As Britain moves slowly but surely toward an in/out referendum on membership in the European Union, it appears likely that both sides in this debate will centre their arguments on economic issues, specifically on whether Britain would be better off inside or outside the EU framework. Supporters of the continuation of Britain’s membership will cite the increased economic clout and stable trade framework that the EU generates for the United Kingdom. Although these arguments will need to form an integral part of the “Yes” campaign’s argumentation, it would be a grave mistake to focus on economic issues alone.
Recent referenda have demonstrated the dangers of giving the mind too privileged a status over the heart. In the Scottish independence referendum, the Better Together campaign zeroed in on the currency file, claiming that an independent Scotland would not be able to retain the pound. This provided the “Yes” side with a monopoly over the emotional argument. As a result, the outcome of the referendum was much closer than most observers had initially expected.
The 1995 sovereignty referendum in Quebec demonstrated a similar tendency. The “Non” campaign spent far too much time discussing the economic non-viability of an independent Quebec, thinking that this would be enough to destroy the “Oui” campaign’s prospects. The result was the near-break up of the Canadian federation, with 49.5 percent of voters siding with the sovereigntists.
The lesson here is clear: In the event of a referendum, those fighting for unity cannot afford to cede the emotional terrain to the forces of division. In the upcoming in/out referendum, the “No” side will be certain to pander to the forces of nationalism, claiming implicitly that England can reclaim its past glory without the help of the European Union. The “Yes” side will need a convincing response that goes beyond mere economics.
We believe that one way to achieve this is for the “Yes” campaign to speak not only of prosperity, but also of peace. The EU isn’t merely a vehicle for enhancing trade; it represents an institutional framework that has been vital to the preservation of peace in Europe for decades.
The EU today faces numerous challenges. Although the EU’s financial institutions are once again solvent, the recent standoff between Greece and its creditors shows that Europe’s sovereign debt crisis isn’t completely in the rear-view mirror. Europe’s post-Cold War security framework is broken, as the Ukraine crisis has so clearly demonstrated. And not least, the flow of migrants and refugees into Europe has only added to the crisis of confidence in the EU’s sovereignty pool that has helped to fuel the rise of several anti-EU populist movements.
But this is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In times of difficulty, we have a responsibility to be constructive. Not only would leaving the EU likely result in the breakup of the United Kingdom, it would also represent a significant blow to an organisation that has helped to keep Europe at peace for so long.
With the utility and purpose of the NATO alliance very much in question over the long term, the European Union will have to assume the mantle of international leadership. Britain has a long history of ensuring an equilibrium in power dynamics on the Old Continent. Today, British initiative and direction within the EU framework could be transformative.
The European Union was never meant to be a mere trading bloc or customs union; the phrase “ever-closer union” in the 1956 Treaty of Rome demonstrates this quite lucidly. Indeed, from the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 to the more recent creation of a common European currency, the EU’s goal has always been a political one: to promote and secure peace in Europe.
The choice for Britain is clear. With a “Yes” vote and renewed British leadership in European affairs, Westminster can secure London’s position as the financial capital of the world’s single largest economy and help to protect the unity of the United Kingdom. But even more importantly, a vote to stay in the EU would be a vote to continue the peace project that has demonstrably transformed Europe for the better over the course of the postwar era. Prosperity is important, but one cannot have prosperity without peace.
By Vijay Mehta and Zach Paikin
Vijay Mehta is Chair of Uniting for Peace and the author of several books on international affairs. Zach Paikin is currently pursuing a PhD in international relations at the University of Kent in Canterbury.