If you have an aversion for political commentary, look away! Not party political – I don’t do that because of my job. This was prompted by my experience these last two days.
I’ve just been to Zagreb, in Croatia, to attend and speak at a conference which was part of the International Anti-Corruption Day on 9 December, at the invitation of the British Embassy there. On the way back I was talking to the driver, who was great at describing all the developments in Zagreb’s architecture and way of life since what the Croatians call “The Homeland War” – the battle for national independence in the early 1990s. He described how many Croatians of his generation had experienced a “black hole” in their lives for about ten years, when life was all about survival. Things have now got much better of course, and accession to the European Union in 2013 was both a symbol of the progress made and an incentive to tackle things like governance and corruption.
That theme recurred in most of the discussions I had before and during the conference. The importance of being part of the EU, as a means of addressing the things that are still not right in the political and state culture.
That’s the EU, the institution reviled by most of the British media, and mocked by the rest. If it isn’t the threat of unwanted immigrants, it’s straight bananas and “faceless bureaucrats” governing us from afar and strangling us with regulation.
Such is the dislike of the EU in parts of the British political firmament that we are now committed to having an in/out referendum in 2016 or 17. The British government is seeking to negotiate a new settlement for Britain, at exactly the same time as Europe is grappling with so many more important things: the refugee crisis, the terrorist threat, the travails of the Euro, the economic woes of some of the member states and the transitional challenges for those new members like Croatia. The Prime Minister will present the outcome of the negotiations to the British electorate as the basis for their decision.
I can guarantee you that the arguments as the campaign progresses will be depressing in the extreme. The Outs will cite immigration, regulation, loss of sovereignty. Basically foreigners messing up our country. They’ll claim we can be like Switzerland or Singapore – utterly different countries in size, diversity, economic and political importance. The Ins will start with positives about the economics of the single market, but will give up half way through and rely on scare stories: loss of jobs, no influence in the world, deserted by America, and so on.
No-one will recite the sort of thing I heard in Croatia. No one will suggest that as a part of that vital change, we in the UK can play a valuable role through sharing our experience. If they do try no-one will listen. You won’t see much in the press about the fact that that very existence of the EU has allowed Western and Central Europe resolve its differences through negotiation rather than fighting since 1945. And that it may achieve the same in Eastern Europe now. This is so not-to-be-underestimated. The previous history of all of Europe was near-constant war over the centuries.
These are the intangibles that make staying in the EU – and playing a positive part – a no-brainer for me. Solidarity: never more important than at this time when there are so many grave challenges. That solidarity was evident at Wembley the other night, when English football fans – yes, the fans once known for their hooligan antics across the continent – stood with the French and sang the Marseillaise. How do we bottle that and inject it into the political culture?
So, to be honest, I hope the fear of the unknown, and maybe people’s memories of those enjoyable European holidays, be they the trip round the Venetian canals or the beach and rave in Ibiza, or even the trip to Calais to get some good value wine, swing it for the In vote.
But right now, it seems to be in the balance.