Britain’s pending referendum on membership of the EU is the result of party pressure within Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party, as well as the rise of the populist United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip, which won a number of seats in European elections in 2014 and garnered a significant vote share – but only one seat – in last year’s parliamentary polls.
There is no current or sudden change taking place within the EU that is threatening the UK’s membership, despite Cameron’s travels around the capitals of Europe. The big challenges facing the EU today are those that face everyone: the war in Syria, migration, terrorism, youth unemployment and climate change. And yet some of our political leaders in Europe are pandering to pressure resulting from the increasing support for groups with extreme nationalist, populist and anti-foreign prejudices that have developed across the EU in recent years.
The UK and Ireland both joined the EU in 1973, with Ireland adopting a positive approach to Europe in sharp contrast to the half-hearted and often negative attitude of the UK. I have to say, all major political parties in Britain could have shown more leadership in promoting European and international co-operation over the last 40 years.
With its directly elected parliament of 28 countries, the EU is one of the greatest political achievements of the modern age. In terms of peace and prosperity and the economic benefits of being a member of the largest economy in the world, this big picture of the EU must surely be what British voters need to focus on when they go the polls in the referendum.
Let’s look at what we’ve achieved via this union. The creation of the single market is one of the great successes of the European Commission presidency of French trade unionist Jacques Delors. The opportunities for young people to move across the EU to enhance their education and training is now taken for granted but was not the case when I was at school, when links with the rest of Europe were largely based in educational exchanges.
And all this progress has been made against a background of centuries of violence and war in Europe, two world wars with mass cemeteries and concentration camps, the Holocaust with the genocide of the Jewish population and indiscriminate slaughter of trade unionists, socialists, the disabled, homosexuals and others.
It is time for Britain to come to terms with the reality that it is no longer the head of the British Empire, nor does it have a monopoly on democracy and human rights. A touch of modesty on the part of the UK on these issues would be welcome.
Britain too often appears to claim the high moral ground, claiming to be the centre of civilisation and democracy compared with the rest of Europe and beyond, but the rest of the world does not always feel these claims match the reality. Britain is a very conservative country with a hereditary monarchy, a non-elected House of Lords, and influential private schools which are confusingly and bashfully called ‘public schools’. One of these, the famous Eton, amazingly includes Prime Minister David Cameron, Mayor of London Boris Johnson, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Princes William and Harry among its former pupils.
Such entitlement should be a relic of the past. Britain needs to join the modern age. The country has the experience and resources – including the English language, which has replaced French as the EU’s premier tongue – to have a big influence in Europe. The key issue at the heart of the referendum is not about Cameron’s frantic negotiations and deals but the reality that Britain has the capacity to play a leading role within the EU and on behalf of Europe on the world stage.
Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament