European values are more important than economics

Many emerging countries have shunned Europe and chosen a finance-based US-style model of capitalism
Guillaume Prache: ‘It is a sad day for European savers’ © AFP

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If you live in Italy or Spain, it is easy to defend the EU. You can simply point to the many common policy areas, point out a small list of achievements and rest your case. Yes, there is a rise in Euroscepticism in these countries. But if they held a referendum on EU membership we would not doubt the outcome. The EU has become part of their political DNA.

It is harder to make the pro-European case for the UK. But I will try. The case is hard because Britain has opted out of almost all the important EU policy areas: the euro; the Schengen zone of passport-free travel; justice and home affairs; and the charter of fundamental rights. Earlier this year, David Cameron managed to add a few more when he got his special deal in the European Council. His government will be able to dock in-work benefits to EU citizens. And the prime minister managed to absolve the UK from the goal of political integration and “ever closer union”.

So what is the British electorate being asked to vote on this Thursday? From a British perspective, the EU consists of a single customs area and a single market. They are important to the City of London and large industrial companies. But they are just not important to everybody. If Remain wins, the UK would remain on the outer sphere of the inner circle. If Leave wins, the country will join the inner sphere of the outer circle.

There is a positive case to be made for the inner circle. Not only do the various countries of the EU have common interests, they also have shared values. Even in its current desolate state, the EU is a more powerful vehicle to protect and to project those values globally than national governments.

What are those values? I find it hard to beat the motto of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, fraternité. You might prefer different terms and list them in a different order.

I would transcribe them as follows: freedom paired with openness and tolerance; equal opportunity; and a strong defence of the public good. The latter could encompass more far-reaching notions of income distribution and social protection. Different countries have different preferences. But all EU countries have in common a strong idea of a public sphere.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité is clearly not the slogan of China or Brazil. One of the features of financial globalisation has been a rise in inequality of labour incomes. Another has been a renaissance of authoritarian regimes. Many of the emerging countries have shunned the European social democratic economic model in favour of transactional, finance-based US-style capitalism.

Most Europeans still enjoy high degrees of social protection, education and health services that are free at point of use. The EU has managed to hold on to most of these, more or less. But it has failed to become a model for the world.

That was different back in the last decade of the 18th century. The French Revolution became the defining moment in the history of the west because intellectual and economic progress at the time critically depended on a value shift. It would have been impossible to sustain the industrial revolution in the 19th century with the authoritarianism of the 18th century. The values of the French Revolution eventually found their way into political and legal systems of almost all European countries, including the UK, where the writer Thomas Paine set out the principle of inalienable rights. These ideas influenced many political reforms, starting in the UK with the Representation of the People Act 1832. They also underpin the EU’s charter of fundamental rights.

So if you, like me, distrust the vastly exaggerated and implausible economic claims made by the Remain campaign, then consider an alternative line of reasoning: our values are under threat from people like Russian president Vladimir Putin, from Donald Trump if he were elected US president, and from bigots everywhere. They are under threat from global corporations that avoid paying taxes, and from countries that fail to respect climate agreements.

The value argument is not meant in a purely defensive sense. It is not just the protection of values that matters, but also their global projection. The EU has had successes. Its policy towards its immediate neighbourhood is far from perfect, but its soft power approach has helped democratic transition and economic development in many central and eastern European countries. When Russia annexed Crimea, the EU managed to impose sanctions and will probably renew them. If, or rather when, the Russian economy collapses, their cumulative effect will have played a role.

It is a shame that the Remain campaign has wasted so much time focusing on economic benefits of EU membership. The EU is, of course, an economic construction. But EU membership is not fundamentally about economics. It is about our way of life.

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