Letter to The Economist published on 25 January 2020
It’s encouraging that your newly crowned Charlemagne columnist has already stumbled on the European Union’s greatest achievement (‘Why stereotypes rule in Brussels’, January 10).
Not content to have kept the peace, built a single market, launched a new currency and quadrupled their membership in the space of a lifetime, the Union’s members have also allowed themselves to revel in their national cultures and, yes, indulge their well-worn prejudices. You can have your gateau and eat it, after all.
But this is more than a “coping mechanism for complexity”; it goes to the heart of the Union’s success. The member states never did try to “iron out” their distinctions, crass or otherwise, but instead wrote them into the Union’s DNA, from a legal commitment to “respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity” (article 3 of the Treaty on European Union) to a daily workload that is negotiated in 24 official languages.
A close family, respectful of its differences, is stronger than the sum of its parts. Britain’s liberal instincts will be sorely missed after January 31st, but perhaps not as much as its knack of settling disputes with a good cup of tea.
How much evidence can we resist before we finally accept that our liberal democracy, in its British and American forms, is now exhausted? If the misery caused to millions by the Great Recession and our failure to punish its culprits were not enough, then what are we waiting for? However we vote, on either side of the Atlantic, we cannot deny that our political institutions are overwhelmed by the upheavals of our era, while our leaders across the public and private realms seem bereft of any social purpose or vision of the good life.
“They told us our gods would outlive us
They told us our dreams would outlive us
They told us our gods would outlive us
But they lied.”
Nick Cave, Distant Sky
Until now, I’d always believed that 1989 would remain the towering landmark of my lifetime – a year that saw an old world crumple to its knees while a new one, younger and better, sprang to its feet.
1989: a number whose gentle curves cannot contain the volumes of history that poured out of Europe in twelve months and a single night when, with a reverential sense of timing, brave Berliners brought down their Wall 200 years after their Parisian cousins had stormed the Bastille. We watched people refuse division, demand freedom and then seize it with their own bare hands. We watched them hugging and kissing and dancing, and we felt part of it. That was when I fell in love with Europe.
We are at war. But the enemy is not who we think it is.
Sooner or maybe much later we will defeat IS, but this is not what is truly at stake. When that particular gang of criminals is finally worn down, another will spring up to take its place. If we haven’t learnt this over the last two decades, we never will.
At these moments of shock and sorrow, we ritually appeal to our values. This is all very well but it’s starting to ring hollow or at least a little weary. This is because that very appeal captures neither the scale nor the urgency of the task we face.
So what is truly at stake? In one word and an entire universe that lies behind it: freedom. Not the freedom to do this or the freedom to do that. But freedom in all its unique simplicity.
People who want the UK to stay in the EU usually belong to one of two camps. The pragmatists argue that, for most of the British public, Europe remains little more than a common market and a major source of trade and jobs. The believers, on the other hand, plead that much more is at stake: it’s about our identity and the sort of country we want to be. The former see the referendum as a war of facts and figures, the latter as a battle for hearts and minds. Both want to win but disagree on how to get there. Both might be wrong if the old adage holds true that referendums are never about the question on the ballot paper.