The EU referendum and the upward march of history

The EU debate rages and it’s only going to get worse. There’s argument being made about whether Britain should remain in the European Union or whether it should leave. It’s simple, so simple it’s a plebiscite which will boil down to a mere yes or no.

For decades pundits and observers have been perplexed by the vitriol which has informed the argument on both sides in the UK. It seems to have morphed into an anti-pan-national issue that is visceral and defines politics rather than a consequence of it. It has toppled governments, or certainly been the contributing factor to their decline (both Thatcher and Major) and it has been an ongoing tension for politicians and pundits, businesses and travellers for decades. Why is it so? Why do people feel so strongly about it when it seems to be no more and no less important than any other divisive political issue?

After all, we have drugs and abortion and religious debates in the UK just like any other country. We debate austerity and socialism and liberalism with fervour and even throw discussions on republicanism and Scottish independence in their for good measure. None of it ever seems to come close to matching the impassioned rhetoric or damning passive aggressiveness that some display against the EU. Alternatively, people who believe in the European Union are like those that believe in the Union between Scotland and England. We can only hope they come out on the night because, otherwise, their happy, but never flustered, support would be swamped by those that have passion on their side. It is much harder to defend the status quo than it is to incite revolution.

So again: Where does this hatred come from?

We have a suspicion it is has nothing to do with how people view the EU today. No one actually cares about it beyond the feeling that it costs too much, Britain is being controlled by Brussels or that we don’t have control over our borders (although we do). No one ever really stops to think about what it is saying about the future and the direction of humanity and what Francis Fukuyama dubbed ‘the end of history‘. Where will it all end, will it be global peace and life and liberty for all or will it be business as usual and perpetual nation-state wars for  another thousand years like the thousand years before that and the thousand years before that?

In international relations, this is traditionally called the debate between Realism and Idealism. Simply, the Realists take the world as it is and the Idealists project their moral vision upon it and crusade to make it so. In the last three hundred years, no other country has wrestled with this dilemma more than the United States. From its Idealistic, isolationist foundations right through to President Woodrow Wilson trying to reshape the world after World War One it then morphed into having a Realist temperament with successive interventions, clandestine operations and the increasing use of realpolitik made famous by such practitioners as Henry Kissinger.

It’s all a question of where you believe the end game is heading. Practitioners of Realism is the key word. They argue that the river is a constant and should be navigated accordingly. War and conflict and competition are fundamentals of human existence and aren’t going anywhere. They say it’s even irresponsible of statesmen to do anything other than to take the world as it is because if they don’t they would be sacrificing the domestic security of the country that they lead for intangible principles.

Idealists, on the other hand, have been both optimistically visionary and despotic. Hitler could be described as Idealistic because he tried to bring about a new order shaped in his belief of what constituted a right and proper  future for humanity. More close to home, so could Churchill with his love of empire with Britain at the centre of it.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Idealism is closely aligned with what we would call a commitment to and the upholding of human rights. The United Nations and latterly what is now called the European Union might have been founded on a conviction in peace and prosperity but inalienable rights are the cornerstone of this and remain so to this day. Only the EU has truly created a framework whereby they must be honoured as a legal requirement and as a moral more.

Where are we going then? What’s the point of it all? Ultimately that somehow we can create a post-scarcity world where need is neither tolerated or required. Technology could produce what we wanted and what we needed that made redundant international practices of accumulation and contest. Star Trek is a prime example of Idealism in practice. What makes it special is it is as much an economic as a social vision for the world. It operates in a post-scarcity framework; a world where items and resources can merely be replicated by technology and so humanity has managed to ascend Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and concentrate on space exploration and bettering humanity.

Fiction yes, but producing more with less is the Whiggish view of technological advancement from the dawn of time that holds true. What we must ensure is that the bonds of humanity to exist to ensure that both advance in paradigm and do not forget each other.

And here we come to where the debate on the European Union has its flashpoint. People who argue to leave are inclined to believe that the EU is doing nothing to bring us closer to the world just described. They call it a fantasy and an illusion and they argue that the UK fending for itself would be a better system than sitting on its hands assuming that one day the world of Star Trek might come about.

The Idealists who want to stay, however not only argue that it’s in Britain’s best economic interests but also that the UK staying is making a principled statement about trying to transcend realpolitik and create a world which is at least inching closer to peace, tranquillity and prosperity for all. It is unfashionable, and inaccurate, to call this a Communist or Socialist utopian vision, but it is a vision of equality rooted in an abundance and capability to give resources to all as the end results of the progress of capitalism. We need to ensure then that the ‘end of history’ comes about by cooperation and liberal values, and a superstate which has at its heart a commitment to them seems like the best chance we have to overcome the prejudice and intolerance that engulfs most of the world. The EU shouldn’t decrease, it should expand.

The debate about the EU and Britain’s place in it is important, more important than any other debate than the UK has had in a long time. It is not just mere economics as both camps are laying out, it’s about what we want for our future, in a hundred, two hundred years. It is about realising what Fukuyama prematurely called ‘end of history’ after the Cold War; now we need to cement, defend and expand liberal values and no one country is strong enough to impose that on the world any longer.

I do not consider this to be absurdly speculative. History is made by iron rings clanging together to forge a chain that takes us from A to B across time. It is not just a series of events but a series of decisions about what we hope comes next. Staying inside the EU, reforming it from within, is a logical course to achieve what some might call world peace. The perennial reality of Realism is only perennial so far because no valued alternative has been posited. We have a chance to change that beginning now – the EU has the scale, the power and the means to achieve meaningful peace and prosperity and we should embrace this and let it grow.