The End of Europe

‘United in diversity’, a children’s map of the European Union, designed by my late brother-in-law, Gonzalo López-Menchero, and Andrea Milano.

In 1995, I started writing a novel called The End of Europe. It was supposed to be a satire, set in the near future, about a secret British plan to withdraw from the European Union (and the eurozone — one of my characters was a George Soros-like financier who had bounced sterling into the single currency). The climactic scene was the ceremonial closure of the Channel tunnel, as Britain sealed itself off from the continent.

I’d like to say it was amazingly prescient. But while I was inspired by the strain of British euroscepticism that was obvious to me when I was a Brussels correspondent for the Financial Times in the early 1990s (alongside Boris Johnson, then at the Telegraph), I was writing at a time when a British exit seemed unlikely or at least extreme enough to make a good premise for a work of humorous fiction.

I’m not laughing any more.

I never finished the book but its title still sums up the three reasons why I want Britain to stay in the European Union and why I will vote Remain on June 23rd in the British referendum.

The end of Europe, part 1.

I am distressed that the British frontier could, post-Brexit, mark the end of Europe. Geographically, at least at our eastern edge, the UK has natural advantages when it comes to protecting our perimeter, compared with our open-bordered EU partners. Psychologically, it is easy for British people to talk about “going to Europe” when we holiday in Spain, or travel to Paris or Milan for a meeting. I believe these are among the reasons why many British citizens think of the other 27 EU member states as apart from the UK — countries that share the same aims and values because they mostly share the same land mass. I stand up for the right of Britain to define its own identity (as I would for Spain, Sweden, Slovenia or any of the other EU members to do the same). But I detest the possibility that a post-Brexit Britain might use its natural barriers against desperate refugees, turn away those seeking a better life here, or cut itself off from its one-time partners’ pleas for assistance or offers of collaboration. My satirical vision of a sealed Channel tunnel does not seem so outlandish any more.

The end of Europe, part 2.

I am afraid that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU would trigger the end of the Union. Many citizens of other European countries — those on the fringe (from the Nordic members to the eastern Europeans) and even some in the core (for instance, the Netherlands) — are watching the referendum for a signal that they can follow the UK through the exit. The same isolationism that would serve Britain so poorly — and possibly prompt the breakup of the United Kingdom itself if pro-EU Scotland were then to leave — could destroy Europe as a bloc. I don’t share the Remain campaign’s apocalyptic vision of future wars, but local tensions will surely boil over if more countries choose to close their own borders, demand their own versions of Brexit, and reinforce their economic, commercial and political self-interest over that of their one-time allies.

The end of Europe, part 3.

Most important, I am profoundly concerned that Britain may turn its back on the post-war goal of the European Union: the true end of Europe, in other words, the point of the whole enterprise. The original members chose co-operation over conflict. They chose to share their intentions rather than suspect each other’s motives. It was, and sometimes still is, a hard path. The outcomes are not all perfect.

Unfortunately, there are few examples of what Britain could have achieved over the past four decades had we too thrown ourselves wholeheartedly into the European mission. Too often, British governments have stood aloof from the Union’s projects, sniping from the sidelines rather than working on solutions. Even now, the Leave and Remain campaigns are really different shades of euroscepticism.

So the referendum presents a positive opportunity. I would like Britain to stay in, to restate our commitment to the true end of Europe and to work with our European friends to achieve it. I want us to use our influence and show leadership in solving the very serious threats Europe and the world face, from the refugee crisis to the fragile economy, rather than hanging back.

At the same time as I was struggling with my unfinished novel in 1995, I launched a more successful European project by marrying a Spaniard. But you do not have to share my deep and unshakeable personal investment in the future of Europe to understand why it is important to vote to Remain. Decades from now, I do not want to have to explain to my children and grandchildren why, in 2016 — out of a combination of cussedness, selfishness, and outdated patriotism — Britain, by quitting the EU, helped create and exacerbate the problems that those younger generations would be forced to unravel.