With a month to go before the EU referendum, the number of undecided voters is at a fairly constant level of about 25 per cent. This suggests that so far both the ‘In’ and the ‘Out’ camp preach to the converted. A patriotic case to stay in the EU could reach beyond core voters and increase support for Remain.
As we have seen since the local and devolved elections on 5 May, there has been a window of opportunity to engage the electorate before the undecided make up their mind or drift away. Perhaps the negative messages will have their desired effect, but the ‘In’ campaign needs a high turnout on 23 June if it is to win. The reason is that those in favour of Brexit (especially the over-55s) are more mobilised and vote in large numbers than young people who tend to be pro-EU.
It is true that Euroscepticism is widespread (about 65 per cent of the population, according to the 2015 British Social Attitudes Survey) and that few Britons are passionate Europhiles. After all, the EU was created to solve a problem Britain never had – building peace and prosperity among nations that had been dominated by either fascism or communism. As an island, the UK has always had one foot outside of continental affairs and an eye on the wider world.
And yet, as throughout history, Europe remains fundamental to Britain’s identity and national interest. There is no doubt that the UK belongs to European civilisation. The Welsh and the Scottish know and celebrate it. Understandably, the English are more sceptical because they feel that England lacks proper representation within the British and the European Union. Moreover, there is a growing sentiment that distinct English traditions of sovereign parliament and common law are under threat from Brussels.
However, there are many shared traditions and heritages that bind together Europeans across geographic and linguistic boundaries: the Roman idea of citizenship; the Greek notion of free cities; Germanic common law; representative democracy; guilds that gave rise to professional associations; Judeo-Christian ethics; cultural heritages such as Renaissance humanism, the Enlightenment, classicism, and Romanticism. English culture and patriotism is England’s particular way of cherishing these principles and traditions.
More recently, there is the shared sacrifice of the two world wars and the victims of terrorist attacks. Like the French and other continental Europeans, the English have national pride and a strong sense of sovereignty.
So how could an appeal to patriotic feeling possibly translate into support for the EU? First, people across Europe face the same threats to their freedoms and ways of life, in particular from terrorism. One of the few positive messages that resonate with undecided voters is ‘strength in numbers’, and Remain camp should use it much more.
Second, the Eurozone recession and the impact of mass migration are eroding the foundations of the EU. After Brexit, the UK as a whole would have much to fear from a messy breakup of the rest of the EU, as it would be swept up into its turbulent wake. Staying in will help steady the ship.
Third, Britain has historically acted as a bridge between different parts of Europe to secure a balance of power. A Brexit would leave the remaining EU members exposed to a German hegemony that Germany does not want and everybody else fears. Amid the current political vacuum, the UK is uniquely positioned to influence the direction of Europe precisely because it is outside the Euro and Schengen.
If Britain does decide to stay in, it has the opportunity to re-engage with the rest of the EU and lead by building new alliances with like-minded member-states – in Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Central and Eastern Europe as well as Mediterranean members such as Portugal and Italy that are disillusioned with the Union’s current direction.
All this requires old-fashioned virtues of courage, imagination and leadership. Not even to try would smack of defeatism – very un-British and indeed un-English.