Wednesday 23 November 2016

Brexit is the birth of a new era for Europe

The Berlin Wall

History can be read in many ways. It’s all a matter of interpretation in which case names, places and dates take on their own significance and become era defining. Though the Second World War dragged on for some months after the fall of Hitler, the defeat of fascism is the landmark that has the most significance to the UK; VE Day. By normal reckoning this is viewed as the end of the war in Europe.

That war though was never completely resolved. General George S. Patton wanted to continue the war and fight the Russians. He may well have been right. It might have resulted in a united Europe that included Russia. But Europe was war weary. The defeat of Hitler was enough for us to call it a day.

Consequently, a cold war raged until 1989. As a child of the 80s I remember sitting on the Yorkshire moors watching the Tornado jets practicing for the event of war. The skies were seldom quiet. For a young boy with dreams of being a fighter pilot these were exciting times. The cold war influenced popular culture in many ways. It spawned the James Bond spy series along with films like Rambo and The Fourth Protocol. It was a good time to be a boy.

For the adults though, life was more frightening. My grandparents had known the horrors of World War Two and they knew, like my parents, that war could once again erupt at a moment’s notice. Only this time far more deadly.

This, though, came to an abrupt end in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. As a ten year old I have only distant memories of it but I was old enough to know I was witnessing something significant. As much as it marked the fall of Communism, it was in many respects the real end of the Second World War.

In that time between 1945 and 1989 all of our foreign policy and international institutions had been built as part of the post-war settlement as part of Europe’s “peacetime” architecture. In many respects life had been much simpler. We knew who the enemy was and our culture was bound by a recognition that we all faced a common threat and forged a common bond in the face of it.

From that Britain had great pride in itself. The institutions of state were dripping with prestige and authority. We had what was perceived as one of the finest navies in the world and one of the most active. Britain had a presence that was felt the world over and I knew I was growing up in a very distinctive country that I was proud of.

But when that wall came down, that common threat and that common binding began to slowly disintegrate where national pride became unfashionable and in fact something to be scorned. The new altruism of European Union became fashionable. The nineteen nineties were marked by stuffy old Eurosceptics fighting the tide of history as we signed ever more elaborate treaties building the new Europe.

Back then there was a real energy to the EU as we realised something big was being built in our name. One that threatened to subsume the Britain I had always known – the Britain that had defeated Hitler and faced down Communism. The EU introduced its own passport, its own flag and anthem and British debate was centred on whether we were going to join the Euro to become part of a federal Europe.

The ideology at work was that for our future to be forged in unity, our past must be erased. For Germany to depart from the stain on its soul, the old Germany had to be erased along with the British Empire that had defeated it. It was an attack on national identities with a view to forging a new European demos. So grand was this ambition they weren’t going to let a thing like public consent get in the way.

But we Brits were never on board. We wanted open and free trade with Europe but we did not want to end our island story there. We didn’t want their blue flag on our car registration plates, we didn’t want their purple passport and we definitely didn’t want their currency. Had the EU been content to be a Europe of free trade and customs cooperation we would not now be leaving.

Instead of heeding the people successive governments signed away ever more power to this emerging supreme government of Europe. In 2008 the Treaty of Lisbon was ratified on the basis that it was a mere “tidying up exercise” when in fact it was a constitution bringing about a Europe only one treaty away from being a superstate. We were taken in on a deception by a government that had no intention of seeking permission via a referendum, not least because they knew we would say no.

The then Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague said the prime minister had "no democratic or moral authority to sign Britain up to the renamed EU constitution". It was "a total breach of trust with the British people and a flagrant breach of his solemn election promise to the British people", Mr Hague added. From that moment in history Brexit became a certainty even if we didn't realise it at the time.

Not long after the EU would face would face its first real test as the full force of the global financial crisis made its mark on the Euro currency. Subsequent events showed how completely incapable the EU was in forging a coherent and unified response. For a moment it even looked like the Euro itself could collapse.

A row then broke out at the suggestion that Britain may have to contribute to the bailout of Greece and prop up a currency we advised against to begin with. That has remained in the British consciousness ever since. It was the moment British voters realised the EU was an authority in its own right and we were indeed subordinate. I think this is when the prospect of an in/out EU referendum became a political certainty.

What was once a fairly anodyne political project ticking along in the background was suddenly very real in the minds of voters. We were being asked to pay for the hubris of our political masters - to bail out their vanity project that nobody ever asked for and didn’t want to join and were taken into without seeking consent. Fast forward to 2016 and at the first opportunity to have a real say in the matter and we voted to leave.

In that regard I think the 23rd of June will in the future be viewed as a turning point. Perhaps not as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall, but as the beginning of the end of the EU - and consequently the end of the post-war settlement.

The lesson here is that humans form communities and institutions of their own. Only the people themselves can bring legitimacy to those institutions. Legitimacy is not won through voting rituals. Legitimacy is through consent.

An ideology was superimposed on the peoples of Europe and was advanced by deception. You can, for a time, subvert the will of the people and deny them a voice but in the end the people will have the final say, one way or another.

What is won in war is a distinct shared bond, through experiences and through family and through joint struggle. It is integral to that identity and from that is born a national story and a sense of shared values and purpose. It is stronger and longer lasting than the machinations of bureaucrats. It passes down through the generations and weaves its way into everything we do.

Zealots looked down upon this as old fashioned, primitive, even racist and sought to replace it with something fabricated, assuming that the baubles of statehood would forge a new story and a new people. They were wrong.

Rather than bringing peace through forced integration they have shattered the unity of the UK, bankrupted Greece, endangered Ukraine and hung eastern Europe out to dry. Having antagonised and alienated Russia, we are once again sleepwalking back into a new cold war.

In this, it is our collective memory of who we are and what we can achieve that will deliver us from another destructive war, not the artificial constructs our rulers impose upon is. Like 1945 and 1989 we are turning a corner into a more uncertain world but this time we really are departing with the past. We are free and clear of the old dogmas and the stains of our past have faded. Now we get design a new future of our own. As we move forward we must never forget that democracy is our best hope for peace and prosperity. Trust in the people and we will have peace. Push them into a corner and they will fight back.

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