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It's about Europe, not just what we get out of it
24 Sep, 2019

The European Project matters more

London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes that we must not make the mistake of focusing entirely on the benefits for the UK of EU membership. What we achieve collectively as Europe is more important. By failing to emphasise that we play into the narrative of English exceptionalism that led to Brexit.


I do understand why we emphasise what is in it for us, the benefits that we receive. In any relationship, that is a key part. But it is not the whole of it.

Think of a purely transactional relationship. I go into the shop, hand over £10 and come out with my purchase. Even with a shop that I feel warmly towards, a good bookshop say, it really is 99% about handing over money and receiving a book and the service of the shop staff.


Some relationships go beyond the transactional

Friendship, marriage, even a career are different. Of course I receive benefits. But in all these cases together with my friends, partner, employer I am building something that is separate from the purely transactional aspects.

In the UK, we have seen EU membership almost exclusively in transactional terms. We pay money in, get money and services out. We ask whether the benefits to GDP of being in the single market are worth the membership fee; whether access to a shared policing database is worth the financial cost and the duty to follow rules.

That is not wrong. But the exclusive focus on transactional benefits misses the point.

It would be as though we kept asking whether London should really be part of the UK and counting only the costs and benefits to London’s GDP &c from our nationality. Most of us see ourselves as both Londoners and British and that we are building both identities (or at least we did until 2016 when some of us started wondering about the country in which we were living).


National – and supranational - identity builds something greater than its parts

We are part of Europe. We need a better Europe. We can only create a better Europe in collaboration with others. The European project is creating a better Europe.


Yet we have seen the EU in transactional terms

Even when we praise collaboration, we – I - tend to do it in unromantic transactional terms: it is worth pooling sovereignty with others in order to be able to stand up to the tech giants. Pollution crosses borders so we have to work together.

And we do that because the European project does not resonate in this country, where people see Europe as somewhere else, somewhere separate from ourselves; where people misinformed about our own history see us as being a cut above other countries in Europe.


British people do not see themselves as European

In the years from 2000-2014 only 11-16% felt at all European; the graph shows how stable that was. Even in London an early June 2016 poll did not reach 30% feeling strongly EuropeanNationally the figures have gone up a bit since then but not much.

A 2012 survey had more British people feeling they were citizens of the world but not European compared with certain other EU countries; but the striking finding from the survey is the much higher proportion (40%) in Britain who felt neither a citizen of the world nor European. So not Global Britain but insular.


British exceptionalism is unjustified

Yes, Britain is an island. Yes, in the period 1914-89 the UK was unique in winning both wars, avoiding defeat and occupation and maintaining democratic norms throughout the period.

But we are, obviously, European. We share history. Even having been an Imperial power is true also of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland-Lithuania, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and others.

Go into a museum abroad and you see the same broad movements in art and fashions, in economic and social history.

As you would expect from countries that are broadly similar and facing similar challenges and opportunities, they have things to learn from us and we from them. Our performance on many indicators is average.


It’s not the left behind. It’s the English exceptionalists

We have to change how people perceive English identity if we are to win hearts and minds. It was after all English historical exceptionalism that meant that EU-Exit happened here – not in other countries hit harder by the financial crisis.

Addressing the concerns of the left-behind may be necessary for social justice; but it will not stop Brexit.


We should talk of Europe and the European Project

We can talk of the Europe that we are trying to build: at peace, a global soft power leading by example, concerned about our environment, tolerant, diverse. To English ears this – romantic? - way of looking at things will sound strange.

In 2013 Eurobarometer asked what would strengthen people’s feeling of being a European citizen. We can build on those findings by emphasising how we are already on the way to realising some of the top few items, including:

  • A European social welfare system harmonised between the Member States (health, pensions)/ Being able to live anywhere in the EU after you retire and draw your pension there directly. Freedom of movement allows you to retire anywhere and gives credit for past health contributions in your home country when enabling access to local healthcare
  • The generalised recognition of national qualifications in every EU country without fresh examinations. The single market goes some way to allowing international recognition of qualifications.
  • Being able to use your mobile phone in all EU countries at the same price. The EU abolished intra-EU roaming charges.


Lesson for the Remain campaign

Some will say that a campaign is too short a time – that we can only use messages that land now. But the purpose of a campaign is to change perceptions.

We have little time until the referendum. So let’s use it well.




The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on the London4Europe blogs page reflect the views of the author, not necessarily of London4Europe