On Thursday last week, as the baby and I were moving in our usual slow circles around the house, from changing station to feeding station to the place of dreaded midday nap, my husband, Dom, called to say he and all his colleagues were coming over.
Dom is employed by Vote Leave, the group campaigning for us to get out of the European Union. He’d been hard at work, he said, sharing his concerns about Turkey with the media, when water had begun to gush from the ceiling. Was this a desperate move by No. 10, intent on sabotage? Nope, said Dom, but we can’t stay here so I’ve invited everyone home.
Ten minutes later Brexit was in the kitchen. Brexit was younger and cheerier than I had imagined: seven twentysomethings sat around the dining table bent over Macbooks; another five sat on the floor. Four men in their thirties treated the kitchen island as if it were a fashionable standing desk. Their cables trailed through the butter. Two Canadian geeks stood by the midget’s changing mat, laptops propped on the wetwipe box. In the toilet, a brace of physicists discussed Facebook algorithms.
Around teatime the big beasts appeared: Boris, followed by Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston. They prepped for their TV debate beside a tangle of just-washed sleep suits as the midget and I watched agog. For months now, my life has been dominated almost equally by the baby and the EU referendum. It felt as if fate had fixed it so that reality mirrored my mental state.
That evening was not the most surreal bit. On Friday morning, with Brexit still in situ, seven women from my NCT class arrived with their two- and three-month-olds for a long-planned hour learning baby massage. These are smart, impressive women, from a range of different European countries — to a woman, I then assumed and later confirmed, for Remain. So we sat upstairs in a circle on sheepskin rugs and sang the hello song to our babies, and massaged their multinational feet with grapeseed oil while through the floorboards came the muffled cheers of Brexiteers in the kitchen as data streamed in.
Dom is often described by fans of the EU as a terrible person; the PM (I’m told) thinks him a fiend from the dregs of Hell. But what I would have liked to tell my new NCT friends is that he is at least fighting this battle for the right reasons. He’s kept awake at night by the problems he sees coming mankind’s way — and he’s convinced that the EU, cumbersome and slow to correct mistakes, is unfit to cope with them. It wasn’t the time or the place for a great EU debate. We sang ‘This Little Piggy Went to Market’, then a song about a fly to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, while the babies stared about them, solemn and round-eyed.
I did, however, text my friends later to find out their reasons to think Britain should remain. Having dragged them, unknowing, into the dark heart of Euroscepticism, it seemed only fair. Their answers have given me more to think about than any part of Cameron’s Project Fear.
Science was top of the list. A woman from Finland who has worked for a pharmaceutical company said it was vital to be able to conduct clinical trials easily around the EU. The others all agreed that the EU was crucial for funding scientific research into all the things that will help humans survive.
Well of course they’re right, science requires collaboration, that’s a given these days. Just look at Cern, the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, which uses our pooled resources to hunt for the meaning of life. But then look again at Cern. Its HQ is in non-EU Switzerland; more than 10,000 engineers and scientists from over 100 countries helped build it. Do we really we have to be part of the EU to join scientific forces? If Israel is part of the EU science programmes, surely a non-EU Britain could be too?
An Austrian woman had several excellent and counterintuitive points which deserve an airing. The EU, she says, can stop a nation state pouring money into daft subsidies for industries that will anyway fail — just look at Tata Steel. EU law meant our government couldn’t weigh in and waste money.
She also said: ‘I’m sure there are cases where EU regulation hampers business, but there are no guarantees UK regulation would be any better. For example UK planning laws are a complete disaster.’ This sent a thin chill of fear into my heart. From the bottom of my street I can just about make out the house of a friend who was refused planning permission for a new upstairs bathroom, on the grounds that it might damage the aerial view. Passing police helicopters might find the addition out of keeping with the Georgian aesthetic, thought Islington council. Are British regulations in any way more sensible than those from Brussels? No, I suppose not, but I can vote out Islington council. I can complain and be heard.
From the French quarter came a very heartfelt plea: please stay. The EU needs Britain for its creative input. And a link to a book: Goodbye Europe by the French MEP Sylvie Goulard. Goulard is passionate about the EU, and reading her book I realised for the first time how infuriating Britain’s prevaricating must appear. Goulard is clear. The aim of the EU is ‘ever closer union’, it has to be, and our endless bleating for opt-outs and exemptions feels to our European friends like a betrayal of the communal spirit.
This, then, is why I’ll vote to leave. The EU is, at heart, a romantic project, but it’s a romance I can’t believe in. Each irrevocable EU crunch closer fills me with dread. For me sovereignty is the romance, and the accountability of people in power. I love Europe, I admire my NCT friends. I want the best for all those eight wriggling babies and I don’t, in the end, think the EU will serve them.
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