I have always instinctively felt that belonging to the European Union is a good thing. This has nothing to do with the concessions David Cameron has succeeded in dragging out of the other heads of Government. They are unlikely to convince anyone, and frankly are a sham – a sop to the Tory Eurosceptics, so that he can claim we can be part of a “reformed European Union”. He may have won a few over, but with Boris and Michael Gove still for coming out, the effort has failed, and has even backfired, as its superficiality has become apparent.
Nationalism lay behind the great conflicts of the twentieth century. The significance of the nation state may have declined in the face of globalization, but we should be wary of it raising its ugly head again. Nationalist parties of various hues grow in strength all over the world, and in Europe are important driving forces behind anti-EU sentiment. In the face of mass movements of people across borders and economic decline their popular appeal is in danger of increasing, together with all kinds of xenophobia, suspicion and nastiness. It is ironic that on the centenary of the start of the brutal battle of Verdun, which saw the two great European powers, France and Germany, seeking to destroy each other, questions should be raised about the value of the European project.
However, what makes Europe and its institutions even more important now is the decline of the nation state as a viable political and economic unit. Considering the immense global challenges we all face, the idea that the key to our welfare and prosperity is political and economic independence is foolish and dangerous. In particular, the growing power of international capital, the global reach of the internet and the threat of climate change demand an effective international response. It is vital that Europe, with its long shared struggle towards freedom, democracy and co-operation, should play its part in that response. The world needs to hear the voice of Europe, and the UK is an integral and needed part of that voice.
Europeans have many different ideas about themselves, and different ambitions for their continent. Some seek a federal State. Others see Europe as a means of economic advantage. Others love its cultural richness. The fact that the European idea takes many forms is a challenge, but our shared history and collective identity is a reality that cannot be denied.
It is natural that many UK politicians, used to wielding power, feel threatened at the prospect of sharing it with foreignors. The political culture in this country, particularly on the right, with its historical ties to the monarchy, to Empire and to the aristocracy, is jealously guarded by those who have been strongly influenced by it, and whose political education has been shaped by it. Partnership with the different traditions of the continent, however, is an enriching, and potentially liberating experience for our political life as a nation. We are not the only ones who believe in democracy and freedom.
It is time for the narrow and outdated introversion of those who want to stand aloof from Europe to be shown up for what it is. We need to play a full and generous part in shaping Europe from the inside, for the sake of the UK and the rest of the world.
Peter Shepherd (February 2016)