During the 1960s, when the United Kingdom begged and failed (twice) to secure admission to the EU’s forerunner, the talk on the continent was of a “credibility gap” underlying Britain’s applications. Desperation-fuelled, the UK was just looking for an economic boost, the cynics claimed. Britain did not really accept the core political values of the European project, such as “ever closer union” (which Britain has since successfully negotiated its way out of). Once inside, the UK would inevitably seek to undermine and alter the Community towards its own, separate, purposes. This perception resulted in Charles de Gaulle’s famous “non” to Britain’s repeated knocks at Europe’s door.
Now a European insider, Britain presents its continental partners with an existential threat through its upcoming referendum, just as they suffer from the double crisis of massive migrant inflows and pernicious currency woes, (both of which Britain is largely shielded from). With hindsight, it would be difficult to argue that de Gaulle was wrong to be sceptical of Britain’s intentions. Yet, the dominant narrative in the UK is not of a betrayal of the continent, but of Brits, who were allegedly misled into joining what they thought was an apolitical trade area during the 1975 referendum campaign. With their sovereignty sold down the river by greedy politicians for unspecified reasons, the British people deserve a fresh referendum. So ran the Eurosceptic narrative that led us to the present situation.
In reality, judging by any contemporary source, the past European In campaign was far more open and direct. It is in fact today’s sterile debate that should be accused of an overly economic and therefore misleading focus. In public debate, it is now common to see meek In campaigners wilfully surrendering such basic notions as Britain’s geographic status within Europe, with both sides referring to their continent as an alien entity. Meanwhile, there are scarcely any pro-European arguments on enthusing topics such as sovereignty.
Few argue, as was common in 1975, that sovereignty is in fact enhanced through European integration because so much more is practically possible for Britain on the inside. An isolated Britain would, for example, be perfectly entitled to declare its intention to put a man on Mars, yet it would be unlikely to ever actually achieve anything like this –and therefore exercise real world as opposed to abstract sovereignty– without operating within a wider cooperative political entity.
Another argument typically eschewed by today’s pro-Europeans is that of national identity. As an island nation on the north-western edge of the continent, Britain is arguably the world’s most European country. All of its formative historical experiences could come from nowhere else but Europe. Even as it ventured overseas and built an Empire –the era typically said to most differentiate Britain– it merely followed wider European trends (Britain’s Empire was neither Europe’s first nor its last). Surely, such arguments would be more enthusing than squabbling over the marginal economic effects of membership while taking such vital points as Britain’s geographic location and identity to be a lost cause.
In campaigners are surrendering swathes of ideological terrain to a Eurosceptic camp fuelled by seldom challenged myths. This In campaign, based on economic fear mongering, may well secure a narrow victory, as in Scotland. Yet, as in Scotland, it will not bury the issue. And it will certainly not prevent a catastrophe in the event of any further unexpected events, such as a terrorist attack. Instead of showing the fire in their bellies, pro-Europeans are playing with it. It is time the In campaign became less technical, and more passionate.