The UK will be smaller if it leaves

Absence has made my heart grow fonder, but if Brexit wins today’s referendum my affection for my country will be diminished.

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I’ve lived abroad for more than half of my life. I was born in Germany (West Germany as it was then called), to British parents posted in the late 1950s to Rheindahlen, an outpost of the British Army of the Rhine. If I add the two years I spent as an infant in Germany to the twenty-eight years I’ve spent in Central Europe it amounts to more than half of my fifty-eight years.

But despite the influence of Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic, I am still recognisably British. Culture is surprisingly immune to residency, and if there is one thing we need never fear, however much closer the ‘union’ becomes, it is that everyone will end up being the same.

Over the last twenty-eight years I’ve come to appreciate British culture more and more – justice, fairness, humour, stiff upper lip (though the lip has softened markedly in recent decades), an international perspective, inventiveness, generosity, pragmatism, decency – despite our inability to acquire foreign languages, and our incomprehensible appreciation of the glories of cricket.  Britain argued for the widening of the European Union rather than its deepening, and I have seen European values, to which Britain has contributed more than any other nation, taking hold in all of the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe to the extent that these countries, whilst they have retained their national cultures, have, in their institutions and their prosperity, developed beyond recognition.

If Britain votes for Leave today, the country will be turning its back on the international principles it has lived by for decades, and on its capacity to extend its already enormous influence yet further beyond its shores. It will be a vote for insularism, parochialism, and a little-England outlook that demeans it, in the  belief that ‘full sovereignty’ is both possible and sensible. In my view it is neither.

‘Take Back Control,’ chant those in favour of Brexit. ‘Vote leave on Independence Day,’ shouts the mendacious and ambitious buffoon, Boris Johnson. But from the perspective of the rest of the world, it will be a vote for a small idea, and a smaller place in the world.

I am not offended by the European Courts, or by rules and regulations devised by European institutions. Many of them may be silly, but most of them make snese and bring advantage to millions. Take the abolition of roaming charges, for example. True, the EU may be overly bureaucratic, even corrupt, and I share the view that it has failed to ‘connect’ with its electorate, but let’s stay and change it, not abandon it. Cooperation is the future, not separation.

I came to Central Europe for three months in 1987, and I’m still here twenty-eight years later, still intending, as always, to return to live in London in ‘only five years time.’ For the first time, I fear that I may be returning to a country that is smaller than the one I left.

Vote to Lead, not Leave. Vote Remain!

On the Edge of the Abyss

As the UK teeters on the edge of the abyss,(if opinion polls are to be believed), peering with incomprehensible enthusiasm into a post-EU future, I’m on the edge of former ‘Western Europe’, in Vienna, attending a conference on LGBT rights, peering over the old Iron Curtain at the abuses and intolerance of much of former ‘Eastern Europe’.

Representatives have come from the West (e.g. USA, UK, Austria, France, Switzerland, Belgium), where LGBT rights are more or less established, and from the East (e.g. Russia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Ukraine, Poland, Serbia), where work is very much in progress (sometimes hardly begun), or where achievements are being dismantled by newly right-win religious and nationalist regimes. It’s the 3rd International East Meets West Forum.

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I’ve asked many of the delegates whether the EU has been a benign influence on member states, aspiring member states and states that will never belong. The answer of course, is yes, though some countries such as Poland that bent its laws in the 2000s to meet the demands of membership, have since seen a rise of social homophobia, and a halting of the legal advancement of LGBT rights. But in general the EU has been one of the prime movers when it comes to promoting equality and diversity.

This is the kind of thing the EU has done well. True, this particular issue may not excite everyone, but there are dozens of other issues where the EU has patiently set about improving the lives of the disadvantaged, the uneducated, the marginalised and even the disenfranchised. It is a force for good. If you don’t care about lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender, or intersex people, then think about the Roma, and other ethnic minorities, the mentally sick, the orphaned, the elderly, and others you care about more. Because of the EU hundreds of thousands of lives are happier and better.

But why should that be of any concern to the British Europhobe intent on Leave? Well, there is the duty to Lead rather than Leave (as so well put by Gordon Brown). LGBT and other minority rights may be secure in the UK, but a happy, equal, stable Europe is in everyone’s interests. We are a prosperous, democratic island where equality and tolerance prevail. We should not keep these values and practices to ourselves but take part in the establishment of European values, globally if we can. How wonderful it would be for us all if we could see even Turkey espouse those principles and enact them in legislation. A Muslim European country would be a catalyst for peace in the Middle East.

Vote Remain, not only  for economic reasons (and what facts and projections are indisputable in the realm of economics?) but because the EU is overwhelmingly a force for good. Reformed, and in some areas curtailed, it can get better and better.

Unfortunately I have lived outside the UK for more than fifteen years and I am not able to vote. And my mother’s postal voting form never arrived. So, please make up for the two of us and cast your votes for Remain.

 

No laughing matter

Odds have narrowed on Remain in the past few days, and I am anxious. We’re back at about 3-1 for Remain (place a bet of three pounds and you’ll get four pounds back). This suggests that Remain is still the more likely option, and betting odds have recently been a better guide to outcomes than opinion polls, but momentum seems to lie with Leave.

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David Cameron gave an anxious, defensive performance on Sky News last night, where he was (over)aggressively questioned by Sky’s Chief Political Editor, Faisal Islam, and by the audience (what exactly are the rewards of a life in politics?). Although the audience was balanced (a third for Remain, a third for Leave and a third uncertain) the mood was truculent and unfriendly. Much of the questioning centred on the ‘conduct’ of the campaign rather than its substance – and reasonably so, because the conduct of the campaigns, on both sides, has been execrable.

The entire Remain campaign has been defensive, an attempt to instil fear in the minds of the electorate – fear of the economic consequences of Brexit and fear of the security implications – and it has produced exaggerations that have insulted the intelligence of voters.

For example, the claim that British families will be 4,000 pounds ‘poorer’ after Brexit was deliberately misleading. Economic forecasts are highly contentious, but no one is actually suggesting that anyone will be ‘poorer than now’, rather that families will be ‘richer than now…but poorer than they would be if Britain were to remain in the EU.’

And the ‘World War Three’ claim – that peace in Europe is threatened by Brexit – was another foolish exaggeration. But Cameron never actually used the words ‘World War Three’. He simply made the link between the creation of the EU and an unprecedented 70 years of peace in Western Europe and suggested that war between European nations was not impossible to imagine . Not a stupid claim, in my view – the European Coal and Steel Community between France, Germany and other countries just after the Second World War (a precursor of the Common Market, which, in turn, preceded the EU) was an explicit attempt to entwine the largest continental economies and make war less likely. War is inconceivable now, but in a hundred years time, who knows?

When he was questioned on the idea on Sky last night the audience laughed. In fact it’s a measure of how successfully the EU has linked us all together that the idea of war is so ridiculous. It is inconceivable that there could be war in the near future between the nations of Western Europe, but Brexit doesn’t make it less likely. It might be the first small step towards hostility decades from now.

The entire debate has been largely negative. If anything, it’s been the Leave campaigners who have been the more visionary – they paint a sentimental and illogical picture of a lovely Britain for the British, truly sovereign, in control of its borders, pragmatic and efficient, and proud. A Britain that might win the World Cup again, and another World War or two. It’s a sentimental and anachronistic idea, but it resonates with voters. It is at least positive – even if wrong.

But on both sides most of the debate has  been about economic disaster, security, and most recently about immigration. And sadly, it’s the debate about immigration that’s swinging things the Brexit way. Immigration has excited British bigots since Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in the 1960s.

But it’s all so negative. Who is making the positive arguments on the Remain side? Who dares to make a non-Brit-centric argument that for all its faults the EU is a good thing for Britain, for Europe and the world? No one.

Someone at Tory Party Headquarters decided that the Remain campaign should trade on Fear. I fear it might have been a big mistake.