A Vote to Leave Is Just Running Away

In 1940, Churchill looked out on a Europe that lay at Hitler's feet, and vowed "We shall never surrender". But that's what a vote to leave is: in the end, exit is just running away.

That is no country for the young, where the old plan to rob their children of a future just to bask in the nostalgia of a past that never was. That is what the British people plan to do next week, if they vote to leave the European Union. They will turn out in their millions to vote away their children's inheritance, because they are scared of a world that has grown too large for them.

I remember as a child asking my grandmother, a Londoner born and bred, if she thought life was better when she was young -- I think I was just looking to hear some of her stories, she was forever on about the past. But she looked at me and said "Oh no, we had the Blitz. They were bombing us, you see, every day."

If you want to understand what the European Union is about, you won't find the answers in Brussels. Go out, instead, to the poppy fields of France and Belgium, where thousands of young European soldiers died in agony from chlorine and mustard gas. Go to the Somme, where more than a million were killed and maimed. Go to Auschwitz.

Today, you can drive across the border between France and Germany without noticing it. People commute to work past Verdun, where 700,000 fell, across the border that was the frontline of two world wars. That is the work of the European Union.

Go out to the border between Germany and Poland, where the Nazis killed six million and razed the capital, Warsaw, to the ground. Today people stroll across the border to shop. It is a place of peace and cooperation. That is what the European Union is about.

The European Union was founded on the idea that the nations who fought the most calamitous wars in history could put aside their rivalries and work together for their children's future. They would no longer compete for the continent's land and resources, they would share it. A brotherhood of man. And it has worked: the European Union has brought half a century of peace to the most war-ravaged continent in history. That is what the Brexiteers want to turn their back on.

And for what? Leaving will free us from red tape and unnecessary regulation, they say, but it's not really true. The British were world champions at red tape long before the European Union was ever dreamed of: just look at the reams of needless health and safety laws which come from Westminster, not Brussels.

A vote to leave won't save you from red tape: it will just mean the regulations are written by Michael Gove. Gove, the Robespierre of this revolution, doesn't want freedom from Brussels for you, he wants it for himself. Citizen Govespierre will sit up late into the night, his pen scratching out laws for every detail of your life. It doesn't matter how much mayhem he unleashes on the way to his paradise, Citizen Govespierre knows best.

And Boris Johnson? Everybody loves a clown, they say, but children are scared of clowns and they're right. The smile is just a mask, behind it a cold man hungry for power. Fifty years of peace won't stand in Boris' way. He'll be dangling from that zipwire, grinning at you as the country slides into ruin.

And it doesn't matter how many stern pronouncements they make about the "supremacy of parliament", you can't simply stamp your feet and get your own way when it comes to dealing with other countries. There are only two ways to conduct foreign affairs: talk or war.

If Britain wants to go on trading with other European countries, it will have to reach agreements with their governments. The European Union is one way of doing that; the alternative is years of negotiations in which Britain will try to get a deal as good as the one it already has.

But I don't think that's what most people are deciding on. I think this vote is about identity, and that is why David Cameron has failed so miserably with his ill-advised Project Fear campaign. I think generations of Britons are already afraid.

They are afraid of losing their identity in a new world of wider horizons, that they will somehow lose their Britishness by embracing their European identity. And I want to tell them that's not true, that the reasons other Europeans want them to stay are not economic or political: they're emotional.

When Germany's Der Spiegel published a heartfelt plea for Britain to remain in the EU, it illustrated it with a drawing of John Cleese performing the Ministry of Silly Walks. Our neighbours want Britain to be part of Europe for our humour, our uniqueness, our difference. For Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen. For the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And for those extraordinary days in 1940 when a nation of shopkeepers stood alone and saved the world.

I write looking out my window on Berlin, where Germans still live among the ruins of the Second World War. That is why there is no support for leaving the EU here: to the Germans, the War is not a bedtime story of derring-do. The ghosts are still alive for them, just as they were for my grandmother.

In the years since she told me of the Blitz, I've been out into the world and seen war for myself, in the Balkans, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. And I know the future does not belong to angry men clinging to tattered flags.

Yet they are on the rise again, from Donald Trump in America to Vladimir Putin in Russia. This is no time to turn our backs on the world.

Of course there are problems with the European Union: only a fool would deny it. But leaving instead of staying to fix them is like burning your own house down because the roof leaks.

Before you vote, look at your children, your grandchildren, and picture a future where they are free to follow their hopes and dreams wherever they take them in Europe, from the forests of Finland to the mountains of Spain, from the poppy fields of France to the rebuilt cities of Poland.

In 1940, Churchill looked out on a Europe that lay at Hitler's feet, and vowed "We shall never surrender". But that's what a vote to leave is: in the end, exit is just running away.


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