As we’re about to try to divorce ourselves from the EU, take a close look at this picture and think about the history behind it. This year in France is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun, Germany’s attempt to “bleed France white” and crush her fighting spirit. Britain, her ally, launched the Somme offensive on 1 July 1916 partly to try to take the pressure off Verdun, and lost 20,000 men on the first day. The loss of life in 1916 was enormous on both sides. Across France, like the UK, there are memorials to WW1 losses. Also, if you look closely, there are WW2 memorials. We found this one recently in the Dordogne. Now, look at the picture towards the bottom. There are those killed in fighting, there are those shot (fusillés, probably the Resistance) and there are those who were deported (déportés), usually to the Nazi gas chambers. This is the legacy of Europe that Europeans today remember as the overriding reason for the formation and continuation of the European Union, peace and democracy.
This raison d’être gets lost in the UK, who’ve really only seen the EU in economic terms.
As Britain prepares to maybe divorce itself, to “take back control”, it is worth thinking about what life was like when we had “control”. We were economically “The Sick Man of Europe”, while other European countries in the EEC were prospering. Europe was recovering from two devastating wars. Belatedly we tried to join but were twice vetoed by De Gaulle who said we weren’t sufficiently “European”. We liked to pretend we didn’t need Europe, but had been sucked into two world wars due to aggressive nationalism in other European countries, and very often in previous centuries too. Britain has tried many times to live in “splendid isolation” and many times has had to reconsider. As John Donne wrote in 1624, “No man is an island”:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
The illusion of independence
It is reckoned by independent experts, whom Michael Gove decried recently, that Brexit will plunge the UK into an economic crisis, a fall in the pound, a recession, rising unemployment and a long term decline in the national income. Many big businesses will in effect relocate to the Continent. It will not solve the immigration problem that has energised some many Brexiteers, and could lead to the break up of the UK as Scotland tries to keep EU membership. All of these “project fear” warnings have plausibility. Brexiteers claim they will regain independence, but it looks like it will be a pyrrhic victory.
Britain may try as it likes but in this interconnected world it will very likely find that independence is an illusion, and a very costly one too. Leaving the EU runs the risk of unpicking the elaborately constructed European security system since the Second World War. Thus Britain could get the opposite of what Brexiteers wish for. Nationalist, authoritarian and irridentist forces are on the rise, and Brexit could be the fatal last straw that causes the system to unravel. We could find ourselves drawn back to cope with forces that, as in the 20th Century, threatened our own shores.
Let’s hope that on 23rd June the British people make the right decision.