Can Europe Make It?

What exactly do pro-Brexiters mean when they say they want to make Britain great again?

Do we measure a nation's greatness as being restricted to its borders, or as being part of a much larger project?

Piers Purdy
15 April 2016
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The sun never set on the British Empire. Lauren Hurley/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The United Kingdom could ‘better face the future outside the European Union’. That was the opinion of 43% of respondents in the European Union Public Opinion survey, the Eurobarometer, in May 2015. It’s hardly surprising that such a large proportion of the population has such a bleak view of the benefits the EU brings to the UK, considering that scrutiny of Brussels has intensified over recent years. And in the run-up to the referendum, the spotlight is well and truly fixed on the issue.

A ‘eurosceptic’ narrative has also become more prominent recently, in tandem with the rise of the UK’s anti-EU lobby. As such, events in both the UK and across Europe are being interpreted as part of the rudimentary cost-benefit analysis of EU-UK relations.

One such example is how the unstoppable flow of migrants entering Europe, alongside the associated attacks on civilians in France, Turkey and Belgium, has brought the Schengen Agreement of 1985 into the direct line of fire. Particularly, the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels have both been used by the UK Independence Party leader, MEP Nigel Farage, to strengthen his campaign, denouncing Europe for its ‘free movement of Kalashnikovs’. This has not been particularly constructive.

Recently, I argued that the boundaries for the current national debate on the UK’s continued membership of the EU were set by a nationalist agenda. This agenda has also directly influenced the narrative adopted by the media and other commentators. As such, the EU being the source of Britain’s woes is at the centre of the referendum contest, as opposed to any informed discussion regarding the wider challenges that need to be addressed.

Put otherwise, it has become an introverted and self-interested debate, and one which draws little sympathy from other Member States. Calls by influential political figures to ‘take back control’ from Brussels, notably the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, are popular refrains amongst much of the electorate. “Let’s make Britain great again”, they cry, as the EU is portrayed as a limiting force to the British nation. 

Why the ‘left-behind’ want change

The staggering support for a referendum on Britain’s future in the EU should be understood as a culmination of many factors, over many years. The post-global financial crisis epoch in which we live has invigorated the wide-spread flourishing of anti-establishment politics, including those with nationalistic tendencies.

Large transnational institutions have become sources of suspicion, as our grip on local democracy has seemingly weakened. It is no coincidence that in the US, the great waves turning out to the rallies of Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, wear the words “Make America great again” printed on the caps.

But particular to the UK, the impressive emergence of UKIP and the ‘No’ campaign lobbies reflect the frustrations of society’s ‘left behind’ - not disgruntled anti-EU Tory voters, but the politically and socially alienated. For the working class, today’s society looks very different from that of the 1970s, an era when their vote was a game changer for the political classes seeking election.

But in the hangover of the financial crisis, the age of austerity cuts and an increased favouring of Private Finance Initiatives over direct state involvement, these parts of society - hundreds of miles from Westminster, and even further from Brussels - are feeling forgotten. Should we be surprised therefore, when a policy-network survey finds that 40% of the working class population feel they have no say in government, compared to a figure of only 16% for the middle class? 

A society that feels impotent in its ability to influence political decision-making is going to want change.  As such, the call for the restoration of Britain’s greatness must sound very appealing. This is the logic that underpins the support for the anti-establishment movements around the world, whether your choice is Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage.

The sanctity of the nation is under threat from foreign bodies, whether they be greedy corporations, terrorists or international trade agreements. The attraction of the retrenching of democracy within national borders and sticking to one’s own must be empathized with, and it’s contribution to the ‘eurosceptic’ narrative in our politicians rhetoric and the media, likewise. 

The problem is who to believe

It is perhaps the accepted norm that those involved in ‘educating’ the electorate ahead of Britain’s “once in a generation” political decision - our politicians and the media - have vested interests in the result. It is also worth noting the hugely influential role of these far from objective sources of information in educating Europe’s least knowledgeable member of the Union.

In a recent airing of the BBC’s Question Time, the UK’s leading topical debate program, the opening question asked the guest panel and audience “which side can scare us more?”, referring both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns. In response, an audience member made a wonderfully honest comment on what he described as “the scaremongering” that surrounded the nation-wide debate on its future in the EU: “You just don’t know who to believe… they all have their own agendas”.

To what extent has the media encouraged discussion regarding the EU’s principle of subsidiarity, ensuring the UK retains sovereignty in many areas, such as those of civil and criminal law? Who will help the electorate differentiate ‘law’ that emanates from the European Court of Human Rights, and European Union legislation?

How do we find out where the EU is driving harmonisation of legislation across Europe itself, or instead following direction from other international organisations, such as the WTO, to which we have also surrendered aspects of sovereignty? Instead, the current narrative provides a recycled economic cost-benefit analysis from 1975 and the vision Britain as an important global player - neither of which are particularly helpful for the average voter.

Let’s not make the same mistakes

Atrocitologists have estimated that 167-203 million people died in the 20th century, as either a direct result of war or as domestic victims of oppressive political regimes. The majority of these deaths will have occurred within the context of a nation seeking the path of greatness. The nationalist cause is a pursuit in which, the world has learnt, the stakes are very high.

And so I echo the recent sentiments of Labour front-bencher Andy Burnham in recalling Britain’s effectiveness as a ‘bridge-builder’ in Europe, and warning of the consequences that isolationism can bring in Europe.

The EU should not only be valued for making peace something we take for granted in Europe, but also for providing the world with an example of how to pool sovereignty beyond national borders. This has enabled its members to play an influential role in minimising conflict elsewhere, managing environmental degradation and promoting the social equalities it believes in.

Members of the EU have not conceded democracy, but rather they have invested parts of their sovereignty to achieve wider-aims at the international level. This process should not be free from scrutiny, but when those wishing to make Britain great again approach the ballot box in June, they should be confident in how this greatness is intended: one restricted to its borders, or as part of a much greater project.

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