Euref: beyond national identity

D-Day for the EU approaches, and still the Brexiteers’ lack of a plausible strategy for the UK’s post-EU landscape makes them resemble a desperate escape committee whose sole aim is to break out of Stalag Luft Europe.

If the classic 1066 and All That should ever publish an update to include this modern Civil War, then the Remain camp are clearly the modern Roundheads – ‘Remote, but Right’. The Cavalier attitude of the outers surely gets the ‘Wromantic, but Wrong’ tag.

No-one can deny the inherent weaknesses of the EU. Like a supercomputer inventing its own algorithms, the unloved consortium has taken on unforeseen traits in its progress from an Iron and Steel co-op to a Union.

Neither the founding fathers nor the first signatory leaders from the original member states could have imagined the path their project would take, and, like Frankenstein’s monster, the hybrid creation has gone far beyond the maker’s specification.

But, like that other great international project, Concorde, it would be impossible to build again, so why is the bulk of British EU criticism not more pragmatic and detailed – seeking to amend and not reject completely?

Although the EU’s Byzantine structure and procedures are certainly not transparent to the casual observer, they could be changed – and in more radical ways than any demanded by David Cameron in his round of EU capitals.

Dave’s speed-dating of his fellow leaders produced only a grudging package of concessions rather than reforms, and if he achieved anything at all, it was irrelevant both to any real EU reform agenda and to the EU refuseniks.

Last exit to Britain

Anything from Brussels is anathema to the Leavers. Like the prisoners of war in schoolboy fiction, Gove, IDS, Boris and co never give away much more than their name, rank and number – except yet another restatement of their dogged conviction that the only way is out.

The idiosyncratic team ushering their county to the exits are not using their disproportionately large share of media time for any constructive debate– but merely to flatly contradict all points made by the Remainers.

Their view of the UK’s role in the world is as compromised by romanticism as that of the most extreme European federalist, and is driven by a nostalgic yearning for a UK which no longer exists – if it ever did. A preoccupation with identity lies behind the Brexiteers’ determination not to compromise.

Their sense of political and national identity seems to be in arrested development, refusing – unlike the EU – any widening and deepening of their take on the world. Convinced of the UK’s enduring entitlement to a special place on the world stage, they reject with a shudder any European extension to their identity.

Yet distinctive European characteristics have a long history. From classical times and on to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution, there’s a clear common heritage culminating in the economic, social and political edifice of the EU.

Do these time-honoured connections among Europeans create an accepted, natural identity? Not yet, perhaps. Adopting a European identity is for many not a supplement but a challenge to ancient notions of nations and nationality.

But in a decade where national identity politics have undergone a resurgence that has transformed the UK’s political landscape, resistance to a wider, international identity seems to underline the recalcitrant character of Leave politicians. At best their preferred overseas links would be with the kith and kin of the old Commonwealth, rather than the Europeans next door.

National feelings and a common tongue add a psychological and emotional ingredient to any political outlook. And a strong attachment to one’s own group shapes in turn the attitude held towards otherness, the citizens of other countries.

This mix of emotions and politics is inevitable, although some contributors to the referendum debate insist opinions are best formed neutrally and only after a rigorous, fact-based cost-benefit analysis of whether Britain’s best option is in or out.

Fear and loathing

But emotions are always part of how we behave, and how we perceive the communities around us. The Swiss psychologist Piaget demonstrated that, as children grow, they move beyond fixation on themselves to a wider identification with the people around them – first the family, and then broader groups.

By the time they’ve become enfranchised citizens, they’ve formed attachments to the values and groups important to them that then determine their voting behaviour. Perhaps progress in the modern world requires a crucial further step in civic awareness  – a greater degree of self-identification beyond nationalism.

In an online survey carried out in April 2015 by the organisation Research Now of a 3000-strong sample, voters were asked how they felt about Britain’s EU membership.

Negative emotions prevailed – more than half stated they felt uneasy or afraid when thinking of the EU.

23 per cent felt more strongly and said that it made them feel angry or disgusted. Just over 30 per cent said they experienced positive emotions such as hope, pride, confidence or happiness about the European project.

Only 25 per cent said that they felt indifferent when considering the EU.

So, deep feeling and sub-conscious psychology are an unavoidable part of people’s decision-making processes. We should be aware of just how much emotion rather than established fact, and misplaced patriotism – rather than worldly open-mindedness – will influence the last debates and the ultimate decision in next month’s referendum.



  1. Finlay says

    Experiencing the terror of the political straight jacket while reading this article, post referendum will Brexit voters be classified by the EU progressives as having a psychological disorder based on their political preferences?

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