The Brits Abroad And Why We Believe the UK Belongs in the Heart of Europe

12/05/2016 15:57

As Brit who lives in Paris, where I own a business and have a child in school, I watch anxiously as the UK debates its future ahead of the 23 June referendum. You could be forgiven for thinking my interest in the outcome is mostly self-interest, and of course much has been made of what Brexit might mean for the two million British expats living in the EU in terms of health care, residency rights, schooling, research projects and cross-border contracts. EU membership allows us to live, work and own a business in France and beyond. But my interest, and that of many other British expats in the EU, is much broader than that.

It is possible that living on the Continent naturally makes us feel more European. We are less hung up about the role that Brussels plays, and more interested in the exchange of ideas, culture and business opportunities that that Europe offers. The EU might not be perfect, but for us it is the right place for the UK to be, co-operating and pioneering with European partners. There may be two million Brits on the Continent but there are 400,000 French people living in the UK. This exchange of people, talent and resources seems natural and dynamic.

There is nothing like being away from home to hone your perceptions of what it means to be British. I resent the misguided portrayal of Britishness that is being transmitted from the 'Leave' camp. Their idea seems to be that in a troubled and globalised world, the Brits should revert to plucky, independent type and go it alone, away from an interfering Brussels. Except that is not at all what the 'plucky Brit' is about. Yes we are an island nation, but we are not inward-looking or isolationist in our character. Historically, we have explored and traded, viewing the seas around us as a gateway rather than a barrier. For me, the definition of the plucky Brit is the spirit that showed up in Dunkirk or the Blitz, to stand with and fight for European values. In the modern day, the equivalent is to stay within the European Union and strive to make it better. It has never been our style to hide from the world or disengage and we shouldn't start now.

Old-fashioned as it might sound, this is a moral issue. It is about friendship, solidarity and a shared future. Our grandparents sacrificed so much in World War II and so much has been achieved in the decades that followed to create a peaceful and prosperous Europe. Our generation does not have the right to throw that away carelessly.

What do the French think about a possible Brexit? A poll in April suggested that 59% of French people want Britain to stay. And it is true that my French friends speak of wanting Britain to stay, of Britain being an essential part of the EU, a real loss if we leave. But they also tease me that should Britain leave, all the talented, young international people working in London will be more than welcome in Paris and Berlin. Professional contacts tell me that their large, international clients have contingency plans to move their headquarters from London to Paris if the UK leaves. I can't help but bristle at this. I feel indignant at the idea of London losing status, influence and talent.

The recent terrorist attacks on Brussels and Paris only enhance our feelings of inter-connectedness and solidarity. When London's Wembley stadium sang the Marseillaise after the November Paris attacks, it wasn't just an empty gesture. It represented a real feeling of sisterhood between two neighbouring cities and shared values of tolerance and liberty. We feel those values are under threat and surely the answer is unity and co-operation. This is not the time to bail.

Of course I also am convinced by the technical and economic arguments for staying in the EU. We have 3.5million British jobs, 50% of UK exports going to Europe, EU-negotiated trade agreements with the rest of the world, consumer protection around mobile phone networks and flight cancellations, equality rights, environmental safeguards, freedom to work and study abroad - all thanks to our EU membership. Those are all compelling reasons to stay. But we shouldn't shy away from saying that that the greatest reason to stay is that the UK simply belongs, now more than ever, with her allies in the heart of Europe. We should commit to stay and we should commit to improving the European Union.