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The EU: More Important Than Nato

08/06/2016 15:05 | Updated 08 June 2016

I am Italian by birth, but I have lived in the UK for nigh on 23 years. I have been working, paying taxes and doing voluntary work in this country for 16 of those. My wife is British, and both of my children were born here. The UK is the place that I and my family call home.

I am concerned at the not-so-veiled xenophobia that has characterised much of the EU referendum debate. I am concerned of what Brexit would mean for my family's ability to travel abroad and to visit our relatves in Italy. I am concerned of suddenly feeling like a stranger in my country. Most of all, I am concerned about what kind of future Brexit would bring for my children, should it prove to be the catalyst of a wider disintegration of European unity and cohesion, fuelling nationalism across the continent, and raising spectres which most of us thought had been dead and buried for good.

My grandfather, who is 95, was born in a poor family in Romagna, Italy. He was a teenager when Mussolini took power and barely an adult when he was sent to fight in the War. By a twist of fate he was not sent to Russia, where he was meant to go, but instead ended up fighting the British in North Africa. On the wall in his house hangs a picture of his school class, taken when my grandfather was just six years old. Out of the thirty-odd children in the picture, he is the only one to have survived the war. His classmates all died in Russia - young lives snuffed out by a war they had no choice but to fight in. Eventually my grandfather was taken prisoner, and he spent the rest of the conflict in a British prisoner of war camp. That was almost certainly what saved his life.

When my wife's parents and my grandfather met for the first time, they instantly got on wonderfully well, despite the language barrier - hardly surprising, as they're all very friendly people. It was very poignant for all of us to reflect, afterwards, how absurd it was that not so long ago, our two countries had been at war, and that under different circumstances, my grandfather and my father-in-law could not be friends but had to be enemies.

The concept of war in Europe may seem so irrelevant to our daily lives, for most of us just a vague and fading memory. Yet that is precisely what first prompted Winston Churchill to talk about a "United States of Europe" in 1946.

Fast-forward to not-so-distant 1991, and mass murder, torture and ethnic cleansing returned to Europe as Yugoslavia disintegrated. I wonder how many people living in Sarajevo, Mostar, or Srebrenica at the time, had any inkling that in the space of a few months, they would be fighting for their lives, driven from their homes, see their loved ones killed, or risk death and torture at the hands of their neighbours.

What was inconceivable to most people in 1990 became all too real, all too quickly. It was nationalism that set Yugoslavia alight, nationalism that made other countries see it as none of their business, and nationalism that is rising again on our continent. It will be nationalism that will replace the unity that the EU, imperfect as it may be, represents.

The EU is not the only thing that has kept Europe at peace since 1945. But it is perhaps the single most important thing - more than NATO, more than the Council of Europe, more than the UN. Why? Because between countries there are no stronger ties, and no best insurance against conflict, than economic ties. Particularly when they are laced with political unity. Not complete unity, but a negotiated one. While "ever closer union" was indeed the vision of most of the EU's early founders, reality has demonstrated that our national and regional identities are too strong to simply be lumped together like that. There is no appetite for that anymore in any country in Europe. The supranational dream, as conceived by the likes of Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Alcide De Gasperi, is no more. What's left is a much more pragmatic union, which nonetheless relies on its Member States to be effective.

What we have today is a balance, wrought by time, and arrived at by consensus. We work closely with each other on some things, and less so on others. That is the way it should be, and the only way it can be. That is what we have now. Let's not turn our backs, and look inwards again. Walking away won't make the UK stronger or more secure any more than it will improve the EU. Let's look outwards instead, and work together to create the EU that we all want - for ourselves, and for future generations.

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