In the heat of a referendum campaign dominated by accusation and counter-accusation, it is easy to forget what is at stake. Brexiteers focus almost exclusively on “facts” about a Britain laid low by immigration. Their counterpoint is the pro-European Conservative ministers all too often portraying the European Union as something to be tolerated as a necessary evil rather than embraced as a force for good. For many Labour voters turned off by the Tory infighting, “remain at home” is becoming as attractive an option as “Remain”.
Yet the referendum will signal, to both the British people and the world, what kind of country we are and aspire to be. And it is not too late to demonstrate that there is a positive, principled and progressive case for Britain staying in the EU.
In this week’s edition of the New Statesman, our contributors confront a Britain in search of self and place. When they explore the varied dimensions of life at home and across the Channel – cultural nuances, economic opportunities and cherished social values – they return to a basic observation: Europe matters more than we think.
Britain’s connection to mainland Europe is not defined by geography alone – by white cliffs that can be spotted on a clear day from not-so-distant shores – but by shared needs, mutual interests and common values that become ever more important in an increasingly interdependent world. The peace of Europe – a continent at war in every century except ours – is today held together not at the barrel of a gun nor by some uneasy ceasefire but through an agreed approach to freedom, democracy and the rule of law, based on the British-inspired European Convention on Human Rights.
Together, the countries of the European Union have breathlessly lapped the United States on generation-defining issues. Each of the EU’s 28 member states has abolished capital punishment, tightened gun control laws and championed human rights in areas – from the Convention on the Rights of the Child to the International Criminal Court – where America has hesitated. We are united by a belief that foreign policy is not just an exercise in protecting interests but also about advancing ideals. And Europe is the only continent that has a marketplace underpinned by social and economic rights and a commitment to economic success and social justice advancing together. But now this set of beliefs is under fire.
Across Europe, millions of people feel threatened by globalisation. Many sense that power resides everywhere they are not and look for someone or something to protect, insulate or shelter them from wave after crushing wave of global change. The roots of this sentiment are often economic – to be found in the greatest industrial transformation and occupational reshuffle since the Industrial Revolution. Yet cultural concerns have come to occupy centre stage, from worries that we have lost control of our borders to anxieties that our country is not what it used to be. In turn, this has led to the rise of a wide range of protectionist, nationalist and anti-immigrant parties, united by an anti-globalisation theme. Everywhere from Austria – where the two major mainstream parties recently received just 22 per cent of the vote – to the United Kingdom, there is a call “to bring control back home”.
Fear should never be the answer to change. We live in a world where – from pollution and pandemics to financial instability and terrorism – we are confronted by cross-border problems unyielding to national solutions. The answer, as shown here in illuminating commentaries by great statesmen – the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and his predecessor Kofi Annan – and the renowned philosophers Amartya Sen and Michael Sandel, is to manage globalisation in the interests of people. Their common theme – and that of President Bill Clinton in our online edition – is that in the 21st century, each nation must strike the right balance between the national autonomy it desires and the international co-operation it needs. As Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, shows, we need a new vision of sovereignty for our interconnected and interdependent world.
All the time I was chancellor of the Exchequer and then prime minister, I was acutely aware that there were two competing views of Britain and our role in the world. There is the popular image of Britain doing well when standing apart and sometimes standing alone, as at Dunkirk in 1940, a nation proud of our unique “offshore island” status and wary of entanglements with outsiders. But there is another patriotic view of Britain – one that interprets the Dunkirk spirit in a different way.
As two brilliant historians, Linda Colley and Emma Rothschild, demonstrate, Britain has always been at its best when it was outward-looking and globally engaged – a Britain whose history, values and general temperament impel us to lead when others fail to do so. It is this Britain that led the fight in Europe against fascism, totalitarianism, anti-Semitism and racism, and which has never allowed any one power – whether it was France, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany or Russia – to dominate our continent. And it is this Britain that can lead in the next stage of Europe’s development.
Fortuitously, next year’s UK presidency of the EU, the first since 2005, offers us an opportunity to set a British agenda for a changing continent – for a global Europe that is no longer self-absorbed. An agenda-setting presidency, focused on jobs, energy, taxation, terrorism, illegal immigration and workers’ rights, will do more than place us in the vanguard of Europe. It will also fashion a British consensus on how European engagement can further strengthen our country. In two powerful appeals from Ireland to the United Kingdom, the newly re-elected Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, and the former Irish president Mary McAleese join that call for Britain to lead.
