Mal Fletcher
Should Britain Stick With The EU?

‘It is the heart always that sees before the head can see,’ wrote Thomas Carlyle.

I don’t know how Thomas Carlyle, a gifted social commentator, would have voted in the forthcoming British referendum on EU membership. Perhaps, being a Scot, he might immediately have made up his mind to stay.

If so, he would have been in the minority among UK voters, according to a new poll released by YouGov. It suggests that 45 per cent of people will vote to leave the EU, compared with 36 per cent who favour remaining.

If the ‘don’t knows’ in the survey are excluded, a full 56 per cent favour waving goodbye to the EU. This despite Prime Minister Cameron’s assurances that he can wrest a better deal for Britain from the hands of the EU.

Perhaps closer to the referendum – a date has not yet been fixed – people will opt to stay with what they know, after all, rather than going it alone. But recent problems within the Eurozone and terribly mixed messages about migration will add new levels of uncertainty about whether the status quo is sustainable anyway.

For my part, on the question of whether Britian should remain in the EU, the heart says a resounding ‘yes’, but the mind’s not so sure.

Even without Europe, I’d have dual citizenship. I’m proud of being both British and Australian. As it happens, however, I’m also blessed to be European and in my heart of hearts I’m glad of it.

I’m glad not just because I love Europe’s unique and rich mix of cultures and history. I’m pleased because there are clear benefits attached to living within a trans-national union like the EU.

I lived in Denmark for ten years and have lived in the UK for twelve. I’ve travelled and worked extensively across the EU throughout that time. I like so many others have seen firsthand the benefits in terms of travel, trade and the easy exchange of ideas and technologies.

On the travel front alone, my life and that of millions of others would have been so much more difficult had Europe remained as it once was – a disparate cluster of nation-states all-too-often divided by mutual suspicion and antagonism.

Throughout Europe’s history, feelings of cross-border antipathy have so often boiled over into all-out confrontation.

The original architects of the EU foresaw a time when Europeans – and their political masters – might share so much in common that going to war would be recognised as, at the very least, counter-productive.

After Europe had led the world into two horrendous worldwide conflagrations, this was an attractive proposition.  

The European Coal and Steel Community, instituted by the Treaty of Paris in 1951, eventually gave way to a pact that covered more than trade alone.

It provided for a tightly administered trading zone, in which partner states could expect to enjoy rich benefits from reduced tariffs and easier access to each other’s markets. In the process it opened the doors for political engagement, migration, the exchange of technologies and much more.

Each time I hand my red passport to a travel official in another EU country – the UK not being part of the now-threatened Schengen Agreement – I realise that in my heart I am a Europhile.

Emotionally, I want Europe to work.

Yet my head says, ‘hold on a minute; there’s an elephant in the room.’

That elephant, though huge and ponderous, can be summed up rather elegantly in just three words: ‘ever closer union’. They’re short words, but even a small elephant can cast a long shadow.

The idea of a growing unity between its members states is central to the founding documents of the European Union. Sadly, however, the founding fathers – they were mostly men – did not let us in on their secret, the exact meaning of ‘ever closer union’.

Does it refer to an increasingly porous trading bloc, with growing opportunities for mobility and for collaboration on pressing problems at home and abroad? (Arguably, of course, collaboration is made easier by digital communications anyway, and these are for the most part not restricted by borders.)

Or does ‘ever closer union’ refer to a European super-state, a United States of Europe?

I’d be in favour of one of those options, but not the other.

Of course, EU apparatchiks are not normally given to talking about a total political union, at least not in public. Yet their collective decisions often betray a strong desire to centralise and consolidate power at the EU’s centres, in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Earlier this week I joined a news debate on the EU referendum on BBC TV. A fellow guest suggested that speaking about ever closer union – at least in its obvious political sense – simply allows the debate to be hijacked by emotion.

Actually, this is not an emotive issue as much as a philosophical one. Everything else hangs on it.

If we reduce the sovereignty of nations within Europe – that is, even further than we may have already done – we move government one huge step further away from the governed. We also remove from the administration and practice of jurisprudence the rich history which nations like Britain bring to it.

Magna Carta was no small thing and British justice has in many respects been a model for much of the free world ever since. This fact often seems to be overlooked by EU plutocrats who seek to override or replace our laws.

A Europe with a unified political system would place too much power in the hands of as yet unelected bureaucrats.

It would also deny the fact that where Europe is strong, it is strong because of its underlying mix of unity with diversity.

Europe’s cultural diversity is a large part of what makes it interesting and attractive as a place to live and work. I think it also potentially heightens Europe’s ability to be creative and to inspire inventiveness – that is, if it is willing to reduce the red tape which stifles the entrepreneurial spirit.

As any successful business leader will tell you, a certain level of diversity within a team brings different outlooks to a problem, sparking diverse solutions. It also carries a degree of creative tension which, if properly managed, can lead to exciting new outcomes.

Stamping a false political uniformity on Europe would only weaken its diversity and reduce its capacity for innovation – in science, technology, business, media and more.

It would lessen Europe’s attraction for those seeking a place to express themselves creatively.

A failure to recognise diversity has already caused havoc in Europe.

Arguably, a part explanation for the recent Euro crisis is the EU’s failure to identify vast differences in cultural attitudes to such things as taxation, benefits, nepotism and more.

There is a huge degree of divergence on these things, between Europe’s north and south and sometimes between the east and west. Until new, the EU has largely attempted to paper over the cracks with Euro cash and it’s clearly not working.

Meanwhile, a level of mass migration unseen in the world since World War 2 is now revealing stark disparities on the issue of immigration.

Keeping Europe working together will not simply be a matter of stamping on it a false uniformity, through a United States of Europe.

This week, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk claimed that this super-state idea was not something we need concern ourselves with, presumably because it is not being seriously considered, or won’t be anytime soon.

Sadly, however, I’m not so sure people in Britain or elsewhere trust the EU on this one.

At times, the EU already acts like a political union, for example in the way it dismisses referenda results within member states.

It likes to play the champion of democracy, yet when voters in Ireland, France and the Netherlands rejected an EU treaty a few years ago, Europe sidestepped the issue and went ahead anyway.

That perceived arrogance and lack of accountability are two of the biggest reasons why Europeans, though largely proud of their Europeanness, are not more supportive and enthusiastic about the EU as an institution.

Because there are large cultural differences in attitudes to many things, a certain amount of fluidity is going to have to be a key feature of the EU’s future.

Whether that future takes the form of a permanently two-tier Europe, or three-or-four tier Europe, or a one-tier Europe with space for debate and variation on specific issues, I don’t know. 

What we must not forget in all this, however, is that the EU is often called the ‘European experiment’. And that’s precisely what it is – an experiment unique in human history.

As such, it will require that we find fresh approaches to challenges. Our political leaders will need to strive for unity – with diversity – in ways that may not have been attempted before.

Falling back on the notion that centralising power is the best solution to all problems will not be good enough!

Meanwhile, the rest of us, the citizenry, will need to remember that politics is not the solution to everything. Centralising power often produces more problems than it solves and bureaucracies tend to grow to fit the space we, over time, allow for them.

The decision about whether Britain should remain within the EU is one of the most important in our generation.

My heart hopes that the UK will remain within the EU, but my head wants to see it allow for more national sovereignty and accountability, which are cornerstones of modern democracy.

Watch Mal Fletcher's BBC responses to this issue:

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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