With the barrage of facts, opinions and predictions on the European Union swirling around the UK, the great British public got the referendum debate it asked for. Months ago, whenever the EU was raised in discussions on television or radio, voters voiced a constant complaint: ‘They’, government and the politicians, were not giving ‘us’ the information needed to make an informed decision.
The result was a relentless campaign that frequently mutated into a spiral of apocalyptic warnings of impending disaster should Britain either leave or stay.
The hyperbole has now been muted, though it took the appalling murder of a British Labour MP to bring this about. Yet behind the rhetoric and invective lies an intriguing metamorphosis. In the epic clash of Realism versus Idealism, of hardnosed pragmatism versus dreamy utopianism, Britain’s EU debaters have switched sides.
Traditionally the Integrationists played the role of the Utopians, while Eurosceptics were the Realists, pointing to the risks of untested European arrangements. However, today’s Remainers are the coolly calculating Realists. The Leavers perform the part of the Utopians. Eyes gleaming, they paint a golden future of Britain freed from the shackles of Brussels bureaucracy.
The Realists-Remainers espouse the economic argument for staying in, receiving support from worldwide financial bodies – even though the establishment institutions’ forecasting record has often been woeful.
Integrationists in Germany have always loved the idea of a United Europe. The post-second world war European solution offered redemption and a new beginning after the catastrophe of National Socialism and the Holocaust. Even today, Germany embraces more European utopianism than elsewhere, reflecting a German tendency to build ‘castles in the air’ and forget about reality, as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy proved.
In Britain, the lure of the European concept was always much weaker. Britain never quite forgot the lessons of history. The British nation state in 1945 triumphed over a totalitarian challenge from the continent. EU evidence over decades shows how the democratic principle cannot easily be transferred to a transnational entity.
The euro’s creation was the final triumph of Integrationism but could also lead to its extinguishment. Most former British supporters of the euro today keep quiet about their previous enthusiasm. No wonder Remain campaigners avoid any promises or daring designs for more integration. Instead they rely heavily on the fear factor, on worries about the economic consequences of a jump into the unknown. This appeal to British voters’ self-interest is an understandable and rational strategy, successful many times in the past.
But there is more to the referendum than economics. One the one hand, the enemies of the West – whether in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, North Korea or Isis, even parts of the Chinese leadership – would see ‘Brexit’ as the clearest evidence the democratic world is beginning to fall apart.
On the other, the British believe the nation state underpins the principles of national self-determination and accountability of their rulers with much greater force than the EU system of friendly co-operation, underpinned by shared sovereignty and a powerful European bureaucracy.
Whatever happens, that institutional power in Brussels will need to be reined back. British voters form one of the more mature electorates of the western world, proof that ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ is worth listening to. After Thursday we will know what the British are saying. Europe will need to heed the message.
Jürgen Krönig is a German journalist and author, a long-term UK editor for the weekly Die Zeit, Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, temporarily resident in the US exploring policies on radical Islam.