This is the kind of column that will get me into trouble because it expresses an opinion in stark terms. So let me make it clear – it’s expressing how I feel about something. My feeling may not be rational, and I’m very open to discussion about whether what I feel says more about me than about the facts of the matter at issue. But given how emotions win political arguments more than facts, the feeling is worth exploring.
In the last two months I have twice been in EU countries in mainland Europe. In June I spent four days in Germany for work, and last week I was in France on holiday. I came back from Germany thinking the UK’s decision to leave the EU was just plain crazy. Now I have come back from France thinking the UK is in a phase of the most dreadful arrogance and egoism which I feel – as a British citizen – very embarrassed about.
Let me be clear: despite being a convinced Remainer at last year’s EU referendum, I can see the argument for leaving. I’m not going to fall into the trap of seeing it as a modern-day class issue of the educated wanting to stay in and the uneducated wanting to get out – I know too many people whose views I respect who voted Leave to deny the legitimacy of the Leave argument (a few of them are Liberal Democrats who seem a bit haunted by their guilty secret).
But what made me feel that we British are being arrogant and selfish about the EU was a visit to the Normandy beaches last week. Emotions were running higher than normal because it was a day or two before the anniversary of the disastrous Dieppe raid of 1942 and commemorations were in full swing. But as so often when I have visited scenes of historical tragedy (like a Nazi concentration or and the first world war trenches) I came out of the experience asking myself ‘How do we make sure this never happens again?’
The most natural answer I came away with from Dieppe and the beaches of the Normandy landings was that we needed to create an economic community of European nations, all working to harmonised basic standards, so we – and others – never have the incentive to get what we want by military means again. And you know what – that’s exactly what Europe built after the second world war. It has evolved into what’s today known as the European Union.
And this is the body we are walking away from! I know it’s flawed – I’ve seen it with my own eyes through my work for the European Federation for Transport & Environment, and at times the EU can drive me mad. But which institution of 28 sovereign states wouldn’t be flawed and in some way pragmatically inefficient? EU reform will always be on the agenda, and rightly so, but that doesn’t mean we should walk away from it because we don’t like some of its bureaucratic nonsenses or kid ourselves that leaving the EU will somehow tackle a migration problem. More importantly, we should be asking what we can do for our continent, not just what our continent can do for us.
Because we’ve had the referendum, the government has to pursue the process of extricating the UK from the EU, otherwise it will create a dangerous powder keg of extremist martyrdom based on the will of the people having been denied. But if in the process of pursuing Brexit public opinion changes and people see the enormity of what the decision means in reality – and perhaps start to feel the arrogance and egoism that I felt in Normandy last week – then there is still time to retrieve the situation and put it all down to a very public national learning experience.