, working with our fellow humans in our common interests.

Right now, the nationalists are in the ascendant; and if the UK leaves the EU, the European project will be badly damaged. Our exit would represent a victory for narrow self-interest. And if one major country rejects compromise and collective action in the belief that we’re better off alone, other countries’ citizens will push for their leaders to do the same. Nationalists would be empowered; the forces pulling us apart would grow, and those pulling us together would be weakened.

Perhaps you think that global collective action is always doomed to failure? That humans are so weak and so flawed that we can’t move beyond these narrow national identities? Yet for seven decades, the EU has preserved internal peace. And what’s the alternative? A Europe of competing nation-states, each built around a group identity and battling once again in that mad, illusory zero-sum game?

The EU may be flawed, but it’s the only one we’ve got. If we go marching off into the sunset, we not only isolate and weaken ourselves, but also damage the institution that has kept Europe’s rivalries in check. And leaving would not protect us from the consequences of those rivalries; it would merely rob us of our ability to help control them.

My grandparents saw two world wars; but my parents have lived peaceful lives in a wealthy, open and stable western Europe, and so have I. Above all, I want my children to form ­– for the first time in modern history – a third European generation to live without war. That will require people to wind down their parochial loyalties in favour of a broader identity; to compromise their short-term desires in pursuit of their long-term interests; to look outwards rather than inwards. And that, in turn, requires the EU.

Sometimes, an argument looks so big that it appears out of place. But this was the EU’s founding argument, and it mustn’t get lost amidst all the chatter about economics and immigration. The Brits are uncomfortable because thousands of Europeans have come here to live, work and settle down; to join our ever more diverse society. But in my grandparents’ days those Europeans were carrying guns, not plumbing tools.

Time then to step back from the minutiae, and consider the big picture. Time to view the EU within its historic context. Time to remember that there are emotional arguments to remain as well as to leave. Are we better together, or apart? For me, the answer is clear; and tomorrow, we’ll know which fork in the road we have chosen. Collaboration or conflict? It’s time to focus on the big arguments – for this is a very, very big decision.

The views in this article are the personal opinions of Matt Ross, and are not set out as the editorial stance of Global Government Forum

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See also:

Clash over civil service advice in EU referendum

Bank of England’s independence under threat in EU referendum row

EU issues Poland with official warning over constitutional court changes

Sir Paul Jenkins, former UK Treasury Solicitor: EU Referendum interview

Managing the EU Migration Crisis

European Parliament orders Poland’s government to reverse changes to country’s top court

A family reunification dilemma for the EU

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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