Barbarians at the Gate: reflections on the European Union at the abyss

Many years ago I watched a documentary about the life and work of the campaigning American journalist I F Stone. Stone was for his whole life a fighter for justice and a fierce critic of the excesses of his own government, such as its encroachment on civil liberties, its systemic racism, and its illegal invasion of Vietnam.

And yet, when asked towards the end of the film what his overall judgement of his country was, Stone said something I found striking: he said, in effect, that he regarded the American Republic as one of the great flowerings of civilisation, comparable to Athens in the Golden Age.

I F Stone

It was a carefully chosen analogy: Stone was also a classical scholar and author of The Death of Socrates. The Athens he contemplated would have been a warts-and-all one, constructed on the injustice of slavery and the subjugation of women, and party, on much too frequent occasion, to war crimes and mob-rule.

And yet in the midst of all this there were new ideas emerging in philosophy, science and the arts, and new politics, in one of the first human stirrings of democracy.

The United States’s bears similar scars to ancient Athens, it’s history marked by slavery and appalling racial prejudice, and by illegal war from Mexico and Nicaragua, to Vietnam and Iraq. But it is also the nation of Abraham Lincoln and Bobby Kennedy, of Harriet Tubman, Martin King and Dorothy Day. It was the country which in the 19th Century showed that democracy was a robust and viable system even in the face of dreadful civil war, and which has produced, like Athens, some of the greatest achievements of the age in science and art.

If it has a rival in the 21st century then I would argue it is the much younger European Union. Like the United States and Athens before it, and every human institution or undertaking before or since, Europe is a flawed, human project. In recent years we have seen one of its most abject failings in its fragmented and often craven efforts to establish a coherent and effective humanitarian policy in response to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

And yet: the European Union represents as vital a political project as the United States. It too represents one of the great flowerings of human civilisation. It is an effort by democratic nations to work together on matters of common interest underpinned by the the principles of human rights, democracy and rule of law. That is a project that is rare in human history and rare in the contemporary world. It is also something that is essential to face the political, environmental, humanitarian and human rights challenges of this fragile and interconnected world. So, for all its flaws, this is a project that is worth fighting for, not running away from in search of some mythic past.

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Jo Cox

As Jo Cox noted in her maiden speech to Parliament, migration, including the free movement of EU citizens amongst our member states, has immeasurably enhanced the communities and societies that have benefited from it, through a vibrant diversity in food, music and arts as well as business and commerce.

But this cosmopolitan vision of Europe is anathema to some who instead cling to the same nasty rhetoric that was once used to justify colonialism, but which now is put in the service of a poisonous xenophobic populism. This seeks to convince the electorate that the EU and migrants are to blame for social ills that have been the result of domestic policies and failures in government, sometimes perpetrated by the very people scapegoating others

History shows us that such rhetoric can open an abyss, which the UK descended into on the streets of Birstall on 16th June. The assertions which followed rapidly from those pedalling intolerance that the brutal assassination of Jo Cox had nothing to do with them still ring hollow.

Jo Cox understood that the European Union, with all its human flaws and imperfections as well as its enormous potential and aspiration, was worth fighting for. But in the final days of this awful, bloody UK referendum campaign the fate of the UK and the EU itself still seems to hang in the balance.

Ultimately I believe that the decency that Jo Cox embodied will be what is asserted by the electorate on the 23rd June, while those directly and indirectly responsible for her death will be the ones consigned to the dustbin of history.

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