Why is it good to stay in the European Union? – A perspective from the Continent on the British referendum
Part I: the importance of the British referendum
There are days on which the lives of an entire generation hinge. Sometimes such days even shape an entire century.
July 28, 1914 was one such day. Back then, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. World War I started and Europe tore itself to pieces. European nations lost their role as global leaders which had been achieved during previous centuries. If Europe – if European nations and European citizens – fail to close ranks, it has dire consequences for all Europeans. This is one of the most important lessons learned from World War I. And even if our times are no longer about war and peace within Europe, this lesson could not be more topical.
May 9, 1950 was one such day, too; and it has left its mark on the lives of millions of people for more than half a century now. Back then, the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed the introduction of the “High Authority”, a joint supervisory body of Franco-German coal and steel production. The plan was the origin of our Union we know today and the High Authority developed to become the precursor of the European Commission. What a farsighted plan! And how it speaks of French generosity! Only five years after the end of World War II, only five years after Nazi Germany had razed the whole of Europe and half the world to the ground and had committed millions of murders. Back then, Robert Schuman said that it would not be possible to make Europe all at once, or according to a single plan. He explained that Europe would be built through tangible achievements which first created a de facto solidarity. He was right back then and still is. His statement could not be more topical, either.
June 23, 2016 also has the potential for becoming such a day. It is the day on which the British will decide on their membership of the European Union. That day might also turn out to be decisive for an entire generation, maybe even for a whole century. And it is not only about the future of the British, it is about the future of all citizens of the European Union.
Therefore, it is only fair for everybody to speak their mind. What is more, it is desirable for as many of the 500 million citizens of the Union to participate in this debate over the next four months. The future of the European Union we know today hinges on it. Hence, it is vital that the debate factors in all pro-British and pro-European opinions. The British referendum does not only concern the British. It is of utmost importance for the future of all 500 million citizens of the Union.
Great Britain is part of Europe, that much is clear. One does not even need to call the myth to mind according to which the British Islands did not even have the form of islands when the most recent ice age ended. They developed only when the ice melted, ocean levels rose and created the Channel and the Irish Sea. No, it suffices to point out that Great Britain simply is part of Europe in geographical terms.
Even in terms of the origin of its population, Great Britain is closely intertwined with Continental Europe. British history is essentially based on immigration from the Continent – even if many Brits might not like being reminded of this today. However, Celts, Belgians, Romans, Anglos, Saxons, Vikings and Normans, they all came from the Continent. Shakespeare’s dramas are full of such characters and their descendants.
Even in terms of past intellectual achievements and developments, Great Britain has very close ties to the Continent. Let us consider Isaac Newton, for example. He was born in the year when the Italian astronomer and physicist Galilei died. Newton’s physical theories were based on Galilei and the French mathematician Descartes. The German philosopher Kant, in turn, sharpened his wits studying Newton’s physics in his early years. A little more than two and a half centuries later, Albert Einstein, relativized them. But that is just an example from the world of physics. There are many more: John Locke wrote about tolerance while he was in exile in the Netherlands. The Music for the Royal Fireworks was composed for the British King by Georg Friedrich Händel who was born in Germany and later became British. The French historian and philosopher Voltaire went to exile in England and wrote his ‘Lettres philosophiques’ about it. It was one of the first works of enlightenment which also gave readers on the Continent a better idea of Locke, Newton and Shakespeare.
The people on the Continent share the same values and the same culture as those on the British Islands. And of course, looking for the close ties between the Continent and the Islands, you do not need to refer to the noble intellectuals of the past. Obviously, such ties also exist in the present. Just think of millions of friendships and professional relations among citizens of the Union, for example about two million British expats living on the Continent; or tens of thousands of Europeans from the Continent working in London. Many of them particularly love London’s zest and international flair. Young Europeans from the Continent love listening to Adele or Robbie Williams just as the Brits do, or to the unforgettable Freddie Mercury and Queen, to David Bowie who recently passed away or – in former times – the Beatles. Last but not least, millions of European soccer fans enjoy watching Premier League matches and matches against English teams in the European Champions League.
There can be also no doubt that the Continent and the Island have profound economic ties: Almost 50 percent of British exports go to the European Union, from Scottish Whiskey through to lamb from Wales and cars made in the UK. Such trade has not yet been subject to tariffs. If Great Britain leaves the Union, this could change significantly. Today, however, standards – technical and legal ones – are even more significant than tariffs. Just think of the European Patent or the European basic regulation on data protection. It is clear that the British would no longer be involved in any of these regulations in case of their exit.
Therefore, the decision to be made on June 23, 2016, on whether the British want to remain a political part of the European Union, will have enormous consequences – for the future of the British themselves as well as for the future of all citizens of the Union. In order to discuss this issue in a constructive way, we will first have to examine some myths which keep coming up in public debate.
They will be discussed in the next part. It will be published in the course of this week.