Alistair Burt is MP for North East Bedfordshire and is a former Foreign Office Minister.
I came into the Commons in 1983, just eight years after voting with enthusiasm to remain in the EEC. Amongst the MPs I was privileged to serve with were those such as Ted Heath, Denis Healey, Willie Whitelaw and a number of others whose youthful memories of Europe were very different to mine. They had driven tanks through northern France, seen the destruction and chaos of Germany and Italy, and watched the flows of European refugees on a continent beset with seemingly endless conflict, which had consumed its people on a regular, satanic cycle. When they spoke about Europe, and their efforts to forge something different, they spoke with the agonies of friends lost and youth betrayed – but hope regained.
The Europe fashioned in the wake of this experience promised to break such a cycle. And, since 1945, it has succeeded, against the odds of history. Of course NATO played its part, but do not miss the political security imperative behind the EU. I am told that this argument is old hat – not as vital as the economics, or as captivating as the false sirens braying for exit. I disagree. How quickly we forget, and how much we do at our peril. Peace in Europe! How our parents and grandparents longed for it. I cannot think of a more important ideal to embrace, or a more important outcome of the years of political work which has gone into the development of the EU to be passionate about, and shout from the rooftops.
Not only do French and German leaders embrace at war memorials: our peoples do also. For those who think little of this, travel with me to the Middle East, where the absence of that remarkable European ideal of post-war tolerance and forgiveness means that bloodshed and violence continue to breed. What an immense lesson there is in what the EU has helped achieve.
We forget the need to temper the natural instincts of nationhood. Patriotism is a fine emotion, part of the social cement of any state worth its name. But it is an instinct always open to be played upon, and turned into the darker side of aggressive nationalism. I remember the pain of the Balkans war, watching with horror the attacks on the tourist spots of Dubrovnik, and the bombing of blocks of flats in Sarajevo which looked like Leeds or Manchester. This was a modern, European country, and war was happening to them. The fragile peace which has emerged there owes much to a common desire in the Balkans to belong to the EU. However, the lesson that nationalism continually rears its ugly head must not be lost as Europe reels from current pressures, and the far right rises again.
In time, this European idealism for peace developed in other directions. Democracy replaced dictatorships. The rule of law was strengthened. Young people embraced the student programme Erasmus, which took them to universities throughout the continent. They travelled widely, without borders. Some chose to work in other EU states, with no difficulties beyond language, and our talented people with varied skills joined others with similar ideals and ambitions, believing rightly that there is nowhere in the EU their talents cannot take them.
And some looked at countries they had come to love as much as their own, and chose to retire there, enjoying truly the best of both in peace and security. We retain our Britishness, and it is complemented and added to by the sense of being European. They are not zero sum identities. And, trust me, that sense of being European as well as British is all around us as our young people grow up. They are not going to lose it, or vote it away.
These gains, through the idealism of Europe, are not to be treated lightly. They have come about because everyone has been willing to give up something, in order to gain something. To work collectively for the common good. This should not be an alien concept to Conservatives.
I find sometimes in this argument that there is a lack of historical perspective. The tragedies of Europe spanned centuries, the problems that affect it today will be replaced by others in decades to come, and in rising to the challenges facing Europe since 1945 the EU and its predecessors have had but a short time in European history to make its mark.
To leave our friends – our friends I say again – and turn our backs on significant, world scale problems, and all that we take for granted will neither deal with the problems, nor help this country in the short or long term. That is why I will campaign, not with some heavy heart, but with passion, conviction and enthusiasm to remain in the EU.