Brexit highlights the need for a European ideal

Friday, 24. June 2016

Mike SmithThere needs to be a long period of salutary reflection following the UK's Brexit vote. There were clear regional differences. London voted 60 per cent in favour of Remain; Scotland and Northern Ireland also voted for Remain. The constitutional implications for the United Kingdom as a whole are now unclear. They and we Londoners have been overruled by large swathes of the rest of the UK. But what about the generational divide? Seventy-five per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted to remain inside the EU, according to a YouGov poll. It is not surprising if the Millennial generation, decades younger than myself and who have grown up as member of the EU with all the internationalism that that implies, now feel overruled--betrayed even--by an older generation who voted for Brexit.

The Brexit campaign focused largely on the fear of a tidal wave of uncontrollable immigration and getting back control over our own destiny, away from the dictates of Brussels and Strasbourg. This sense of 'regaining control' was always a chimera: Britain was one of the 'big three' in Europe, alongside Germany and France, and Brussels and Strasbourg could never pass legislation without the UK.

A friend of mine, who lives in the rural West of England, said that there was an overwhelming Brexit sentiment in his area. Yet, he added wryly, those who most fear increasing immigration are the ones who are least affected by it. That may not be true for populations in the large northern cities. But London, one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, was overwhelmingly in favour of Remain.

The UK's departure from the EU tears a huge hole in the fabric of the European ideal. But that ideal was never expressed, in all the campaigning, in anything other than economic terms. It was an appeal entirely to our national, and personal, self-interest. Would we be better off inside or outside? The paucity of the arguments for or against EU membership was depressing. The debate was largely self-interested, self-centred, selfish and xenophobic. Our contribution to the wider picture, and for what the European nations together stand for in the wider world, not just economically, but also culturally, spiritually and politically, was never adequately addressed.

In a Credo column in The Times of London (18 June), Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington, a London diocese, wrote that 'The architects of the early European Union, such as Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gaspari and Konrad Adenauer, were key figures in the Christian Democratic movement. They shared a common Christian perspective on the world... The goals of the emerging union, of an end to war, interdependence between neighbour nations and compassion for the poor of the world, were all inspired by their Christian social vision. Like the early medieval Renaissance this vision held the emerging European movement together and inspired its early years.'

Well, that was then. Now, with a much greater secular sentiment, there has not been any appeal to the spiritual roots that inspired the EU founders. Yet, ironically, the rising population of Muslim Europeans would be only too pleased if we non-Muslim, native Europeans held onto and articulated our shared spiritual, moral and ethical values; values that are essentially outward looking, compassionate and concerned for the poor of the world.

The UK has traditionally been at a fulcrum point in the world, acting as a bridge between the EU, the Commonwealth of Nations, and in our 'special relationship' with the US. We have held enormous influence in the world. And we have held an underlying concern for the poor of the earth, as manifest, for instance, in our development aid budget as well as trade relationships with the rest of the world. Much of this will continue. Britain's membership of the European Union, the European ideal, was never seen, until now, as a bridge too far. But that bridge has been shattered.

Nonetheless, Europe as a whole will continue to stand proud of its cultural contribution to the world, in the arts, music, literature and architecture, such as the great cathedrals, and through its spiritual traditions, not to mention the democratic tradition and the rule of law. And Europe as a whole, including the UK, remains an economic powerhouse.

Prime Minister David Cameron staked his reputation on the EU referendum. His campaign has failed and he is now the fall guy. This is sad as he is essentially a decent person. I longed for him to express his wider vision for the European ideal. He spoke about nations coming together so that there could never be war between us, following two world wars. But, as far as I know, he and the other Remain campaigners never articulated a wider vision for the EU's moral, ethical, cultural and political contribution to the world.

The great need now is for healing, relationship building and, indeed, forgiveness. There will need to be time to assuage fears and calm angers. The need is to reach out to those with whom we profoundly disagree. We need faith in the future. There is also a need to recapture, and articulate, the European ideal and what it stands for in the world. For 'where there is no vision the people perish'.

Mike Smith is Head of Business Programmes for Initiatives of Change in the UK and one the coordinating team of the annual conferences on Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy in Caux, Switzerland. He is the author of 'Great Company: trust, integrity and leadership in the global economy', published by Initiatives of Change UK, 2015 and IofC, India, 2016.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.