So here I am in England just a couple of days before the big referendum that will determine whether we stay in the European Union. The title of today’s blog is taken from the song by the Clash and is used by the BBC as a somewhat tongue in cheek intro to their referendum coverage. Unfortunately, nothing about this critical decision is ‘tongue in cheek’ as the ramifications of the decision about to be made by the citizens of the United Kingdom could have far reaching consequences. Severing ties with the Union may extend well beyond the economy and result in increased pressure for Scottish independence or even lead to further desertions and the eventual break up of the European Union itself.
So why does it matter? Didn’t we exist for hundreds of years prior to the inception of the European project? In fact, one of the most compelling features of the years since the end of the Second World War is the absence of conflict initiated between any of the European nations. Between the mid 19th Century and the end of the Second World War there were more than 30 wars involving more than one European nation. Since that time, there have been no military conflicts between European nations in an unprecedented era of peace. One of the compelling reasons behind the push for greater unity was the very need to avoid the devastating destruction of human life caused by the two world wars originating in Europe during the 20th century.
Of course, it is sometimes hard to relate these noble ideals with current realities in a Europe with its volatile economy and overbearing bureaucracy. But, the underlying desire to work together and settle our differences across tables in Brussels instead of trenches in the Somme is far preferable to what went before. Unfortunately, the debate in the UK has turned acrimonious and riddled with unreliable propaganda emanating from both Leave and Remain camps. Focus has typically sought to appeal to the base instincts of the electorate; how much they stand to lose or gain, what they should fear instead of turning our attentions to the greater good and the health of the broader community.
For me, the issue is one of promoting unity, removing barriers and seeking to work together for the greater good and not any individual or nation’s self interest. Projected onto the national level, I favor the softening of national boundaries and the encouragement of shared culture, without necessarily losing all the good things that make us unique. Let’s face it though, the forces of nationalism were at the heart of many of the horrendous conflicts that have plagued the European scene over the last 200 years and before. The rise in popularity of far right political groups fueled by terrorist acts and the fear of the foreigner has only added fuel to the argument that we are better on our own. But at the heart of this exclusive nationalist agenda are undercurrents of racism and discrimination that are best left well in the past.
While there are many problems with the current political entity known as the European Union, it is inevitable that political union will engender compromise and not a small amount of grinning and bearing. We will not always agree, and our disagreements may sometimes greatly inconvenience us as we struggle to find solutions for the many problems we face. But we are better in than out, where we can at least influence the direction in which these nations seek to move. We can even fight for the rights of our citizens where national interest needs to be preserved. We cannot fight if we are not in the room. I am saddened by the tone of the debate that has unfolded in my country of birth, and on Friday morning, there will be much healing needed as almost half those who voted will disagree with the result. I hope the majority will vote to stay and clearly this is my preference, but I trust too, that it will herald a move towards greater acceptance, cooperation and tolerance as together we Europeans seek to set an example of the values that promote peace and unity across our borders.