Let’s make Europe boring again

My confession: demographics would suggest I should be a hearty supporter of the European Union referendum ‘Remain’ campaign, alongside almost everyone I know, but I’ve spent longer than I care to remember sitting on the fence on some of the key issues.

On the face of it, closer European union should be boringly obvious: free trade, free movement of people and resources, standardisation of goods and services. So why are we currently experiencing one of the more poisonous political debates of recent times?

It makes sense that the people we interact with and do business with on a regular basis follow similar laws and standards to ourselves. Centuries ago, when our sphere of influence might extend only to the neighbouring village, it was sufficient to live within tribal laws and traditions. We still have city and county councils to decide local issues, but now it makes sense to decide many things nationally, such as which side of the road we should drive on, or foreign policy. Bigger challenges — preventing world war or climate change requires agreement on a global scale, and organisations such as the EU and the UN are key to this.

Whilst European integration is credited with the longest period of peace on the continent since Roman times (the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012), nationalistic tendencies have been stoked by increased migration and perceived loss of sovereignty. Expansion to the East has increased its influence, but income disparity with new member states has led to economic migration and a net influx into the more established members of the union.

Cast alongside the politics of Donald Trump, discussion of the effects of immigration has been dismissed as isolationist or even racist. The Centre and Left choose to focus on the economic benefits of integration, but immigration is a topic that can’t be ignored forever. The UK is certainly not the only country to have active right-wing nationalist organisations, and these organisations grow in prominence when mainstream politics leaves the stone of immigration unturned. Uncontrolled immigration is clearly of major concern to some, and if a satisfactory solution is not found the issue will fester, and resurface when nationalist undercurrents rise once again. While there are many causes of migration in Europe — some of which are difficult to control (such as the conflict in Syria) — continued expansion of the union has predictable consequences.

Accession to the European Union should be a boring, slow process — even more so than the decades-long system currently in play. The advancement of a country’s application for membership should not rest on resolving specific issues, such as establishing ‘the rule of law and fundamental rights’ (Albania) or bringing to justice indicted war criminals (Serbia, Ratko Mladić). It should be a natural consequence of its people and economy being so aligned with those of countries within the union, that the act of joining itself leads to little discernible change. Union should be the result of change, not the trigger for change.

Membership of the European Union has given the new generation an international perspective. In time, European integration will become the norm as people increasingly identify as European. Presently, however, fears that a Brexit could lead to a cascade of other nations following suit highlight the fragility of the union, and show the importance of maintaining cohesion over rapid development. If the referendum on membership of the European Union on 23rd June 2016 results in victory for the ‘Remain’ campaign, the future pace of change within the union must reflect the appetite for change from the more conservative elements of the member populations, or risk returning to the present state of affairs. Then we can get back to enjoying the low-cost holidays and convenient travel, and raise an apathetic shrug to the prospect of further political integration.

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