WHEN, in 1973, politicians were seeking to sell the ideas of the Common Market to UK voters, there were appeals to noble ideals — as well as hints about cheap wine. The wine lake never made it across the Channel, and the ideals appear to have dried up, too. Just to recap, the reason that a pro-European government is planning a referendum on the European Union is not to reassert the value of a bold social and political experiment, nor to reawaken a former enthusiasm for a vision of continental solidarity. It is because, in 2013, the middle years of the Coalition Government, David Cameron had to find an answer to a wave of fear that ran through his party at the surge in popularity of the UK Independence Party, and the demands of the Eurosceptics within his own fold. The wave has since receded, and the Eurosceptic Tories are quiescent; but a pledge is a pledge, and the referendum must go ahead.
The danger now is that there will be a replay of the Scottish referendum, in which defenders of the status quo, who resented the concept of a referendum in the first place, failed to summon up the energy that galvanised the No campaign. It is hard to imagine any degree of energy connected with a European election, and so normally those who are hostile to or ignorant of the details of Britain’s relationship with Europe would not bother to vote. But there are signs that those who are campaigning for a British exit are adopting the tactic of UKIP, which is to make this into a referendum about immigration. The fact that Continental Europe has absorbed the vast majority of refugees from Syria and North Africa will be cited as a failing, not reckoned to them as righteousness. A nervous electorate will be invited to vote for protection against a threatening continent teeming with illegal aliens, every one of them a potential terrorist. The revival of Dad’s Army appears not to be a coincidence.
It is simple to defend the European Union if it is seen as a financial calculation. The cost of Britain’s contribution, minus what it gets back in grants and rebates, comes to about £7 billion a year. Using figures assembled by the Confederation of British Industry, the benefit to trade can be reckoned as somewhere between £62 billion and £78 billion. But campaigners are used to creating white noise to obscure such sums; and those who complain about the 2.4 million EU citizens in the UK who compete for their jobs and houses do not take into account the 2.2 million British people living on the continent.
In the new report by Theos, A Soul for the Union, its author, Ben Ryan, argues that bandying about such figures dishonours the vision that united Europe. This vision — to develop the concepts of solidarity, subsidiarity, and morality, and apply them to common problems such as migration, the world economy, and the environment — remains strong elsewhere in Europe. Perhaps the problem that lurks beneath the surface of this referendum is that it is not the EU that needs to find a soul, but Britain.