20th June 2016
–By Keith Nieland-
“ALL THE DOGS OF EUROPE BARK” (W. H. Auden)
Not even I am old enough to remember the Second World War. I was born in 1948 but well remember its aftermath. People still used to look up and sometimes duck whenever an aircraft passed overhead. Ration cards (I still have mine just in case) and shortages of almost everything in the shops when I went down the high street with my mother. Family days out to Portsmouth and London with vast areas that had been bombed flat and left to the weeds. I recall St. Paul’s Cathedral sitting proudly in an open plain of buildings flattened by bombing.
On the River Rhine stands a small, picturesque town. It is one of the stop offs on the river cruise route. There are no statues to say so but this place was witness to one of the most momentous moments in European history. For it was here the idea was born of a way of stopping the countries of Europe fighting one another. Over the centuries, but particularly in the first part of the 20th century, Europe has regularly been torn apart by wars. Countless millions of lives had been lost. Homes had been destroyed and armies of refugees created. This all culminated in the terrible events of the Second World War.
The citizens of our charming Rhine town had the idea of creating a trading, cultural and social interdependence between the former warring countries. The theory being that there would be no point in fighting when you have a mutual economic interdependence. If fighting hit your personal finances there was little point in doing it. It was a simple idea but it worked. It led to the creation of what is now the European Union which has been the vehicle for creating peace between former enemies that has lasted for nearly 70 years. Yes, there have been wars in the Baltics and in Ukraine but not between EU members.
Western Europe has become a civilised place setting an example for the rest of the world. Countries no longer fight. Instead they trade, they share developments in the arts and travel freely to one another’s countries. It is now inconceivable that France and Germany would go to war as they did three times in less than a hundred years.
The European Union is so much more than a trading organisation. It is the vehicle for creating the longest period of peace in western Europe for many centuries. Like all large organisations it needs constant reform to adapt to a changing world. However, that does not negate the need to reaffirm the original founding principles.
Some would say it is alarmist to suggest that disbanding the EU would automatically lead to the countries of Europe fighting each other again. The truth is nobody knows, but why take the risk? If anybody had suggested at the 1919 Versailles talks that Europe would be at war again 20 years later they would have been laughed at.
Opinion polls tell us that over 65s are ardent Leavers but there is something interesting buried in the figures. The over 75s, in contrast, want to remain in the EU. This is what is left of a generation that bore witness first hand to where division and acrimony lead us. Simon Schama said on Twitter recently, “They are no longer with us. The Brexit generation has lived off their sacrifice and through years of European peace.”
We no longer fear German militarism but immigrants instead. Our response may be to raise the drawbridge and become an isolated, inward looking island, fearful of change and poorer economically and culturally for it.
There have always been far right movements across Europe with a simple nationalist creed set firmly against what the EU stands for. Le Pen in France and the recent Presidential elections in Austria bear witness to this. They now feel emboldened and recently met in Vienna to plan their next moves. We have UKIP contributing, if that is the right word, a nasty anti-immigrant message to our EU referendum. Immigrants are only to be feared, they say. They steal our jobs, jump the NHS and housing queues, depress wages and if we let our guard down millions more would come. If we somehow magic them all away I just wonder who would staff the NHS and our care homes, keep the coffee shops going, supply our waiters, drive our buses, deliver our goods from Amazon, etc?
If the UK votes next Thursday to leave the EU it will have two immediate effects. Further embolden the nationalist, anti-immigrant movements elsewhere across Europe and strengthen the resolve of the EU to ensure the UK would never be in a position to brag about leaving. They would do this by ensuring the deal which would have to surely be struck with the EU to protect nearly half our export trade was as least beneficial to us that it could be. They would need to do this to protect the European ideal and prevent far right movements gaining more purchase. They could make access to the single market extremely difficult and lay down all sorts of punitive conditions. No wonder Hitachi and others are seriously considering moving their operations to mainland Europe. Remember when it comes to any trade deals most of the cards lie in hands on the other side of table; we need the agreement and more quickly than they do.
Currently we have over two dozen friends across Europe but next Friday morning we may well have none.
Our response to this may well be to become even more anti-European and blame them for the non-delivery of the Leavers’ Utopia. The Human Rights Act would go on the grounds it gives rights to immigrants and workers’ rights would be undermined as, it will be claimed, there would be more jobs without them.
Leaving the EU not only creates problems for us but major challenges for the rest of Europe. Nobody knows where this uncertainty will lead but who can say it will not be a very dark place.
Next Friday morning we could be giving 2 years notice of our intention to tear up the agreement that gives us nearly half our exports. We would have 2 years to put it back in place (as best we could) or replace it. No work has been done in preparation for this. There is no work going on to reach a trade agreement with the USA or China. The agreement we have with Canada would go as it is part of an EU agreement. Boris talks about trading with South East Asia. Perhaps we can raise the anchor and tow our island to the South China Sea. It takes years to reach trade agreements. Without them the UK could be visited by economic hardship that would make the 2008 crash look like a tea party. With economic depression comes political extremism of both left and right. The Germany of the 1930s bear witness to this.
There is another way, of course. We could recognise and reaffirm the EU founding principles, vote to remain but take that as a mandate to lead negotiations with EU partners on making it fit for the challenges of this decade, including immigration, inequality and the need to more equitably share economic wealth including with north Africa and the Middle East. This would be a proper legacy for Prime Minister Cameron.
Perhaps next Thursday each polling station should display a poem written by W. H. Auden in 1939:
“In the nightmare of the dark;
All the dogs of Europe bark;
And the living nations wait;
Each sequestered in its hate.”
From our bombed-out cities via a picturesque town on the Rhine we have enjoyed 70 years of peace and prosperity. We owe it to our friends in Europe to remain; not run away and hide. Perhaps next Thursday is a simple choice between hate and dark against light and progress.