"Faut-il laisser filer les Anglais?" asked the French newspaper Libération recently.
Jean Quatremer, the paper’s Brussels correspondent, listed five perhaps not entirely serious reasons to be pleased if les Britanniques (on this one special occasion, I am going to overlook Libération’s failure to distinguish between the English and the British) leave the European Union (EU), while his colleague Marc Semo, the paper’s world editor, offered five reasons to rejoice if the pesky rosbif remain.
Brexit pluses included French becoming the EU’s main language again and the way being cleared for France to take over as the EU’s main eurosceptic country. (“Waterloo sera vengé!” exclaimed M Quatremer.) Brexit minuses, meanwhile, were that the EU would become too German and a certain diversity within the union would be lost, the British being a weird bunch.
The tone of the article was good-humoured, in the same way that the UK’s European partners have remained sanguine in the face of a barrage of xenophobic pronouncements from the windy side of the Channel and demands for endless, finicky negotiations to give the UK a special deal. Why should the UK have a special deal?
I have no idea and I suspect the UK prime minister’s EU interlocutors have no idea either. But they try to soothe in the manner of a parent faced with a toddler throwing a tantrum.
Underneath the humour in the Libération article there is, however, palpable frustration – as I’m sure there is beneath the EU leaders’ apparent sanguinity in the face of the UK’s desire to be special. How many more times are the Brits going to refuse the European fence? How special do we have to make them?
Here in dear old Blighty, meanwhile, the debate, if it can be dignified with that name, has richocheted off into the tedious and predictable realms of fear. There will be uncertainty if Britain leaves the EU. Well, yes, but that’s not a reason to stay. Jobs will be lost. Maybe. It’s hard to say, and they would surely be regained. Again, not a reason to stay. The Leave campaign counters with bluster about sovereignty, though it’s not clear what that means in a globalising world, misty notions of a Britain that is ‘great’ (what?) and scare stories about Brussels red tape, most of which prove to be false upon closer examination.
There are hundreds of good reasons for the UK to stay in the EU, but unfortunately no one is talking about them. Being in the EU makes doing business in other European countries easier. It makes us culturally richer. And it expands the opportunity set of each and every British citizen. That some British people are too niggardly to rejoice in the obvious reverse of that – people from other EU countries taking their opportunities here in the UK – is to our shame, but does not change the ineluctable fact that all our individual opportunities are increased by our EU membership.
Of course, the EU is not perfect and needs to be reformed. That is something to which the UK could usefully contribute – if only
we could show a bit of enthusiasm for the basic project.
The UK government tried to present David Cameron’s negotiations with our EU partners as a kind of last chance for the EU to keep the UK in. I fear it is rather the other way round. If we don’t stop snivelling and start participating in a union that has brought peace and prosperity and enormous opportunities for personal and cultural enrichment, we shall shortly be told to go and jump in the Thames. No one’s patience lasts forever.
I hope, I pray, it will not come to that. Some years ago when there was an upsurge of xenophobic sentiment in Denmark, my husband spotted some graffiti in Copenhagen that read: ‘Dear foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the Danes.’
Dearest European partners, please don’t leave us alone with the British.
Fiona Rintoul is editorial director at Funds Europe
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