As a German national living in Britain for two decades, I have followed the political debate on whether the UK should stay in, or leave, the European Union (EU) with utter dismay. The two official campaigns have prophesied disaster of biblical proportion in the event of Britain either exiting (Brexit) or remaining (Bremain). Economic doomsday and a return to the violent state of nature in case of Brexit, as the “In” camp would have us believe. Alternatively, subjugation to a sinister super-state and marauding masses of migrants in case of Bremain, so say the “Out” camp.
All the hysteria and hyperbole is neither educating the public nor speaking to the millions of undecided voters. So much for referenda as an alternative to parliamentary democracy. Only when Jo Cox MP, a Member of the British House of Commons, was killed by a far-right activist shouting “Britain First” did the two campaigns pause and adopt a more honorable tone.
The contrast with the rest of the country could hardly have been more marked. Not unlike the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, the public debate was vibrant and engaged many people who had been alienated from party politics. By cutting across old ideological lines, there was a genuine contest of ideas that touched on key issues of prosperity, security, and identity.
Amid the backlash against global capitalism, a new politics is emerging that centers on notions of place and belonging. Globalization is not turning the world into a vast cosmopolitan monoculture. On the contrary, we have seen a surge in nationalism and tribalism; a proliferation of struggles for devolution and self-determination; and a renewed concern about ethnicity, shared culture, and patriotism.
In the case of Britain, the task is to marry metropolitan modernity with English small “c” conservative culture, linking them together in a sense of national purpose. It would acknowledge and incorporate all the things both London and Brussels elites have dismissed as anachronisms: tradition; a respect for settled ways of life; a sense of local place and belonging; a desire for home and rootedness; the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighborhood. Far from being reactionary or jingoistic, this is a call to rediscover English, Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish patriotism in popular culture, in language and in the historical narratives and practices of the people.
Unfortunately the official campaigns were dominated by a combination of abstract statistics and personal insults. What is worse than the absurd claims and counterclaims is the failure by both sides to address the fundamental questions at stake. What would be the effect of Brexit on the country, on Europe and the rest of the West? Which kind of EU would Britain leave or remain a member of? How might the UK shape the EU and the world going forward?
It is true that the European project was set up to solve a problem that Britain never had—to create the conditions for peace and prosperity among nations that had been dominated by totalitarianisms of the far left and far right. In spite of successive waves of enlargement that all UK governments actively supported, the EU has tended to centralize, which is unacceptable for many Britons who do not wish to be ruled by either Germany or France—or indeed both at once.
As an island country, Britain has developed differently from the rest of Europe, building an economy on maritime trade and developing distinct political institutions based on common law and a non-codified constitution. Thus most Brits do not feel nearly as involved in Europe as their continental counterparts—the English even more so than the Scots or the Welsh.
Herein lies the greatest danger for the UK. A vote to leave the EU (especially if the people of Scotland and Wales vote to remain) is likely to trigger the breakup of the British Union, as it would give the Scottish a legitimate reason—a change in their own material circumstances—to demand a second independence referendum. Then there is the issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland where the peace process has been helped by membership of all parts of the British Isles in the EU.
Advocates of Brexit claim that the EU itself is a threat to peace and prosperity—not just inside the Eurozone but across all 28 member-states. They invoke last year’s report of the five presidents of the EU institutions, which advocates strengthening the monetary union by 2025, creating a Eurozone treasury, and moving toward full-blown political union. Brexiteers claim that this will hijack the whole EU, dominating the Brussels institutions and extending central power over national affairs.
But the truth is that the five presidents report, far from laying down a roadmap to the future, is a relic of a past idealism about a supranational Europe. A federal super-state has no mainstream political or popular support in any of the big member-states: not even the countries of the Eurozone that are willing to agree to a banking union—never mind a fiscal or a political union.
And let’s not forget that the French and the Dutch comprehensively defeated the Constitutional Treaty in 2005. Since then power has flown from the EU back to the national level, reflecting Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges lecture in which she opposed a Single European State—a position that is now shared by most member-states.
Echoing Mrs. Thatcher, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued in her 2010 Bruges speech that the future of the EU lies with the “union method” of coordinated action by national governments, as opposed to the “community method” of automatic supranational integration favored by the Commission. Unsurprisingly, all the key decisions on Eurozone bailouts and the migration crisis were taken by the major member-states, above all Germany.
Yet Berlin remains a reluctant leader. In a recent interview with the weekly magazine Der Spiegel, the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble described Britain as Europe’s leading nation. Paradoxically, it is Brexit that would leave the rest of the EU exposed to a German hegemony that Germany does not want and everybody else fears.
Throughout modern history Britain has acted as a bridge between different parts of Europe to secure a balance of power and prevent the dominance of any one continental power. That’s in the best interest of both Britain and the rest of Europe.
If Bremain wins, the country would be a member of an EU that is going Britain’s way. Mr Schäuble, in the same interview, was adamant that a British vote to stay in the EU should not be seen as a mandate to proceed with further integration. On the contrary, the mainstream parties now need to recognize that European elites are seen as distant, alien, and unaccountable—ruling over people’s lives while ignoring their concerns.
But with first-past-the-post and hundreds of safe seats in the UK, it is a bit of myth to claim that British voters can simply throw out their representatives at the next election. That’s a privilege reserved for swing voters living in marginal seats. Above all, there is nothing about EU membership that is stopping the UK from devolving power to the people. Rather than blaming Brussels, Britain can renew her own best traditions of self-government.
Ultimately, both national and EU elites are similarly guilty of patronizing people by dismissing as anachronisms some of the things they value most: work, family, place, neighborliness, national language, and tradition. The remote bureaucracy of the EU is a symbol of this contempt, though not its only cause.
In the final instance, the decision whether to stay or to go is about the kind of country Britain is. The pro-Brexit camp claims that the UK should escape the constricting shackles of Europe and embrace the rest of the world, starting with the United States and the rest of the Anglosphere. This flies in the face of geography, history, and culture all at once. Throughout modern history, Europe has been fundamental to Britain’s identity and national interest.
To leave is to hover mid-Atlantic, unhinged from her natural mooring and leaving Europe even more divided than it already it—and along with the rest of the West that faces formidable challenges from Islamic State and a rising China. Just as EU membership is a “force multiplier” that enhances British power, so Britain’s participation strengthens the Union at home and in the world.
Faced with the threats of terrorism and economic depression in the south, the EU is staring at the prospect of disintegration and perhaps even collapse. Brexit could trigger a domino effect and lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of a European continent in terminal decline. And after Brexit, Britain would fear a messy breakup of the rest of the EU, as it would be swept up into its turbulent wake.
What is perhaps most paradoxical is that the UK is uniquely positioned to shape the direction of the EU precisely because it is outside the Eurozone and the Schengen area that are eroding the European project. The choice for Britain is between leading and leaving.