Dear British friends and family, when you cast your vote in the forthcoming referendum, please vote to stay in the European Union.
That’s it, really, but if you’d like to, please read on.
I write this piece as someone who has two nationalities, French and British, inherited respectively from my father and mother. I also had a Polish grandfather, who washed up on the UK’s shores during WWII . And to complete what I know of my gene pool, there is Irish ancestry in the not too distant past on both my “English side” and a little more surprisingly also on my “French side”. The European Union is truly a family matter for me.
So here’s my case for staying in. I’m sorry it’s a little wordy but I feel too strongly about this to craft a pithy and preferably humorous exhortation to stay. Perhaps I should set myself this as a challenge for my next blog post…
I think that many of us in Europe have been hugely disappointed by politicians and politics; we keep saying and showing it in our voting behaviour, including not bothering, voting increasingly for “sod you all” parties, etc. I’m curious to see what the participation rate is going to be for this referendum.
Anyway, assuming we still believe in voting, it still feels like our opinions are not really worth hearing and that even if we do make them heard, not much is going to happen as a result anyway. So the more militant among us engage in a multitude of endeavours to change the way our society operates, to care better for the environment, to improve the lot of poor, sick, disabled, displaced, homeless, stigmatised, lonely etc. people. We do this by contributing our money, energy or both. We exchange views too, with colleagues, teachers, friends and family. But all this does not represent a particularly coherent or coordinated force.
I believe that the European Union is a very useful way of providing some of the cohesion and coordination that we need in today’s world, as we juggle with issues that concern several generations, on a global scale. We could choose to ignore the truth that these issues will have an impact over the very long term and that they are international by nature – like the air we breathe, for instance. But that doesn’t sound very sensible to me.
When the founders of the European Economic Market embarked on their plan of securing lasting peace, as survivors of repeated horrendous conflicts that spread far beyond Europe and killed millions, they started with big practical issues of the day: coal and steel. Having a proper system to organise their production and distribution would represent a big contribution towards prosperity – and prosperity meant peace. This simple fact was recognised by the attribution of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union in 2012 and barely covered by the media.
I do not for one moment think that the founders of the proto-EU in 1957 meant their work to stop there. Coming back to today, surely we have only ourselves to blame for not having worked harder to tackle some of our modern day big practical problems.
Take immigration, for instance, that red hot issue at the moment. The EU simply hasn’t worked hard enough on this and the result is a frankly shameful mess. We should be able to do better than that, seriously. The shambles that is the current non-policy on immigration is doubly to be regretted, given that it’s such a major preoccupation at the moment, judging by the rise of the more or less thinly veiled anti-immigration parties all around Europe, France and the UK included. Surely we need to increase, not decrease, coordination in policing, surveillance and yes, even defence. And surely coordination is easier within an already existing framework, one that is increasingly reckoned with on the world stage.
Take another practical issue, taxation. I strongly believe that EU members should work a lot harder to achieve fiscal harmonisation. For instance, we could close the most obvious transfer pricing loopholes that deprive us of significant tax revenues. Major non-European groups with colossal financial resources use absolutely legal means to pay risible amounts of tax, because their raw materials are purchased here, their products assembled over there, services are delivered here, goods advertised there and the customer service team is based over there. Complete compliance with the local tax regulatory framework can lead to significant tax revenue loss in many countries. Cherchez l’erreur.
There is so much more we could do, to tackle a range of thorny issues. And, dare I say, help make the world a better place. My point is, we need to do more together, not less. Go further, not back track. I’m not sure such rapid expansion in the late 1990s was a great idea in retrospect, but there it is; there are 28 of us now and we need to be smarter at working together. I know negotiating growth is one of the hardest challenges any organisation faces but it can be done, if we try harder, get more serious about this, more involved, not less.
As we get closer to the referendum in the UK , I’ve been disappointed – although not in the least bit surprised – by the level of the debate and the nature of the arguments put forward. It’s all been about the consequences for individuals, companies, the UK, very inward looking. It’s all been very much what’s the consequence for us, for Britons, for Britain. And yes, I do realise this is a national referendum. And yes, we have the same sort of mentality in France and elsewhere in Europe, I’m not accusing us Brits of being specifically jingoistic (insular, yes, but that’s different and no institution can ever change geography…) But I think we are probably living at a point in history where people have never clung so much to the concept of a nation as the only true governing entity, at a time when nations have never meant so little.
Let’s get real, here. Whatever individual countries in the EU do, they’re not going to hold all the cards in their hand. Many cards are held outside individual nations’ borders, especially the commercial and financial ones, but increasingly, and whatever the outcome of this referendum, geopolitical ones. And to those people who argue that this is a powerful argument for the UK to leave the EU, I can only oppose what seems to me to be the ultimate and common-sensical argument that there is “strength in numbers”, especially with partners we know well, with whom we share trade, history, culture.
Certainly, the European Union has a credibility problem. This is not going to change if we keep placing B-list candidates in the European Parliament and intellectually brilliant but possibly not terribly warm personalities in the higher echelons of the EU hierarchy. But for pity’s sake, let’s stop banging on about the scandal of this or that ridiculous health and safety regulation or the spiralling cost of the system’s bureaucracy. A quick analysis of actual data will debunk myths very quickly. An institution is largely responsible for its credibility of course, but it does seem that this particular one has to fight too many windmills in the form of mis- or even disinformation.
When Wembley stadium sang La Marseillaise before the France-England football match last November, I’m pretty sure it meant: “What happened to you is awful and we want to show you we’re standing by you.” It felt a bit like we were part of the same community.