In a few weeks, the British people will vote on whether to remain within the European Union.
All economic indicators show that if the “Brexit” occurs, it will be a catastrophe. But for many, the main issue is not economics. It is a loss of sovereignty, which the “exiters”“ believe – or claim to believe – has been taken from them by the EU. They think that Britain can and should stand alone.
In my opinion, they’re wrong. And what’s worse – they are mired in nostalgia for a 19th-century vision of "Greater Britain,” the popular belief that the “mother country” and the colonies – in particular the Dominions – were really a single polity.
What Obama said
In an April op-ed in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, President Barack Obama delivered a message to the British people. He said countries that make their presence felt on the world stage “aren’t the nations that go it alone.”
The meaning was clear: the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain depends less on “the blood we spilt together on the battlefield” and our shared “democratic values” than it does on the fact that a close association with Britain has afforded the U.S. considerable advantages in its dealings with the European Union.
On its own, Britain would be little more than a third-rate power. In this respect, the comparison with Norway, which the champions of “Brexit” like to invoke, is entirely appropriate.
Obama also reaffirmed his belief in the legacy and continuing importance of the European Union, and of the need for a “strong, united, democratic Europe.” Many in Europe, however, and not just in Britain, fear that “Europe” as conceived in The Treaty of Rome in 1957 is nearing its end.
Some even believe that – threatened by immigration and multiculturalism – European culture, which was conceived at least two millennia ago, is now dying.
Today’s major threats
Europe today faces four major and obvious threats to its survival: a shaky economy, Islamic terrorism, mass immigration and the rise of a belligerent and aggressively anti-European Russia. Of these, terrorism and immigration are the most immediate threats.
The initial response to both included the French declaration of a “state of emergency,” tightening of border controls and the proposed dissolution of Schengen – the passport-free zone to which most EU member states belong.
These responses have proved detrimental in a number of ways, and have done very little, if anything, to hinder “Jihadi” terrorists or immigrants. Almost all of the perpetrators involved in the recent attacks on Paris and Brussels were EU citizens.
What’s more, the Islamic State group is not targeting France or Belgium. It is targeting Europe, or more precisely, “the West.”
In 2015, IS issued a bizarre communiqué tellingly entitled, “How to Survive in the West: A Guide for the Jihad Fighter.” It declared that the ultimate objective for the self-styled caliphate in Europe was the “conquest of Rome.” This does not mean the modern capital of Italy, which so far has been spared, but the symbolic capital of Christendom and of the ancient Roman Empire.
For IS, Europe is not a place so much as a culture based on the rule of law, freedom of expression, equal rights for all, racial and religious tolerance and a broadly utilitarian social and political order.
The reason the perpetrators of the Paris attacks gave for targeting a rock concert and a restaurant in an ethnically diverse district of the city was that these were the places where the irreligious and the “immoral” congregated. What these terrorists were trying to destroy was not so much a political enemy as it was a way of life.
In many cases, it is also a way of life that has rejected them. In this way, they look not unlike the members of the Provisional IRA, the Italian Red Brigades or the German Red Army faction of the 1970s: mostly angry young males seeking revenge upon a society which had failed to deliver what they had expected.
The upside of newcomers
The refugee crisis is often, wrongly, conflated with the threat of IS. The problem is not how to keep terrorists out – they are already here – but how to find a place for so many of the dispossessed and integrate them into their new homes.
The task is daunting. But, unlike the parents of so many of today’s Muslim immigrants who arrived as “guest workers” or economic refugees in France or Germany in the 1950s and ‘60’s, these new refugees have not yet seen their aspirations and those of their parents dashed by poverty.
They have a better chance today as newcomers to an increasingly prosperous Europe – despite the economic crisis. Far from being potential terrorists, the majority are skilled, educated and determined. Furthermore, the EU has estimated it will need millions of new immigrants in the next 40 years to replace its aging population. Yet, only a little more than one million arrived in 2015, and the influx has dropped markedly since the recent pact with Turkey.
What it means to be European
The European project, in its present form, is less than 60 years old.
In many respects, it is less than 24 years old. But aspirations for some kind of European Union go back to at least the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. In 1871 members of the French National Assembly called for the creation of a “United States of Europe,” as did Winston Churchill in 1946 – although he did not then think that Britain should be a part of it.
The cultural, economic and political changes that have taken place in Europe since the signing of the Treaty of Rome have been monumental and, barring a third world war, irreversible. Despite the fantasies of France’s Marine le Pen or Nigel Farage, all cultures are porous and malleable. The culture of Europe will probably change more radically in the next half-century than it has in the last millennium.
The EU is, arguably, the most innovative economic and political experiment since the creation of the U.S. in the 18th century. It is a con-federation, as compared to the U.S. federation. It divides up sovereign authority among its member states but – contrary to what the supporters of “Brexit” claim to believe – seeks to preserve the cultural and social traditions, the languages and the distinctive legal orders of each of its member states.
It is neither a “super-state” nor an empire; but it does represent a substantial shift in the way the nation-state has been conceived in the past. It is the future not only for Europe, but possibly also for Africa and parts of Asia.
As it faces what are inescapably the greatest series of crises in its very short history, I believe it needs not less, but greater integration. It needs more political cohesion. Above all, it needs a greater sense of participation on the part of its citizens, a greater understanding of just what it really means to be not British, or Spanish or French or German, but “European.”