If you come to an agreement with 26 people and believe that the end result is one where you give, and the others take, and you are the only one impoverished by the relationship, there are three conclusions an outside observer can come to. One is that the other 26 must really hate you, the second is that you are paranoid, seeing conspiracy and envy in every person you have contact with, and the third is that you are greedy and the reality is not that the other 26 are trying to do you over, but that you have no sense of what compromise actually is. In the case of the agreement between Great Britain, or at least the part of it known as England, and the European Union, all three of these conclusions probably apply.
The first of the three, to the extent that it exists, is probably a result of the other two. Britain’s relationship with the EU has never been easy because so much of it has been driven by suspicion, mistrust and grudging cooperation on our part. It all began with Winston Churchill’s original unwillingness to join the EUs predecessor on the grounds that ‘we are with them, but not of them’. This embodied our island nation and the days of empire – the feeling that we were somehow better than the rest of them, and could survive because we were British.
Time did not prove this right and eventually we had to join the EU. Joining when it suited us, for our own interests, and expecting others to welcome them after we’d turned them down when they wanted us in. That’s what we did. And we wonder why some of them were reluctant to let us in, and why the terms we got were not as favourable as they could have been. It shouldn’t take a genius to work it out.
It might be uncomfortable for many modern day conservatives to note, but the man who took us into the EU was not some soft-minded lefty with no concern for sovereignty and a desire to get rid of the monarchy. It was actually Ted Heath, one of their former leaders. Although, as the man Margaret Thatcher and subsequent Tory leaders sought to turn into a figure of ridicule, it probably just adds to their conviction that it was a stupid thing to do.
From then on, our relationship with Europe has often been characterised by fear that they are either taking our money, our powers, or both. This is where the paranoia really starts to creep in. Is it just us that they are taking powers from? Are they doing it deliberately to weaken us, like some James Bond villain but in a boring bureaucratic form? If they are, all I can think is that they don’t understand maths and the UKs bank balance. Why go to weaken a country that has barely enough money for itself, let alone enough to spread around 26?
The truth is that the EU benefits us in some respects, and harms us in others. It does the same for every country that’s a member of it. Only the likes of UKIP, the Conservatives pushing for the referendum, and some of the right wing press, really believe that we are the only country that get none of the benefits, and most, or all, of the misery that comes from membership.
The pressure that has led to the decision to seek to renegotiate our EU membership, and then hold a referendum on the new terms, is borne out of paranoia, and not from any desire to really have a debate on whether the benefits of membership outweigh the harm.
This has always been the way. In years gone by, our anger was directed at French farmers, various countries fisherman, and other assorted foreign people that we were paying to grow sunflowers or trawl in waters that weren’t ours, but probably had been once. The benefits in trade, customs tariffs, free markets, and whisper it quietly, some bits of funding that actually came our way, never got a look in.
The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express have always managed to turn any vague unease about anything EU related into a full-scale conspiracy, managing to achieve this even when it’s a policy that, on first glance at least, looks like it might be good for a lot of us. Maximum working week? No thanks, I’d sooner have my Government tell me I can be made to work all the hours that God sends. Minimum wage? No thanks, it’s for my Government to decide to pay me a pittance rather than Brussels to tell me I have a right to a level of pay I might possibly be able to exist on.
The arguments made for withdrawal are focused solely on the harm the EU can do, and not even an accurate portrayal of what that harm is. Whether those advocating an EU exit are paranoid themselves, or whether they’re just fuelling public paranoia as a front for other more selfish reasons for wanting out, may be open to question. To do this, the arguments for withdrawal need to be countered with the current benefits we have from being in the EU, and also the consequences of withdrawal, which may be far worse than just the ending of those benefits.
Sadly and worryingly it’s unlikely that the full debate will be heard. The anti-EU lobby have already won the day in getting this far with so much that panders to the lowest common denominators of self interest and mistrust, and so little by way of a balanced argument. And, so far, they haven’t even had to remind us that our shocking performance in the Eurovision song contest is further proof that they’ve all got it in for us. Makes you proud to be British!