Today marks the beginning of the official British campaign on the European Union referendum of our continued membership of this pan-European organisation. I say the official campaign as in practice the debate has been raging pretty much since the day we joined in before I was even born. It’s probably the most divisive political argument in decades and the voting intentions are split almost exactly 50%-%50.
If Britain and the EU had a Facebook status page then it would definitely be listed as “It’s Complicated” but why is this? The reasons go back a long time, centuries before the EU was created and a lot of it is down to history.
The U.K. is obviously an island nation with borders that haven’t been permanently breached in almost 1,000 years. This gave the islands security and permanence with the chance to develop strong institutions such as the Monarch, the Church and Parliament which has given us a stability perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Whilst the rest of Europe was often embroiled with ethnic wars, turmoil and an inward point of view, Britain was always more open to the rest of the world, both in terms of outgoing occupying, settling and trading with it but also incoming in terms of ideas, peoples and cultures. In fact of all the continents in the world, the British probably left Europe alone the most, the rest of the world was much more interesting for good reasons and bad.
Whilst we have happily sucked up some of the best elements of European culture over the centuries, we have generally found Europe to be a little bit of a drag. I would never have voted for Mrs Thatcher but as she once put it, all the problems our country has ever faced, has always been from Europe with a rocky road with France in particular but also Spain, Russia and even the Netherlands. Not to mention the legendary spats with Germany. Just as a section of the American population feels or felt fed up with having to get embroiled in European wars, we feel it just as bad. The overwhelming memory of WW2 is not one of a righteous and against all odds victory but the memories of our Darkest Hour, standing alone against Nazi-occupied Europe. Somehow, Europe is still hugely inward looking, uncompetitive, rife with petty bickering, German-dominated and after all of this, many people feel that we’re just a bit fed up of the political institution of the EU, though not in any way the rich Peoples, languages and cultures of Europe.
Of course we’re an island nation and as islanders, even those on a large island, we feel detached from people on the mainland and the people on the mainland probably rightly feel we are a bit different and weird. That’s ok of course on both sides but the EU likes to make everything the same and people in Britain don’t like being told what to do like any other country with a long history of democracy.
That habit of imposing on us is also one of the things that has made us reach this point. It’s easy to forget that a majority of the countries were not even democracies before the 1980’s. One of the attractions of the European Union for them is that it gives them security and laws and institutions that can stop them suffering from the bad governance they have endured in the 20th century. Many ideas like the Declaration of Human Rights, both the European and United Nations varieties, were based on long-established British ideas and ways of working. To some nations, these are major advances but to us they are sometimes seen as either interfering at best or a step backwards at worst.
With President Obama coming to London next week to urge us to vote to stay in, with leaders from China, Russia and Japan having already said similarly, it must be said would the average American be happy to have many of their laws imposed on them by Mexico or Cuba. Would Russia be happy to be partially governed by Georgia or Ukraine? Would China listen to South Korea or Bangladesh. You can probably guess the answer.
One of the big problems with the current situation is the diverging aims of Britain and most, if not quite all, continental EU countries. When Britain joined in 1973, there was no European Union, there was the EEC or European Economic Community. There was no real political aspirations, merely a trans-national club of half a dozen nations who believed in free trade. For a variety of reasons Britain was deep in a long economic slump. As time has gone on, the slump disappeared into history and the EEC became the EU with 28 nations, largely focussed on political integration.
Despite years of integration, there are still many fundamental differences between mainland Europe and the U.K. Generally the EU is still very protectionist, insular and socialist while the U.K. is much more free-market economy and sees its future being much closer to China, India and North America than the European nations. To a degree this is obvious by the long-running issues with the Euro and huge economic and sometimes corruption problems in Southern Europe.
Perhaps the single most contentious issue in the U.K. regarding European Union membership is that of immigration. One of the relatively recent developments of the European Union is that of the free movement of people. The population density of Southern England is over 667 people per kilometre whereas the American figure is just 35 and most European nations are under 100 and even China has a general density of just 134 and few would say that China isn’t overpopulated.
It’s understandable in some ways, if you had the choice of somewhere to live to make money, would you choose the capital of Slovenia or Latvia or would it be London? It can undeniably bring some benefits but obviously even on a superficial level, roads and public transport get busier, schools and hospitals become overcrowded and decent housing has become almost impossible for local people. Just as some in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal would justifiably argue that Germany/Brussels doesn’t understand or make allowances for their unique problems, many here would argue that our own problems aren’t considered; even if these problems are of over-success and the longer recessions last and the more problematic other European economies become, the more appealing it is to migrate to the U.K.
Whilst many in the U.K. seem obsessed with immigration, we are still largely a very open and friendly country. There is no mainstream or even near mainstream far-right party as there is in France or Hungary. Indeed whilst we’ve been criticised for our obsession over immigration by some East European nations whose young people have come to live in the UK, as soon Syrian migrants started even just passing through their territories, barbed wire fences and soldiers were deployed and racism quickly appeared and immigration was immediately decided to be one of those things that shouldn’t happen to them.
There is also a democratic deficit with decisions being made that are often unaccountable whilst at the same time, we have been a huge net contributor financially towards the EU. All of this combined with the general idea of creating a super-state to fend off China and the USA rather than the UK approach of entrepreneurship and dealing with the opportunities wherever they may be mean that we are at an undeniable landmark moment.
It should be said at this point that the people of every single European Union nation want us to stay except for the French where more of them want us to leave than even British want themselves to leave, which probably says as much about them as us but whilst large percentages of those in other European countries count themselves as being European and politicians discussing things being for the good of Europe, only 4% of those in Britain consider themselves as being European which when you consider almost 1% of British state their official religion is that of a Jedi Knight in Star Wars, says there is much work to be done here. With all the famous problems with the Euro, failing economies, agricultural protectionism and now ineptitude with the refugee crisis, few could blame Britain for deciding that it would be best to leave.
In a future blog I will go over the points of the ups and downs of staying in or leaving the EU which would not only affect the U.K. but also much of the world in economic ways as well as risking the breakup and collapse of the European Union itself.