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Second KLICE Comment May 2016

The referendum is not about profit and loss: it is about the future of my grandchildren

David White is an Honorary Director General of the European Commission, where he worked from 1974 until 2009.

This is one of a set of KLICE Comment pieces commissioned to reflect various political views. Others can be found on our EU Referendum page. KLICE has no official position on the Referendum. 

Nationalism seems to offer reassuring certainty as to who we are. Close on its heels comes the assertion of sovereignty, the right to be ourselves, whatever others may think. But the nation state, which asserts the primacy and sovereignty of its own community, repudiating deference to others, is a recent invention and its time has been one of unprecedented war and destruction.[1] 

The European Union (EU) is built on a surer foundation — the willing interaction of European neighbours, their shared values and distinctive contributions. It asserts a determination to build and deepen its relationships, resolving its issues by negotiation in solidarity.

The Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950 initiated a process to diminish the mutual suspicion of European neighbours by making it impossible for any country to secretly prepare for war. The success of this initiative led to further commitments to work together for what could not effectively be achieved alone.

This project has made the EU into a pole of attraction. It has transformed a continent as it has expanded to 28 member states, with eight more that are applicants, or have tied themselves to the EU’s values. Russia and its three immediate neighbours maintain their distance. None of them offers an attractive alternative. By demonstrating the superiority of relationship to force, the EU has established democracy, human rights and the rule of law as the foundations for successful European polity. This cannot be judged a failure.

The business of the EU is to do only that which can most effectively be done together. Building confidence and security came first. They were closely followed by establishing the basis for economic prosperity. Prosperity requires trade and trade requires relationship, for ‘free trade’ nowhere means trade without rules. The ground rules that make the internal market possible and enable the EU to build trading relationships with the rest of the world have required sustained work to build mutually acceptable solutions to shared problems. The achievement represents an enormous asset for its people.

Good agreements take account of each other’s interests, for unacceptable terms will at best be grudgingly applied and soon repudiated. Mutually acceptable solutions come through compromise and this concedes some autonomy. They also require solidarity. To claim the outcome of such a process as a unilateral victory (or defeat) is to undermine the authenticity of the relationship that makes compromise possible.

It is inconceivable that the EU would, in the future, allow the UK full access to its internal market under any other rules than its own. For the UK to have a say in these rules requires that it be part of the EU. Otherwise it will merely be a taker of rules decided by others.[2] It is bad enough to pick up the ball and go home in a huff. How foolish is it to go home in a huff and then find that they have the ball and you still want to play?

As the world seems to get smaller and human reach to increase, new issues arise. One such is the call for closer security co-operation following recent terrorist outrages. The demand to include such agreements in the EU, rather than in a separate agreement, comes from the high level of trust and understanding between politicians who meet regularly within the EU. This trust unlocks more scope than would be found in traditional negotiations. Recent decisions enable the UK to opt out of new EU fields. Of course just opting out, the opposite of solidarity, undermines relationships.

The EU has not solved every issue that confronts it. Some agreements, perhaps all, are imperfect. Much could be done better, much needs reform, there is much still to do. At times it has lacked compassion. The same could be said of any political entity. But the EU has brought co-operation farther and has taken relationship deeper than any other group of countries in the world. In doing so, it has embedded democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe and lit a beacon for others.

Pope Francis has reminded us that humans thrive neither as individuals alone, nor as slaves of the collective, but as individuals in relationship.[3]  It is the tension of that relationship that distinguishes the ambition of the EU and its best achievements. If its success is imperfect, who does it better?

Nationalist conflict drew my great-uncle to death at the Somme. Deviant nationalism compelled my father to spend the first 6 years of his marriage as a soldier. Those two generations found that sovereignty gave them no protection from the conflicts that engulfed their continent.

My professional life has been spent making a small contribution to the EU’s aim of preventing European nationalism from dragging another generation to destruction. The cost has been hard-won compromises. The benefit is that my children move freely across Europe and beyond, securely British, proudly European, open towards the world, their lives unthreatened by European war. I thank the European Union for this. Yet resurgent nationalism would turn its back on the EU’s contribution to our peace.

So I ask: what vision do we have for a world in which our grandchildren can flourish? What risk are we prepared to take with their lives? Are we prepared to throw away the EU, only to discover later whether it really has been the bulwark of our peace? Once made, that choice cannot be revoked.

I do not want my grandchildren to taste the bitter fruit of nationalism and its so-called sovereignty. I look to a Europe of rich relationship, determined to resolve its issues in solidarity, to offer them space to flourish. I prefer the probable security of the EU to the risk of a new and ghastly chapter of the experience shared by our fathers and grandfathers.

The referendum is not about short-term issues of profit and loss. It is about securing the future of our grandchildren. I will be voting to remain in the European Union.


[1] This point was well made by Prof Mark Mazower in an article in the Financial Times, 'Trump, Le Pen, and the Enduring Appeal of Nationalism', 29 April 2016.
[2] The alternatives are explored in ‘If the UK votes to leave: The seven alternatives to EU membership’, a study published by the Centre for European Reform.
[3] Address to the European Parliament, 25 November 2014.

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