It is a full seven years since the Referendum, which demonstrated that a fraction over half of the British population (or a fraction over half of those who could be bothered to vote) placed no value on Britain’s membership of the European Community. Over the following years, many of us have spent varying amounts of time in campaigning to “Remain” or, subsequently, to “Rejoin”.
It has been a tough battle and one that has only made progress because of the blistering incompetence of the Conservative government, which has been populated by entitled dilettantes with little concept of coherent policy in any area, least of all Brexit. If the needle has swung, it is because of the manifest failure of Brexit, rather than any positive enthusiasm for the EU.
Maybe the veil will lift, and the British people will suddenly see reason. Maybe they will grudgingly accept that EU membership is the least bad option. Maybe there will be one of those tectonic shifts that suddenly makes our future membership obvious. And, not least, maybe we can convince 27 national governments that the UK is at last a reliable partner and not prone to a hokey-cokey approach to Europe with each change of government. Maybe we should be working harder to “sell” the positive aspects of EU membership?
Perhaps the rot started with the transactional, economic view with which Britain – much of the political class particularly – has viewed the Common Market and subsequently EU membership? How much of the press verbiage over the years has been directed at making sure that we gained the last ounce of financial benefit from our membership? There is nothing wrong with fighting our corner and our contribution to the common cause over the years was a significant one, but it is as if the only calculation of the benefits of membership should be in pounds and pence.
Perhaps we should go back to the very beginnings of the EU – the very seedlings from which it was born.
Between 1870 and 1945, there were three major wars between France and Germany (with Great Britain engaged in the last two). It would be hard to understate the hatred that existed in 1945, in the wake of events like the massacre at Oradour towards the end of the war and the revenge taken on collaborators shortly afterwards. The direct experience of occupation and fighting on our soil was one that the UK was spared and, with it, the visceral emotions stirred up by war. We remained semi-detached and exceptional.
In the period of post-war reconstruction, the declaration in 1950 by the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, provided the basis for the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community. This was intended not only as a step towards economic development but also to ensure that, in the future, neither country had the means to wage war on the other.
“The pooling of coal and steel production should immediately provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development as a first step in the federation of Europe, and will change the destinies of those regions which have long been devoted to the manufacture of munitions of war, of which they have been the most constant victims.
“The solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.”
That initiative was followed not only by the first steps towards the European Community that we know today, but also by joint military equipment programmes that ensured mutual dependency for production of key weapons systems, including the HOT, Milan and Roland guided missiles.
In 1987, President Mitterand and Bundeskanzler Kohl agreed to the creation of the Franco-German Brigade, a joint military unit, which became operational in 1989. That, too, has evolved into the wider Eurocorps, set up formally in 2004 by the Treaty of Strasbourg, now with 6 participating members and commanded by a Polish General.
In the space of 75 years, countries that were devastated by war have deliberately created a mutual dependency on each other for military equipment and are prepared to contribute elements of their armed forces to form part of a single European military formation. Within a lifetime, the legacies of the 1940s have been set aside in order to create a shared future.
Few of us alive today will have any personal memory of the war or can truly appreciate how far other European nations have progressed. Key to this has been the cultural element of the EU, bringing younger generations together to live, learn, work and love across national borders. 80 years ago, our parents were living the nightmares of present-day Ukrainians or Israelis or Palestinians. By contrast, we have lived largely at peace, and it can be hard to imagine the conflicts of earlier generations.
We should not have to imagine. As recently as the 1990s, bombs were going off in mainland UK. A key part of ending the war in our own back yard – euphemistically referred to as “The Troubles” – was provided by our membership of the EU. By minimising the importance of the border in Ireland and by enabling an ambiguity about nationality, some of the obvious signs of division were reduced. Travel to Croatia in the EU for a holiday and the reminders of the breakup of former Yugoslavia are still visible. Travel to Bosnia, outside the EU and the scars remain raw with two separate communities in an uneasy truce.
The opening words of the Schuman Declaration of 1950 stated,
“World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”
And that is what is so utterly contemptible about the efforts of our former Home Secretary casually to provoke the battle of the Cenotaph (of all places) and of the politically- resurrected David Cameron to have called the Referendum and, amongst other things, carelessly put at risk the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland.
Any fool can destroy. Building is much harder.
Perhaps we need to start building again; indeed, perhaps we should have started seven years ago to remind people that the EU is not just about money. And perhaps, in an increasingly volatile world, we should emphasise the extent to which the EU and its predecessors have moved us away from the war-torn Europe of previous generations. It is blindingly obvious to the new nations that were part of former Yugoslavia and to Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. However, in our exceptionalist view of the world, it is something that, apparently, we cannot or will not see.