This blog site is about cycling as a transport mode, but the UK is currently engaged in a debate of historic importance about its continued membership or quitting of the European Union. As we edge towards the momentous referendum vote, I want to explain the fundamental reason why I will be voting for us to remain a member of the EU. Two specific incidents lay behind my decision to write this blog: first, a pair of tweets from a former Financial Times journalist, and second, a conversation with a Brexit supporting neighbour.
I’m sure everyone knows that the key steps to founding what later became the EU took place in the aftermath of the Second World War when it was recognised that the long-standing enmity between France and Germany, and that had led to three dreadful wars in less than a century, was destroying Europe. Many may also know that the first intergovernmental manifestation of this aftermath was the European Coal and Steel Community, set up with the aim of tying the key economic sectors, and the raw materials of war-making, into an inter-governmental authority. The appointed council of the ECSC later evolved into the European Parliament, one of the three main pillars of the constitutional structure of the EU, and elected by voters across the EU.
But, in fact we can discern ideas that eventually led to the EU in the First World War (and indeed back to the 17th century). During the ‘Great War’ an inter-governmental authority was set up by members of the ‘Entente’ (which included Britain, France, Italy and other countries) to control shipping resources, which were pooled. Decisions about what (troops or ammunition or food or coal) should be transported to Entente members, and in which ships, were taken in a body that made decisions which were then ‘imposed’ on sovereign states. Governments may not have liked the individual decisions, but they jointly agreed on and stuck with the structure for making those decisions for the benefit of all.
Other inter-governmental bodies were also set up. Perhaps the best known is control given to French military authorities over Britain’s troops on the Western Front in 1918 (after years of slaughter and determination not to cooperate between proud, touchy generals and field marshals).
One historian, Adam Tooze in The Deluge, writes: ‘In halting Germany’s final onslaught [in spring 1918 and which initially threatened to defeat Entente troops on the Western Front], the Entente created precedents for inter-governmental cooperation that went beyond anything ever realized in the League of Nations. … Through the involvement of a generation of businessmen, engineers and technocrats, such as Briton Arthur Salter and his close colleague and friend, the Frenchman Jean Monnet, this cooperation was [later] to provide the inspiration for the project of the EU.’
As we know, Europe didn’t go down the road of cooperation from 1918 and succumbed to an even worse bout of bloodletting in the Second World War. It took that awful conflict (which killed fifty million people compared with about seventeen million in the First World War) for a serious attempt to be made at setting up inter-governmental structures, first by pooling coal and steel resources.
Monnet, looking back with dismay at how France and Germany squandered any opportunities to put past division behind them at the end of the First World War, wrote in his memoirs, ‘It was to take many years and much suffering before Europeans began to realise that they must choose either unity or decline.’
Britain, of course, stood aside from these moves to build cooperation in European in the aftermath of the Second World War until some years later. In 1975, twenty years after the end of the war, a referendum voted to ratify Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community.
We hear frequently that we were told in 1975 that the EEC was a purely economic organisation and that joining it was all about trade. Well, I was around in 1975 and in my early 20s (and voted in favour of ratifying the treaty with the EEC). I have to say that I cannot actually recall any arguments that were used at the time – and quite honestly I doubt if more than a small fraction of those proclaiming what was said four decades ago by some politicians actually remember it. More likely people remember having heard this claimed incessantly in recent years by Britain’s predominantly Europhobic press.
What I can recall is the reason why I voted in favour of the EEC all those years ago. It was because I thought that Britain would be better by being more European, more like some of our neighbours and less like Enoch Powell’s vision of Britain with its rivers overflowing with the blood of our fellow citizens. Those were the years of young people’s revulsion at the US’s methods of war in Vietnam, and with Britain’s addiction to small nasty colonial wars in far away places; they were the years in which many grew up to hate the racial segregation in the American South and South Africa; they were the years of the early awakening of realisation of issues about gender equality and ‘gay liberation’. And, a year after the referendum was the birth of punk, with the new Britain screaming out its rejection of the old.
Joining Europe to me was about rejecting a call to cling on to Britain’s imperial glory and its hangover of racism, sexism, militarism and class division. I was in favour of becoming just another European state. I voted for Britain to be more European.
Perhaps, being young, I didn’t pay enough attention to the debate others were having about joining a trade bloc, but trade policy really had nothing to do with my voting to be ‘a European’. In the years since then, my awareness of what became the European Union does has grown and it remains my view that we did the right thing in joining a supranational institution that can, on the one hand, restrain the nation state in its atavistic tendencies and, on the other hand, empower nation states and peoples, through working together, to foster progressive international cooperation.
Coincidentally (or not), 1975 was also the year in which the British public first made acquaintance with the memorable character of Basil Fawlty. Here was the classic representation of the ranting little-Englander with his literally knee-jerking behaviour when German guests turned up at his hotel. The tag line, “Don’t mention the war” became a national theme. Here was boring, staid, inward-looking England in painfully laughable form.
The tweets that prompted me to write this blog post came from a former Financial Times journalist, Paul Quigley, a supporter of Britain leaving the EU. He tweeted that he had ‘to say how cultured and compelling the Brexit case has been made, unlike the lies, and disgusting scaremongering of the Remainiac gang’.
This was not long after Quigley had posted another tweet. This one had a photo of a severe looking Angela Merkel eyeing an out of focus profile of David Cameron. Quigely’s text ran:
AM: So, Herr Camoron. Venn vill vee haff ze British?
DC: ‘Projekt Fear’ is going as planned
Given some of the very convincing parody sites on the web, I suppose it is possible that Quigley is running a parody campaign to damage the reputation of the Brexit lobbies. But, taking his tweet at face value, we can see here an example of a disturbing change in the last four decades – of how Basil Fawlty has morphed from figure of fun to role model, with Quigley’s sharp-suited, post-modernist Fawlty being just one of many resurrecting Basil as a man to emulate.
We sure laughed at Basil, but I can’t raise even a giggle for someone so unaware of the gross and reactionary irony (100 years since the First World War) of labelling funny German accents as ‘cultured.’ It’s all getting very serious now. We may well be on the way out of the EU after the referendum. This will be bad news for the younger generations who already will have to face challenges such as climate change and to deal with potential very dangerous countries such as Putin’s Russia. The dying generations may carelessly destroy the tools the younger ones need to cope with the future.
If the Remain lobby is deploying Project Fear, the Out camp is plugging away at Project Paranoia. In the UK the press is overwhelmingly Eurosceptic. The EU is routinely described as ‘dictating’ to us. This was the other prompt to me to write this post, a conversation with a Brexit supporting neighbour. He complained that he was “sick” of Britain being told what to do by Brussels.
My neighbour, now retired, spent many years as a water industry civil engineer and has observed and written extensively about the global water industry. I reminded him of something which he knew was true: we have European law to thank for our clean beaches.
Without pressure from the EU’s commonly agreed water quality standards you can be pretty certain that the ‘dirty man’ of Europe would still be pumping raw sewage out into our bays and beaches (and indeed we still do in storms).
I welcome having the UK forced to mend its ways and take environmental responsibility. In return for agreement on other things that the British government wanted, the UK government agreed to undertake what others wanted – a level playing field where all nations improved their coastal water quality for the benefit of all. If you have a dirty neighbour polluting their seas and the prevailing currents send the pollution to your costal areas, you may question whether it’s worth the cost and effort of cleaning your own beaches. Working jointly on problems that cross-borders and oceans is what the EU is about – and it involves compromise with others.
Those tempted to say, ‘we don’t need others to tell us what we should do as we are quite capable of solving these problems for ourselves’, should look at the related issue of air quality. Currently it is estimated that some 9,000 people are dying early each year in London alone because the British government, terrified of the motor lobby, has allowed air quality to become dire. As a nation we face fines for successive governments having failed to implement agreed EU law on improving air quality.
Brexit would mean the end of any prospect that British politicians, of the left or right, would take on the challenge of tackling air quality. But continued EU membership may help lead our recalcitrant government to summon up the political will to tackle air quality issues that it would much rather ignore.
One problem is that these complex subjects easily become complex technical matters, far away from the day to day life of citizens. They don’t translate easily into tabloid articles or twitter debates or mock German accents.
Yet, in our global world, such issues can and do affect everyday life. Indeed, they are often matters of life and death (directly so in the case of air quality) and demand international cooperation to be resolved. The EU gives us opportunities to organize that cooperation. Why walk away from that?
For all its great difficulties and challenges, for all its weak and divided response to the financial crisis in 2007/8 and to the current migration crisis (caused by war, repression, widespread rape, mass torture, economic collapse and environmental degradation in part caused by global warming), the EU remains an essential tool of cooperation between the nations of Europe in a dangerous and changing world order. It remains a good thing, something we should cherish.
After the First World War, France initially tried for a ‘moderate’ peace settlement. But this depended on structures of common agreement and common economic policy to ensure security and economic recovery. Failing this, the French recognised, that security would have to be ensured by a “peace of reprisals and punishments”.
Some twenty-five years on, another Frenchman observed that, “a couple of years in a Gestapo cell and Buchenwald concentration camp could inspire either a passion for revenge or a determination that there would be no more camps.” The author of those words, a wartime Resistance leader Christian Pinean, signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957 on behalf of France, initiating the construction of European integration. I will be voting to continue his work.