Why does a man who is one of the biggest winners of the European Union campaign so fiercely against it? That is the question that friends, colleagues, family and acquaintances ask me every time we discuss Europe. The funny thing is, I ask myself that question too.
Since I can remember, I have always visited Europe every summer and likely most winters of my life. My family have owned properties on the continent since I was 15, while my cousins have studied in the Czech Republic, Florence and Bologna. My sister studied in Montpelier and I’ve just completed my year in Bologna. My dad speaks three European languages. My mother is the same. My oldest friends are Swedish and German. Today, over half of my friends are non-UK nationals. I speak (albeit badly) German and some Italian. And (so I’m told), I’m a young voter (26,) and by most polling statistics available, ¾ of my UK contemporaries are voting to remain in Europe.
I love Europe, the place. I love Europe, the people. I love Europe, the food. And, I love Europe, the culture. But, I’m voting to leave. Why?
It’s fashionable to see people who support BREXIT as “little Englanders”. Nostalgic for the days of Empire, when “Britannia ruled the waves”. And perhaps I am. In my heart I am a romantic. Seduced by stories of heroism, triumph over overwhelming odds, and love. All popular elements in nostalgic history. The cliché of love conquers all and the triumph of good over evil.
But what is more Romantic than a continent at war, now at peace? A continent of prosperity and shared values, where all are equal, regardless of faith, gender or where they were born? In fact, is Europe not the most romantic of things? Furthermore, is it not in fact a totem to the success of the UK and its leaders? From Churchill to Thatcher, British leaders led the fight to free Europe from totalitarian rule, secured American intervention on the continent and, when the Cold War was over, it was Britain that brought the east of Europe in from the cold. Surely, for many, the successes of the EU are a testimony to the UK’s achievements. A sign of its importance in the world. But if this is all true, then why am I’m voting to leave?
Voters like me in this referendum could have and should have been at the forefront of the remain campaign. But we are not. It is this remarkable fact that seems to cause such utter shock, terror and concern across the world’s elite circles of high finance and politics. Why on earth do we want to leave?
The answer is that something with our society is very ill and this referendum was a chance for the EU and those who believe in the idea of Europe to articulate a vision of how we could fix it. This isn’t new, nor is it sudden. Myself and others have been waiting over a decade for a vision of Europe’s future. But the reality is, there isn’t one. That is the reason why I am leaving. Belief in an idea requires the conviction that it can work. That requires confidence and that requires trust, but also it requires communication. It requires people to understand what it is they are believing in and to buy into that idea. What Europe and the UK’s leaders have forgotten in their hubris is simple: to buy into an idea without understanding it is not courageous, it’s fanaticism.
People all over Europe are really scared. Real term wages have barely grown for most UK citizens in over 15 years, home ownership rates are at their lowest in the UK for over 30 years, domestic companies in the UK are now 88% owned by overseas investors and crime, terrorism and the threat of conflict is higher than they have been since 1992. But it’s not just the UK whose people are scared, its all of Europe too.
Many friends have said that the UK isn’t alone in being unhappy with the EU. That other countries also dislike many things that happen at the EU level, but that the UK should work with them to fix it. What they have missed though is the basic question: fix it to what? What should Europe be? How should it look? And, most importantly, why is that good for me, my family, my friends and my community?
The fact is that elites in Europe and the UK that lead their communities in business, media, academia and politics have failed to deliver an answer. And now they are reaping the consequences. From Austrian presidential elections, to Victor Orban in Hungary, the FN’s rise in France, the 5-star movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain, Golden Dawn in Greece and PiS in Poland, parties are trying to do exactly that. Give people an image of a future. A future where things appear better, appear more certain and more secure. They may all be wrong. They may all be a disaster. But they are an idea, they are a point of reference and increasingly, they are popular.
A vote to leave the EU will hurt in the short term economically. Maybe even the longer term too. But just maybe, it will also help the country to look deep at itself, at its society, and to search for a new system and a new vision of what its future should be. Many Brexiters are doing that now. From free-market liberals like Daniel Hannan, to Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and yes, Nigel Farage, people are suggesting ideas of a new Britain. Maybe they might all be worse than they are now. But maybe they might be better. Maybe a weaker pound, lower house prices and a migration policy that gives skilled workers from the US, Japan, Canada, Australia and Hong Kong the same rights as a worker from Poland, Austria or Estonia, might in fact make for a more equal and stable society. Maybe.
I said earlier that blind believe is fanaticism. That is how I see the vote to Remain today. A belief that your faith in a system, person or ideology must somehow work out, with no idea of how or why. Is BREXIT a risk? Of that I am sure. But I am also sure that with every decision in my life I’d rather know that I took a chance to make something better and shape my world for the better.
For what it’s worth, I am sure we will vote to stay in Europe on June 23rd. My guess would be by about 5%. And afterwards I am sure many of those reading this will be celebrating. But during your celebrations you should pause to consider, if only for a moment, if this referendum is not in fact Europe’s Pyrrhic victory. A win that has cost Europe so much, that you have already lost the argument for the future. The idea of a life without the European Union has been born and is growing every day across Europe and despite facing one of the biggest existential crises to its existence, Europe’s answer has been to beg, to scare and to threaten people to stay.
In the war of ideas, a future of a better and united Europe is dead. For those of you voting to remain, I am left to ask you two final questions before you vote on Thursday: Europe will have to change again in our life times, do you know what that change will be, and are you really sure that Europe’s next phase is better?
Whatever your answer, make sure you vote. Either way, our votes may never be so important as they will be on June 23rd.