When I was ten years old and in my final year of primary school – back in the days before ‘Year Six’ was a thing – my class was given a year-long project. We were given ring binders (so grown up!) and twelve of those tabbed cardboard dividers, and set the task of learning all about the then EEC. Yea, for this was 1991, in the pre-Maastricht Treaty days of the European Economic Community. And I, already proud owner (and post-USSR, biro-wielding editor) of Usborne atlases and encylopedias, was in clover. I read about post-war history and the origins of the European project. I drew maps and learned about capital cities and key politicians, and I scrapbooked madly from travel agent brochures and the papers to build up a picture of each of the 12 countries in the community.
I have never, consciously, not been European.
English and British, sure, but also European, formed by primary school projects and an obsessive love of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School stories; boarding school stories set in Austria and Switzerland, as well as the Channel Islands and Wales, where an English schoolgirl’s best friend was as likely to be from France, Italy or Germany, as she was to be from the same town.
Later, my affection for history was dragged out of stories and into academic study in a GCSE history course that ran from World War One to the break up of the USSR. We covered the whole ambominable mess of twentieth century Europe. I learned the dangers of obsessive nationalism and national self interest at a time when nations made out of Woodrow Wilson’s desire for self-determination were breaking apart in Eastern Europe, finally free to do so, and when countries which had been behind the iron curtain were starting to seek entry into what was now the European Union.
My position on the EU and the upcoming referendum is very simple. I want in. I cannot imagine not being in, and I don’t want to have to, thank you very much.
However, that in itself is not a particularly convincing argument, and as it is an argument happening within my own family, let alone my own social circles, I have been trying to think more clearly about why I find the answer to the referendum question so simple, and so better explain my pro-European-ness.
I was recently reading Theos’ booklet A Soul for the Union (which I very much recommend) which describes the way the historical roots of the European project are rooted in a vision of a better European society, in which national self-interest could be balanced with and seen as integrally connected to the common good of all nations, not as a player in a zero sum game in which continental warfare breaks out on a regular basis. This for example is the preamble to the 1951 Treaty of Paris that established the European Coal and Steel Community , in which the member states were described as:
DESIROUS of assisting through the expansion of their basic production in raising the standard of living and in furthering the works of peace; RESOLVED to substitute for historic rivalries a fusion of their essential interests; to establish, by creating an economic community, the foundation of a broad and independent community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts; and to lay the bases of institutions capable of giving direction to their future common destiny.
As the report points out, the European ‘aim’ or teleology has changed – it has become more profoundly focused on economic growth, and that has caused problems for local businesses communities, and for our senses of our own identities. But it has not done that without us. We have chosen not to spend too much time criticising a narrative that sees constant economic growth as the bedrock of happiness and stability, and security defended at any cost as the best comfort to the fear of pain and mortality that is the essence of humanity. We have chosen to put me and mine first. And we have chosen governments who have participated in European and international politics in ways that reflect that and have made our world. The European Union is not some malevolent institutional agent along the lines of Star Wars’ First Order. It is made of us.
Yes, us along with others, but I believe we are made to be in relationships, including international relationships. We may be able to achieve the future the Brexit campaign would like to see on our own, but I think we will have to conquer and colonise the rest of the world to make it happen – something that is unlikely and, I think, undesirable. And we shouldn’t just expect these others to make the Europe we want and then give it to us any more than we should expect a national government to make the society we want and give it to us. If we want our voices to matter, we have a responsibility to use them.
The current systems for making our voices heard may be imperfect, and the story we’ve been telling ourselves about what Europe is for may be imperfect. But that does not mean that they cannot change, again. To me, the rise and popularity of Corbyn in emerging, previously disengaged, political demographics in the UK, of Yanis Varoufakis, of Thomas Piketty, of Podemos in Spain (and yes, of Bernie Sanders in the US) suggests an appetite for something different that seems to me to counterbalance the growing prominence of nationalist right parties in most counties. There seems to be a willingness to hear and tell different stories of how we might live together on this crazy beautiful planet.
Theos’ report argues that we need emotional reasons for staying in Europe, as well as practical. And at heart, my reasons are emotional. There are more prosaic reasons too, which I will turn to in a later post, but fundamentally, my formative years have shaped me to favour a European identity alongside my British-English-Cornish-female-nerd identities, and to favour integration and collaboration for the sake of peace and the common good over individual personal or national success (for whatever value given to success).
I really like the original aim of the ECSC. I would like the chance to see that future – I think that we have already seen something of it in the EU as it exists now, even if it is not ideal. I believe we stand a better chance of dealing with the challenges facing us if we collaborate with others, making and working in institutions that have an increasing practical and formative influence, and I don’t believe that complete independence have ever really benefitted the gloriously isolated.
I’m not afraid of a future within Europe. I’m afraid that I won’t have the opportunity to be a part of it.