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31 January 2020updated 06 Sep 2021 3:31pm

Pro-Europeans around the continent must learn the lessons of the UK’s story

Those committed to the European project must avoid the pitfalls that led to Brexit.

By Jeremy Cliffe

There is a part of Britain’s political spectrum that has failed more than any other in recent years, and I belong to it: the keen pro-Europeans. I live in Berlin, my family includes bearers of British, Italian and German passports and I am a committed believer in the European project. Hundreds of thousands of Brits – perhaps even a few million going by a recent British Social Attitudes survey showing that 15 per cent of the country defines itself as European and 4 per cent as European above other identities – are in a similar position. Among us are those with European relatives, close friends or other links, and plenty of others who simply identify culturally with the European project. Had we been savvier, we British-Europeans could have been a vanguard. Instead we failed, and Britain’s exit from the EU is the result.

Britain was there at the beginning, after all. My late and firmly anti-Brexit grandfather, decorated with France’s Légion d’Honneur, was among the millions of British troops deployed across Europe by the end of the war. Britain invested vast amounts of blood and treasure in the stabilisation of the continent. I get my exercise these days by cycling around Berlin’s now plane-less Tempelhof Airport, the hub of the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift in which 101 lives, including more Brits than members of any other nationality, were lost in the successful mission to keep West Berlin alive and free.

The direct and logical product of those early attempts to rebuild Europe would be the European Economic Community, the prelude to today’s EU and a mechanism to bind the continent together and steel it for whatever challenges were to come. From its accession to the EEC in 1973, Britain provided brilliant officials – most notably Roy Jenkins, the president of the Commission from 1977 to 1981 – who dedicated their careers to that European ideal. And while governments in London were rarely fully engaged, they made their mark: Margaret Thatcher helped to build the single market, for example, and Tony Blair helped to make Europe more open and outward looking in the world.

It is true that Britain was always different: an island nation, a former imperial power untroubled by experiences of occupation or dictatorship, an eccentric place with a unique experience of the war and a distinctive emotional make-up (as I argue in my cover essay in this week’s New Statesman). But other members of the European project have their own complicated histories, neuroses and traits, too. Only Britain has drifted from the union and ended up leaving it. How that happened provides several lessons for all those, on the continent, who still believe in the European ideal and want to avoid further Brexits.

The first lesson is not to be complacent. Britain’s elite long took popular consent for EU membership for granted. Conservative leaders spent decades using Europe as a sort of free kick; deploying Euroscepticism as a no-consequences mechanism for demonstrating patriotism and right-wing bona fides. Pro-Europeans in the Tory party were long timid and keen to avoid the subject. So too were many leading figures in Labour. Tony Blair’s flirtation with genuine European leadership, including British membership of the euro (a move that might have strengthened Britain and the eurozone alike) was short lived, before the party succumbed to Gordon Brown’s “realistic” but in the long-term fatal reluctance even to engage with the subject. That helped pave the way to David Cameron’s 2013 commitment to a referendum and its realisation in 2016. So my first message to pro-Europeans across Europe is: stand up to the risk of disintegration, however improbable it seems.

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The second lesson is to make the positive case for Europe. We pro-Europeans were for too long on the defensive. Even before UK membership seemed at risk, we justified the project with numbers about the immediate prospects for jobs and growth. But we never had a big, positive story to tell: about the long-term economic, cultural, social and geo-strategic possibilities of being at the heart of Europe. “Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role,” wrote Dean Acheson, America’s post-war secretary of state. With a concerted focus, Britain might easily have made its role the midwife of a more competitive, more globally open and more relevant Europe. But the case was never made for such ambition and the country’s role remains unclear. So my second message to pro-Europeans across Europe is: be bold, aim high, and do not let yourself be cowed into a defensive position when you have a big, positive story to tell.

The third – and by far the most important – lesson is to act more boldly to make Europe a success. Britain’s vote for Brexit in June 2016 took place with terrible timing. Back then the eurozone crisis was recent, the migrant crisis of 2015 was even more recent, European democracy seemed weak and unaccountable and China and America looked like fairly appealing partners. All of this has changed in the interim: the eurozone has recovered, the migrant crisis has subsided (albeit thanks to questionable EU deals with nearby states) and both China and the US look more aggressive and authoritarian. But none of those things are certain. Keeping Europe attractive means solving its problems: tackling the flaws in the euro and the European migration regime, genuinely Europeanising democratic debates and establishing a credible, alternative European pole to China and the US. These may seem like abstract, long-term, nice-to-have goals here in Berlin, where the German elite potters along in its comfortably cautious way, but they may soon turn out to be imperatives. My third and final message to pro-Europeans is: do not take your security and prosperity for granted.

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Britain is the cautionary tale. With a few different turns of fate, or strategy, the country might have become the most constructive player in Europe. There are alternate universes, a few flutters of butterfly wings from our own, in which London worked closely with Paris, Berlin and Warsaw from the year 2000, or 2010, to push Europe forward, make it a credible counterpart to America and China, and create a very different global landscape by 2020. But my political tribe, the pro-Europeans, let that prospect slip through our fingers. We were complacent, we were negative, we were unambitious – and we did not do enough to make Europe more successful.

And now here we are, hours – at the time of writing – from exiting the club altogether and regrets filling our minds. Britain may or may not make a success of Brexit. It may or may not return to the EU. I file both outcomes in the “possible but not probable” drawer. But the fact of my country’s abandonment of the one institution capable of delivering the goal for which so many of its people have given their energies and in some cases lives – a peaceful and prosperous Europe of which Britain is an influential player – will always be a tragedy. I know that my pro-European friends elsewhere in the EU would feel the same way.

And so I urge the following on them. Pro-Europeans on the European continent! Britain is leaving but you can still learn from our experience, dodge our mistakes and avoid finding yourselves in ten years in the same gut-wrenching position we Brits are in now, on the verge of leaving an organisation to which we have committed so much. So follow these lessons: do not be complacent, make the case for a capable and united Europe even when it seems difficult and most of all throw your energies into making Europe a success. It may seem hard but – writing as a British-European on the eve of Brexit – it is worthwhile.