Britain's membership of the EU is up for discussion - and it's liable to be a wretchedly stupid discussion. It's a hard truth to say aloud, but Britain is pathologically incapable of a serious debate on this issue, because a kind of dogwhistle version of Godwin's Law applies: whenever the EU is mentioned, it's almost guaranteed that someone will invoke - if only by implication - the Blitz and Dunkirk. As soon as that happens, we're in idiot country. You'd think the Dastardly Hun was poised on the beaches of France waiting to bring doom and horror to the cast of Dad's Army. You say I'm being unkind? We can't even play an international football match against Germany without WWII being mentioned. In fact, we can't even advertise beer without falling into a xenophobic, triumphalist (and, just for completeness, quietly homophobic - the missing poster in the line-up read 'rear gunners drink lager shandy') rant about the Luftwaffe. (Yes, they're very funny. They're also not really very funny at all.)
So the public conversation about the EU will take place in three arenas: there will be a largely-incomprehensible and clouded debate about the economics of the EU - it will cost XYZ to leave, it will rejuvenate our economy because PQR - which will shade into issues of sovereignty in the form of whether our government can set aside human rights which it finds inconvenient and whether the banking community can continue to function in the blissful absence of real regulation it has used to such good effect over the last decade. And there will be a background of people humming the theme to The Dambusters.
And the ghastly irony of this is that the first two arguments will miss the point entirely, while the third is closer to the mark, if only by chance: the EU was created to prevent us from going to war with one another.
If you go back to the roots of the modern European project, it's absolutely overt. The 1950 Schuman Declaration is about the prevention of a repeat of the wars which shattered Europe in the first part of the 20th Century. The economic structure is a means to an end, as well as a way of kicking the nations of Europe into a recovery.
We're smug in 2012. We think that Europe could not ever go to war with itself again. Our confidence is misplaced. The far right is on the rise in Greece and elsewhere. It's relatively easy to imagine an extrematised and factionalised Europe if our economy tanks for a few more years - and it's not even very hard to see an internally hostile Europe by 2050 if we don't get our energy policy sorted out and we're all in competition for limited power supplies while increasing desertification moves up from the south into Europe's farmlands.
Peace is not a state, it is a choice, and you have to remake it every day. It's possible to get a sort of stability, a habit of peace, but it's like an egg balanced, spinning, on its point: lose your momentum and your equilibrium is gone, too. Bad news for the egg.
It's idle to pretend that the EU is an unalloyed positive. It's a mess, as it must inevitably be given that it is created by the intersection of squabbling political groups with differing understandings of what is right and what is necessary. It's unrepresentative and mired in red tape. It costs too much. Like democracy, it's a rotten way of doing things until you consider the alternatives. The point about all this is that it's the tithe we pay to our own nature to have one more obstacle between us and Dresden and Coventry. We should improve it. We must. But until we can say with honesty and confidence that we've mastered our will to (self-) destruction, the claim that we have no need of a European Union lacks intellectual integrity and practical wisdom.
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