Well before the UK referendum campaign had hit its stride, indeed before even the two official campaigns had been designated, the Remainers were already conjuring up the apocalypse that would follow a vote for Brexit.
For the UK, they argued, a majority for ‘Leave’ would bring political chaos, economic ruin, the break-up of Great Britain, armed conflict in Ireland, and very soon a Little England incapable of punching very much at all, let alone above its weight.
For the rest of the EU, the Remainers insisted, the post-Brexit scenarios were no less dire. The UK’s departure would fuel euro-scepticism in every EU member-state and bolster secessionist movements Europe-wide. Before we knew it, France – thanks to Marine Le Pen – would be well on the way to Frexit, while the Catalans would have held their own referendum and declared independence, with Corsica and the Basques not far behind. The EU would have become so fissiparous as, for all practical purposes, not to exist long before any formal dissolution.
These sentiments were widely shared across the Channel. The former Swedish Prime Minister and quintessential European, Carl Bildt, was one of the first with a public warning. He told the Riga Conference last autumn that the prospect of a UK departure presented a greater danger to the EU than either the Syria/IS conflict or the uncontrolled arrival of refugees. The UK might never have completely bought into the project, nor fully fitted in, but the departure of such a relatively rich and powerful player could threaten the stability of the whole structure.
The difficulty for UK ‘Remainers’, however, is that such prophecies of doom somehow fail to convince. There is certainly trepidation about what Brexit would mean – and more obvious trepidation on the Continent than in the British Isles where the voting will actually take place. But there is little sense of a continent, still less a world, slipping its moorings or plunging headlong into the darkest unknown.
Even ‘The Great European Disaster Movie’ – a futuristic film lamenting the demise of the EU, as seen by an archaeologist just old enough to remember the peace and prosperity of the EU in its heyday – came across in the end as too calamitous to convince, even for a parable. This did not prevent the BBC – it was a BBC co-production – from hiding it away in the schedules a good year before the Referendum for fear of appearing partial, and following it with a panel discussion for the same reason. But even if it received a deserved new airing, it is unlikely to clinch the argument. It is worth asking why.
One explanation might be the complacency, or simple lack of imagination, of the Great British public. Another might be the extent to which euro-scepticism is ingrained in the British psyche, so that any consequences lack the ability to shock. Plus there is what remains of that stiff upper lip: the confidence that it will be possible to keep calm and carry on.
But the real reason might be more persuasively sought elsewhere. While most of those voting will be too young to have experienced the Second World War – a war that was experienced very differently in the UK and on the Continent – a great many witnessed, if not actually experienced, upheaval on a far greater scale than anything Brexit is likely to portend.
The late 1980s to early 1990s – the period spanning Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union – has been defined with hindsight largely by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, labelled “the end of the Cold War”. It is often remembered as a time of joy and hope. This was also a time when Britons could cheerfully consent to being Europeans, embracing the new “Europe whole and free” that Margaret Thatcher had also looked forward to in her otherwise Delphic 1988 Bruges speech.
What is less remembered now, but surely remains lodged somewhere deep in people’s consciousness, however, is the pervasive sense of uncertainty and instability of that time and a disconcerting sense that Europe, even the world, was being propelled at some speed into the unknown. The treaties and the principles that had guaranteed the post-Second World War settlement were being unravelled, not by political leaders, but by ordinary people on the ground.
Those were months, years, when the dramas convulsing Europe led news bulletins and the front pages of newspapers practically every day. Each step aroused exhilaration and foreboding in almost equal measure. You might start with August 1989, when the Hungarian border was opened, allowing a stream of East Germans to move west. You could continue not just with the joyous scenes at the Berlin Wall that November, but with the dilemma a de facto united Berlin presented to the leaders of the four powers that had guaranteed the city’s status for almost half a century, and genuine fear about what the Soviet Union might now do.
The immutability of borders had been a cardinal principle, designed to prevent exactly what was now happening, but it was now impossible to uphold. In the Soviet Union, where I was then the correspondent for The Times, the economy was breaking down. There were shortages of almost everything. Each region, each individual supplier, resisted giving up what it had. As the first snow fell in Moscow in the autumn of 1990, I remember writing that no one knew what would remain by the spring. Such was the sense of uncertainty.
In the event, it took another year – a coup against Gorbachev, some armed clashes in the Baltic States and the Caucasus, desperate (and largely vain) appeals to the West for financial assistance from Gorbachev and his economy minister, Yegor Gaidar – before the collapse was complete. But the uncertainties were as great in the aftermath as they had been before.
In the winter of 1991-2, there were sporadic outbreaks of inter-ethnic conflict and fears that the country was on the verge of another civil war – that the undoing of the Bolshevik Revolution might be forged in the same brutal crucible in which it had been born. The West was drafting contingency plans for disasters on a scale not seen since 1945: emergency food aid to prevent famine across Russia; the prospect of mass movements of people across the Finnish and Polish borders; and rogue military detachments with nuclear weapons at their disposal.
It is possible – almost – to smile at what seems like alarmism now. But this is the face of real geopolitical upheaval within living memory in Europe, and the statesmen and women of the day deserve more credit than they are often given for the fact that few of the envisaged catastrophes came to pass. Three years of almost continuous and largely unanticipated emergencies forced leaders to abandon ideological constraint and act – albeit sometimes reluctantly – in concert in the hope of limiting the damage.
As it was happening, the largely peaceful end to the Cold War was nowhere near the foregone conclusion it appears today. And in this may lie the real reason why there is such relative insouciance about the possibly malign consequences of Brexit, why the nightmare scenarios do not add up.
Brexit would not be a leap into the unknown, but a return to the position that existed before. In the first instance, it would mean the UK standing outside the Continent’s economic and political bloc, which would be a familiar scenario for both sides. If the UK subsequently broke up, that would be no more than was contemplated in the summer of 2014.
And if, further down the line, the withdrawal of the UK precipitated the dissolution of the European Union, or its conversion – reversion – into nothing more than a free-trade bloc, then we have been there before. The Common Market was no disaster. There is no reason why similar arrangements could not be reinstated for 27, nor even why the euro should not continue as a common currency unit for trade. For travellers, having to stop and show your passport at national borders was an inconvenience – but consider how fast those borders have been reinstated over the past year.
Reverting to the Europe of, say, the 1980s would mean day-to-day inconvenience rather than catastrophe. Voters in the UK, like much public opinion on the Continent, seem to understand this; some believe the upsides would outweigh the downsides, others do not. But few, it seems, “buy” the pro-EU elite’s vision of disaster. An end to the UK’s EU membership, even the end of the EU, would be the end of a glorious experiment, not the end of the world.
Of course, were the Brexiters to win, it might not be long before the new/old reality reminded UK voters of a few home truths: of how and why the Common Market evolved into the European Union, why the EU was awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, why Central and Eastern Europeans were so keen to join, and why so many people are prepared to make such desperate journeys to reach what they see as a promised land. With the warnings of doom failing to convince, it is this message – of remarkable, if incomplete, achievement – that the ‘Remainers’ need to get across.