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Beyond the Economic: The true value of Europe

23rd March 2016

Arguments against Britain leaving the EU have focused on economic cost-benefit-analyses and arguments from national self-interest. This does a disservice to an organisation which, with its rare idealism, should be valued beyond a banal calculation of whether we get out more than we put in.

The EU is an experiment in supranational collaboration of unequalled ambition. The founding treaties declare its intention to create “a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail”. These words are not empty, for the EU has definitive mechanisms for bringing such a society about. For a country to become a member, it must have a stable democracy (including media freedom and an independent judiciary), the rule of law, respect for human rights and the abolition of the death penalty. Contrast this with NATO, which asks of its members a minimum level of spending on defence. Or with the UN, equally idealistic perhaps, but which sets only nominal conditions on membership, and therefore lacks the means to effect concrete change.

The EU’s success in spreading its values can be seen by its steady enlargement, growing from six founding-member states in 1951, to twenty-eight today. This is not the aggressive expansion of a military alliance in search of geopolitical might, but a spontaneous process in response to the requests of candidate countries. New members have not only been lifted into prosperity but also steadied their course towards democracy. A first wave of accession in the 70s enabled Greece, Spain and Portugal to emerge from their respective dictatorships. A second in the 2000s allowed former Soviet Bloc countries to put totalitarian rule behind them and set themselves outside of the Russian sphere of influence.

It is not just outwardly that the values of the EU have been spread, but inwardly too. The free movement of people is of course helpful economically, but it serves also to promote diversity and cultural understanding between people. Sixteen million EU citizens are currently living in a country other than their own (Famously, almost a million of these are British people living in Spain). Five percent of graduating European students have studied in a foreign country as part of the Erasmus student exchange. This makes us more tolerant and more open-minded, and acts as a powerful force against nationalism. We should cherish this irrespective of how large a part it has played in bringing an end to the seemingly endless string of wars threaded through Central Europe’s history.

Beyond their intrinsic worth, the EU’s values are today of great practical need. Many of the challenges the world currently faces cannot be solved at the level of the nation-state. Solutions to climate change, immigration, financial fragility and terrorism all risk falling into short-termism and races-to-the-bottom. It is only through international collaboration and an institutional recognition of the importance of the common good that there is any hope of achieving a satisfactory outcome.

Of course, collaboration at the level of the EU is not always enough. But its success can provide an inspiration for other countries to follow a similar approach. The EU is leading the fight against climate change for example, setting a binding target of twenty percent energy from renewables by 2020. It also champions workers’ rights and equal pay, and showcases to the world a model of society based not just on economic prosperity but human freedom and decency. If it were to fail, on the other hand, the idea of effective supranational collaboration for the greater good would be tarnished irrevocably.

With the prospect of a UK exit now upon us, this has suddenly become a real possibility. Whether or not the UK would gain or lose in the medium term from leaving the EU, what is very clear is that were the EU to collapse altogether or even merely weaken, the UK would feel the reverberations. This is not so far-fetched at this moment of heightened nationalism across Europe. The UK leaving could act as a trigger for other countries to follow suit. The authoritarian instincts of the leaders of Hungary and Poland, currently held at the leash by the constraints of EU membership would then be cut loose. Ukraine, currently supported by its associate membership with the EU, would be vulnerable to Putin expansionism. Management of the refugee crisis, championed by Merkel through the framework of the EU, would be less likely to find a humane solution. A much more ugly and dangerous world would result where the promise of geopolitical stability in Central Europe would no longer be guaranteed. This would make much of the current UK debate, which ignores the impact the UK leaving would have on the EU itself, look very short-sighted indeed.

Some damage has already been done. Demanding more favourable conditions from the EU as the price of continued membership already diminishes the spirit of solidarity on which the EU is built. All is not lost however. Campaigners for Britain to stay could yet espouse the message of a Europe based on hope, tolerance and the common good. By prompting people to rediscover the inspiring role the EU has played in human history, the referendum could be a springboard to a Europe the UK feels proud to be in, playing its part in spreading the very British values of democracy, human rights and liberalism.


1 comment on “Beyond the Economic: The true value of Europe”

  1. David says:

    Another starry-eyed ignorant lad from Cambridge gushing about oh it’s so nice to be in the EU while millions of migrants come and abuse our women thanks to Merkel. What about the human rights of those women who are getting raped thanks to Merkel’s ridiculous refugee policy? Never mind that thousands of eastern Europeans are bleeding our NHS dry, in London and in many other parts of the UK you feel like an outsider because hey who cares about speaking in English and also we all love being dictated by some hoity-toity people sitting in ivory towers in Brussels. Who cares about Britain’s sovereignty right? Your article has no concrete points except ideological whims. All these migrants..no one wants to stay in the other EU countries..everyone wants to come here!!! Better to close the borders as soon as we can. Not being inconsiderate to these migrants, but we cannot take in EVERYONE. And if the EU is so amazing, I fail to understand why everyone has to come to Britain instead of staying in their own countries. Coming to visit is one thing. But packing your bags and bringing your entire family because this is the land of benefits is a different thing altogether. But of course rich Cambridge lads won’t understand that. Come back with better facts and data next time.

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