Michael Gove recently said ‘For Europe, Britain voting to leave will be the beginning of something potentially even more exciting – the democratic liberation of a whole Continent.” A weaker EU with fewer members was in his mind. He will not remember, as I can, being machine-gunned on the beach as a child by a returning German bomber. Nor a bomb demolishing the house opposite, as I can. He cannot remember playing in the bombed out shell of a house, now Rye Retreat, as I can. The Europe of the late 1930s or the early 1900s may have seemed golden but had a rot within, as did other times in European history before the outbreak of terrible wars.
The European Union was formed out of the ashes of WW II to free Europe from this history of wars. Never forget, despite current prosperity, the ability of countries to misunderstand each other. Never forget that if the EU were not there as a moderating and stabilising influence, tensions could spill over to fearsome conflict – as in former Yugoslavia – and today in many places on the fringes of the EU.
This great blessing of peace which the EU secures for us cannot be shrugged off. Of course the European Union is far from perfect. And the United Kingdom itself is far from perfect. Look at the things that have gone wrong here in Britain in recent years: computer programs for the NHS wasting hundreds of millions; aircraft carriers built with no planes; our prisons allowing fundamentalist clerics to recruit for jihad. The list of failures is long on both sides. Our fishermen suffered too long from the fisheries policy, only now being improved. But the fact that things are wrong with Britain or with the EU, is not in itself due cause to leave either of them.
We should see how the EU – and the UK – can be made better. No doubt about it, at the moment many people feel that the EU decision-making process results in laws and decisions that go too far. As foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd talked of EU interference in the “warp and weft” of daily life. As a young politician I sought less centralisation in government – at all levels. I wanted a cascade of decisions delegated from central government, to counties, to districts, to parishes. Think of the tussle between Rother and Rye. I remember Rye having much more autonomy in times past. Decisions and actions should ideally be left with us as individual citizens unless they are clearly better made at a higher level. Of course, the Catholic Church got there first with the “principle of subsidiarity”, so that Rome should not decide when a local bishop could do so as well or better. I pushed, eventually successfully, for this principle to be included in the EU Treaties. It is now EU law, but is not working well enough. We need to do better.
There is another dimension, too. President John F Kennedy in his inaugural address said “Think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. We in Britain should also ask, as millions of our fellow countrymen have asked down the centuries, what we can do to help the world to be a better place. A sense of idealism has its place in our decisions. Our British sense of moderation, pragmatism, of fairness – plus our expertise and knowledge, and the quality of our civil servants and diplomats – can bring much to the EU. Indeed it already does. Many of our partner Member States have told me how they value our contribution.
I reject the narrow view of our EU membership, the attitude that took us out of the European People’s Party, at a stroke reducing our ability to influence decisions, the relentless negativity of most British newspapers reflected in public and political attitudes and in the decreasing proportion of Brits working in the EU institutions – to our disadvantage. The alternative is to do what Britain can do so well, to join whole-heartedly in this European enterprise, using our talents, fighting our corner, of course, but seeking all the time to make it better for you and me – for Britain, the European Union, and for the world as a whole. As Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said many years ago of Europe “with all those people, all that talent .. just think what we can do together”.
[Editor’s note: The writer is also co-author of http://bothsidesofthecoin.org.uk/ which goes into considerable non-partisan detail of the arguments both for and against remaining in the EU. He was an MEP from 1979 – 1994 and has lived in and near Rye in the 1940s and ’50s and since 2005]