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Tracing The 43-Year History Of The U.K. In The European Union


We wanted to take a minute to talk about why this all matters. Why did the European Union come about in the first place, and what's the historical significance of the United Kingdom's participation, and now its departure? We reached out to Timothy Garton Ash. He's a professor of European studies at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and he joins us now via Skype. Professor, in an essay in The Guardian, you begin the countdown to Brexit with the fall of the Berlin Wall. How do we get from those happy throngs at the Brandenburg Gate to crowds of people who want out of Europe?

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: As one looks back, one sees that the fall of the Berlin Wall opened the door to three developments - the Eurozone, which was crafted around German unification, the free movement of peoples within Europe, particularly people from the new democracies of Eastern Europe, and, more broadly, it opened the door to globalization.

And this British vote, when you look at it, is a vote of disillusionment with Europe's economic performance. That's a crisis of the Eurozone, a vote against the scale of immigration - that's free movement of people from Eastern Europe - but also, in a deeper sense, a vote against globalization.

SUAREZ: Well, if we go back to the birth pangs of the EU, the Treaty of Rome, the Europe of the 1950s, could any of this have been imagined back then?

ASH: Well, first of all, if you had said to anyone in 1945, at the end of the Second World War with the continent it ruins, that you could have a European Union of 28 member states stretching from Portugal in the West to Estonia in the East, all of them more-or-less liberal democracies - they wouldn't have believed you.

Starting from the ruins of the Second World War, we - all Europeans said, after centuries of fighting each other, we're going to build permanent arrangements in which peace between European countries is secured, freedom is secured, and growing prosperity. And that's what we have done over the last 70 years.

SUAREZ: What did the EU mean for the U.K. when it first entered, with multi-party support?

ASH: It ended with massive support in the early 1970s at a period when Britain had undergone rather precipitous economic decline, while countries like Germany and France were absolutely booming. And essentially, we said, if we can't be prosperous and powerful on our own, let's be prosperous and powerful through the European community.

SUAREZ: Yet fast forward 40 years, and here we are with rank-and-file Britons who voted for Leave with complaints about regulation, complaints about the inward movement of people from the continent - a real soured marriage.

ASH: Indeed, because a great deal has gone wrong, particularly in the last 15 years or so. As I said, the Eurozone has clearly gone spectacularly wrong, pulling down all the continental economies. People feel that European institutions are remote and bureaucratic, run by shady cosmopolitan elites. Britain is not absolutely exceptional because if you look at the opinion polls, those sentiments are now quite widespread also in continental Europe. So the whole project of European Union is one in deep trouble.

SUAREZ: Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at the University of Oxford. He's the author of "Free Speech: Ten Principles For A Connected World," and he joined us from the U.K. Good to talk to you, professor.

ASH: It's a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.