Today the UK leaves the EU. A momentous moment, an unprecedented event, a tragedy even. Sure. We like to think of countries and international organisations as stable and immutable, but of course they are not. Since the UK joined the EU another 20 odd countries have done so. Much of this happened because the Soviet Bloc broke up, which resulted in the creation, independence and reshaping of many countries including the land of my birth, Germany. The fact is, that if you take the long view, the world changes, alliances change, borders change, unions are formed. They grow, they shrink, like Boris’ hairdo, and sometimes they disappear altogether. Unfortunately, when this has happened in the past it was mostly as a result of wars involving untold bloodshed and suffering. What the European Union has achieved is that now we can have the map of Europe changing without anyone having to go to war over it. When the Eastern European countries joined; Poland, Hungary, Latvia and so on, it was not because the EU invaded them, but because they wanted to join and were admitted. Now Britain is leaving, and although it has been traumatic and is, in my opinion, like walking into self-imposed exile, there has been no bloodshed over it. No insurgency, no civil war, no repression. This is a sign that despite the disagreements, we have managed to behave in a civilised way, and that there has been real progress. It shows that the UK and the EU are both democratic bodies that can sort out even difficult issues by negotiation. We’re lucky, because there are places today where such disputes are fought out with cluster bombs, torture and drone strikes.
When Britain joined the EU in the 70s it was the sick man of Europe. My father used to bring candles and bog roll from Germany because these things were hard to get in England due to strikes and power cuts. People who are nostalgic for pre-EU days seem to forget this. The growth in prosperity of the UK in the last 40 years has gone hand in hand with the growth of the EU, and many countries have been transformed by their membership: Ireland and Portugal to name but two. We achieved the freedom to travel, study and work throughout our continent. We can use our phones and the same money in many countries without being ripped off by banks and telecoms companies every time we cross a border. Businesses can trade without tariffs and quotas. We don’t even have to stop at many of the borders inside Europe. The environment is protected and workers cannot be made to work unreasonable hours. The benefits have been legion and mostly Europe has prospered. Even when during the financial crisis, Europe managed to hold together and help its weaker members weather the storm.
But what of the future? Will Britain go backwards now? Let’s hope not. Will Britain break up? It’s looking more likely now than before and that may not be a bad thing. But it will be more disruptive now, because in all probability Scotland would want to rejoin the EU and then have the same issue as Ireland with a hard border to England. Certainly things will not stand still. The EU will now be able to forge ahead with greater integration, making it a formidable competitor with a huge economy, a single currency and fully integrated markets. We need this Europe as a counterweight to China, Russia and yes, even the US. Britain looks likely to move closer to America now, which may be fine. But whereas we can see that the Europeans are genuinely sorry to see us go, are the Americans really as bothered about us? We like to think that we have a special relationship with them, but we are like a teenage fan in love with a pop idol; we think we have a unique bond with them until we go to a concert and see many others just as enthralled. Japan, South Korea, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Israel; these are all key allies of the United States, and Britain is just part of the list. In Europe, Britain was an equal partner in some ways and in reality it was one of the big 3. So, it held a position of great influence. Can we really hold our own with the US in the same way? Or will we ultimately have to bend to their will? America is certainly not above pushing other countries around when it comes to promoting her interests. And it is obvious that we really need to do a deal, which will not put us in a strong position.
But let’s not be pessimistic. There seems to be a will to remain close to the EU and hopefully not too many of the gains will be lost to us. And there are plenty of people in Britain who cherish their relationship with Europe and will continue to make it as close as they can. Let us remember our friends from all over this wonderful continent and stay connected with them, so that the bonds we have prevail against the forces of division, isolation and populism.