Breaking up is hard to do. So went the song. But, whereas that might apply to love and relationships, it clearly is less so when it comes to politics.
The EU referendum debate has so far been … er … pathetic – the trading of unsubstantiated prophetic claims on both sides, accompanied by ‘selective’ representations of European history and the pursuit of personal vendettas by people who seemed – on other matters, at least – to be on the same side.
But, one aspect has, to my mind, not been adequately explored. It is quick and easy to break down institutions and relationships, but long and difficult to build them up. In recent memory, just witness the collapse of the USSR and the ground it prepared for Vladimir Putin, resurgent nationalism rooted in hurt pride, and a fascism that has fed similar tendencies in Eastern Europe and beyond. The winter of the Arab Spring should teach us something.
In this respect, consideration must be given to how Brexit might well fuel the disturbing nationalist fires in other parts of Europe and how further fragmentation of the EU might lead to new political associations over which we will have no control and even less influence. Remaining in the EU must raise questions about how the resentments, racism and romanticisms of some member states can be resisted with the sort of moral clarity and courage that gave rise to the post-war European project in the first place.
A couple of weeks ago a former Archbishop of Canterbury compared Brexit to Noah leading the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt and to freedom in the Promised Land. (I kid you not: I was asked to comment on a draft.) Of course, where the case falls is that the exodus was followed by forty years – a generation of romanticists – in the desert and a good deal of violent ethnic cleansing thereafter. Promises of effortless and cost-free deliverance are usually fantasy, and those who do the promising know this very well.
So, whether one wishes to see the UK remain in the EU or leave it behind, promises of political or economic (to say nothing of diplomatic) nirvana should be placed on the ‘fantasy’ pile – or, as I prefer to think of it, the ‘lying’ pile. (As should the rhetoric that cites only the ‘costs’ to us of UK membership of the EU without asking once what we bring to the European consensus.)
This is pertinent because, as most of Europe looks on in bewilderment at the nature of our debate thus far, we are asking the British people to make a decision that will have both intended and unintended consequences for us. We simply cannot say whether Brexit will make travel and other conveniences less convenient – other EU countries might well help us to recall what membership granted by removing some of the conveniences we have rejected. We simply cannot pretend that the negotiations in which we will hope to engage will end up benefiting us in the way suggested – especially when we will be negotiating (among others) with those whom we have spent many words and gestures insulting and rejecting (either explicitly or implicitly) during this campaign.
The tragedy of the referendum campaign – to my mind, at least – is the appeal to purely national self-interest over against what we might bring to the common good. Democracy – claimed by some to be the primary victim of EU membership – means compromise in the interests of the common good, but only following debate and consensus. Do we really think democracy can be reduced to only being valid when everyone else agrees with us and we guarantee our own interests?
Clearly, remaining will bring challenges. Leaving will bring others. That is reality, and we can’t predict the future. But, we can weigh up the probabilities of each option and vote accordingly on 23 June.
Nevertheless, one thing that has struggled to get through this debate is that the easy conflation of the EU and Europe is less than helpful. The institution is not the same as the continent. The EU is a construct that can be reshaped and reimagined; the continent has seen a constantly changing shaping of cultures, nations and politico-economic allegiances. The question is: will remaining in the EU or leaving it be more likely to shape the continent for the better in the next century, or will it contribute to a disintegration and the unintended consequences this might bring?
After all, the history will only be written a century after the events – something of which we are acutely aware as we commemorate the catastrophe that turned into the First World War a hundred years ago.
(At least the Guardian – probably the only national newspaper that would entertain this – allowed an amusing dispute between Giles Fraser and Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch on whether the Reformation should push us to stay or go. I don’t see a distinctive theological line on the question that is not selective to some extent; but, history too easily becomes a commodity which we trade in the interests of our own arguments or preferences. Yet, more of that sort of intelligent exchange would be welcome – and certainly more enlightening than the hyperbolic lobbing of political grenades from the trenches.)