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Should Britain Stick With The EU?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 05 February 2016
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‘It is the heart always that sees before the head can see,’ wrote Thomas Carlyle.

I don’t know how Thomas Carlyle, a gifted social commentator, would have voted in the forthcoming British referendum on EU membership. Perhaps, being a Scot, he might immediately have made up his mind to stay.

If so, he would have been in the minority among UK voters, according to a new poll. It suggests that 45 per cent of people will vote to leave the EU, compared with 36 per cent who favour remaining.

If the ‘don’t knows’ in the survey are excluded, a full 56 per cent favour waving goodbye to the EU. This despite Prime Minister Cameron’s assurances that he can wrest a better deal for Britain from the hands of the EU.

Perhaps closer to the referendum – a date has not yet been fixed – people will opt to stay with what they know, after all, rather than going it alone. But recent problems within the Eurozone and terribly mixed messages about migration will add new levels of uncertainty about whether the status quo is sustainable anyway.

For my part, on the question of whether Britain stays in the EU, the heart says a resounding and definite ‘yes’, but the mind’s not so sure.

I lived in Denmark for ten years and have lived in the UK for twelve. I’ve travelled and worked extensively across the EU throughout that time. I, like so many others, have seen firsthand the benefits in terms of travel, trade and the easy exchange of ideas and technologies.

Throughout Europe’s history, feelings of cross-border antipathy have so often boiled over into all-out confrontation.

The original architects of the EU foresaw a time when Europeans – and their political masters – might share so much in common that going to war would be recognised as, at the very least, counter-productive.

Each time I hand my red passport to a travel official in another EU country I realise that in my heart I am a Europhile. Emotionally, I want Europe to work.

Yet my head says, ‘hold on a minute; there’s an elephant in the room.’

That elephant, though huge and ponderous, can be summed up rather elegantly in just three words: ‘ever closer union’. They’re short words, but even a small elephant can cast a long shadow.

The idea of a growing unity between its members states is central to the founding documents of the European Union. Sadly, however, the founders did not let us in on their secret, the exact meaning of ‘ever closer union’.

Does it refer to an increasingly porous trading bloc, with growing opportunities for mobility and for collaboration on pressing problems at home and abroad? Or does ‘ever closer union’ mean, eventually, a European super-state, a United States of Europe?

I’d be in favour of one of those options, but not the other.

While EU apparatchiks won't talk about a total political union, at least in public, their collective decisions often betray a desire to consolidate power in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Earlier this week I joined a news debate on the EU referendum on BBC TV. A fellow guest suggested that speaking about ever closer union – at least in its obvious political sense – simply allows the debate to be hijacked by emotion.

Actually, this is not an emotive issue as much as a philosophical one. Everything else hangs on it.

If we further reduce the sovereignty of nations within Europe, we move government one huge step further away from the governed. We also remove from the administration and practice of jurisprudence the rich history which nations like Britain bring to it.

A Europe with a unified political system would place too much power in the hands of as yet unelected bureaucrats.

It would also deny the fact that where Europe is strong, it is strong because of its underlying mix of unity with diversity.

Europe’s cultural diversity is a large part of what makes it interesting and attractive as a place to live and work. I think it also potentially heightens Europe’s ability to be creative and to inspire inventiveness.

Stamping a false political uniformity on Europe would only weaken its diversity and reduce its capacity for innovation.

A failure to recognise diversity has already caused havoc in Europe.

Arguably, a partial explanation for the recent Euro crisis is the EU’s failure to identify vast differences in cultural attitudes to such things as taxation, benefits, nepotism and more.

There is a huge degree of divergence on these things, between Europe’s north and south, for example. Until new, the EU has largely attempted to paper over the cracks with Euro cash and it’s clearly not working.

Meanwhile, a level of mass migration unseen in the world since World War 2 is now revealing stark disparities on the issue of immigration.

Keeping Europe working together will not simply be a matter of stamping on it a false uniformity, through a United States of Europe.

Because there are large cultural differences in attitudes to many things, a certain amount of fluidity is going to have to be a key feature of the EU’s future.

The EU is often called the ‘European experiment’. As such, it surely requires that our political leaders strive for unity – with diversity – in ways that may not have been attempted before.

Falling back on the notion that centralising power is the best solution to all problems will not be good enough!

My heart hopes that the UK will remain within the EU, but my head wants to see it allow for more national sovereignty and accountability, which are cornerstones of modern democracy. I think a great many Brits feel the same way.

Watch Mal Fletcher's BBC TV responses to this issue:

What’s your view?

Should Britain stay within the EU?



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