If the Prime Minister has his way — and prime ministers usually do — we will all be voting on UK membership of the EU later this year. But surely our answer to the question “Europe, in or out?” should be based on some knowledge and historic perspective, rather than instinct, prejudice or knee-jerk negativity to those not of these isles?
The real question may be — does the average Brit know enough about Europe to give an informed answer? How many understand the post war development, from the European Economic Community to the Schengen area, the rise of the Eurozone and the structure of the European Union; how many understand the relationship between the European Commission and the European Parliament, expensively housed in the gleaming towers of Brussels and Strasbourg?
It is easy to forget that the EU is an institution founded after conflict, based on the need for the protagonists of the Second World War to move forward in peace and economic harmony — the living embodiment of jaw-jaw rather than war-war.
Want to know more? You should, preferably before you vote. And Brussels can help. Inevitably, the EU has a lavish and detailed showcase of its history. Take a short trip on the Eurostar and, right next to the entrance of the European Parliament in the Espace Leopold, lies the peculiarly-named Parliamentarium. This multimedia exhibition, which took six years and €21million to build, explains in all 24 European languages just why the EU exists.
Whatever your age and political views, it is a fascinating display. Walking through dark halls illuminated by pictures of war and deprivation, you are reminded that the original Europeans — Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy — all shared the damage of invasion and bloodshed on their soil. Only the UK and neutral countries of Ireland and Sweden escaped invasion during the Second World War.
Walk forward into the Cold War and Iron Curtain period, and be reminded that former Soviet bloc countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia regard the EU as freedom from oppression and an expression, even a guarantee, of their independence.
Move into the Sixties, swinging only in Britain, and for the former dictatorships of Franco’s Spain and the Greek Colonels, the EU is a modernising, democratising influence. The fall of the Berlin Wall brings millions more within a unified German state.
The bloody breakup of Yugoslavia sees Croatia and Slovenia eventually winning membership, with other states queueing up to join.
And the fall of the Soviet Union leaves some EU members — Poland and Romania — sharing a nervous border with an unstable Ukraine, and others — Finland, Latvia, Estonia — alongside the looming presence of Russia.
Whether it jogs the memory or reopens classroom history books, the Parliamentarium leaves almost all Europeans with no doubt — war and peace is the momentum behind and the impulse going forward for most countries of the EU. For all of them, the EU eradicates the war, and cements the peace.
Europe will watch the debate in Britain with studied concern, as it veers parochially between border controls, immigration concerns and benefits caps. The latest great migration of refugees from the Mediterranean to the Baltic, putting strain as it does on continental cultures and economies, means that Europeans share many of our concerns. But virtually no European would understand a wish to leave the EU.
Wander through the dark displays of the Brussels Parliamentarium, and behold the lessons of history. With dictatorship, violence and poverty across the entire continent no more than three or four generations ago, why wouldn’t you stay within the European Union?