How do you *feel* about the European Union?


I have been spending time talking about the EU referendum with anyone I meet who is undecided or who disagrees with me. Indeed I spent a large chunk of Saturday in Cambridge marketplace talking ‘in-out’. For the record: I feel very strongly that the EU has achieved a great deal for my country, and also that it is a work in progress. Some of its key weaknesses need to be, but I believe can be, addressed. Voting to leave won’t mean that the Earth stops spinning but I feel it will be costly in many different ways, and for little gain.

But I also recognize that ‘laying out the facts’ isn’t enough in these conversations. Indeed one of the very striking features of the arguments and emotions displayed by online Brexiteers, and some of the people I’ve spoken to, is how closely they map onto climate contrarian views. Conversation, or social media, quickly reveals concerns about an encroaching state, a loss of control, technocracies, and exaggeration by experts and manipulation by ‘the establishment’. I can state with great confidence that trying to find ‘bigger facts’ will have no impact whatsoever, because its not about facts its about feelings.

There is nothing original in my analysis when I reveal that the underlying concerns I have found centre on fears: fears about migration, the economy, and the loss of identity and control. These are all part and parcel of experiences of economic and cultural globalization. This makes opposition to the European Union project of the last three decades somewhat ironic given that, in my reading at least, it can primarily be understood as a continent wide attempt to cope with and thrive within the conditions of globalization.

Perhaps the most striking comparison with climate change in all of this is the dismissal of expertise in the face of uncertainty. What other cause has so united leading figures from amongst economists; unions; big business; the Bank of England; faith groups; universities; medics and on and on. Yet the polls hang in the balance.

In the field of climate change the processes whereby a person’s prior ideology, or strongly held feelings, inform the way they respond to claims about climate science or policy have been widely researched and described. One of the things that some of us who are concerned to build a robust political foundation for action on climate change have learned from all this is that insisting ever more loudly on ‘killer facts’ or the scale of consensus amongst relevant experts has probably already achieved all that it can. Indeed it may now be counter-productive in relation to those constituencies that are undecided. ‘Rational arguments’ are unlikely to win doubters over on the basis of the scale of consensus on a topic.

Perhaps Tony Blair portrayed the strongest political instincts of any in the ‘remain’ camp when he argued the need for the demonstration of much more ‘feeling’ in the Remain campaign. So here is some feeling from me:

The EU has made me feel much safer. The collapse of state socialism in Central and Eastern Europe could have been far more traumatic and dangerous without the EU to give a stable framework for transition to democratic societies. Take a look at non-EU member states to get a sense of the difference. And with a slightly longer view: within my lifetime the European institutions have helped Greece, Spain and Portugal leave behind juntas and dictatorships and for most of the last forty years these countries have enjoyed secure freedom, and a large portion of prosperity. Closer to home the existence of the EU helped the Northern Ireland peace process and helped keep the UK together at the Scottish independence referendum. The grim facts of today’s youth unemployment, especially in southern Europe, can’t be simply pinned on the Eurozone – we are nearly a decade into the worst global economic recession in a century. This makes me feel more convinced rather than less that the best route lies in formal structured collaboration and debate within a community of countries. The alternative is to see two dozen plus competitors wrapping themselves in their flags and shouting for local short-term interests.

I feel pleasure and relief at the difference in the quality of the air I breathe and water I drink and swim in. These are things I have no control over, and pollution respects no border, but because of the EU my air and water is safer, both at home, but also if I travel to the East of Poland or the West of Ireland. I also feel glad when I stop to note that the EU has made almost all the gadgets in my house cheaper to run and less polluting.

I feel carefree delight at travelling across a great continent without having to spend time and money on visas and planning. I feel pleasure at being English in Europe as I travel unimpeded.

