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COMMENTARY: GREAT BRITAIN AND THE EUROPEAN UNION

 


By Philip Revzin

NEW YORK, 27 APRIL 2016 — Back in the day, when the European Union had 12 members and its unstated purpose was to prevent Germany and France from ever going to war against each other again after two-stage, 40-year civil conflict, I went to a concert in Brussels. To start things off, the orchestra played the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven’s Ninth. The audience of mainly EU bureaucrats rose as if Europe’s unofficial anthem was, well, something to stand for. Even a few scattered Brits were on their feet.

Hardly anybody’s standing for the "Ode to Joy" in London these days, and that’s a shame.

The campaign urging Britons to vote to leave the 28-member EU, to be decided in a referendum in June, has been typically overblown and ill-informed, recalling the early days of nonsensical tabloid stories about Brussels regulating everything from condoms to toilet seats to home milk deliveries. These days, though, the overtones are darker, mirroring some of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric being heard in quarters of the US Republican primary.

Also typically, the "Remain" folks, urging Britain to stay in the EU, have been timid and halting in making the case that membership has been positive, bringing fresh blood and energy to economies and cultures on both sides of the Channel. The numbers are all on their side: higher growth, stronger economic mix, faster adoption of technology, a more-influential role in the world. Yet the most cogent defense of British membership I’ve heard came last week from that renowned Englishman Barack Obama. 

"The UK is at its best when it’s helping to lead a strong European Union. It leverages UK power to be part of the EU. I don’t think the EU moderates British influence in the world, it magnifies it." He added that Britain would go "to the back of the queue" in trade deals if it left the EU.

No kidding. The "Leave" folks remind me of the old, possibly apocryphal headline in The London Times about bad weather off the South coast -"Storm in Channel: Continent Isolated." They paint a picture (not unlike the picture painted by the "Take America Back" folks in the US) of an idyllic country full of Morris dancers and stout-hearted yeomen before all those immigrants and bureaucrats ruined it. The truth was more an island of inefficiency and lousy food, unsullied by those shifty foreigners bringing baguettes and runny cheese. I remember well going to a lamp store in the 1970s to buy a lightbulb, being told they didn’t sell lightbulbs. "Why not?" "No demand, mate." (Turns out ironmongers sold light bulbs, naturally.)

While the polls and debate show strength for the leavers, the issue is far from decided and there’s still time for ordinary Britons to weigh the arguments and decide what would be in their best interests. Would the considerable progress that’s been made not just for Britain but for Europe and the world have been even better and faster if Britain had never been in the EU? (See the US debate about the post-2009 recovery from the recession being somehow slower than it could have been.) Both of these are unknowable, but unlikely.

But Britain really has been made more secure after two horrible wars in which it lost the best of two entire generations. Germany and France really can’t ever fight again. Stand up for the "Ode to Joy," London. You’ll be glad you did. 


Philip Revzin is an award winning journalist and former editor-at-large for Bloomberg News. Previously, he was a long-time reporter, editor and publisher for The Wall Street Journal Europe in London, Paris and Brussels. Later, Mr. Revzin was named publisher and editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the publisher for The Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong. He last wrote on the films Deadpool and Hail, Caesar! for Culturekiosque.

Headline image: Olga Lednichenko and C. Davis Remignanti

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