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Could the EU be a vocation?

30 October 2015

I CAN work up no enthusiasm for the long-promised EU referendum. I cannot get excited by the strategies being cobbled together by the in and out campaign groups. I want to yawn as I look forward to several years in which the great and the good will insist on having their long-winded say about whether we should stay or go. Last week, it was the Governor of the Bank of England and the President of China. Next week, there will be more.

I am disenchanted because the arguments on both sides seem set to focus on only one issue, which is whether the UK will be better off in or out of the EU. And, although that is clearly important, it is the one question that is impossible to predict either way.

The in campaigners assert that outside the EU, we would lose global clout, as well as endanger our current trade within Europe. The out campaigners insist that we would lose nothing worth having in Europe, while being nimbler and freer to exploit new markets elsewhere.

But all this is speculation. Nothing can be certain either way. The economic future is as obscure as always; so I distrust all economic predictions. We can have absolutely no idea about whether or not we will be worse or better off in or out of Europe.

Having said that, there is a much more interesting and important debate, which is to do with British and European culture and identity. Our current position, in the EU but outside the eurozone, is a compromise. We may not wish to sign up for closer union, but there is an important sense in which Europe is meaningless without our participation.

Charles de Gaulle worked hard to keep us out of the original European Economic Community because he feared the influence that he thought we could wield. Unfortunately, we have absorbed his message, and have returned the insult by being reluctant and sceptical Europeans: eager to criticise, and slow to accept our share of the moral, political, and financial burdens of membership.

Yet we do belong to Europe, geographically, culturally, and historically. We were converted to the Christian faith by wandering Celtic monks and Roman missionaries. We have a restless stability that blends the divergent strands of European culture. We could play an important part in the reform of European institutions if we were less cynical and more engaged.

This would mean being less concerned about how many pounds a year we might be better or worse off, and more prepared to consider the question in terms of national vocation.

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