Praising Europe, with a British accent.
By Petros Fassoulas, Secretary General of the European Movement International
We are just hours away before discovering the outcome of the UK referendum. It has been a political contest of paramount importance, one dominated, nevertheless, by myth and bluster, where those seeking to break Britain away from its European alliance have the catchiest (albeit inflammatory) slogans and the biggest megaphones, courtesy of tabloid newspapers.
Those of us on this side on the Channel cannot be blamed for thinking that Europhobia has well and truly taken over this otherwise rational nation. All we see and hear are the likes of Farage and Johnson, with their isolationist, populist, divisive, intolerant and often xenophobic rhetoric poisoning the oxygen around the EU debate in Britain.
But scratch a bit beneath the surface and beyond the pages of the Daily Mail and the Sun and something remarkable appears.
At a time when advocates for the European project are in short supply and even hardened pro-Europeans across the Continent look in disbelief at the EU’s shortcomings, voices with a distinct British accent are shouting loud and clear about the virtues of the European project.
Remarkably, some of these voices come from the least likely quarters. Take Prime Minister Cameron for example, by no means a romantic Europhile, he has been beating the drum of Euroscepticism for years. But he held no punches on his 9 May speech (which is Europe Day, by the way). Making a clear case for Britain’s membership of the EU, he exclaimed the virtues of the European Union, hailing the “strength in numbers” the EU affords us and the EU’s ability to “reconcile countries which were once at each other’s’ throats”.
The list of unlikely supports grows from there. Outspoken and reactionary TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson (of ‘Top Gear’ infamy), who is no friend of regulations and bureaucrats, has come out in favour of the creation of “a United States of Europe that functions as well as the United States of America. With one army and one currency and one unifying set of values”. Altiero Spinelli, you’ve met your match.
Lord Sugar, the bombastic businessman who seems to like nobody and has made the dreaded term ‘You Are Fired’ famous, called the EU “a breath of fresh air”, arguing that Brits “would be the mugs of the world if we left”. As endorsements go, that’s a straight-talking one.
He is not the only British businessperson to back the EU. Nearly 200 of the UK’s biggest companies, ranging from the financial markets to energy providers and from car-makers to shoe-makers, have spoken in favour of the EU’s “market of 500 million people” as what’s needed “to continue to grow, invest and create jobs”.
But it is not just big companies which like the EU. British start-ups have overwhelmingly backed the European Union, naming “the free movement of labour, giving access to a talented workforce” as one of the main advantages it offers them.
One should not think this is just about business though. British trade unions have spoken passionately in favour of the EU. They praise “the maternity and paternity rights, equal treatment for full-time, part-time and agency workers, and the right to paid leave” that Europe safeguards and claim that these EU rights “continue to underpin and protect working rights for British people”.
British environmentalists have also spoken out about how the EU protects wildlife and the environment. Mike Clarke, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (which has over 1 million members) said that “because nature transcends national boundaries, it needs cross-border co-operation to protect it and a common set of international standards that enable it to thrive” and argued that “UK membership of the EU has benefited nature and the environment in ways that would be hard to replicate if we left”.
Economic prosperity, employment right, environmental protections. It is funny that we need the Brits to remind us of all the wonderful things we enjoy thanks to the EU.
But the symphony of praise for the EU’s achievements does not stop there. British universities came out in favour of the EU because it “supports research, knowledge, innovation and technology – the factors that will decide future economic growth, productivity and human progress” as Dame Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, argued. She has been joined by 103 other Vice-Chancellors, from universities like Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE, who in an open letter “committed to highlighting the value of EU membership to our universities”. 150 British scientists praised the “ambitious EU science funding programmes, which support vital, complex international collaborations”. Thirteen Nobel Laurates had the following to say about the EU, “Science thrives on permeability of ideas and people, and flourishes in environments that pool intelligence, minimize barriers, and are open to free exchange and collaboration. The EU provides such an environment and scientists value it highly.” How can one argue with such high-calibre and eloquent endorsement?
From British men and women of science the baton passed to those of faith, who in a joint statement spoke of the contribution to peace and tolerance the EU has made. “The past 70 years have been the longest period of peace in Europe’s history” they argued. In reference to the EU they said, “Institutions that enable us to work together and understand both our differences and what we share in common contribute to our increased security and sense of collective endeavour”. The current archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England, argued in an article that “the principles Jesus taught and which have so shaped us also include love for the poor, the alien and the stranger. The EU came together in a Europe broken beyond description by war, and has shaped a continent which until recently has contributed to more human flourishing, and more social care, than at any time in European history.” This is as close to the Heavens as praise gets.
Endorsement of the EU has also come from the stars, film, music, literature, fashion and theatre stars that is. Personalities like Patrick Stewart, Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Steve McQueen, Jarvis Cocker, members of the indie band Franz Ferdinand, Vivienne Westwood, Anish Kapoor, John le Carré were among 282 luminaries who joined their collective celebrity power to speak in favour of the EU. “From the smallest gallery to the biggest blockbuster”, they stated, “many of us have worked on projects that would never have happened without vital EU funding or by collaborating across borders”. Comedian Eddie Izzard even organized a ‘Stand Up for Europe’ tour across the UK. I bet he got more laughs than Nigel Farage.
As celebrity endorsement goes, few have the glitter of David Beckham, who on a social media post said “We live in a vibrant and connected world where together as a people we are strong. For our children and their children we should be facing the problems of the world together and not alone.”
Because sometimes a picture speaks more powerfully than words, illustrators, photographers and artists, 14 in total, created images to exclaim their support for the European project. Glasgow based, Ewan Mitchell, who works in books, film and installation, wrote in his poster “Co-operation between 500 million people for 60 years is no easy feat, and worth holding on to”. Photographer Michael Craig-Martin said “The EU has helped establish the longest period of peace in Europe in centuries. It has guaranteed democracy, the rule of law, civil liberties, and human rights across every member state. We should remember that these are our values, British values”. Sculptor Antony Gormley argued that ‘the European project is creative, an opportunity to exercise imagination. It is the present form of the ongoing dynamic between geography and tribe”.
Powerful words from people that create lasting images.
If all that was not enough to fill your heart with affection for our Union, the makers of pasties, that very British delicacy, have also endorsed the benefits the EU provides. If the way to one’s heart is through the stomach, there is still hope for the European ideal.
No matter what happens on 23 June, this referendum has finally forced all those Brits who believe in the European project to stand up and be counted. With countless debates ahead, many of an existential nature, this referendum has provided a reminder of all the noble ideas that underpin the European project and all the wonderful benefits we all enjoy thanks to the EU. The fight continues on 24 June, it would surely be good to have our British friends with us to make the case for Europe. As the past few months have shown, we have plenty of very good reasons to stand up and speak out in favour of the EU!