Britain, don’t turn your back on the EU and its ideals as a force for good
Cliff Buddle says the European Union and its vision for better relations between nations could unravel in the event of a Brexit, and the UK would be the poorer for it
When I left London for Hong Kong 21 years ago, I was a confirmed Eurosceptic. I have no doubt that if, at that time, there had been a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union, I would have enthusiastically voted Leave.
But as my country prepares for next week’s historic vote, which polls suggest might lead to Britain’s departure, I await the result with trepidation. Over the years, my views have gradually changed. I admit it: I have done a U-turn. I now believe that a British exit from the EU, after 43 years of membership, would be a big step backwards, not just for the UK or Europe, but for everyone who wants to see nations working closely together for the greater good. What has brought about this change of heart? No doubt, it has partly come about through first studying and then teaching European Union law.
I readily accept that I am open to the criticism that, when living in the EU, I was against it and that it is only after choosing to reside on the other side of the world that I decided to embrace it. I do not have to live with the perceived problems of Britain’s EU membership, whether caused by immigration, regulation or the democratic deficit. (Having lived abroad so long, I do not have a vote in the referendum.)
But it is, perhaps, precisely because I now view developments from a distance that I am able to see them with a different perspective. I have come to value the aims and objectives of the EU and to admire the progress made towards realising them. In short, I am convinced that the European mission, despite all the problems it faces, is a force for good and one which other parts of the world can learn from.
The referendum has prompted British people at home and around the world to reflect on what the EU means to them. I am no exception. My first memory of Britain’s membership of the European club can be dated back to 1975. I was on a primary school trip to Belgium – my first foreign holiday. This coincided with the last time the UK held a referendum on whether to stay in. I recall a coach trip through Brussels and have a vague recollection of my parents telling me Britain should remain in what was, at that time, the European Economic Community, because this would help avoid another war. That, combined with the excitement of my first trip to “the continent”, was enough for me at the time. But, as my interest in current affairs grew, I began to see Britain’s membership of this European club as flawed. By the time the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, setting a timetable for monetary union and the completion of a single market, I had become deeply sceptical.
Many of my concerns at the time are now being aired by the Leave campaign. I saw the EU as bloated, bureaucratic, possibly corrupt, undemocratic and unaccountable, and was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of important decisions being made by institutions over which London had little control. Such views are in keeping with Britain’s role as a somewhat reluctant member. We have never seen ourselves as being quite the same as people from the continent. Winston Churchill thought the idea of a European version of the United States a good one. But he did not envisage Britain being an active member of it.
Britain joined the EU late, in 1973, and only two years later held the referendum on whether to stay (almost two-thirds voted in favour). It has fought for concessions over its disproportionate contribution to the EU budget, and opted out of both the single currency and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. More recently, Prime Minister David Cameron negotiated further concessions should British people vote to remain in the EU.
But, for all that, the UK remains an extremely important player. If it leaves, there is a danger the EU will begin to unravel. Instead of union, we could see disintegration. And that would not be good for Britain, or for Europe. Amid all the rhetoric from both sides in the Brexit campaign, we should not lose sight of the ideals which brought the EU into being and which remain at its core. Forged in the aftermath of the second world war, the idea of closer integration and interdependence between European nations was intended to secure peace and economic renewal. Barriers to trade were removed and an area established in which people, goods, capital and services could move freely. Common polices were needed, established by EU institutions, and underpinned by enforceable EU law. Otherwise, this ambitious project would never have got off the ground.
All along, the story of the EU has been one of seeking to reconcile narrow national interests with the broader objectives of the union. Often, it has been the creative legal reasoning of the European Court of Justice which has kept up the momentum and driven the initiative forward while governments lag behind. Securing common policies and consistent application of laws across 28 countries with very different histories, cultures, economies and national priorities is, of course, an extraordinarily difficult process. The EU has frequently been shaken – and shaped – by dramatic events, from the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent growth in its membership to the euro-zone crisis and the recent flood of refugees.
A critical moment has been reached and the very existence of the EU is under threat. Yes, some of those concerns that troubled me, more than 20 years ago, remain. But this is a time for Britain to hold firm and work to resolve these problems from the inside.
The EU strives for an open society in Europe through freedom to move across borders to set up home, to set up business, to work, to study, to settle with your family. Imagine being able to do all those things across Southeast Asia. Through its social policy, the EU has sought to combat discrimination, whether on the grounds of nationality or gender. It supports democracy and human rights. Ultimately, it is an ongoing mission to forge better cooperation between nations for the benefit of the people who live in them. At a time of so much tension and conflict in the world, we should not be giving up on such ideals, however difficult they may be to achieve.
Cliff Buddle is the Post’s editor, special projects