Comment | A Referendum of Fear

Comment | A Referendum of Fear

It is 4.30 am, and I have once again woken up with a nervous and uneasy feeling. I feel scared. I have a huge sense of foreboding. I spend time every day looking for signs, any signs, that as a country we are not going to sleepwalk our way out of our membership of the European Union. I have listened to the arguments by the politicians on both sides and been hugely disappointed. Both sides are engaged in ‘project fear’ and it seems to me that, unsurprisingly, neither are being straight with us. I began enthusiastically supporting the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign, but find that I cannot agree with its approach any more. As for the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, well it seems to me that its central premises – on the amount we actually pay to the EU and on immigration, especially scare stories around Turkey – are just plain wrong.

This referendum campaign has been horrible and shows no signs of abating in its intensity. We are expected to wade through the hyperbole, the fear and the mudslinging to make an informed choice on what may well be the most important political decision of most of our lifetimes. This campaign has got me scared because it has somehow lifted up a stone in our country and revealed something divided and unpleasant; and you only have to go onto nearly any discussion on social media to see that being enacted.

So why, in the middle of the night, am I writing this? Like many people I suspect that I feel stifled and utterly fed up by the whole campaign, and I feel let down by our politicians who only offer us fear of the opposite as a reason to vote ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. We seem stuck, with the vote too close to call if the opinion polls are to be believed; and stuck in the same old round of claim and counter claim. For my own sanity, then, I wanted to think again why I was so desperate to vote ‘Remain’; what was it that I was really supporting here?

In the end it comes down to this for me. As a middle aged British man born in the 1960s I feel very fortunate. When I look at my parents’ and grandparents’ generation I feel as if I have had it pretty easy. One of my grandfathers fought, and mercifully survived, the Battle of Gallipoli during World War One, and my parents had to live through the horrors of war as children. My wife is German (one of the very few things I have in common with Nigel Farage), and I hear the other side of the story of how it is to live through war and its aftermath from that perspective too. It is not something I want to repeat in a hurry.

What I am not saying here is that the EU has in and of itself maintained peace in Western Europe. What I am saying is that what it has achieved in a relatively short period of time is really quite remarkable. It has brought together nations that have been repeatedly been at war for centuries and has provided a way for us to work together for what are broadly common goals. What is more, it has also brought in countries who, less than 30 years ago, were part of a block of states that were pointing their nuclear weapons directly at our towns and cities. Now we talk to them in a broadly civilised and constructive manner. Since my father was born the majority of EU states have been under dictatorships at one time or another…dictatorships that seek the very opposite of the social goals of the EU (and I know the European Court of Human Rights is not part of the EU). Those who want to leave talk about not wanting to be ‘dictated to by Europe’, but when you compare the EU to the European dictatorships of the twentieth century there really is no comparison to be made.

For me then voting to leave the EU is a massive risk and a move that scares me to my very core. I do not know whether or not we would be more prosperous inside or out, and arguments on both side are based on assumptions. What I do know is that in the forty plus years since we have been a member of the EEC/ EU we have been a relatively prosperous nation, the fifth largest economy in the world, and I do not see anything that will happen to change that if we stay in. That for me is a positive vision.

I do know that there are many things that are broken about the EU and it is far from an ideal organisation. Yet it is a place where, more often than not, we have been able to sort out our differences and on many occasions where we have not we have been able to opt out: Schengen, the Euro and the budget rebate being the most obvious examples.

This referendum campaign has stirred up fear in many ways. Fear of the future and fear of the other. Fear that we will be plunged into a deep and damaging recession if we leave, and a fear that we will be overrun by immigrants if we remain. It has stirred up a huge amount of fear for me.

The very fact that I am married to someone whose country we were bitterly at war with during my parents’ lifetime, and that we can now live and work peacefully in each other’s countries is a remarkable thing that we have achieved together as a continent. This has not made me any less British, nor has it made my wife any less German and we celebrate our differences.

But what of our children’s generation? What legacy do we leave them? This is my true fear because I desperately want them to be as fortunate as I have been. I desperately want to see us to continue to work together and to try to understand each other, I want to see us try to work positively together and not be riven by nationalistic fears.

Will leaving the EU result in World War Three as David Cameron has suggested? Probably not since we will, after all, still be part of NATO. What it does do is take us outside the tent, and as we do so we take one of the main supporting poles with us. I think the EU will be a lesser organisation without us, and we risk being in a more dangerous world if we leave – our exit may cause many other countries to seek the same path, and for me that could open up all sorts of issues right across our continent.

For some reason we underestimate our importance to the EU, and our influence in it. It does not dictate things to us (again, dictators do much worse things than the EU). We are a powerful voice in Europe that helps all reach a consensus on key issues that affect us every day. Breaking that consensus, that positive vision, is where the real risk and, ultimately fear, lies for me.