Being a pro-European Brit sometimes feels a bit like being (bear with me) a red squirrel. Sciurus vulgaris is found across Europe, but in recent times the survival of the species in the UK has been under question. Some of this is down to ecological change (the evolving face of the EU), some of it to competition with its more aggressive cousin, the North American grey squirrel (the Atlanticist lobby that seems hopeful about turning the UK into the fifty-first state of the USA).
Following this analogy, it is especially fitting that three-quarters of all remaining British red squirrels are found in Scotland, the UK’s bastion of Celtic pro-Europeanism. In fact, the main difference between the red squirrel and the British Europhile is that the endangered status of the former is recognised as a serious issue. If the June referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU goes a certain way, we may also need to roll out a conservation programme for the vanishing europhilius britannicus.
This is not to say that the majority of Brits won’t vote to remain – in fact, at the time of writing this seems the mostly likely outcome, albeit one uncomfortably close to call. Even if the British do decide to stay, however, it will not be the result of a last-minute surge in pro-European sentiment. Rather, it will be because a begrudging and hard-headed recognition that the UK is probably better off in the EU has (marginally) won out against the heady utopianism of the Vote Leave campaign.
To some extent, this is down to the chosen positioning of the Stronger In side: cautious, pragmatic, reliant upon the steady accumulation of expert opinion that maintains both the country and the wider Euro-Atlantic order would be damaged by Brexit. Yet the root causes run far deeper. In Britain, unlike in most EU countries, the European project has never won general emotive appeal. The British people have, in the past, been convinced that it is important to work closely with their continental allies, but there have never been serious numbers of Brits who believe Europe could mean anything more than intergovernmental deal-making. In many countries hit worse by Europe’s recent crises than the UK – those more exposed to Russian expansion, Troika austerity or colossal refugee flows – latent pro-European sentiment has allowed the EU to weather the storm. For many Brits, by contrast, the equation is simpler and colder: the EU is no longer doing its job, so it’s time get out.
It is, of course, far too late to turn the majority of Brits into patriotic Europeans by 23 June. The question over the coming weeks will be whether the largely rational and technocratic case of the Stronger In campaign will be able to overcome the emotional appeal of the Leavers’ nationalism. A British vote to remain would be a major endorsement of the idea that the present European order, however flawed, is worth retaining and reforming rather than abandoning entirely. The next big step, then, would be trying to instil a sense of Europeanness in the British comparable to that felt by other EU citizens, including our Irish neighbours. For the sake of the entire EU ecosystem, it is vital that the population of red squirrels is brought back from the brink.