I open a dusty binder and look at my yellowing Spectator articles from Poland, Germany and Russia in the dramatic 1980s. And here’s one from Brussels in 1986, suggesting that Britain was edging towards finding its role in the European Community. Ho ho. Back then, Charles Moore was the editor and I was the foreign editor of this magazine. He shared my passion for the liberation of eastern Europe, while becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the western European Community, but he let me make the case for it. Now, 30 years on, Charles and I stand on different sides of a historic national argument.
This makes for a curious role reversal. I am a lifelong liberal (small ‘l’) but my argument for staying in the EU is fundamentally conservative (small ‘c’). It rests on a pessimistic view of human nature in general and Europe in particular.
By contrast, those who — like Charles — want out of the EU argue from a highly optimistic view of an alternative future, one in which rational self-interest makes the rest of Europe, and the rest of the world, offer favourable terms to an independent, dynamic, rejuvenated Britain. Of course the EU will give us easy access to the single market! They must want to export their BMWs to us. Of course the US and China will make free-trade deals with Britain as they have with the EU! This deeply un-Burkean kind of thinking, based on untestable claims about a future in which everyone behaves rationally, is more usually found on the left. Brexiters have seen the future and it works.
They are more optimistic than I am about European nations’ capacity to cope on their own. I think all these networks of cooperation are needed to prevent them falling back into bad old ways. Over the past thousand years, Europe has been the most culturally diverse, creative continent on earth. It has also been one of the most bloody. When I first started travelling in Europe, in the early 1970s, half the continent was still living under dictatorships of right or left. My roommate when I studied German in Bavaria was a Greek exile from the colonels; Portugal and Spain laboured under the tail end of fascist dictatorships. My East German friends were persecuted by the Stasi and my Polish friends would subsequently experience internment and a ‘state of war’. For all of them, the causes of Europe and freedom have marched together like brothers, arm in arm, and not, as many Brits see it, mortal enemies: Europe vs freedom.
The Europe we have today is the worst possible Europe, apart from all the other Europes that have been tried from time to time. The past 30 years have been an exceptional period in European history: exceptionally good. Although we have certainly paid a price in loss of sovereignty and idiotic regulations (some of them made significantly more idiotic by very British bureaucracy at home), this has also been a good period for Britain. A correlation between a good period for the British economy and membership in the EU does not necessarily mean the latter is the cause of the former — what about Mrs Thatcher? What about Tony Blair? — but a careful analysis in the Financial Times suggests that EU membership has contributed to our prosperity, opening up British companies both to the opportunities of the single market and to the bracing winds of continental competition.
I have no doubt that western Europe took a wrong turn after 1989. The ill-designed monetary union has been a disaster for the European project, dividing when it was meant to unite, impoverishing where it was meant to enrich. Instead of the euro, we should have developed a stronger cooperation in foreign and security policy, so we could more effectively address the causes of the refugee flows from the wider Middle East that are now shaking the European Union to its foundations, with barbed-wire fences being erected where once they were torn down.
But this also means that ‘ever closer union’ is a blast from the past. To be sure, there are people in Brussels who still bang on about it, some of them sincerely. And the eurozone does need some further deepening if it is to survive. But German public opinion has changed dramatically since unification: you will find almost as few Germans seriously embracing the goal of ever closer union as you will find Brits. The real danger today is not that the continent presses fast forward to a Napoleonic superstate but that it falls fast backwards to disintegration, national hostilities, xenophobia and illiberalism. In the brilliantly jarring words of Bertolt Brecht: ‘The womb is fertile still, from which that crawled.’
All the more reason, you might say, to cut ourselves free from this dark continent. Just vote to leave and in one bound John Bull will be free. Except he won’t. Again and again throughout modern history, Britain has been ineluctably drawn in to the travails of a troubled continent. Why should this time be different? Especially now, when the whole world is so interconnected, not least in economics and finance.
But freedom, you may say, always involves risk. Indeed it does. It also involves judgment and responsibility. In the Brexiters’ outwardly self-confident rhetoric of national liberation I hear the voice of Tennyson’s aged Ulysses:
Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world,
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows.…
I hear that romantic voice of nostalgic optimism and thrill to its call. But Tennyson’s Ulysses almost certainly ended up five fathoms under, together with his crew. And he was not a good ruler to his people: he left that thankless work, ‘centred in the sphere of common duties’, to his son Telemachus.
The problem we all face in making this choice is that it is unavoidably based on counterfactuals: what would happen if…? At lunch in a central London restaurant the other day, I overheard two smartly suited gentlemen discussing The Choice, until one concluded, with a good swig of red wine: ‘What we need is a firm of accountants to cost the alternatives.’ But that is precisely what we will never have. Instead, we must exercise our own judgment, weighing the balance of probabilities.
In this article, I have tried to avoid rehearsing once again the familiar arguments, which are already as well-polished as schoolboys’ prize conkers. Of course there are experts and authority figures on both sides. But it is my judgment, based on the balance of expert analysis and authoritative opinion, that we would be worse off and less secure outside. If the English vote to leave and the Scots to stay, there is a high probability that Scotland will then vote to leave the UK and rejoin the EU. The Northern Irish peace settlement would be unsettled.
Since I spend much of my life talking to other Europeans in their own languages, I am even more confident in saying that they would not give us a second chance or a favourable deal if we left. In my other life, at Stanford University, I find those Americans who have thought about it are concerned that Britain should not further weaken an already crisis-torn Europe, and therefore the West as a whole, as we face an aggressive Vladimir Putin and bloody chaos in the Middle East.
I cannot share the blithe ahistorical optimism that sees Europe making a smooth segue from this imperfect union to a region of freely cooperating, prosperous liberal democracies. This has been an exceptional period in modern European history, and an exception whose durability is now bound up, like it or not, with that of the EU. And one thing is certain: inside, we still have a chance of reforming it, outside we have none.
Brexiters will predictably decry my argument as part of ‘Project Fear’, but European history, and human nature, give us plenty to be rationally fearful about. Giving due weight to rational fears, while having the courage to take calculated risks, is what good soldiers, successful business people, and wise women and men do. We should be brave but not foolhardy. This may not be a heroic, optimistic passage in the life of Europe, like that which followed the velvet revolutions of 1989, but no political community experiences only good times. There is still much to lose, and a traditional, pragmatic conservative would not jump, Corbyn-like, for such an uncertain alternative.
Unlike many elite supporters of the EU, I welcome this debate and this clear choice. I’m struck by how many people genuinely have not made up their minds and are trying to navigate their way through the maelstrom of claim and counter-claim. If you are among the great undecided, I say: please make a sober judgment of what is likely to be in the best interests of this country. Look at the facts, look at history. Be realistic. Be conservative. Vote to stay.
Join The Spectator for an evening debate chaired by Andrew Neil:
Should Britain leave the EU?
26 April 2016 | London Palladium, Argyll Street, W1F 7TF
Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.