Things have changed. Those who voted in the last referendum didn’t vote for the EU; they voted for a Common Market. That’s true. But the EU didn’t happen then, and it hasn’t happened since in isolation; the world didn’t stop just because we in Europe signed a trade deal. The world changed, at great speed. The world is a very different place to 1975.
In 1975, the world was a slower place, a larger place. Transport and travel was not so cheaply accessible; communications were not mobile, nor so cheap; media was three channels (at least in the UK); world events took time to filter through. There was no internet; no Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Skype, LinkedIn. The planet was polarised into First and Second worlds, ready to obliterate each other with a few presses of the button. Companies in the West had little penetration at all in China, Russia, much of Africa. Markets of millions of people in India, Pakistan, China, South America were still developing; industries, mineral wealth, natural resources remained in many cases unexploited by big business. Starbucks, Walmart, Microsoft, all yet to become the global behemoths that they are today.
Today, all this is different. For the price of a weekly tram ticket, one can travel from Nottingham to Berlin and back. A Starbucks latte in San Francisco is made to the same method and recipe as one in Warsaw, Wellingborough, Wellington or Whitby. Events stream into our eyes and ears live, as they happen, from Kiev to Coventry in real time. We are bombarded with media from every conceivable source at whatever time we choose to give our attention to it.
Like minded individuals can communicate in real time almost anywhere on earth. Mobile technology connects Monopoly lovers, Jane Eyre fans, baking enthusiasts and movie buffs instantly. It puts political activists in touch across vast expanses of land and sea to co-operate and converse in ways unimaginable at any other point in human history. In many ways this is truly wonderful; in others, truly horrific as we watch so-called Islamic State beam images of beheadings around the world in seconds.
Truly, the world has changed. Human labour, once strong and organised locally, can be sourced anywhere on earth. Demand too many rights or too good a set of working conditions for manufacturing? Fine, the company relocates to the developing world which, far from keeping the West out, now encourages it in to make products cheaply which it sells back at a profit to the consumers who aren’t paid enough to produce it in the first place.
Corporations, now, have larger economic global impact than entire countries. Think of a few:
WalMart is bigger than Norway ($421 billion against £414 billion)
Chevron is bigger than the Czech Republic ( $196b against $192b)
GE is bigger than New Zealand ($151b against $140b)
Berkshire Hathaway is bigger than Hungary ($136b against $138b)
Microsoft is bigger than Croatia ($62b against $60b)
Think about this. Corporations have more economic clout than entire nations. And nations have so much to worry about – health, education, infrastructure, welfare, housing. The corporations? They have one singular aim: profit. Cheaper labour? No problem. Relocate. Paid paternity leave? Not a problem elsewhere. Countries, acting individually, simply can’t compete with the demands and aims of corporations who can choose to place their custom elsewhere. And witness the humiliating example of George Osborne accepting an offer from Starbucks to discuss their tax bill.
Acting together, the nations of Europe have protected the rights of their workers to paid maternity and paternity leave; established the principles of a minimum wage; reduced travel and mobile communications costs; established the right to work in the country of your choice pursuing your career; removed barriers to trade, to movement; have protected every EU inhabitant from exploitative economic practices. The death penalty is something for Russia, the USA, Saudi Arabia and China; gay rights are protected; the notions of black right, women’s rights, gay rights are fast becoming a European standard of universal human rights.
Politically, the world is different, too. No longer does an Iron Curtain stretch from the Baltic to the Aegean, and in this transformation – scarcely believable in 1975 – the nations of the former Eastern Bloc have undergone a transformation all of their own: but democracy has not become embedded by accident. For countries who wish to access the single market, the free movement and protections of the EU must change their own laws and practices as nations in so many ways – from company law to agriculture, from energy policy to financial regulation, from consumer protection to the environment, from anti-corruption to education, from justice and human rights to taxation. This kind of co-operation is not diktat for the sake of it; it has been an active instrument in bringing corrupt, destitute, undeveloped and decaying countries into the modern world. Crumbling roads and filthy orphanages in the former East are now modern hospitals and smooth highways. Exploited workers now have protections, strict rules reduce corruption. Conflict, economic strife, environmental vandalism are over and freedom of communication, ideas, philosophies, scientific research and technological development are now hallmarks of all EU nations, and their aspiring members. Eastern Europe has become central Europe and the ‘east’ is now Belarus and Ukraine – a long way, indeed, from being mainstream European countries in the way Slovenia, Poland and Slovakia are.
And if we look at the candidate countries for EU membership – Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, among others – countries which twenty years ago were tearing themselves apart with civil war and ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass rape – now, thanks to the acquis, the convergence of common ideals of public life, social stability, environmental policy and so much else, are now striving to become vibrant young democracies who will take their place alongside Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom and so many others in a union that, while far from perfect, is surely better than the Ceaucescus of old and the Belarus of the present?
And what of the threats to us all as a race? Climate change, resource conflict, mass migration and energy security are issues that are truly transnational in the twenty-first century. Pulling out and banning migration to Britain is not going to prevent many millions of people being displaced across the world, draining resources and causing widespread economic and public service instability as thousands trek to fortress Europe for safety and sanctuary. It will not stop the planet warming, will not stop the oceans and the Arctic being drilled for oil, will not stop emissions that will choke our forests and cities, dry our oceans and rivers, and cause yet more thousands to migrate to countries with water, food, and jobs. We can best address this by working together, bringing people into our communities to work in our public services, care for us when we are old and economically a burden on our state and require migrant workers to pay taxes to fund our social care in old age. But also, together, we can exert ever more influence on the corporations which care not for climate change, population displacement and the rights of workers. Together, as a transnational union of peoples with a common ideal, we can stand up for the planet when other entities would not.
Britain fought itself to bankruptcy to prevent the eclipse of democracy in the second world war. The ideals it fought to preserve are now enshrined in the agreed rights, standards, practices of European democracies from the Black Sea to the Baltic. This is something to be so proud of. There is no doubt that Britain can survive outside the European Union. The world will not end with Brexit on June 23rd, we will continue to trade, visit and co-operate with the remaining 27 European Union member states. But what a missed opportunity – to walk away from one of the most spectacular achievements in diplomatic history, one of the greatest guarantors of workers’ rights the world has ever known, an economic bloc which can fight our corner in the profit-centred age of the mega corporation, a union which prioritises a green, sustainable future for our energy and resource needs, that thinks to the future rather than to the political weathervane of the present.
Walking away will not hurt us unduly. But working together, we can achieve so much more. Make our future more secure. Act now to make our planet a better place for our grandchildren. Britain has always, on balance, been a positive influence on the world, and entire nations have been positively influenced by what we do and how we do it: political democracy, fair trade, respect for individual rights. Remaining within the European Union does not end on 23rd June; rather, it is a challenge and opportunity to all of Britain to make this great country part of an even greater continent, to secure a future for 500 million people that is free from the plague, war, hatred, exploitation, conflict, violence and disharmony that was Europe’s history: until we came together after the second world war to ensure that the past really was the past, and that the future would truly be a better world than that which went before.