June 20, 2016
Freedom, peace and prosperity for all Europeans, this lies at the heart of the European Idea.
It inspired Robert Schuman to his declaration just a few years after the end of the War. Since then, 9 May, 1950 has marked the birth of what has turned into the European Union we know today.
His declaration was about trust and cooperation across national borders. It was about concrete achievements by sharing rights of sovereignty. And it was made for the benefit of all Europeans.
Today, this idea is as attractive as ever. Its real political manifestation, today’s European Union, might not be perfect. But the underlying idea still is. Within the short span of 66 years, the simple declaration by Robert Schuman has developed to become a free union of 28 nations with more than 500 million people. Whatever some people may say, this is a breath-taking success.
In a few days, the British people will decide on whether they want to remain a member of this community or whether they want to turn their backs on it and leave.
That is their sovereign decision to make.
And it is just fair enough that they will make that decision.
Nevertheless, it will have profound consequences – in particular, for the British themselves. The debate over the last weeks has made clear that the price tag on a potential Brexit might be quite in red. However, that is not the decisive aspect anymore. More is at stake. If Great Britain was to leave the European Union, it would be a different Great Britain. And Europe would be a different Europe. That much is clear already. Many British seem to like that. They just want that. To some degree, this is understandable. Who does not appreciate simplicity, strong democratic accountability, as much independence and freedom as possible? But this is not anymore the only thing this referendum is about. As it turned out, more is at stake. If you listened, you could hear it from the most vocal campaigners over the last few weeks: 23 June will also be about Great Britain’s soul. It is about the question whether it will be seized by those who are afraid of migration and who deliberately exploit such fears in others for their own political purposes. Those who consider independence and renewed nationalism an answer to Europe’s history as well as to the challenges of the 21st century. Those whose prejudices and defamations have again and again assailed people who have dedicated their lives to build a common and better Europe. Should they win on 23 June, this would reflect a different Great Britain. Such a Great Britain might no longer be considered as a beacon of open-mindedness and tolerance. It might no longer be considered as the home of enlightened, Scottish-English reason only. And as if that weren’t already enough, it would be a Great Britain which voluntarily refused to continue to contribute to a United Europe. It would be a Great Britain in retreat, one which does not believe that the European Union is able to reform. And it would be a Great Britain with significantly less influence on Europe in the 21st century.
That lies at the heart of the decision on 23 June.
But that’s still not all, yet.
We live in extraordinary times. The European Union and its citizens are currently facing unique challenges – unique in their dimension and unique in history.
There is an unparalleled and continued tectonic shift of economic power to Asia. Meanwhile, digitalisation has reached the world of machines. In addition, the consequences of the worst financial and economic crisis since 1929 can still be felt. Still, far too many people in the Union are unemployed and have too few prospects. Up to now, elites have failed to faster create a better and more just world. Some decisions have even aggravated the state of the world. Now, political and social upheaval is palpable nearly everywhere. In many societies, old nationalism and hatred is emerging again. In addition, we are experiencing the most severe flows of migration on our planet since the end of WWII. And almost every week, we must bear with news of those who kill, pretending to do so in the name of God while in fact their actions are nothing but blasphemy.
Therefore, 23 June will also be about the question whether the British believe that they will be better off on their own in meeting these extraordinary challenges of our time; that their salvation will lie in renewed nationalism. Or whether they believe that cooperation with a community of 440 million other Europeans in a common Union will best serve their interest and the interest of their current fellow citizens in the European Union.
That is their sovereign decision to make. And it is just fair enough that they will make that decision.
So, who are the British people?
Who are they going to be in the 21th century?
P.S. On a side note: I wrote this text last Tuesday, two days before Farage came out with his disgusting poster echoing Nazi propaganda and two days before the sad loss of Jo Cox.
Oliver H. Schmidt