I am however still puzzled by the absence of the moral argument in the public debate. Whatever the narrow advantage or disadvantage to the UK of EU membership, surely the point is that it is moving in the right direction to reduce the importance of nation states, in whose name we have managed to create so much strife and unhappiness in the past.
What's the EU for?
The politicians who created the thing that turned into the European Union weren’t inventing a Union from nothing; they were building on this historical and cultural commonality of all European people. The motivation to create binding political ties across Europe came from the desire to avoid yet another generation of carnage and loss through warfare. And it has worked, brilliantly. The historically warring states of France, Germany and Britain have been at peace for 70 years.
French and German people understand this. The European Union, and its euro currency, are not economic projects, they are a social political project to make sure that the next generation of children don’t have to kill each other in yet another futile war.
Greek, Spanish and Portuguese people understand this. The majority of adults in these countries have lived under dictatorships. Greece and Portugal were military dictatorship until 1974, and Spain until 1975. The European Union is one of the mechanisms that now preserve these democracies.
Polish, Bulgarian, Czech people understand this. The European Union created the counterpoint to the tyranny of communism.
What's up with the British?
British people don’t understand this. The UK joined the EEC (forerunner to the EU) in 1973, and in a subsequent 1975 referendum 67% of the UK voters endorsed this choice. At the time Britain was almost bankrupt, and had to be rescued by the IMF in 1976. So economic issues loomed large, both in the minds of the voters, and in the arguments made by the politicians in favour of joining and then staying in the EEC.
The effect of this has been for the last 40 years to make the British think of the EU as a purely economic mechanism – the debate in the media is about “value for money” - ie the cost to Britain versus the economic benefit to Britain of being in the EU. The arguments for remaining in the EU are based on the jobs that would be lost by leaving; the arguments for leaving are based on the money that would be saved by not being part of the Union, on preventing immigration, and on some spurious notion of sovereignty.
These seem to me the wrong questions. The right questions are things like: “what will happen to France, Germany etc if Britain leaves the EU”; “how much is it worth spending to make sure my children don’t fight in world war III (answer is obviously “everything”); “how can Britain contribute to European and world peace and culture” etc.
The British have a proud history of acting selflessly to help others. Now is not the time for us to delude ourselves that we can independently determine our future in a globalised world; it is the time to recognise that our membership of the EU is the opportunity to take an active part in helping human civilisation mature into something better.