A focus on single-market reform would entail opening up the national markets in IT, digital, energy and services, delivering 500,000 high-quality British jobs in the next decade. Three of the world’s greatest scientists – Tim Berners-Lee, Stephen Hawking and Paul Nurse – explain how Britain can guide Europe towards a global leadership position through heightened research co-operation. And as Alison McGovern MP argues, the new wealth we generate will enable us to invest in our public services, especially the NHS.
The UK is also ideally placed to use its presidency of the EU to champion enhanced co-operation on energy and the environment, reforms that can deliver greater energy security and lower fuel bills and help us meet our carbon reduction targets. Britain will benefit greatly from harnessing our massive but intermittent North Sea wind and wave power in a pan-European grid.
While Britain can raise its taxes without foreign interference – only VAT is subject to European-wide bands – we cannot create a fair tax system without addressing the revenue losses from an estimated €1trn of European wealth held offshore in tax havens. Acting alone, we can never match the collective clout that a united Europe can bring to bear. Britain should lead the call for a more comprehensive European strategy to blacklist, sanction and, where necessary, impose withholding taxes on the havens that have become treasure islands for the tax-avoiding few.
Through our own passport controls and border guards, Britain determines the degree to which its borders are open or closed. Yet, by two to one in a recent poll, British people agree on the need to expand cross-border co-operation – including border checks in Calais – to root out the smugglers who profit from illegal immigration and to counter terrorist threats. In our presidency, we should champion more sophisticated cross-border information and intelligence-sharing and policing – the best way to address terror threats posed to all of Europe.
Faced with the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945, we also need an ambitious strategy to tackle insecurity and the causes of insecurity. Acting alone, no country can deal with the chaos in the Middle East and North Africa and the resulting terrorist threat. Because it has only a military mandate, Nato is unable to devise a grand strategy that incorporates diplomacy, economic reconstruction and development aid. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, America is far removed from the daily threat of Middle East terrorism and the mass migration that Europe faces on its doorstep and, in turn, cannot be expected to share our urgency. Given Britain’s history at the head of the European policy table, we are well placed to lead the articulation and implementation of a modern Marshall Plan that the Middle East and Africa now desperately require. In eloquent appeals, the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the executive director of the Overseas Development Institute, Kevin Watkins (published online), emphasise the importance of European co-operation on international development.
Just as illegal immigration can only be resolved through cross-border co-operation, pressures on our public services from all forms of immigration should be addressed by a new, Europe-wide, migration challenges and support fund. Such a fund could help bridge financing shortfalls in communities whose schools and public services are unable to cope with sharp population changes. And it would signal that countries should be celebrated – not punished – for their willingness to welcome refugees and migrants.
In an insightful article, Doreen Lawrence shows how Europe has led the way by insisting on minimum standards in the workplace – including gender equality rights, enhanced health and safety protections, access to unpaid parental leave and rights of consultation for workers facing redundancy. European action was needed because, without it, the good employer and country will always be undercut by the bad, and the bad by the worst, in a dog-eat-dog race to the bottom. In 2016, the most vulnerable workers are men and women with no security of employment, often with nothing more than zero-hours contracts. Only the exploitative employer will benefit if we fail to agree on stronger measures at the European level to protect workers hit by casual contracts.
But our continental future is about more than a set of policy initiatives. While, so far, the referendum debate has lacked generosity of spirit and humour – hence the pieces from the brilliant Rory Bremner, Armando Iannucci, Eddie Izzard and Piers Morgan – 23 June should be an optimistic, defining moment in our country’s history.
In 1886, Alfred Tennyson wrote one of his last poems, “Locksley Hall – Sixty Years After”, in which he described a world in ruins: “Chaos, Cosmos! Cosmos, Chaos! who can tell how all will end!” This brooding uncertainty did not sit well with the then prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone, who was moved to do what few politicians have ever done – he wrote an article for the premier UK literary magazine Nineteenth Century. There he reminded Tennyson of the sentiment of his first “Locksley Hall” poem, written six decades earlier: “When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;/Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.”
The referendum offers the choice between succumbing to Tennyson’s later, jaundiced view or embracing his earlier hopefulness. While history makes clear that no union is perfect, the power of co-operation easily trumps – if this is now the right verb – the costs and futility of insularity or isolation. Our great island nation is not great because it stands alone but because it stands tall. And while it is natural to weep for the Europe that is – and to be fearful of “how all will end” – we should be unafraid to articulate a better vision of Europe for the future.
Gordon Brown’s book Leading, Not Leaving – the Patriotic Case for Remaining in Europe is published by Deerpark Press. All proceeds go to charity.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe