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On the eve of the referendum…
Something far deeper is at stake in this week’s vote. A wave of resentment against the elites is sweeping Europe, and in Britain this summer, as John Harris has written, we have seen a working-class revolt. The referendum is a form of displacement activity. It’s about something other – or much more – than what it is supposed to be about.
Those forces, for which Euroscepticism is a wholly inadequate word, range from crude racism and nativist dislike of immigrants, to humble patriotism and yearning for a maybe imaginary lost age. The referendum turns not so much on the national interest as on a national idea.
As Robert Tombs, the Cambridge historian and author of The English and Their History, recently put it: “The campaign seems hardly about Europe at all, but it’s all about us and the English identity.” Both of the first two British attempts to join the Common Market were vetoed by Charles de Gaulle, and it was he who also said that all his life he had been inspired by “une certaine idée de la France”. Behind our present turmoil lurks a certain idea of Britain, or of England. We are trying to find our identity.
…Penty of those reading this may tend to view “Europe” in a benevolent light. But any honest remainer must admit that there is a very strong case against “actually existing Europe”. The European Union is dysfunctional, corrupt, and afflicted by a kind of corporate folie de grandeur. Part of the tragedy of our predicament is that the wrong people have been making a critique of “Europe”. There were always honourable radical or liberal reasons for opposing European integration and centralism – as exemplified by Maastricht.
If the EU is to survive, it needs drastic reform, and demanding such reform is what could be called the true Eurosceptic position. But reform can only be achieved from inside. The Europhobes’ problem is that, with all their instinctive antipathy to Europe, they have no practical alternative to offer, except nostalgic national legends.