Timothy Garton Ash

A conservative case for staying in

The Brexit camp want to risk decades of real peace and prosperity to attain a future full of implausibly rational statesmen

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.

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