One of the most feared consequences of the EU referendum is the collapse of the European Union as we know it. But Europeans must not allow Brexit to cast a shadow over the basic values and direction of the EU, as well as the UK’s consistent distance from them.
The disintegration of the EU, while feared by European federalists, is hailed by others. In their official endorsement of Brexit, The Spectator compared the EU to the stagnant Habsburg Empire in its final years. But the history of the UK’s relationship with the EU has always been one of pursuing national interests. This has put the UK in its current awkward position; at odds with the political aims of the EU, excluded from the Euro and the Schengen area, but benefiting from access to the single market. The UK has always been the EU’s most exceptional, peripheral member. Why should a vote to leave cause the EU to implode?
Britain’s successful entry into the union in 1973 has been by far the EU’s biggest challenge. The Eurosceptic wings of the Conservative and Labour parties did not disappear in 1973 – far from it - they have remained an important voice in British foreign policy ever since. Many of the MPs now campaigning for Brexit were the same ones campaigning against joining the Eurozone in 1992. Kippers Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell are both convinced that Brexit would inspire other EU members to do the same, but no other member state has ever had such a coherent political voice criticising the EU so consistently.
Farage claims that far from being a movement of older citizens, the wave of Euroscepticism across Europe is led by frustrated youth. In countries like Spain, however, the young have turned on their own government, not the EU, resulting in the creation of Podemos, a new left-wing party looking to upset the bipartite establishment. Podemos politicians have actually campaigned in Manchester for Britain to remain, as party leader Pablo Iglesias confirmed in an interview to Spanish Television last week. The wave of frustration in Spain has swept right over anti-EU sentiment and left it behind. There are notable examples of frustration with the EU (I think of Greece), but the European tendency towards extremes is going many ways, not all Eurosceptic. To think that so many countries with completely different political situations and with no persistent criticism of the EU should take the UK’s example seems unlikely.
The case to remain has always been dominated by British economic interests, more so than values and political co-operation, and the Stronger In campaign is no exception. As important as economics are, not enough is said of continent-wide measures on issues which can only be solved with more political discourse between the member states. This, once again, sets Britain apart from the other member states considered to be at the core of the EU.
The non-economic aims of the EU, once merely a symbolic tool for post-war peace, have become more significant, and more inclined towards political integration. Economics plays a huge part in the debate on whether to leave, and rightly so, but the frequency of at times petty economic arguments (such as "John Lewis would be more expensive") is masking bigger issues concerning Britain’s relative position to the EU. This is where the Prime Minister’s campaign has been dishonest and misleading. The EU’s reform should not be to soften political union, but rather to make it more transparent and democratic. With or without Britain, the EU is heading down the path of political integration. David Cameron cannot single-handedly reverse that.
This is not an elitist conspiracy to strip the UK of its sovereignty, it is a response to the problems we face such as terrorism, climate change or the refugee crisis which are beyond the capabilities of individual nation-states. Brexit may undoubtedly cause a moral shock and will produce a considerable amount of doubt within the EU. But leaving the European Union does not exempt the UK of the responsibility to take part in the solution to these global problems, nor does it make the solution to the problems any easier. This responsibility should not be forgotten across Europe, nor should the potential efficiency of dealing with it as a continent, rather than dozens of nation-states.
I am not trying to admit defeat and say "the EU doesn’t want the UK anyway" - I am extremely hopeful and optimistic that we will vote to remain. But I insist that too much has been said of how disastrous a vote to leave would be for the rest of the EU. Showing how aloof the UK has been from EU affairs over the years should help us realise that a vote to remain should not be a vote to leave things as they are; it should be a harsh reality check for both sides. For a functioning relationship with the EU, much is yet to be changed both in the EU and in British attitudes towards it. The UK’s uniqueness should not be ignored, but it should certainly not lead it to once again become a nation at odds with the EU in 50 years’ time. A vote to remain would imply a responsibility in the UK to become a leading, albeit undoubtedly critical, participant of the necessary political discussion at a supra-national level.
However, I insist that a vote to leave should not spell disaster. The exit of a nation already on the political sidelines of the EU should not trigger such a devastating domino effect. It would expose the failure of one of the EU’s biggest internal challenges, but should not cloud the responsibility to continue to deal with other challenges. The EU should be increasing transparency and making institutions more democratic, and should be leading the solutions to the refugee crisis, climate change or terrorism. With or without the UK, Europeans should look forward to these challenges, not give up on a project so hard fought-for.