The EU and Me

This post is in response to Britain’s democratic decision to leave the European Union. I have very mixed feelings on the subject of the EU and our exit, and consequently it's very hard to explain.

Firstly, I believe that the EU, like all human institutions, is deeply, deeply, flawed, but in what way do I believe it to be flawed? Personally, I am not in favour of economic ‘success’, where that is measured by how rich we are in comparison to other countries or other blocs of countries - that gives rise to a competitive, rapacious, greed. That's bad for people and bad for the resources of our planet. Neither am I in favour of regulation for regulation's sake - I know it's a myth, but the like of the idea of regulating the shape of bananas is a prime example, as was the (non-mythical) attempt to restrict the varieties of apples which were available for sale.

I am not in favour of the idea of the formation of a large ‘bloc’ of countries which can therefore ‘throw their weight about’ so as to negotiate ‘good’ deals: good for whom, and at whose expense? All too often that 'good', it seems to me, is at the expense of those least able to afford to be so exploited. Competitiveness is really about ‘beating the other guy’ - and that can be pretty ugly - especially if you’re little and/or poor. The EU has done, and continues to do, great harm in that regard. Not that I think the UK, when ‘going it alone’, necessarily does any better - at least, not without the application of a good deal of pressure from those who, for one reason or another, care about the fate of the underdog or the little guy.

There are more, far more, than those things wrong with it, but those are the main ones in my mind at this moment!

For me, the ‘positive’ aspect of the EU has always been the sense of ‘togetherness’ - belonging to a friendly family of nations. I’m not a great fan of nationalism... I see myself as a global citizen; I don’t see anyone as superior to anyone else; I want to get along with everyone and to treat everyone as equal. The EU, in its odd, flawed, way, goes some way towards achieving that...

I like the lack of ‘formalities’ - the freedom of movement (and corresponding lack of need for much documentation); the idea of the single currency (even if, in practice, trying to use one currency for economies as different as Germany and Greece is on a hiding to nothing). It sort of hints at a ‘pre-Babel’ world - or a world in which some of the effects of Babel had been reversed. For those not familiar with the Old Testament in general, and the book of Genesis in particular, here is an excerpt:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. Genesis 11:1-9

The EU seemed, tantalisingly, to offer a step back towards that 'pre-national' world - a world in which our differences were felt less than our similarities. I dared to believe that belonging to the EU was (perhaps only marginally) better than the apparent alternative of isolation. But our nation voted to leave. The following two paragraphs are my ‘gut reaction’ which I posted on Facebook.

“There are times when I feel as though I don't belong here. This is one of those times. I don't want to be cut off on a xenophobic, inward-looking, selfish, little island...

A little island populated almost entirely by immigrants, be they the descendants of past invaders, or those who have come here seeking sanctuary.

What had been bad - our unwillingness to help those who need us - looks set to become worse, as we try to 'pull up the drawbridge' and keep out those who need us most.

This morning I am ashamed to be British.”

Now I have a slightly more nuanced view to share. Despite my sadness at the result, those are the cards which we have been dealt, and I believe we have to make the most of the opportunity presented to us. The future could go in any of several directions.

The thing I really don’t want us to go back to is the attitude summed up by a headline allegedly from The Times on 22nd November, 1957:

“Heavy Fog in the Channel. Continent cut off.”

Happily, I don’t believe we can go back to that situation... Too much has changed since those days. British society nowadays is cheerfully cosmopolitan - an huge contrast to earlier times. Let us hope we can preserve that, in the face of the rise of xenophobic far-right influences.

Later in the day I said, in another Facebook post:

“To the ‘foreigners’ already in our midst... Our lives are so much richer for the ‘strangers’, and all that they bring to our culture, our cuisine, our life together. I love it that, as I walk around our small Northern city, I can see and hear people from all over the globe, living ‘cheek-by-jowl’ and, by and large, getting on together so well. If the xenophobes and haters are out there, trying to intimidate the ‘strangers’ into leaving, I hope that I will be there, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with my brethren from all over the world... As the late Jo Cox MP said:

“...we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” “

I have a sort of recurring dream of a world living in harmony and unity. It’s related, quite strongly in my mind, to prophecies in the book of Isaiah of this ilk:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:6-9

And

He will raise a banner for the nations
and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah
from the four quarters of the earth.
Isaiah 11:12

That’s my dream; a world in which there is peace (a peace which is way beyond a mere absence of war); enough for all (and no-one with too much); justice for all.

It will happen.

One day.

But not this day, and not, I believe, through human agencies. It’s too big a job for mankind; it needs God to step in.

Perhaps I ought to have known better.

As I say, the EU is a human institution, and deeply flawed; just like our own system of government. But now we are smaller. In theory at least, our government ought to be more accountable. It ought to be easier to shape things. The pessimistic side of me fears that this will be the opportunity the far right have been waiting for, and that we will be plunged into a period of xenophobia and fear of the ‘other’, and that great harm will be done. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can stand up for a better future. A future in which, as I said later in a comment on someone’s Facebook page:

“My hope is that that those who voted 'Leave' on the basis that it would reduce immigration, and decrease the number of 'foreigners' living here, are bitterly disappointed when, in a few years time, they find out that it has made no difference...

My prayer is that we become a fairer and more welcoming society, extending a welcome to all those fleeing persecution and fear, as well as those simply seeking a green and pleasant place to live, work and raise a family.”

I don’t want us to be ‘competitive’ - where ‘being competitive’ means that someone, somewhere, is downtrodden. I don’t care whether we are the fifth largest economy in the world, or the fiftieth... I wish only that we be compassionate, and generous, towards those less fortunate than ourselves. I would be happy for us to bankrupt this ‘nation’, if in doing so we lifted the poorest parts of the world out of their abject misery. That is my politics. That is what matters to me.

We can do this; we can have an equitable society; we can ‘do our bit’ to lift the destitute out of their misery - here and overseas. Despite the apparent rise in ‘nationalism’, and despite the likelihood of a government led by someone even further to the right than David Cameron, we can demand that we remain a ‘safe haven’; a place which welcomes ‘foreigners’; a country which looks out for people and places less fortunate than ourselves. Now that we are about to become part of a smaller 'whole', the influence of each is increased; as is the influence of each group. If we band together we can make a difference; make this place better than it was.

God bless you, and may He guide us all into a brighter, fairer, future

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2016