I feel some relief knowing that regulations in my workplace and also in the company I part own have made everyone safer and protected their rights. This is ‘red tape’ that saves and improves lives. Pass me another roll of it. Indeed some of the most annoying red tape I’ve come across derives not from the EU but from large corporations that want to pass legal liabilities down the line. The EU is one powerful mechanism for standardizing this stuff, with a chance of making life simpler and reducing transaction costs. We’ve seen that global corporations need taming by coordinated action, and I feel the EU offers me and my colleagues the best chance of protection from them.

I feel relief that the EU has slung a lifeline to some of the poorest and often most ‘peripheral’ regions of the UK. Renewal and investment projects have brought benefit to some of my favourite places including Cornwall and Wales. This has happened in a period when UK mainstream political parties have offered little in the way of regional policies. The benefits that have flowed show that our investments in the EU are just that: pay in to take out. I feel thankful that these parts of Britain are a little better off than they otherwise would have been.

I feel personally a little richer – both in terms of cash and culture – when I look back over my lifetime and reflect on the fact that goods and people have become ever freer to flow across that time. I sense that my life has been a little more interesting and a little more comfortable because of the EU. (and I feel more than a little baffled to hear Tories – Tories! – argue against the free movement of goods and people. It has long been one of the central planks of their ideology).

There are things I feel angry about too, and things I fear, so I’m sympathetic with some of the ‘Leave’ arguments. I feel that the pork barrel politics that brought the fisheries and agricultural policies of the EU into being have had serious environmental and social consequences that we’re only starting to sort out now after decades of damage. I also fear that the EU isn’t up to the task of protecting the UKs smaller businesses and public services from the might of global corporations (though I acknowledge the EU has a far better chance of standing up to unfettered corporate interests than a lone country).

My last feeling is of irritation at the EU’s failure to explain itself to Europeans, or to ‘matter enough’. One very smart ‘leave’ campaigner who was old enough to have campaigned in favour of joining the EC in 1975 tested me on my awareness of the Eastern region’s MEPs: I had to confess embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. This isn’t a democratic deficit – it’s simply a lack of interest – and that’s from someone that cares.

The EU’s greatest failure is in explaining the simple fact that its institutions are rooted in democratic decisions by EU citizens: the Council of Ministers is populated by our ministers; we vote for MEPs; the Presidency rotates around our elected leaders and the Commissioners are proposed by our elected governments. If we don’t like the results of democracy we have to engage, debate and vote with a bit more vigour. But to develop (mostly) workable and productive agreements across a large area we have to accept there will be give and take. The extent of European democracy and unity is an amazing achievement when you look at the continent’s often-terrible 20th century history. However I feel distress at how a lack of interest in these achievements (my own as much as anyone else’s) might result in a ‘leave’ vote.

Of all the EU’s failings, the failure to explain itself, and to generate a sense of trust in a constructive collective of nation states is perhaps the greatest, and could have dismal consequences for the great majority of people. I’m going to be spending more time talking and leafleting to try to convince more people to vote ‘Remain’. But I’ll start by telling people how I feel.

NOTE: Thanks to Jonathan Rowson for noting my incorrect use of the word ‘disinterest’, now corrected.

ADDENDUM:It has been striking to me since posting this that in exchanges in social media and old fashioned conversation there is widespread evidence of ignorance of the democratic basis of all the key EU institutions and processes. OK they’re not always that intuitive or lovable, but I find it odd that they are dismissed as undemocratic in a country that has an unelected second chamber and a hereditary (OK, kind of constitutional) monarchy. Here is a quote from an exchange with a Czech colleague whose very smart children have attended British schools:

‘…my children have either completed or nearly finished their school education in the UK. As both of them confirmed, they have never studied or learned anything about the EU in their 14 or 10 years of school attendance. Is anybody ever asking the question why this is the case? xxx studied politics for his A-levels. To my shock, it was one year of British politics and one year of US politics. Who makes these decisions? How relevant is US politics to British students? When I asked the teacher about EU politics, he replied: It’s part of British politics (in reality no EU politics was taught).’

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